Alexander Speirs – Tobacco Lord (1714 – 1782) Part 1

Note: There are many different spellings of Speirs. These include Speers, Spears, Spiers and Speirs.

In my John Glassford post Part 1 I referred to William Cunningham, Alexander Spiers and John Glassford as the most prominent of the Glasgow Tobacco Lords. As with Glassford, the purpose of this post is to comment on Speir’s family background, his business activities and partnerships. Without the use of slave labour however it is clear that none of these individuals, and others, would have been as successful as they were and, perhaps, Glasgow’s financial pre-eminence in the tobacco trade and the concomitant development of local industry would not have occurred. This I believe would have inhibited the city’s commercial growth and progression in the 19th century as a significant amount of ‘slave delivered’ funding would not have been available.

Again, I refer those with an interest in Glasgow’s involvement with slavery to the writings of Stephen Mullen, Tom Devine and others.

Alexander Speirs’ parents were John Speers, an Edinburgh merchant and burgess of the N.W. (Tolbooth) parish in Edinburgh and Isobell Twedie, the daughter of John Twedie an ex Lord Provost of Peebles (1703-1707).[1] They married in 1708 and had eight children, three sons and five girls,[2] Alexander being the fourth child and second son, born and baptized in September 1714.[3] John became a burgess of Edinburgh in 1705, his third son James in 1743.[4] The eldest son John died in 1726 at the age of fourteen from drowning.[5]

What Alexander did as a young adult has not been ascertained however in 1740 at the age of twenty six he travelled to Virginia.[6] I’m not clear why he went there at that time however it possibly could have been as a factor/associate of a tobacco company, which is what a number of young men did then, particularly if they were of the merchant class.

Whatever the reason he became involved with the Cary (Carey) family plantations in Virginia, eventually marrying Sarah Cary the youngest daughter of Henry Cary jnr. of Ampthill in Chesterfield County, and his second wife Anne Edwards. Henry Cary’s main occupation was as a contract builder. His buildings include the President’s House and the Brafferton Building of William and Mary College, both still existing, and Ampthill House, the family home built in 1732.[7] In 1929 the house was dismantled and rebuild in Richmond where it remains.[8]

Figure 1.  Ampthill House from Webb, May Folk and Estes, Patrick Mann. (1939). Cary – Estes Genealogy. Rutland, Vermont: The Tuttle Publishing Company. pp. 46,47.  https://archive.org/details/caryestesgenealo00webb/mode/2up

Additionally, he owned a large acreage of land, slaves, cattle, horses etc, the land and the slaves most likely used  for the cultivation of tobacco, in which Spiers was to become involved, in due course.[9] In 1860 the Virginia census showed that the population of Chesterfield county consisted of ten thousand and eighteen whites, and eight thousand three hundred and fifty five slaves, suggesting an ‘industrial’ level of slaves working in the fields.[10] It’s worth remembering the UK had abolished slavery in 1833.

Figure 2. from Graham, H. S. & Hergesheimer, E. (1861) Map of Virginia: showing the distribution of its slave population from the census of. Washington: Henry S. Graham. [Map] The Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2010586922/.
Alexander married Sarah (born in 1729) in 1741[11] although other sources say it was in 1748[12] or 1746[13]. At the time of her marriage she had two live siblings, Archibald, born in 1721 and Judith, born in 1726. Judith married David Bell in 1744[14] who along with Archibald and Spiers’ brother James, ran Alexander’s tobacco interests in Chesterfield subsequent to his return to Scotland, more of which shortly.

Note: Henry Cary jnr. had three children with his first wife all of whom died before they reached their majority. He had four children with Anne Edwards, the first of whom died as an infant. He married for a third time in 1741, Elizabeth Brickenhead, the marriage producing no children.[15]

Henry Cary jnr. died circa 1749. His will dated 1748, naming Archibald as his executor, detailed a number of bequests as follows:

  • to his wife Elizabeth, essentially liferent of property, slaves and money
  • to his daughter Judith and her husband, three thousand acres of land on Hatchers Creek in Albemarle, including livestock, buildings, slaves etc.
  • to his son in law Alexander Speirs, three thousand acres of land on Willis Creek, “currently in his possession” also the plantation slaves, cattle, horses etc., “including a negro wench named Sarah and a negro girl named Nell”.
  • to his son Archibald , the residue of his estate both real and personal.[16]

It’s clear from the above that Speirs was working the land bequeathed to him for a period of time, probably from the time of his marriage at least.

When Cary’s third wife Elizabeth died in her will dated 1751 she left bequests to Mrs Judith Bell and Mrs Alexander Speirs.[17]

Alexander and Sarah came to Glasgow around 1750 shortly after her father died. As perhaps expected he began to be involved in the civic life of the city. In 1750 subscriptions were being raised to erect an episcopal church in Glasgow. In due course the church became known as St Andrews by the Green. The original subscribers and directors of the project included a number of well known merchants of the city to which, in September 1751, Alexander Speirs was added.[18] His personal life however was to change in June the following year, his wife Sarah unfortunately dying; the marriage having produced no children.[19]

Despite his personal loss Speirs continued to develop and expand his tobacco interests. In April 1754 a co-partnery was established between Archibald Buchanan, Alexander Spiers, John Bowman, Hugh Brown, Thomas Hopkirk, Alexander Mackie and James Clark, all tobacco merchants, the latter two located in Virginia. The partnership was pre-dated to July of 1753. It was to last for seven years, the capital in the company amounting to £16,200, with borrowing and profit taking rules established for the first three years. Item three of the partnering conditions stated that it was also agreed that no one partner could act separately until April 1756.

