Nathaniel Stevenson


Along with his brother James, Stevenson began work in 1803 in James Dunlop's spinning mill in the Calton area of Glasgow. In 1812 they moved to the Oswald brothers' mill in Barrowfield, where they were taken into partnership. On Richard Oswald's death in 1821, James Stevenson took control of the cotton branch of the business and moved to South Shields, while Nathaniel Stevenson remained in partnership with James Oswald for 40 years.

Concern for the well-being of his workers in the Tron parish led to Stevenson's involvement in the founding of infant schools, the Young Men's Christian Associations and the City Mission. He was active in the Free Church, making large donations and providing an annual scholarship.

He married Elizabeth Carlile of Paisley and they had two sons: James, who ran the business from 1843, and Nathaniel, who died shortly after entering the ministry.

THE American War of 1775 brought the tobacco trade of Glasgow to an end just about the time when the inventions of Hargreaves, Arkwright, and others opened up a new field for the employment of capital in the manufacture of cotton. By 1797 there were already 19 cotton mills in Scotland, and for a long time we had a share in the spinning of cotton somewhat in proportion to our population as compared with that of England. In 1834 the number of mills had increased to 134, of which 74 were in Lanark, 41 in Renfrew, 4 in Dumbarton, 2 in Bute, 1 in Argyll, and 1 in Perthshire, employing in all 17,969 persons. After this there was a change. England increased its spinning; Scotland, while doing less in that initial stage of manufacture, increased its weaving and thread-making, so that in 1875, 35,652 persons were employed in the mills, though the number of mills engaged in spinning and thread-making was reduced to 84. The yarn required for these manufactures was brought from England to the value of nearly a million sterling per annum. The loss of the spinning manufacture of Scotland has been commented on as indicating a falling off in the energy of its leaders of industry, but the fact seems to be that it has taken a new and better direction.

In 1803 a spinning mill had just been erected in the Calton of Glasgow, and two young men, of the age of seventeen and eighteen years, sons of James Stevenson, a silk gauze manufacturer of Paisley, found employment in the office of the new mill, the owner of which was James Dunlop, subsequently James Dunlop & Son. In 1812 the Oswalds of Shieldhall had acquired the great mill at Barrowfield, and we find the two young men, James and Nathaniel Stevenson, taken into partnership by Richard Alexander Oswald and James Oswald, and a firm, Oswald Stevenson & Co., formed for mercantile transactions in cotton and yarns, which continued till 1853, and for ten years longer under the style of Stevenson Ross & Co., and which may be said still to exist in the firms of Beith Stevenson & Co. and Malcolm Ross & Co.

Richard Alexander Oswald died in 1821. James Stevenson separated, taking up the cotton branch of the business. In 1844 he removed to South Shields, becoming the principal partner of the Jarrow Chemical Company. He died in Edinburgh at the age of eighty, leaving a numerous family, several of whom take an important part in public life. His eldest son, James Cochran Stevenson, has represented South Shields in the last three Parliaments.

James Oswald and Nathaniel Stevenson remained partners for forty years. The former was the first member for Glasgow, and represented the city till his death in 1852; the latter conducted the business and opened a house in Manchester, created a business of large extent and safely weathered all the storms which about every ten years seem to work havoc in the commercial world. The control after 1843 fell very much into the hands of his son, James Stevenson, junr.(1) Malcolm Ross, originally from Glasgow, long represented the firm in Manchester; he was a well-known, public-spirited citizen of that town. In 1863 the American Civil War caused a great convulsion in the cotton industry, culminating in a high range of values for all cotton productions. Mr. Stevenson and his son retired and handed over their business to successors; their example was followed by other large firms. There was then, notwithstanding Sir Walter's dictum, not much "making for land."

The mother of Nathaniel Stevenson was Margaret Cochran, of Paisley. From her especially came the early and deep feelings of reverence that marked his life. After leaving the Paisley Grammar School, had not family circumstances stood in the way, he would have much preferred completing his education for the ministry of the Scottish Church. It was, however, otherwise arranged; alongside an active business life, which was his lot, there came also an active ecclesiastical life, that of the eldership, to which the government of the Presbyterian Church is largely committed. There was need of men who had such combination of qualities.

