This is a more unusual post for you today and I hope you enjoy this little peek into the history of my family name.
It is with great delight that I recount this tale of one of my most illustrious predecessors, Alexander Morton. Until recently I had been completely unaware of his importance to the history of Scotland and I had vainly assumed that I was one of the very few entrepreneurs of my family. My dad had been a very sensible banker but his father had run one of the very first health food shops in the country.
But two generations before my grandfather, in 1844, was born Alexander Morton. He was of poor stock and his own father died when he was very young. At just 12 years old he became a hand loom weaver as was customary in the town of Darvel. It was there that the raw unbleached curtains were produced and sold to agents acting for Glasgow merchants.
Even as a youngster Alexander saw that there was little profit to be made and when a opportune moment arose, he took his chance. A relative who’d been an agent had died leaving his affairs in a mess. Young Alexander took it upon himself to sort things out and he found that there were several weaving orders unfulfilled.
He employed a number of weavers to help him execute this order and he took this opportunity to make a subtle alteration to the weaving process. This improved the quality and durability of the cloth. Very quickly the Glasgow merchants were clamouring for more and so he employed more weavers in Darvel. But he still was unhappy at the lack of profit when they were so dependent on the city of Glasgow. He knew his success would only come if he had a direct connection with the big English retailers down south.
So at the age of 24, the naive young Scot ventured to England with a suitcase full of his best samples. He was away touring for 2 years but such was his success that Darvel and the Irvine Valley quickly became what was described at the time as ‘the fountain-head of the industry.’
By the late 1860’s handloom weaving had become practically the sole industry of the three towns of the Irvine Valley and in Darvel alone there were 630 working looms.
But then, as in present times, technology and progress threatened the very existence of the handloom weaving industry. Alexander had heard that in England they had developed a machine loom which was far superior in speed and quality. He knew with the instinct of a true entrepreneur that this was where the future lay. He tried to get the townspeople to join with him in the purchase of one of the new and very expensive machines. But they would have none of it and they thought he’d finally lost his mind.
However, he had been right and very quickly the handloom weaving business was on its knees. The town of Darvel became a ghost town with the workers having to search for work in Glasgow and so after much thought Alexander and his family took the plunge and brought the first machine loom to Scotland. They were awed by it’s technical complexity and it took almost 3 months for them to find out how to use it effectively by which time my poor ancestor had lost 50 pounds in weight!
Within a short while Alexander had mastered it and developed it further and soon he had another one, then a small factory and then a bigger one and so all the workers were able to flock back to the Irvine Valley. By this time handloom weaving had all but become extinct.
But machines replace people and so Alexander realised that he could never help to employ all the former hand weavers just by building machines. On his travels he’d seen many things and he introduced a new development to the business with hand woven tapestries he’d seen which they then transformed into the weaving of Chenille. This spectacularly successful project saved the town of Darvel!
From there, Alexander went on from success to success. He developed an Axminster type of carpet which was so popular he had to build factories in England to cope with the demand!
He founded a carpet weaving business in Donegal, Ireland which saved the local workers from a life of poverty eking out an existence making Irish lace and knitting. ‘Donegal Carpets’ became famous and soon there were four large factories in the West of Ireland employing hundreds of workers.
When Queen Victoria visited Donegal in 1900 she ordered some carpets and soon they were in Buckingham Palace, Number 10 Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament!
By this time Alexander Morton and his sons were employing thousands and had made advancements in many areas. Their ‘Sundour’ materials had become a household name after they had improved the block printing and dyeing process so that materials didn’t fade as before.
By the time of his death at 80, Alexander was so popular that a memorial was built to him which was paid for by the people of the area.
The architect was Sir Robert Lorimer who designed the Scottish National War Memorial.
Built of stone, the memorial surrounds a bronze bust in a recess in the centre of an angular wall. Panels carved in the stone walls depict an old handloom weaving on one side and on the other a modern lace machine.
Across the top of the wall are inscribed the words;
‘The wonder of the world, the beauty and the power,
the shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades;
These I saw: Look ye also while life lasts.’
Beneath the bronze bust are these words carved in stone;
‘Alexander Morton Who Led This Valley To Industrial Fame And Prosperity.’
So there it is!
I am so proud of this story that my own son has the middle name Alexander.
Hope you enjoyed this historical tale and that it inspires you to go out there and do something amazing yourself!
All the best!