William Cunninghame – Tobacco Lord (1731-1799)

Having written about Spiers and Glassford I have now got round to completing the trio of the major Glasgow Tobacco Lords by writing about William Cunninghame.

The Cunninghame Family

Cunninghame’s wider family can be traced back at least to the mid seventeenth century in Ayrshire, in the parish of Stewarton, his great grandfather being Adam Cunninghame. He was connected to the Cunninghame’s of Caprington in the county and was servitor (assistant) to Sir William Cunninghame, a position usually taken by a family member. In 1653  Sir William borrowed £2,000 with Adam acting as cautioner (he would be liable for the debt if Sir William defaulted). Unfortunately that is what happened and a decree was granted in 1654 against Adam by the Commissioners of Justice in Scotland in favour of Lieutenant Colonel Osborne.[1]

Prior to that he acquired the lands of Kirkland in 1653 and in the same year he married Janet Baird. It seems they had several children, the eldest surviving son being George, the Tobacco Lord’s grandfather. In 1673 he purchased the lands of Little Bridgehouse in the parish of Riccarton thus beginning the family’s connection with that estate.[2] He died in 1677,[3] his wife Janet being his lawful heir in accordance with the marriage contract agreed in 1653. There were five surviving children when he died, four daughters and son George who was his mother’s heir.[4]

George had a son, Alexander, however it’s not clear if and when he married. He died in 1696 [5] just before he intended to marry, the lady in question bearing him the son after he died. If true that would make Alexander illegitimate. There is a suggestion however that he actually married a Sarah Miller, but no evidence has been discovered that supports that or any marriage, or Alexander’s birth date. Three surviving sisters of Alexander appear to have been the beneficiaries after their mother’s death however before that in 1726 by various decreets of the Court of Sessions he had gained one half of his grandfather Adam’s property.[6]

Alexander was a very successful merchant in Kilmarnock and was a bailie of the parish in 1729 and 1730.[7] He married Barbara Hodgert, widow of William Findlay in 1727,[8] who had one son by her first husband who became Professor of Theology at Glasgow University.[9]

Alexander and Barbara had eight children, all born in Kilmarnock parish, as follows:

  • Alexander, born 1728,[10] died 1735.[11]
  • John, born 1729.[12] He matriculated at Glasgow University in 1742 and graduated MA in 1746. He was licensed as a minister by the Presbytery at Irvine in 1753 and was ordained at Dalmellington in 1756. In 1762 he moved to Monkton parish where he died unmarried in 1774,[13]  his younger brother William his heir as the next eldest brother.
  • William Cunninghame, the Tobacco Lord, more of him in due course.
  • Charles. Born 1732.[14]
  • Janet, born 1734.[15]
  • Barbara, born 1738.[16]
  • James, born 1740.[17]
  • Alexander, born 1741.[18]  He became involved in the tobacco trade through his brother William and went to America to act as agent for his company. He eventually returned to Glasgow and set up his own company, Alexander Cunninghame and Co., his partners being William, Alexander Houston, Robert Bogle and James Dougal.[19] He died circa 1773, testate, his will being confirmed at the Glasgow Commissary Court in March 1773 his heirs being his sisters Elizabeth and Barbara.[20]

Alexander senior died without leaving a will in 1748, eldest son John inheriting his estates and other property. A sum of £1800 was also left, William’s share being £300.[21] The registration of Alexander’s death adds to the puzzle surrounding his birth and parentage as his age is recorded as 58, which implies his birth date was c.1690.[22]