Figure 3. Mrs Judith Bell, Speir’s sister in law from Webb, May Folk and Estes, Patrick Mann. (1939). Cary – Estes Genealogy. Rutland, Vermont: The Tuttle Publishing Company. pp. 58,59. https://archive.org/details/caryestesgenealo00webb/mode/2up

There was one exception however to that condition. Item ten allowed Speirs to continue to operate his Chesterfield plantation in the way he had done before the partnership was signed. He would be able to trade his crops as he saw fit, transport them as he required, all managed in Virginia by his brother James, his brother-in-law Archibald Cary and his sister-in-law Mrs Judith Bell.[20]

He had become a burgess and guild brother of Glasgow in 1753,[21] ,and was a merchant councillor, being elected Glasgow Treasurer in 1755. This was followed by his election as a Bailie in 1757[22] and again in 1762.[23]

He also remarried, this time to Mary Buchanan in 1755.[24]

His return from Virginia and his second marriage was the start of a new and highly successful period of his life, leading to him becoming one of the richest merchants of his time. Part 2 will look at his family life, the growth of his business and his partnerships, his new wife’s family and the part they played in his commercial success, and his property purchases.

References.

[1] Paton, Henry Rev. (1902). The Register of Marriages for the parish of Edinburgh.1701 – 1750. Edinburgh: Scottish Record Society. p. 510. https://archive.org/stream/scottishrecordso23scotuoft#page/510/mode/2up/search/spiers
[2] Births (OPR) Scotland. Edinburgh. 1709 – 1720. Speers/Spears/ Speirs/ Sphers. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk
[3] Births (OPR) Scotland. Edinburgh. 14 September 1714. SPEARS, Alexander. 685/01 0160 0056. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk
[4] Watson, Charles Boog B. (1930). The Roll of Edinburgh Burgesses and Guild Brethren. 1701 – 1760. Edinburgh: Scottish Record Society. p. 190. https://archive.org/stream/scottishrecordso46scotuoft#page/190/mode/2up
[5] Burke, Ashworth P. (1897) Burkes Family Records. Reprint 1994. Baltimore: Clearfield Company Inc. pp. 541,542. https://www.ancestry.co.uk
[6] Scots on the Chesapeake, 1607-1830. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co. Alexander Speirs arriving Virginia 1740. Collection: U.S. and Canada, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s-1900s. https://www.ancestry.co.uk/
[7] Webb, May Folk and Estes, Patrick Mann. (1939). Cary – Estes Genealogy. Rutland, Vermont: The Tuttle Publishing Company. pp 48-51. https://archive.org/details/caryestesgenealo00webb/mode/2up
[8] Chesterfield County, Va. History. Historic Chesterfield – Mary Randolph. http://www.chesterfield.gov/content.aspx?id=2978
[9] Webb and Estes, op. cit. pp. 48-51.
[10] Library of Congress. Map of Virginia: showing the distribution of its slave population from the census of 1860.https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3881e.cw1047000/?r=-0.072,0.289,0.478,0.22,0
[11] Marriage: Alexander Speirs to Sarah Cary, 1741. Mitchell Library Archives Glasgow. Reference number B10/15/5943.
[12] Marriage: Alexander Speirs, 1748. Webb and Estes, op. cit. p. 51.
[13] Marriage: Alexander Speirs, 1746. Burke, op. cit. p. 541
[14] Webb and Estes, op. cit. pp. 48-51.
[15] Ibid
[16] Webb and Estes, op. cit. pp. 52-54.
[17] Webb and Estes, op. cit. p. 51.
[18] Senex et al. (1884) Glasgow Past and Present. Vol.3. Glasgow: David Robertson and Co. p. 226.
[19] Burkes. op.cit. p.541.
[20] Deed of Contract 1754. Mitchell Library Archives Glasgow. Reference Number B10/15/6653.
[21] Anderson, James R. (ed). The Burgesses and Guild Brethren of Glasgow 1751-1846. Edinburgh: Scottish Record Society. p.7. https://archive.org/stream/scottishrecord51scotuoft#page/n5/mode/2up/search/speirs
[22] Renwick, Robert (ed). Extracts from the Burgh of Glasgow Records 1739-1759. Vol VI. Mitchell Library Archives Reference Number LK 1/7. p. 447, 508.
[23] Renwick, Robert .(ed). Extracts from the Burgh of Glasgow Records 1760-1780. Vol VII. Mitchell Library Archives Reference Number LK 1/8. p. 1912
[24] Marriages (OPR) Scotland. Glasgow. 2 March 1755. SPEIRS, Alexander and BUCHANAN, Mary. 644/01 0250 0157. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

 

 

 

 

 

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