John Blackie Jnr. (1805-1873)

The donor John Blackie jnr. always in bold.

John Blackie jnr. donated three paintings by Hugh William Williams to Glasgow museums in 1868, the subjects of the paintings being a portrait of David Dale, industrialist and philanthropist who founded the cotton mills in New Lanark, and two different views of his factories.[1]

Although being described as John jnr. he was in fact John Blackie the fourth, his great grandfather, grandfather and father all being named John.

The Blackie family originated from the east of Scotland, great grandfather John living in Haddington. Grandfather John was born and christened in 1762 [2] in Yester, Haddingtonshire, and for the first part of his life he lived in the parish of Dirleton and Gullane. He was a tobacco spinner and in 1781 he moved to Glasgow, presumably to pursue his trade more effectively. Later that year he married Agnes Burrell,[3] the daughter of James Burrell and Margaret Anderson, who was born in Scoonie in Fife in 1760.[4]

John and Agnes lived in the Old Wynd in Glasgow  and had five children, three boys and two girls, the first of whom was John born in 1782.[5] He, in due course, became known as John senior.

Around 1793/94 John, Agnes and family decided to move to Newcastle, however son John snr. remained behind to serve an apprenticeship as a weaver with his father’s friend Robert Dobbie who had a four loom weaving business. The terms of the indenture were that John snr. would serve five years as an apprentice, then two years as a journeyman thereafter. Another common condition of the time was that  John snr. would be given board and lodging with the family of Robert Dobbie. In the event John snr. was released from his journeyman commitment after one year.

Figure 1. John Blackie, Senior, by William Bonner. © CSG GIC Glasgow Museums Collection. (

His maternal grandfather James Burrell and his wife came to Glasgow around 1799/1800, James being involved in supplying water to the military barracks in the Gallowgate. The water conduit passed through Ark Lane near Duke street on its way to the Gallowgate. In that area resided John Duncan, a well to do weaver. Burrell got to know Duncan and he recommended his grandson to him. Duncan agreed to employ John snr. and on the 30th January 1800 he formally joined Duncan’s business and lived with the family for nearly five years until December 1804, when on the 31st December he married Duncan’s daughter Catherine, who was five years older than him. Their first home was in Barrack Street where on the 27th September 1805, son John was born, later known as John jnr.[6] They also had two other sons, Walter Graham, born in 1816 [7] and Robert born in 1820.[8]

John snr. did not remain a weaver for long. He clearly had ambitions to improve his lot and was offered the opportunity to change his occupation by A Brownlie of the firm W.D. & A. Brownlie who were publishers and booksellers located at 414 Gallowgate.[9] It’s not clear how long he stayed with them however the last entry in the Glasgow P.O. directory for Brownlie was in 1807, located at 20 New Vennel.[10] There is some evidence to suggest that the business ran into financial difficulties and that John snr. was asked to take on some of it by its main creditor and Brownlie.[11]

He seems to have been successful in what he did as in 1812 he first appears in the Glasgow directory as J. Blackie and Co., printers and booksellers, located at 5 Saltmarket.[12] He remained there until 1816 when he moved premises to 8 East Clyde Street.[13] Also located at 5 Saltmarket was Andrew Khull, printer, and it seems likely that Blackie used him for his own publications as when he moved to East Clyde Street so did Khull.[14] By 1819 the entry in the directory was for Khull, Blackie and Co.[15] The formal partnership was established in 1820,[16] it being dissolved in 1826.[17]

In 1824 he formed a partnership with Archibald Fullarton and William Somerville, the company being known as Blackie, Fullarton and Co.[18], located in 8 East Clyde street, and first appearing in the directory of 1828.[19] John jnr. joined the partnership in 1826.[20] This lasted until 1831 when the partnership was dissolved.[21] In the directory of 1832-33, Blackie’s entry is as Blackie and Son, consisting of John snr. and John jnr., printer and publisher, still in East Clyde Street; Fullarton is listed as Fullarton and Co., printer and stereotype founders, located at 34 Hutcheson Street.[22]

John jnr. was initially educated  at the school of William Angus thereafter attending the High School being tutored in English by a Mr. Gibson and in commercial arithmetic (accountancy) by Thomas Rennie which he excelled at. This was to be of great benefit to him in his early days working with his father. As the business had developed, various agencies had been set up in different parts of Great Britain. John jnr. had the task of visiting these agencies to supervise, look at accounts, and to generally be satisfied that the conduct of each agency was acceptable. Dealing with the English agencies only could take as long as three months to visit them all.[23]

Figure 2. John Blackie Jnr. From Memoirs and Portraits of 100 Glasgow Men. 1886.