William Cunninghame

William was born in Kilmarnock on the 30th May 1731 and baptized the following day.[23] Where he attended school has not been established but in 1746 he went to Virginia as an apprentice working on the tobacco plantations of Andrew Cochrane who at that time was an established colonial trader and was the founding partner in Cochrane, Murdoch and Co.[24] Cunninghame was apparently related to Cochrane hence his introduction to the tobacco trade at which he was to excel. Andrew Cochrane was an original ‘Tobacco Lord’ long before Glassford, Speirs and Cunninghame came to the fore. He had been Lord Provost of Glasgow from 1744/45, in 1748/49 and again in 1760/61.[25] In 1745 he led the opposition to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s quartermaster (Squire Hay) who demanded a levy of £15,000 from the city. Along with Allan Dreghorn, Andrew Buchanan, Lawrence Dinwoodie, Andrew Aiton, James Smith and Richard Oswald he managed to reduce that sum to £5,000 cash plus £500 in goods.[26],[27]

Cunninghame was to remain in Virginia until 1762 during which time, from 1752, he had become responsible for running all of the company’s business in Virginia.[28] Whilst there in 1759 he entered into a partnership on his own account with two fellow plantation factors or managers, John Doncastle of Maryland and Alexander Finnie of Virginia, the purpose of which was to supply the British Army in Pittsburgh with wine, sugar and other similar produce. He also owned 2,000 acres of land in Virginia.[29]

On his return to Scotland he became a full partner in Cochrane, Murdoch and Co. and was established as the managing partner responsible for all aspects of the business, shipping, trading, and specifying the operations of each of the companies stores in Virginia.[30]

An indication of how successful he was is indicated by the company’s capitalisation values. In 1755 as Cochrane, Murdoch and Co. it was £22,903. In 1773, by which time the company name had changed to William Cunninghame and Co. it was £79,300.[31] The partners during this period were, Cunninghame, Peter Murdoch, Andrew Cochrane, son in law to Murdoch having married his daughter Janet, Robert Bogle, John Murdoch, James Robinson, William Reid, William Henderson, and John Hamilton, the last four named being located in America.[32] William was a partner  in two other companies involved in Maryland, firstly with his brother Alexander’s company as previously stated. After his brother’s death c.1773 it became Cunninghame, Findlay and Co.[33], the other partners being Robert Findlay, Robert Bogle and Alexander Houston, the latter two being partners in the original company. In addition two others were based in America as storekeepers, James Dougal and David Walker. The third company was Cunninghame, Brown and Co., the other partners being Robert Findlay and James Brown.[34]

His major company was however the one bearing his name. The share distribution was such that Cunninghame owned 229, the Murdoch’s 104, Cochrane 48, Bogle 64 and James Robertson 13. The financial stability of the company was to a large degree assured by the fact it had access to the Glasgow Arms Bank, established in 1750, as Cochrane and John Murdoch were two of its founders, to be joined later as a major shareholder by Peter Murdoch.[35] It had fourteen stores in Virginia located at Fredericksburg, Falmouth, Richmond Petersburg, Culpepper, Dumfries, Fauquier, Amherst, Cabin Point, Brunswick, Granvill, Halifax, Mecklenburg, and Rocky Ridge, generally located in the vicinity of the Potomac, Rappahanock and the James rivers.[36] In 1772/3 just under 5,200 hogsheads of tobacco were shipped back to Glasgow, the ships involved being the Cunninghame, Ocean, Cochrane, Venus , Janett, and the Neptune, each ship making two journeys between December 1772 and September 1773, except the Janett.[37]

William also had other commercial interests being involved with the Port Glasgow Sugar House, the Pollockshaws Printfield Co., the Dalnotter Iron Co., the Glasgow Tanwork Co., the Glasgow Bottleworks, and the Anderston Brewery.[38]

He married three times, firstly to Jean Dunmore in 1763, the daughter of Thomas Dunmore a Glasgow merchant.[39] They had six children all born in Glasgow:

  • Thomas, b. 1764.[40]
  • Helen, b. 1766.[41]
  • Barbara, b. 1767.[42]
  • Jean, b. 1769.[43]
  • Elizabeth, b. 1770.[44]
  • Alexander, b. 1772.[45]

The sons from this marriage were disinherited by William, no reason has been ascertained.[46]

His second marriage in 1775 was to Elizabeth Campbell the daughter of James Campbell, another Glasgow merchant.[47] They had one child William, born in 1776.[48]

