John Oswald Mitchell. (1826-1904) – and the Slavery Connection

Figure 1. John Oswald Mitchell. From: Mitchell, John Oswald (1905). Old Glasgow Essays. Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons.

John Oswald Mitchell is not a benefactor of Glasgow by my usual definitions. However, he did write about Glasgow and its eminent families, their business activities and their houses, his two main histories, both published by James Maclehose, being The Old Country Houses of the Old Glasgow Gentry (with John Guthrie Smith – 1878) and Old Glasgow Essays (1905), this last one being published posthumously. He also made significant contributions to other histories in particular to the Regality Club, series 1 to 3 books and Memoirs and Portraits of one Hundred Glasgow Men. He also wrote a book about Burns entitled Burns and his Times (1897).

A good deal of his writing covers the period of Glasgow’s pre-eminence in the tobacco trade, the people involved, the fortunes they made and the grand houses they purchased. What is not discussed in anyway is the fundamental ‘commodity’ which made this wealth generation possible, enslaved Africans.

From before the abolition of slavery in 1833 and throughout the US civil war and afterwards there were a number of significant groups and organisations in Glasgow and elsewhere in Scotland strongly opposed to slavery. Despite that, the part that Glasgow and Scots in general played in the ownership and use of slave labour in Chesapeake and the Caribbean, and their key involvement in the machinery of slavery, was not properly acknowledged or understood and totally misrepresented.  In 1883, almost twenty years after the US civil war had ended, the writer of an article about the history of the West India Association of Glasgow in the Glasgow Herald of June 1st wrote the following:

“The American War of Independence finished the latter (the tobacco lords), but the trading instinct of Glasgow was not to be denied, and, prompted no doubt by its favourable situation for the purpose, the merchants of Glasgow embarked largely in the West India (West Indies) trade. The other great sugar ports were London, Bristol and Liverpool, and it is to Glasgow’s lasting honour that while Bristol and Liverpool were up to the elbows in the slave trade Glasgow kept out of it. The reproach can never be levelled at our city, as it was at Liverpool, that there was not a stone in her streets that were not cemented with the blood of a slave.”[1]

The view expressed by the writer persisted well into the twentieth century with little or no recognition of the major part that we Scots played in slavery. In 1937 Andrew Dewar Gibb wrote a history called “Scottish Empire”, purporting to relate Scottish involvement in the British Empire. Not only does he not refer to slavery there is no mention of any substance relating to the American or Caribbean colonies. The Darien expedition and the establishment of the Ulster ‘plantation’ however are covered. [2] Stephen Mullen captured the essence of our mindset on the subject in the title of his book on Glasgow and slavery, “It Wisnae Us” [3]

But what of John Oswald Mitchell? Was his lack of any reference to slavery a conscious or unconscious omission, was he merely fitting in with the prevalent view of his day? It may seem difficult after nearly one hundred and forty years to fully establish what his reasons were however once his ancestry is understood it becomes clearer what his possible (probable?) motivation was.

He was born in 1826 to Andrew Mitchell and his wife Lilias Oswald.[4] They married in 1814[5] and had six children, John being the youngest. Andrew was born in 1774, the son of Reverend Andrew Mitchell and his wife Janet Alice. He matriculated at Glasgow University in 1788 and graduated B.A. in 1794. He became a writer (lawyer) and was a Member of the Faculty of Procurators of Glasgow from 1797. He was also a partner in at least two law firms, Grahame & Mitchell and subsequently Mitchell, Henderson & Mitchell. He died in Glasgow in 1845.[6]

Lilias Oswald was born in 1785[7] and it is within her family that the reason for any reluctance on John Oswald Mitchell’s part to write about slavery may lie.

She was the eighth of nine children born to Alexander Oswald and Margaret Dundas. Her brother, James, born in 1779, became one of Glasgow’s two M.P.s following the reform act of 1832.[8] His statue is in the north east corner of George Square; Oswald Street in the city centre is named after him.[9]

Alexander’s ancestry goes back to James Oswald of Caithness who married Margaret Coghill. They had two sons who became clergymen, one a Presbyterian, the other an Episcopalian.

The eldest James was born in 1654 and became minister in the parish of Watten in Caithness which was an Episcopalian charge. He married Mary Murray in 1683 and had two sons, Richard, born in 1687 and Alexander, born in 1694. They also had two daughters.[10]

Figure 2. Scotstoun. From: Smith, John Guthrie and Mitchell, John Oswald. (1878). The Old Country Houses of the Old Glasgow Gentry. 2nd ed. Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons.

The sons became very successful merchants in Glasgow and were able to purchase the estates of Scotstoun in 1751 and Balshagray in 1759. They both died unmarried, Alexander in 1763, Richard in 1766 thus ending a direct male descendancy from the first James Oswald of Caithness.[11]

The second son George was born in 1664 and became a minister in Dunnet parish in Caithness, this parish however being Presbyterian. He married his sister in law Margaret Murray and had five children including two sons, James, born in 1703 and Richard, born in 1705.[12] It’s from these two boys that the journey to Lilias Oswald begins.