The concentration of labour in factories had also an evil side; the cheapening of production by the factory system ought to have promoted the wellbeing and comfort of all classes of the community.(2) But it was soon found that the new industrial system had attracted thousands from Ireland, the Highlands, and the country districts, and that such an addition to the population had far outstripped the religious, moral, and social organizations then in existence for their benefit. Circumstances pressed this very strongly on Mr. Stevenson's attention, and he along with others determined that means must be found to cope with the difficulty.

At this time (1815) Thomas Chalmers came to Glasgow to occupy the pulpit of the Tron Church, of which Mr. Stevenson was a member. It was not long before Chalmers sounded the alarm, and in 1817 he suggested that twenty new churches should be erected. The Town Council agreed to erect one, and in 1818 Dr. Chalmers left the Tron Church to become the minister of the new church and parish of St. John's, taking with him most of the energetic coadjutors who had provided the Tron parish with Sunday schools and district visitation. Though remaining in the Tron Church, Mr. Stevenson was in full sympathy with those who left, and took an interest in the founding of the Infant School system, of the Young Men's Christian Associations, and the City Mission, which did something to supply the want of parochial centres. The Religious Institution Rooms were then established; he took an active part in their formation. He took much interest in the erection of a school, and subsequently of a church, in Strathbungo, a village near his own house. Dr. Dewar was chosen to succeed Chalmers in the Tron parish, but the work could not be efficiently carried on till the congregation was re-formed under his care. The condition of the people was getting worse, and little had been done to meet the dangerous state of the great centres of population. In 1835 Dr. Chalmers pressed the Imperial Government for funds, but meeting no response, he threw himself upon the public, and by 1841 had got 200 churches besides 20 in Glasgow, built at a cost of £300,000.(3) These met so far the want created by the apathy of the Church in the previous century, but none of them were in the Tron parish, and the slums were left much as they had been.

The old ecclesiastical machinery proved too stiff for this work, and insuperable difficulties were raised to its being adapted to it. When, as the result of an appeal to Parliament, the House of Commons refused the Scotch members even an inquiry as to what their country required, Dr. Chalmers and his friends, to carry out their views, felt it necessary to take steps towards the formation of the Free Church of Scotland. In this movement Mr. Stevenson took great interest. His subscription to the funds needed was very prompt, almost if not the first that was announced, and gave expression to his view that liberality must reach a still higher scale than before.

The necessity was all but averted. Dr. Robert Buchanan, who succeeded Dr. Dewar in the Tron Church, with other deputies of the Church of Scotland, had, after long interviews with Sir James Graham, arranged with him the terms of a Government measure satisfactory to the Church. The lateness of the evening alone prevented the clauses being then reduced to writing, but during the night the memorial known as that of the "Forty" arrived, and next morning Sir James could no longer see his way.(4) Before Dr. Buchanan's return from London the congregation adopted a resolution to unite with those who were leaving the Established Church. Along with the congregation of St. John's Church they moved to the City Hall, and worshipped there till they had built the Free Tron Church.

For this, and afterwards for the building of the Free College Church, Mr. Stevenson's time and resources were largely drawn upon. With increased prosperity, large donations became habitual to him, not only for school, church, and manse funds, but for objects of public interest generally. Among them was one of £1000 towards the founding of the Theological Hall of the Free Church in Glasgow. There was also the foundation of the Stevenson scholarship of £50 a year to the student entering this College, being a graduate in a Scottish University, who passed most successfully an examination, for which an annual sum was also provided. This was supplemented by a scholarship of the same value, founded in his memory, to be given to the student entering the New Theological Hall who had passed highest in honours in the University of Glasgow. These two scholarships gave a decided impulse to graduation with honours in Glasgow. He also handed over securities to provide an income of £40 a year for the Library of the same Hall. A sum of £1000 given by him jointly with his son was also among the first offered for the rebuilding of the University, and by its promptitude helped to give a tone to that subscription.

Though frequently a member of the General Assemblies of the Church, Mr. Stevenson took little part in public speaking, he rather retired from prominence, but was ever ready to aid with time and money; besides the conscientious discharge of the spiritual duties of the eldership, his sphere was rather on the Committees on Home and Foreign Mission work, where his sound judgment and business management gave important aid. He was treasurer for the New Normal Seminary, and also for the Manse Building Fund of the Free Church. For many years during and after the lifetime of Dr. Chalmers the work of organizing the new ecclesiastical body went on, occupying no small part of his time and attention.