William was educated in London and studied at Utrecht University. He then went to India to serve in the Bengal Civil Service. It was there he met the Baptist missionary William Carey which led him in due course to become a biblical scholar. He was at the forefront of the 19th century’s prophetic scholarship movement. He died unmarried in 1849.[49]

Prior to this marriage William’s brother John had died in 1774 but it was not until 1777 he came into full ownership of his estates as John ‘s heir.[50] It was around this time, probably c.1778 that he started to build his mansion in what was Cow Loan, now Queen Street. The area was essentially swamp land and by the time the mansion was completed in 1780 it had cost c. £10,000.[51] He also purchased the estate of Lainshaw in Stewarton in 1779,[52] these two events demonstrating the wealth he had accumulated through tobacco trading, which like his contemporaries, relied on the exploitation of African slaves, men women and children.

There was one other action which he took which significantly increased his fortune. The American War of Independence began in 1775, with the colonists declaring themselves independent of Britain during 1776. Cunninghame’s company had some initial difficulties when the war started but as tobacco supplies decreased the price of tobacco increased to sixpence per pound as a consequence. The partners of William Cunninghame and Co. met to discuss selling the company’s stock which was the largest of any in Britain. Cunninghame offered to buy each partner’s share of the company stock at sixpence per pound which was readily accepted. The price subsequently rose to three shillings and sixpence per pound, Cunninghame having sold his stock before then ensuring a vast profit.[53]

The company’s ships were also eventually put to use as privateers, the Cochrane in 1778 capturing a French East Indiaman with a cargo valued at £100,000.[54]

His mansion house still exists today but not in its original form. He sold it to the Stirling family in 1789 for £5,000 who occupied it commercially and as a residence until 1817, it then being sold to the Royal Bank of Scotland. The bank made some alteration to the building, essentially retaining the mansion house, and thereafter carrying out its banking activity. It remained as such until 1827 when the bank sold it to the committee for establishing a new Exchange. Architect David Hamilton was charged with making major changes to the building and amongst his changes were the addition of the portico now seen at the front of the building, a newsroom described as Glasgow’s most magnificent 19th century interior and the cupola. It took from 1827 until 1832 to complete.[55]

The Royal Exchange as it was known continued to operate as such until 1954 at which time it became Stirling’s Library, the library donated by the Stirling family in 1791 moving from its original premises in Miller Street.[56]

Since 1996, its current manifestation is as the Gallery of Modern Art, (GoMA), the original mansion being subsumed into the building, the core structure being over two hundred and  forty years old.

Elizabeth died at the age of 35 in 1778, cause of death given as ‘chilbed’ which I believe means a problem arose during her giving birth which resulted in her death

His third wife was Margaret Nicolson Cranston, the daughter of the Honourable George Cranston. They married in Edinburgh in 1780 and had eight children all born at Lainshaw.[57]

  • George, b. 1780.[58]
  • Maria, b. 1782.[59]
  • Margaret, b. 1784.[60]
  • Ann, b. 1785. Interestingly his two sons by his first marriage Thomas and Alexander were present at Ann’s baptism, Whatever caused their disinheritance must have happened sometime after 1785.[61]
  • Darcy Maxwell, b. 1786.[62]
  • Louisa, b. 1788.[63]
  • Isabella, b. 1791.[64]
  • John, 1794.[65]

It seems that Cunninghame retired from business around 1780, spending the rest of his life at Lainshaw as evidenced by the birth of his children at Stewarton,[66] although he did become a founding member of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce in 1783.[67]

He died in 1799 at Lainshaw, son William inherited his Ayrshire and Peeblesshire estates, with his Kirkcudbright estate going to his youngest son John.[68]

There is a lot more to the story of William Cunninghame. I would recommend the following books:

The Tobacco Lords, Tom Devine, 1975, John Donald Ltd Edinburgh.

