James White


Born in the Shawfield district of Glasgow, White was educated in the city and initially worked in law. From 1851 he became an industrial chemist, working alongside his brother John in the family business (established by John White senior in 1810), manufacturing tartaric acid and bichromate of potash.

The brothers devised new, cheap methods of production, establishing a near-monopoly on the trade. The factory was extended and 500 men employed, making it by far the largest works of its kind in Britain. The bichromate of potash was made from chrome iron ore imported from Turkey and Russia, and was initially used mainly by printers and dyers. It was later used in the manufacture of woollens, especially in England.

James White was also involved in charitable work, and in the establishment of the railways. He married Fanny Campbell in 1836 and from 1860 lived on the estate of Overtoun in Dumbartonshire.

JAMES WHITE was in many respects a representative Glasgow man. He was born and brought up in the near environs of the city, was educated and trained to business within its walls, and was long one of its most prominent citizens, distinguished alike by his shrewdness and capacity as a man of business, by his wisdom and public spirit as a member of the community, and by his activity and munificence as a Christian philanthropist.

The business with which Mr. White was connected during the greater part of his adult life was one of these important chemical industries for which Glasgow is now so famous, and which have contributed in no small degree to her wealth and her importance as a commercial and manufacturing centre.

James White was born in 1812; he was the second son of John White of Shawfield, near Rutherglen, and grandson of Dr. White of Paisley, who in his day was one of the most eminent physicians in the West of Scotland. He was educated at the Glasgow Grammar School with his brother John, and many other life-long friends, who preserved their acquaintance with each other and the recollection of their school-days by the establishment of the Pyper and Cowan Class Club, in the annual meetings of which Mr. White throughout his life took an active interest. From the Grammar School he went to Glasgow University, and after passing through the Arts classes applied himself to the study and practice of the law in Glasgow and for a short time in Edinburgh. Some time after his return from Edinburgh he entered the office of Messrs. Dow & Couper, where shortly afterwards he was assumed as a partner and carried on business for seventeen years as a member of the firm of Couper & White, in which position he soon became widely known as an able and accurate lawyer, and a wise and judicious adviser in all departments of business. On his leaving the practice of the law, and becoming a partner with his father and brother in 1851, his place in the firm of Couper & White was taken by his brother-in-law, Mr. R. D. Mackenzie of Caldarvan, who still carries on the business under the firm of Mackenzie, Gardner & Alexander.

The chemical business above referred to, which has gradually grown from small beginnings to its present large dimensions, was commenced by James White's father, John White, who about the year 1810 became a partner in a firm of the name of John Goudie & Company, soap and soda manufacturers at Shawfield works, on the Rutherglen Road. That firm failed, and on its failure Dr. White bought the works, and his son and a Mr. Downie carried on the business till 1820, when Mr. Downie retired, and the late Mr. James White of Fairfield, Govan, a brother of Mr. John White, entered the business, which ever since has been carried on under the firm of John & James White. Shortly after this there was a serious depression of trade, and the Shawfield works were let for two years to the well-known firm of Charles Tennant & Company, who were at that time remodelling their works at St. Rollox. Mr. John White spent most of this leisure time on the Continent, and returning in 1822 resumed business, adding to it the manufacture of tartaric acid, and in 1830 the firm commenced the manufacture of bichromate of potash, for which they have been famed for now more than half a century. Mr. John White lived to see the business flourishing, and died at Shawfield in October, 1860.

In 1833 Mr. John White's eldest son and namesake, John White, entered the works, and in 1840 was made a partner. He thoroughly mastered the details of the manufacture, and being of a very practical turn, and having a natural talent for organization and arrangement, did much to promote the success of the works - indeed for many years he was the moving and directing spirit of the manufacturing part of the business. In 1858 he bought the beautiful little property of Arddarroch, on the banks of Loch Long, where he spent a portion of each week; but after his marriage in 1868 he resided much in London, taking, however, an active and important part in the business as an adviser till his death in 1881.

James White, the subject of this notice, joined the firm of John & James White, as already mentioned, in 1851, at the request of his father and brother, and from that time down to his death took charge of the commercial part of the business, latterly in conjunction with his son and partner, J. Campbell White.

From 1832 John & James White gradually gave up the manufacture of other chemicals and increased their out-put of bichromate of potash, till about 1840 it became almost their sole manufacture. Mr. John White and his son John devised new and economical methods of conducting the mechanical and chemical processes required for its production, and for many years they had practically a monopoly of the trade. Bichromate of potash, which is a salt of the metal chromium, is manufactured from chrome iron ore, a mineral found chiefly in Turkey and Russia. The salt, as long manufactured by Messrs. John & James White, is in the form of beautiful crimson crystals. Originally it was used almost solely by calico printers and dyers as a mordant for various dyes, notably Turkey-red and logwood, or for the manufacture of the pigment known as chrome yellow or chromate of lead. As time went on its consumption steadily increased, at first principally in connection with the growth of the Turkey-red manufacture and the development of the manufacture of woollen fabrics throughout the country, and especially in Yorkshire and the West of England. The introduction of the aniline dyes produced an increased demand for it, as it was found well suited for giving them permanence, and as chemical science has advanced it has come into prominence as a valuable agent in a variety of chemical manufacturing processes. It is used for instance in conjunction with sulphuric acid as an agent in bleaching palm oil and other oils and fats, and is used in a new process of tanning. With the increased demand for bichromate, competition sprung up, which naturally lowered prices, but as the demand was always increasing, Messrs. John & James White found it necessary largely to extend their works, which now cover some twenty acres of land, and give employment to about five hundred men. They are by far the largest works in the trade, their out-put being about equal to the combined out-put of all other similar works in Great Britain. The business is now carried on by Mr. J. Campbell White, already referred to, and his cousin, Mr. William J. Chrystal, the eldest son of the younger daughter of old Mr. John White of Shawfield. The prosperity it has hitherto enjoyed may be principally attributed to the practical skill bestowed on it by the two John Whites, father and son, and the wisdom with which James White for thirty-three years conducted its commercial department.