He was also involved with company publications, the Casquet of Literary Gems being the first major book entrusted to him. It sold very well and probably confirmed to his father that he had [24] the capability to deal with all aspects of the business. Another major success for John jnr. was obtaining the publication rights in 1833 to the Winter Evening Tales by James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd. The first volume was published in 1836, the year after Hogg died.[25]

John jnr. continued to develop his activity in the business getting more involved with its publications and finances and sharing the management load with his father. His younger brothers Walter and Robert had also become active in the business and became partners in 1842.[26] He was a member of the Free Church of Scotland and became heavily involved with the publication of the company’s religious books. In particular he was instrumental in the publication of Scotland’s first religious newspaper, ‘Scottish Guardian’ in 1832. It was a liberal minded publication and evangelical, it’s motto being “The people of Great Britain are a free and religious people and by the blessing of God I will lend my aid to help keep them so”. It remained in publication until 1862.[27]

His beliefs also manifested themselves in a number of practical ways. He helped set up three model lodging houses in Glasgow in 1845 (Green Dyke Street), 1847 (Mitchell Street) and 1856 (Carrick Street) in attempt to alleviate the squalor of existing lodging houses and generally to try and improve the conditions of the housing that the poor were forced to live in which were consequentially overcrowded, and unhealthy. In the mid-1860s he was to do much more as I’ll explain later.[28]

John jnr. married Agnes Gourlie, the daughter of Glasgow merchant William Gourlie in 1849.[29] They had three children, all boys: John James, born 1851 [30], William Gourlie, born 1853 [31], and Alfred, born 1855.[32]

Incidentally John snr. at the age of 68 married again in 1850, his second wife being Margaret Frame, the widow of wine merchant David Ferguson,[33] his first wife Catherine Duncan, having died in 1847 according to the Ancestry website although there is no primary proof of this.

In 1857 John jnr. was asked by the electors of the seventh ward in Glasgow to put himself forward for election to the town council. He was duly elected in November of that year and served on the police committee. In 1860 he was elected in ward six after becoming a bailie in 1859. He became a senior bailie in 1862 and in November 1863 he was unanimously elected as Glasgow’s Lord Provost remaining so until 1866.[34]

As a councillor, bailie and Lord Provost John jnr. continued to seek, in accordance with his political and religious beliefs, practical solutions to the housing of Glasgow’s poor whose living conditions were filthy, disease ridden and over-crowded, the buildings being too close together lacking full daylight  and air. In a talk given to the Glasgow Philosophical Society in 1895 by Bailie Samuel Chisolm, a future Lord Provost of Glasgow who promoted further city improvement action, the condition of central or old Glasgow in the 1860s was clearly stated:

There were narrow streets, with high and crowded tenements on either side ; and closes, dark and filthy, running at right angles to the streets, were literally swarming with inhabitants. Within a comparatively narrow area 75,000 persons were huddled together, a large proportion of them under conditions which made physical well-being difficult, and moral well-being all but impossible.”

“ From each side of the Gallowgate, High Street, Saltmarket, Trongate, etc. there are narrow lanes or closes running like so many rents or fissures backwards to the extent of two, or sometimes three hundred feet, in which tenements of three or four storeys stand behind each other, generally built so close on each side that the women can either shake hands or scold each other, as they often do, from the opposite windows. When clothes are put out from such windows to dry, as is usually done by means of sticks, they generally touch each other. The breadth of these lanes is, in most instances, from three to four feet, the expense of the ground having at first induced the proprietor to build upon every available inch of it. Throughout the whole of these districts the population is densely crowded. In many of the lanes and closes there are residing in each not fewer than five, six, and even seven hundred souls, and in one close we observed thirty-eight families occupying one common stair. In the Tontine Close there are nearly eight hundred of the most vicious of our population crowded together, forming one immense hot bed of debauchery and crime”

Dealing with this situation was therefore the key action of his time as Glasgow’s chief magistrate. Initially he and some like-minded friends joined together for the purpose of purchasing property in some of the worst districts of the city, with the view of laying out wider streets and thereafter reselling the remaining building ground, or of themselves building upon it. That was not successful mainly due the exorbitant prices asked for by the landowners. What they did however was to bring the issue to the general public’s attention and demonstrate, by their failure, that the problem would only be resolved by means of an Act of Parliament which would compel change.[35]

He first brought before the council his City Improvement Scheme on the 17th September 1865. It was well received by council members and the public at large. It provided for 88 acres of over built land being dealt with, the creation or improvement of 45 streets and the power to spend £1,250,000 on the purchase of property. It also included a general rental taxation of 6d per £ for five years. This latter feature was to result in John jnr. leaving the council, more of which in due course. In June 1866, the Act of Parliament was approved and trustees were appointed to deal with its implementation. In 1867 the first imposition of the 6d rental tax was due to be applied which led to a negative reaction to the act and John jnr. personally. So much so that when stood for  re-election in November 1866, his three years tenure being up, he lost by two votes. [36]

He never sought election to the council again, continuing to play an informal part in city affairs and running the family business. He died of pleurisy on the 12th February 1873.[37]

His obituary in the Scotsman of the 13th February recorded his many attributes and included the following comment:

“Ex Provost Blackie, as originator of the (City) Improvement Plan, has perhaps done more for the good of the city of Glasgow than any other of its chief Magistrates, with the exception of Lord Provost Stewart who promoted the Loch Katrine water scheme.”[38]

John snr. died in 1874,[39] the company he formed essentially in 1809 ceased trading in 1991.[40]

Shown below are examples of the children’s books Blackie published which are in the writer’s possession.