Scottish Firm in Virginia 1767 – 1777, William Cunninghame and Co., Tom Devine (ed.), 1984, Scottish History Society.

Studies in Scottish Business History, Ed. Peter Payne, 1967, Frank Case & Co. (Reprint from the William and Mary Quarterly entitled ‘The Rise of Glasgow in the Chesapeake Tobacco Trade 1707-1775)

Capital and Credit in British Overseas Trade, Jacob M Price, 1990, Harvard University Press.

Devine, T. M. “Glasgow Merchants and the Collapse of the Tobacco Trade 1775-1783.” The Scottish Historical Review 52, no. 153 (1973): 50–74. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25528986.


[1] Paterson, James. (1866). History of the Counties of Ayr and Wigton. Cunninghame – Vol III, Part II. Edinburgh: James Stillie. pp. 580-589. https://archive.org/details/historyofcountie32pate/

[2] Paterson, op. cit.

[3] Testamentary Records. Scotland. 10 January 1678. CUNNINGHAME, Adam. Eik. Glasgow Commissary Court. CC9/7/42. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[4] Paterson, op. cit.

[5] Testamentary Records. Scotland. 10 January 1678. CUNNINGHAME, Adam. Eik. Glasgow Commissary Court. CC9/7/42. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[6] Paterson, op. cit.

[7] McKay, Archibald. (1863). History of Kilmarnock. Kilmarnock: Archibald McKay. p. 288. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=5R8NAAAAYAAJ&pg

[8] Marriages. (OPR) Scotland. Kilmarnock. 2 June 1727. CUNNINGHAME, Alexander and HODGERT, Barbara. 597/ 50 237. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[9] Paterson, op. cit.

[10] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Kilmarnock. 18 February 1728. CUNNINGHAME, Alexander. 10 490. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[11] Deaths. (OPR) Scotland. Kilmarnock. 16 March 1735. CUNNINGHAME, Alexander. 597/ 60 407. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[12] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Kilmarnock. CUNNINGHAME, John. 10 504. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[13]Scott, Hew. (1920). Fast Ecclesiae Scoticanae. The Succession of Ministers in the Church of Scotland since the Reformation. Vol. III. New Edition. Synod of Glasgow and Ayr. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd. p. 57. https://archive.org/details/fastiecclesiaesc03scot/page/57

[14] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Kilmarnock. 31 December 1732. CUNNINGHAME, Charles. 10 532. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[15] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Kilmarnock. 22 August 1734. CUNNINGHAME, Janet. 597/  10 547. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[16] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Kilmarnock. 25 May 1738. CUNNINGHAME, Barbara. 597/  10 588. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[17] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Kilmarnock. 30 March 1740. CUNNINGHAME, James. 597/  10 609. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[18] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Kilmarnock. 1 October 1741. CUNNINGHAME, Alexander. 597/  20 18. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[19] Devine, T.M. (1990) The Tobacco Lords. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pp. 77,188.

[20] Testamentary Records. Scotland. 11 March 1773. CUNNINGHAME, Alexander. Testament Dative and Inventory. Glasgow Commissary Court. CC9/7/68. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[21] Paterson, op. cit.

[22] Deaths. (OPR) Scotland. Kilmarnock. 1 July 1748. CUNNINGHAME, Alexander. 597/ 60 43. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[23] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Kilmarnock. 31 May 1731. CUNNINGHAME, William. 597/  10 517. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[24]Devine, T.M.(1990). The Tobacco Lords. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pp. 7.179

[25] Provosts of Glasgow. https://www.glasgow.gov.uk/index.aspx?articleid=16556

[26] Durie, Alastair J. ‘Cochrane, Andrew ’. (1692/3-1777). In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/65006

[27] Smith, John Guthrie and Mitchell, John Oswald. (1878). The Old Country Houses of the Old Glasgow Gentry. 2nd. ed.  Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons. LXXVI. Mount Vernon. http://gdl.cdlr.strath.ac.uk/smihou/

[28] Paterson, op. cit

[29] Devine, T.M. ed. (1984). A Scottish Firm in Virginia. Edinburgh: Scottish History Society. p. xi, xii.

