THE ERA OF THE BIRKMYRES
AND 'THE GOUROCK. 1881-1968
'Machines will not be replacing men, women and girls"

The acquisition of New Lanark by Birkmyre and Somerville could be regarded as a speculative venture but it was also a logical extension of their varied personal and joint business interests. Henry Birkmyre was principal partner in the Gourock Ropework Company, which, dating back to the 18th century had grown into a substantial enterprise with the rise of Clydeside shipping and shipbuilding and had an established reputation for the manufacture of rope and sailcloth. Birkinyre himself had subsequently diversffied, and in addition to his shipping interests he held shares in several fishing companies in the north-east of England, which had also done well due to the boom in that industry. His brother-in-law, Robert Somerville, was a partner in the prosperous timber merchants, Somerville & Company of Port Glasgow, timber still being very important to the local economy before the Clydeside shipbuilding industry turned entirely to iron and steel.
The new owners wasted little time ushering in changes at New Lanark. Under Birkmyre's supervision the first patent net-looms the manufacture of fishing nets from cotton spun in the mills were installed and the necessary skilled labour to teach local net makers imported from Renfrewshire and other places where net-making was already well established.

Other dramatic changes that occurred after the takeover altered both the face of the village and the way of life there. Another major change came about with the introduction of a water turbine both to power machinery via rope and belt drives and ultimately make possible electricity generation to provide lighting in the mills and village. Sometime around the turn of the century gas was dispensed with entirely and far in advance of general public supply from the Clyde Valley Electric Power Scheme in the 1920s - New Lanark was lit by electricity.
While some limited modernisation and diversification on the production side occurred at that time there were other aspects of the Birkmyre regime which were less positive. The exact details of the partnership between Birkmyre and Somerville are unclear, but by 1888 they had ceased their association and the former had taken over sole proprietorship of the mills and village. A new partnership was formed between Birkmyre and his sons in 1894. Although the Lanark Spinning Company continued to show a profit, the returns from the enterprise were marginal enough for one of the sons William, to complain bitterly in 1903 - three years after Birkmyre Sr's death that the results of the past ten years would have been

different if the company had received proper managernent. In one sense this was a surprising observation given the success of Birkmyre's other business intrests and the substancial estate he left on his demise.
It was not the only complaint that could be levelled against Birkmyre, who as Morgan put it was 'clearly unsuited to fulfil the role of philanthropist at New Lanark'. In the light of previous experience this seems like a legitimate criticism, especially regards the housing which had been allowed to deteriorate to unacceptable levels and the general neglect of education and other social Provision. Although apparently trivial, the saga srrounding the church mission is illuminating of Birkmyre's character and outlook. A staunch United Presbyterian, he came into open conflict with the villagers On several occasions over the Provision of the Church Of Scotland mission and later the church. The Walkers (Walkers were the previous owners of the mills) had previously supported the mission by providing a meeting hall, a 'dwelling house for the minister and an annual grant of £50 but in 1884 these benefits were discontinued after an appeal to management the old Gaelic

Chapel was made available but this did not satisfy the villagers who sent a petition to Birkmyre saying that if services were not conducted on a regular weekly basis, the incumbent minister, the Revd James French would lose his grant from the Mission Fund 'and be thrown in the streets penniless and in ill health'. Birkmyre later threatened to withdraw the use of the old chapel in order to establish the mission of 'another denomination' despite that fact that the majority of the community were members of the Church of Scotland. Matters were ultimately resolved by the opening of a new church in 1898, built at a cost of £1,100 - the majority raised by the village. As events had it the Rev French continued to serve as minister at Lanark, where he was held in great affection, for many years, retiring on the eve of the Great War in 1914.
As we have seen, the partnership of Birkmyre and his three sons, William, James and John, clearly prompted changes at New Lanark and following his death in 1900 there were further moves towards integration of the Lanark Spinning Company operation with that of the parent Gourock Ropework Company in Port Glasgow.

While modernisation of the mills was the Birkmyres' prime concern they did not entirely neglect social provision. For many years the company organised and subsidised an annual excursion for employees, one of the first being by special train and steamer 'Doon the Water' to the Kyles of Bute. The handbill for this event in August 1884 catches the spirit of another age, with an orderly procession of villagers walking to Lanark railway station, embarking on the Lancelot on Steamboat Quay at Greenock and thus reaching the ultimate venue at Auchenlochan for tea, sports and dancing. Fresh milk was to be supplied by a local farmer and it was hoped everyone in the party would take advantage of this facility!" The company also supported the village contribution to the Lanark Lanimer festivities, especially when they were developed as a major children's event after 1893 - the year of the first Lanimer Queen and her Court. New Lanark always took its turn with other local schools in electing the Lanimer Queen and the procession regularly featured the New Lanark Brass Band (later pipes and drums) and a decorated float. This was usually one of the mill drays - later replaced by steam or motor lorries.
In the longer term the Birkmyre brothers made up for the sins of their father by a more substantial contribution to the wellbeing of the community in a major programme designed to renew the fabric of the housing. Around the turn of the century all the dwelling houses were overhauled, new windows put in, and, as we have seen, everywhere fitted with electric light.

New Lanark Mills

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