Like his father James became a minister and had a long line of descendants, more of whom in due course. Richard became a merchant working initially with his cousins Richard and Alexander as their factor in the American and Caribbean colonies where they traded in tobacco, sugar and wine. This was the Oswald’s family first contact with the use of slave labour. It’s not clear if the brothers Richard and Alexander had any ownership of slaves however their trading activities certainly benefited from it.[13]

Figure 3. Richard Oswald by William de Nune.

Such was the ‘apprenticeship’ served by cousin Richard who subsequently became a merchant in London. This was followed by marriage to Mary Ramsay whom he had met in Jamaica which gave him, via his heiress wife, ownership of plantations and slaves. He bought plantations in the Caribbean and Florida, and two large estates at home, Auchincruive in Ayrshire and Cavens in Kirkcudbright and Dumfriesshire. Two other notable events occurred, the first of which was the addition of slave trading from Sierra Leone to South Carolina to his business portfolio. The other was the leading role he played in the negotiations that led to the Treaty of Paris, which ended the hostilities between Britain and her erstwhile American colonies.[14]

Unfortunately, Richard and his wife had no children which resulted in his wealth eventually ending up with his brother James’ descendants. He died in 1784,his wife in 1788.[15]

James married Elizabeth Murray in 1728 and they had seven children, three girls and four boys. He was minister at Dunnet parish, succeeding his father, thereafter at Methven in Perthshire. He also wrote a number of religious papers and books and was awarded the degree D.D. by Glasgow University in 1765,[16] the year he became moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. His wife Elizabeth died in 1746 and three years later he married Margaret Dunbar. There were no children of this second marriage and Margaret died in 1779. In 1783 he retired from the ministry, but not from his writings, and went to live with his son George at Scotstoun. He died there in 1793.[17]

Two of James’ sons were merchants in Glasgow. George, born in 1735, was a partner in Oswald, Dennistoun & Co, tobacco importers and is described in The Old Country Houses of the Old Glasgow Gentry’ as “one of our old Virginia Dons”. He married Margaret Smith in 1764 and they had twelve children, his eldest son and heir being Richard Alexander Oswald, born in 1771. George inherited Scotstoun from his second cousins Richard and Alexander Oswald and also inherited part of his uncle Richard’s Auchincruive estate in 1784. He was rector of Glasgow University in 1797.

George died in 1819 his son Richard Alexander inheriting his estates bringing Auchincruive into single ownership again, he having been left part of the estate by his great uncle Richard when he died in 1784.

Richard Alexander married twice his second wife being widow Lilian Montgomery. His two marriages did not produce any living heirs and on his death in 1841 his estates passed to his uncle Alexander’s son James Oswald M.P.[18]

In 1834 Richard and his wife were awarded £5445 18s 6d compensation for the freeing of 297 slaves in two plantations in Jamaica.[19] That sum today would worth anywhere between £530k and £26m.[20]

George’s brother Alexander (John Oswald Mitchell’s grandfather) was born circa 1738 and as stated previously was a Glasgow merchant. He married Margaret Dundas in 1774[21] and they had nine children, two of whom, James (the future M.P.) and Lilias (wife of Andrew Mitchell), have already been mentioned. He was a partner in the South Sugar House, became the owner of the Glasgow Ropeworks and invested in building ground. In 1781 he purchased the estate of Shield Hall.

Figure 4. Shield Hall. From: Smith, John Guthrie and Mitchell, John Oswald. (1878). The Old Country Houses of the Old Glasgow Gentry. 2nd ed. Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons.

In The Old Country Houses of the Old Glasgow Gentry he is said to have remained aloof from the leading business of the day, i.e. trading with the Caribbean colonies; “he refused them all: he would not, directly or indirectly, mix himself up with slavery.” He died at Shield Hall in 1813.[22]

In summary, perhaps John Oswald Mitchell chose not to write about slavery as members of his mother’s family, but apparently not her father, had significantly benefited from it either by trading or in the compensation paid to them when it was abolished in 1833.

The key family members who benefited from the use of enslaved Africans and their relationship to his mother Lilian were:

  • Richard and Alexander, the sons of the Episcopalian minister James Oswald, her great grandfather George’s brother, who purchased Scotstoun and Balshagray estates from the proceeds of their American trading.
  • Her grandfather James Oswald, clergyman whose stipend was in part paid by his brother Richard from 1766 when his parish heritors were in financial difficulties.
  • Richard Oswald, the merchant, diplomat and slave trader, her grandfather James’ brother.
  • George Oswald, her father’s brother, who inherited Scotstoun et al from his second cousins Richard and Alexander and also Auchincruive from his uncle Richard the slaver etc. when Richard’s wife Mary Ramsay died.
  • Richard Alexander Oswald, her cousin, who inherited from his father George Oswald and also his great uncle Richard, the slave trader. He also was paid compensation along with his wife Lilian Montgomery, when slavery was abolished in 1833.
  • James Oswald MP, Lilian’s brother, who inherited Auchincruive from his cousin Richard Alexander Oswald.