[30] Devine, op.cit. p. xii.

[31] Price, Jacob M. (1980). Capital and Credit in British Overseas Trade. The View from the Chesapeake, 1700-1776. pp. 153,154.

[32] Devine, op.cit. p. 187.

[33] Price, op.cit. p. 154.

[34] Devine, op.cit. p. 187.

[35] Devine, op.cit. p. 82.

[36] Devine, T.M. ed. op.cit. p. 253 index.

[37] Devine, op.cit. p. 86.

[38] Devine, op.cit. p. 83.

[39] Marriages. (OPR) Scotland. Glasgow. 30 January 1763. CUNNINGHAME, William and DUNMORE, Jean. 644/1 250 334. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[40] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Glasgow. 25 December 1764. CUNNINGHAME, Thomas. 644/1 140 229. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[41] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Glasgow. 23 May 1766. CUNNINGHAME, Helen. 644/1 140 313. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[42] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Glasgow. 29 October 1767. CUNNINGHAME, Barbara. 644/1 150 31. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[43] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Glasgow. 10 April 1769. CUNNINGHAME, Jean. 644/1 150 126. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[44] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Glasgow. 21 December 1770. CUNNINGHAME, Thomas. 644/1 150 232. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[45] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Glasgow. 1 June 1772. CUNNINGHAME, Alexander. 644/1 150 330. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[46] Paterson, op. cit.

[47] Marriages. (OPR) Scotland. Govan. 18 September 1775. CUNNINGHAME, William and CAMPBELL, Elizabeth.  646/ 20 283. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[48] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Glasgow. 3 July 1776. CUNNINGHAME, William. 644/1 160 249. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[49] Carter, Grayson ‘Cuninghame, William’. (1775-1849). In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/40934

[50] Paterson, op. cit. p.588.

[51] Senex et al. (1884) Glasgow Past and Present. Vol. 1. Glasgow: David Robertson and Co. pp. 281, 282.

[52] Paterson, op. cit.

[53] Senex et al, op. cit. pp. 282, 283.

[54] Devine, T.M. (1990) The Tobacco Lords. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 133.

[55] Williamson, Elizabeth, Riches, Anne and Higgs, Malcolm. (1990). The Buildings of Scotland: Glasgow. London: Penguin Books. pp. 166, 167.

[56] Williamson, Elizabeth, Riches, Anne and Higgs, Malcolm, op. cit.

[57] Marriages. (OPR) Scotland. Edinburgh. 24 February 1780. CUNNINGHAME, William and CRANSTON, Margaret.  685/1 510 174. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[58] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Stewarton. 9 December 170. CUNNINGHAME, George. 616/  30 78. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[59] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Stewarton. 21 February 1782. CUNNINGHAME, Maria. 616/ 20 159. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[60] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Stewarton. 2 March 1784. CUNNINGHAME, Margaret. 616/ 20 169. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[61] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Stewarton. 6 May 1785. CUNNINGHAME, Ann. 616/ 30 103. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[62] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Stewarton. 31 July 1786. CUNNINGHAME, Darcy Maxwell. 616/ 20 186. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[63] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Stewarton. 17 January 1788. CUNNINGHAME, Louisa. 616/ 20 192. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[64] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Stewarton. 6 February 1791. CUNNINGHAME, Isabella. 616/ 30 126. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[65] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Stewarton. 31 March 1794. CUNNINGHAME, John. 616/ 30 144. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[66] The Glasgow Story. William Cunninghame. https://www.theglasgowstory.com/story/?id=TGSBH08

[67] Senex et al. (1884) Glasgow Past and Present. Vol. 2. Glasgow: David Robertson and Co. p. 50.

[68] Paterson, op. cit. p.588.

Author: harmonyrowbc

Ex aero engineer with a life long passion for Glasgow History

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