The Tron parish had now become a weltering mass of 12,000 human beings, living mostly in wretched tenements along narrow lanes and passages, and crowded within the space of ten acres. Under the leadership of Dr. Buchanan, Mr. Stevenson had taken part in the establishment of large day and night schools in the Wynd and Bridgegate districts, with various appliances for raising the sunken population. Among other things there was a new departure in the teaching of thrift.

In Mr. Stevenson's house, Mr. Meikle of the National Security Savings Bank, and another well-known financier, Mr. Cameron of the Stamp Office, with Mr. James Stevenson, junr. who had suggested the plan, had sederunts for several weeks for the purpose of drawing up the rules and forms under which the National Security or Trustee Savings Bank could promote banks auxiliary to itself in each poor district. Towards the end of 1850 a model penny bank was accordingly set up in the Wynd School, the precursor of several hundreds in the city and neighbourhood, and of a very large number throughout the country.(5)

The final step which completed the work of Dr. Buchanan's congregation in the Tron Parish was the building of churches in the Wynd and Bridgegate districts, the remaining third of the parish being left to the care of the congregation that had been formed in the Tron Established Church. Having full ecclesiastical status, these became independent centres, bringing the influences of religion to every door. Their congregations subsequently extended similar influences to surrounding districts. Before his death, Mr. Stevenson had the happiness of also seeing Trinity Free Church built near the slums to the south-east of the Tron Parish and in these three churches a large number, probably about three thousand, admitted for the first time to Church membership. His son has since taken a deep interest in the extension of the work in Glasgow, and has contributed largely to it.

This territorial system has spread over the whole city. Although the Court of Teinds still creates obstruction by laying upon some of the ministers of the Established Church the duty of organizing districts too large for effective work, the common sense of the religious bodies in Glasgow is ignoring this. By united action they are bringing religious, moral and social influences to bear upon each section of two or three thousand inhabitants, with good hope that the evils that have attended the growth of our great industries may be overcome.

Mr. Stevenson married Elizabeth, daughter of James Carlile of Paisley. Edward Irving, then Dr. Chalmers's assistant, whose sister had married in the same family, was a frequent visitor during their early married life. Mrs. Stevenson's brother, Dr. Carlile of Dublin, one of the original High Commissioners of Irish education, also brought intellectual influences to the household, not unaccompanied by music of a high order. Mr. Stevenson himself could handle the bow fairly, and greatly enjoyed all the refining influences of domestic life. His life was saddened by the death of his younger son Nathaniel, when entering on the ministry of the Church. He himself lived till 1867, attaining his eightieth year, clear-minded and energetic to the last, but suffering much from an internal malady patiently borne.

(1) Mr. James Stevenson afterwards diverged into chemical manufacturing, and with Mr. Thomas Carlile, as scientific partner, established the business of Stevenson Carlile & Co., which has a high position in the city in that branch of industry.

(2) Take, for example, Glasgow muslins. Within the lifetime of Mr. Stevenson the cost of yarn used for making it fell from 38s to 2s. 10d. per lb., and in this way a strip of muslin behind her window panes came within the reach of the poorest housewife.

(3) Seven-eighths of this had been contributed by persons who, like Mr. Stevenson, had joined the Free Church. Vide Dr Chalmers' evidence before the Lords' Committee on site refusing.

(4) This statement is made on the authority of the late Dr. Robert Buchanan, and on that of the late Dr. Watson of Burntisland.

(5) The Trustees of the National Savings Bank encourage the formation of Penny Banks, but decline to take any pecuniary responsibility. They require in each case a guarantee for the intromissions from trustworthy persons, and they supply books and forms as required without charge. The Penny Banks take charge of all accounts till they amount to a pound, when they are then transferred to the National Savings Bank. Persons interested in missions and schools are readily found who are willing to undertake, without remuneration, the management of the Penny Banks. These are open from week to week to receive sums from one penny upwards, and have attracted more than 65,000 depositors in and around Glasgow.

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