The time period covered by the above is circa 1715, when brothers Richard and Alexander Oswald started to trade with the American colonies, to 1853 when MP James Oswald died.

For greater detail on the Oswald family and my sources please see my post “James and Richard Oswald – Beneficent Clergyman – Merchant, Diplomat and Slave Trader.”

[1] Glasgow Herald. (1883) The West India Association of Glasgow. Glasgow Herald 1 June. p.9.

[2] Gibb, Andrew Dewar. (1937) Scottish Empire. London: Alexander Maclehose & Co.

[3] Mullen, Stephen. (2009) It Wisnae Us: The Truth About Glasgow and Slavery. Edinburgh: Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland.

[4] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Govan. 1 December 1826. MITCHELL, John. 646/  30 24.

[5] Marriages. (OPR) Scotland. Barony. 28 June 1814. 622/  70 389. MITCHELL, Andrew and OSWALD, Lilias.

[6] Addison, W. Innes (1913) The Matriculation Albums of Glasgow University  1728-1858. Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons. p.152.

[7] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Govan. 27 August 1785. OSWALD, Lilias. 646/  20 130.

[8] London Gazette (1832) 28 December 1832. Issue 19008, p. 2837.

[9] MacIntosh, Hugh. (1902) Origin and History of Glasgow Street Names. Glasgow: Citizens Press.

[10] Henderson, John (1884) Caithness Family History. Edinburgh: David Douglas. pp. 232,233.

[11] Smith, John Guthrie and Mitchell, John Oswald. (1878). The Old Country Houses of the Old Glasgow Gentry. 2nd ed. Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons. LXXXVII Scotstoun.

[12] Henderson, op. cit. pp. 232, 233.

[13] Hancock, David, ‘Oswald, Richard (1705-1784). In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid.

[16] University of Glasgow. The University of Glasgow Story, James Oswald.

[17] Sher, Richard B. and Stewart, M. A. ‘Oswald, James .(1703-1793)’. In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[18] Smith, John Guthrie and Mitchell, John Oswald. (1878). The Old Country Houses of the Old Glasgow Gentry. 2nd ed. Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons. LXXXVII Scotstoun.

[19] University College London. Alexander Dennistoun.

20] Measuring Worth (2020).

[21] Marriages (OPR) Scotland. Glasgow. 21 January 1774. OSWALD, Alexander and DUNDAS, Margaret. 644/1 260 143.

[22] Smith and Mitchell, op.cit. LXXXIX Shield Hall.




Author: harmonyrowbc

Ex aero engineer with a life long passion for Glasgow History

2 thoughts on “John Oswald Mitchell. (1826-1904) – and the Slavery Connection”

  1. Hi

    I have an interest in the Oswalds due to some work I did for Govan Stones Project a few years back. Alexander Oswald and his son, James were Heritors of the Govan Parish due to their ownership of the Shieldhall Estate.

    I think the above account is very interesting and accurate but with regard to James Oswald, incomplete.

    He was, as his father, a committed abolitionist throughout his life although his record has certain caveats. He supported a relative, John Murray, in his work as an officer of the Glasgow Society for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery also known as the Glasgow Anti Slavery Society founded in 1822. In 1824 and 1826, the Society sent petitions to Parliament calling for the emancipation of slaves in British colonies.

    As one of Glasgow’s first elected MPs, he voted for the 1833 Act emancipating slaves in the first post Reform Act parliament. He did along with the other MP, James Ewing, push for compensation for slave owners once slaves were emancipated. Eventually, the compensation sums were equal to 40% of total government expenditure. Payment of the loan raised to finance the compensation only finally ended in 2015.

    Slaves were not to be freed immediately under the new act. They had to serve an apprenticeship for up to eight years to learn a trade. In reality, a majority of the “apprentices” were not any better off than they had been as slaves. This gave rise to a new campaign to abolish apprenticeship. In December 1833, Oswald joined the new Glasgow Emancipation Society which pushed for the global abolition of slavery particularly in the USA. In 1835, he supported the presentation of a Society petition to Parliament to withhold compensation until abuses of the apprenticeship scheme were stopped. In 1836, the Glasgow Ladies Emancipation Society supported by him, delivered a petition against the apprenticeship scheme. For some of the 1840s, he sat on the Glasgow Society’s committee.


    1. Hi,
      Thanks for your comments and feedback. What I was trying to do was to explore the family background of John Oswald Mitchell to try and understand why slavery got little mention directly in his books particulary the ‘Old Country Houses’. Was it simply the generally accepted view of the day, ‘it wisnae us’ or was there some familial reason? I’m now currently inclined to the latter reason. Having said that I agree that what I’ve written about James Oswald is incomplete and perhaps a smidgeon unfair, although he did benefit greatly from his ancesters exploitation of slavery. I think I will probably add a sentence or two in addition to his inheritance of Auchencruive. I really appreciate you taking the time to comment on the post.


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