Figure 3. Published 1928
Figure 4. Published 1890.
Figure 5. Published 1935.

One other point worthy of mention, it was William Wilfrid Blackie, the son of Walter Graham Blackie, brother of John jnr., who commissioned Charles Rennie Mackintosh to design and build the Hill House in Helensburgh.

[1] Glasgow Museums Donor Records

[2] Baptisms. Scotland. Yester, Haddingtonshire. 26 June 1762. BLACKIE, John. Scotland Births and Baptisms, 1564-1950.

[3] Marriages. Scotland. Glasgow, Lanarkshire. 11 September 1781. BLACKIE, John and BURRELL, Agnes. Scotland Marriages, 1561-1910.

[4] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Scoonie, Fife. 1760. BURRELL, Agnes. 456/  295.

[5] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Glasgow. 27 October 1782. BLACKIE, John. 644/1 170 222.

[6] Blackie, W. G. (1897) Concerning the Firm of Blackie and Son. 1809 – 1874. pp.  1-7.

[7] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Glasgow 21 March 1816. BLACKIE, Walter Graham. 644/1 210 312.

[8] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Gorbals. 20 March 1820. BLACKIE, Robert. 644/2 40 14.

[9] Directories. Scotland. (1803). Glasgow P.O. directory. Glasgow: W. McFeat and Co. p. 17.

[10] Directories. Scotland. (1807). Glasgow P.O. directory. Glasgow: W. McFeat and Co. p. 16.

[11] Blackie, op.cit. p. 9

[12] Directories. Scotland. (1812). Glasgow P.O. directory. Glasgow: W. McFeat and Co. p. 21.

[13] Directories. Scotland. (1816). Glasgow P.O. directory. Glasgow: A. McFeat and Co. p. 23.

[14] Directories. Scotland. (1816). Glasgow P.O. directory. Glasgow: A. McFeat and Co. p. 84.

[15] Directories. Scotland. (1819). Glasgow P.O. directory. Glasgow: W. McFeat and Co. p. 105.

[16] University of Glasgow Archive Services. Reference: GB 248 UGD 061/1/1/1/3.

[17] University of Glasgow Archive Services. Reference: GB 248 UGD 061/1/1/1/5.

[18] University of Glasgow Archive Services. Reference: GB 248 UGD 061/1/1/2/3.

[19] Directories. Scotland. (1828). Glasgow P.O. directory. Glasgow: W. McFeat and Co. p. 27.

[20] Blackie, op.cit. p. 21.

[21] University of Glasgow Archive Services. Reference: GB 248 UGD 061/1/1/2/5.

[22] Directories. Scotland. (1832/33) ). Glasgow P.O. directory. Glasgow: The Post Office. p. 50.

[23] Blackie, op.cit. p. 22

[24] Blackie, op.cit. pp. 23,24.

[25] Blackie, op.cit. pp. 28,29.

[26] Blackie, op.cit. p. 45.

[27] Maclehose, James. (1886). Memoirs and Portraits of 100 Glasgow Men. pp. 37-42.

[28] Withey, Matthew. (2003) The Glasgow City Improvement Trust etc. PhD Thesis. St Andrews University. MatthewWitheyPhdThesis(2).pdf

[29] Marriages. (OPR) Scotland. Glasgow. 21 November 1849. BLACKIER, John and GOURLIE, Agnes.

644/1 430/576.

[30] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Glasgow. 26 November 1851. BLACKIE, John James. 644/1 390/160

[31] Births. (OPR) Scotland. Glasgow. 17 September 1853. BLACKIE, William Gourlie. 644/1 390/457.

[32] Births. (SR) Scotland. Glasgow. 21 October 1855. BLACKIE, Alfred. 644/1 1394.

[33] Marriages. (OPR) Scotland. Barony. 4 November 1850. BLACKIE. JOHN and FRAME or FERGUSON, Margaret. 622/   200/220.

[34] Tweed, John. (1883). Biographical Sketches of the Lord Provosts of Glasgow. pp. 173-175, pp. 220-240. Glasgow: John Tweed.

[35] Edited by the Secretary. (1896) Proceedings of the Philosophical Society of Glasgow. Vol 27. Chapter IV. Glasgow: John Smith & Son.

[36] Blackie, op.cit. pp. 92-94

[37] Deaths. (SR) Scotland. Lanark, Partick. 12 February 1873. BLACKIE, John. 646/3 104.

[38] Scotsman. (1873) Death of Ex-Lord Provost Blackie of Glasgow. Scotsman 13 February. p.4e.

[39] Testamentary Records. Scotland. 1 September 1874. BLACKIE, John. Trust Disposition and Settlements. SC36/51/66.

[40] Graces Guide.Blackie and Son.