Alexander Howison (b.1795) Life & Labour

‘- and so the sea became my wish and choice’ (p.7)


Carron Company Logo. Esta Perpetua - Let it be eternal
Carron Company Logo.
Esta Perpetua – Let it be eternal

The way Alexander writes his memoir tangles home and family life and his working life very closely. He worked for his family as a young boy to help his mother and as a man to provide for his wife and children. When he worked on the ships there was no one to please but himself. His ambition from a young age is obvious to see and sets him in good stead for his working life.

It was very obviously a working class family, the men in the family were thus involved primarily in manual work while the women made the home. The gender roles thus being observed however it would be a grave oversight to think that made the women weak within this family. Alexander explains how In his life, his father had done business for himself in the village of Camlachie, east of Glasgow. (He omits what this business is). It appears that his mother after a dispute over her ‘right of drying clothes with another woman’ (p.1) Janet it transpires much damaged ‘her opponent’s arm in the scuffle’ and charges were pressed with the police, resulting in the need to settle payment for damages. ‘Her renown was a matter of considerable loss [in] more ways that one, as this causes them to leave Camlachie’ (p.1) and the last years of Alexanders father John’s life till his death ‘were spent in the employment of the Carron Company’. The Carron Company was an ironworks on the banks of the River Carron near Falkirk, in Stirlingshire which was founded in 1759.

Before that his father was a ‘smith and farrier and in that capacity served his Majesty
in the Black Horse Dragoons’ (p.1) Originally formed as Lord Cavendish’s Regiment of Horse in 1685, then amalgamated into the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards in 1922 after three centuries of service. So all his jobs were masculine and physically hard and the traditional gender roles of the time are easily observed here with his mother drying clothes, showing that domestic and paid work is divided between the genders.

United Free Church, Station Road, Slamannan.
United Free Church, Station Road, Slamannan.

Janet’s father, John Millar was primarily a ‘salt and fish cadger’ (p.2) while also  ‘farming a wretched piece of land in the parish of Slamannan’ this term of ‘wretched’ alludes to the idea they were poor and having to work two jobs to make ends meet.

Alexanders ‘first out-sett into the world which was herding a few cows and sheep for a person near Slamannan Kirk’. However it was not to last and on the second Sunday when two of his brothers came to visit  he made off home with them and deserted his job, lost his pay and dirtied his shirt.

His next en-devour of herding was even less of a success, he only managed 3 days, as he claims it was ‘a bad house as far as meet was concerned’ (p.3), however his mother somehow secured the ten shillings they agreed on by ‘some strong language on her part’. (p.4) In the following summer Alexander found employment again looking after bullocks with Mr. John Stenton, the brother of the manager of the Carron Company to be paid fifty shillings for six months work. Here he fared better and once the engagement was finished and as a way to not go to school which he considered his enemy, but also not wanting to be idle for the winter he struck himself a job driving a horse on No. 4 Coal Hill. ‘eightpence a day, the largest that had ever been paid by twopence. This not only made me proud but more manly and having one of the best horses.’ (p.5)

As this job gave him a taste of being a man, his next en devour was to better his prospects wherever he could. After being offered a job earning a shilling more to drive a horse underground ‘the offer being tempting and [his] ambition being for a large pay’ (p.5) he took the position and took another position soon after that offered another twopence. It shows he must have worked hard and been a pleasurable employee to advance so quickly.

His brother William had previously learned to dig the coal by means of a one year apprenticeship, and was a journeyman (trained but not yest a master) for 12 shillings a week. It was at this point that it was resolved by their ‘parents that William should start for himself and me to go along with him to learn.’ (p.6) They agreed wholeheartedly and it lasted two years. This however is where his first exposure to the tales of the sea, of ‘fortune in foreign cities – you may consider what that would have on the mind of a young inexperienced and ambitious individual’. (p.6) He kept the idea that ‘the sea became my wish and choice’ (p.7)from his parents however and went in search of a ship to take such boy. As he could find no Scottish ship to take him after the ‘surety of [him] fulfilling the engagement’ after defaulting previously, he found an English ship who were less scrupulous on such securities and he found a ship in Grangemouth with a the master Thomas Goodsman in need of an apprentice.

After Alexander becoming to sick to be at sea and going back to digging coal, his brother Peter ‘bound himself to to the shipbuilding trade, which he did for four years, and [his] brother William bound himself for two years’. (p.13)

After marrying Mr. H. but having nothing but his wife, hammock and chest, Mrs H. encourages him to give up his seafaring ways as ‘her own happiness depended on [him] retiring from the sea and getting a house.’ (p.50) Alexander turns his attention back to the coal mining industry and in 1819, after the birth of his second son he was promoted to ‘ the rank of an ironstone contractor to Colin Dunlop Esq. Clyde Iron Works.’ His second son (his first one passing away at 11 days old) is ‘baptized in the Mountaineer meeting house, North Bridge, Airdale and named John.’ (p.51)

A 'pit pony' pulling a coal cart underground
A ‘pit pony’ pulling a coal cart underground

Alexander mentions he runs two pit ponies at the time of the first daughter Agnes’ death in 1822.

Mrs H. obviously drove him for better things, ‘in getting my head a little above water and being a coal master, a room and kitchen did not please Mrs. H.’ (p.53) As Alexander had made his feelings clear on somewhere to live, presumably from being used to a hammock on a ship he believes ‘It’s not the pretty cage that feeds the bird’ (p.51) However its clear Mrs. H. has different ideas and expects some sort of grandeur and a certain degree of comfort in which to raise her brood.

After he sells some livestock he lands a job with ‘Andrew Buchanan Esq. Drumpielor’ with six months leisure of being paid but not starting his work he spent a good deal of time planning ‘extending the output of coal from various pits, not neglecting a few lessons in philosophy for helping my own afterlife etc. (p.55)  Through this line of new work Alexander secured a larger house and Mrs. H. started a garden, ‘stocked with all description of fruit, etc. Mrs. H. started with one pig, then two, next gave up the pigs and got a cow, then two also a servant’  Alexander found the house ‘put him to a little inconvenience, it being too large or else what furniture [he] possessed being too little’ (p.55) of course Mrs. H. had no such scruples and they began to make home. It is clear that the couple both had ambition and steadily created success for themselves.

As it appears the Drumpielor Works  ‘became the most extensive colliery upon Monkland Canal’ (p.56) and the coal was of the first rate quality. This is his last mention of his working life and we can deduce that Alexander is content with his work, he has his wife and children in a house big enough to support them and even ends up with a servant. Not bad for a boy born into a working class family in the middle of one of the worst recessions to have his Europe at that time.

Works Cited:

Howison. Alexander. (n.d) Autobiography of Alexander Howison ‘Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library. 1:354

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