No sketch of James White's life, however, would be complete which did not contain some reference to his usefulness in other spheres than those already alluded to. His own business being once established on a secure footing, and, in later years, his superintendence thereof being shared by his son, in whom he had the fullest confidence, Mr. White had a considerable portion of his time left at his own disposal, but instead of devoting this to leisure or recreation, he continued, up to the time when he was overtaken by his last illness, to be one of the busiest men in Glasgow. The amount of public work he undertook in connection with business enterprizes, and still more in the promotion of philanthropic and religious movements and institutions, will probably never be known. If, during the later portion of Mr. White's life, a business undertaking was threatened with difficulties, if it was desired to start a benevolent fund, if a charitable or religious object of any kind stood in need of the assistance of a shrewd and able man of business, the first advice generally given in Glasgow to those interested in such affairs was, "Go and see if you can get James White to help you," and if once such help was accorded - and where the object to be attained was a good one it was seldom refused - the result almost invariably was that matters were brought to a satisfactory issue.

Besides responding to calls made upon him by others, Mr. White himself initiated many important public and benevolent movements - he started the funds for the relief of the widows and children left destitute by the dreadful colliery accident at High Blantyre pits in October, 1877, and for those whose husbands or fathers were drowned by the sinking of the steamer "Daphne" while being launched at Govan in 1883, and he was one of the most active promoters of the City of Glasgow Bank Relief Fund. It is almost unnecessary to say that he was himself a liberal subscriber to all these funds; the contributions of himself and his firm to the City Bank Fund amounting to £3,000. But besides giving his means, he devoted an immense amount of time and labour to the management of the funds above referred to, and by his practical sagacity and knowledge of finance contributed largely to their successful administration. He was for long a director and deputy-chairman of the Glasgow and South-Western Railway Company. At the time of the financial crisis of the North British Railway Company in 1866 he was appointed chairman of the Investigation Committee, and rendered such important services in that capacity that he was invited to become chairman of the Company, which honour, however, he declined, and he was afterwards presented by the Company with a free pass for life over their railway system in token of their appreciation of the value of the work he had performed.

Among the many offices of importance and trust he held may be mentioned those of chairman of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, director of the Ferguson Bequest Fund, director of the Merchants' House, chairman of the directors of the Glasgow Royal Exchange, chairman of the National Bible Society of Scotland, and chairman of the Glasgow Deaf and Dumb Institution.

James White was all his life a Liberal in politics, but his sound sense prevented him from lapsing into mere partizanship or into extreme views upon any question. In ecclesiastical matters he was a Free Churchman. He, however, never took office in the Church, and he seemed rather averse to putting himself or allowing himself to be put in any position of prominence, whether ecclesiastical, municipal, or political - indeed he appeared to be totally devoid of personal ambition; the mainspring of his life was a simple and steadfast devotion to what he considered to be his duty to God and man, it was this that led him so largely to devote his great wealth, his clear and vigorous intellect, and his valuable time to the promotion of the interests of his fellow-men. Among the many excellent traits in his character there is not space to do more here than to allude to his cultivated taste in literature and art, and his keen appreciation of the humorous side of life as well as of its more serious aspects. Those who were privileged to enjoy his friendship will long and lovingly remember him as a genial host, a firm friend, an affectionate husband and father, and a true-hearted Christian gentleman.

In 1836 James White married Miss Fanny Campbell, a daughter of the late Alexander Campbell of Barnhill, who was for forty-five years Sheriff-Substitute of Renfrewshire. The young couple commenced their married life in Glasgow, but soon removed to Hayfield, near Rutherglen, where their family were born and brought up. In 1860 Mr. White purchased the estate of Overtoun, Dumbartonshire, where he erected a handsome mansion, designed in the Scotch baronial style, which without and within bears the mark of his taste and skill. The house is pleasantly situated on the slope of the Kilpatrick hills, and commands beautiful views of the surrounding country, of Dumbarton Rock, and of the Firth of Clyde. Here Mr. White constantly resided for more than twenty years, enjoying while at home the beauty and quiet of the country, and practising hospitality on a large and generous scale, but without ostentation and with never-failing kindliness and homeliness. Here, too, he died after a short but painful illness on 8th March, 1884, in his seventy-second year. He had, happily, no long period of decrepitude or inaction, which would have suited in with his energetic nature. Indeed, before his last illness any one seeing him for the first time would have taken him for a much younger man than he really was, his tall active figure, his rapid walk, his thick brown hair but sparsely sprinkled with gray, and his clear, keen eye might well have been taken to betoken a man of fifty rather than one of over seventy years of age.

This sketch cannot be better brought to a close than by quoting the minute of a meeting of the Town Council of Glasgow, held shortly after his death, which gave expression to the universal feeling of regret which pervaded the whole community on that sad occasion. It is in the following terms:- "The Lord Provost noticed the recent death of Mr. James White of Overtoun, and moved that this meeting resolve to record an expression of its sense of the great loss which the community has sustained by the death of Mr. James White of Overtoun - a gentleman who has long occupied a foremost place among the citizens of Glasgow, and taken an active part in the promotion of every good work, for which his personal services and liberal contributions were always available. Resolved further that a copy of this resolution be transmitted to Mrs. White and her family, with an expression of the Council's cordial sympathy with them in their bereavement. The Council unanimously adopted the Lord Provost's motion."

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