A special thanks to John Chalmers for writing
this article on Mauchline Ware
In the first statistical account for Scotland, printed in 1792, the Rev William Auld – Burn’s “Daddy” of the Mauchline church, lamented that his parishioners of Mauchline were at “A great disadvantage” because the village had no manufacturing of goods, they were, he wrote “Willing to promote the improvement of agriculture, commerce and manufacture” in all of which they were “Making some progress”.
It was not until the 1820’s that Mauchline got the industry with which it was to be most closely associated with for more than a century. In, or about 1825, two Mauchline men, William and Andrew Smith, set up a factory to make snuff-boxes. Out of this venture, in which Andrew was and remained the leading spirit, grew an industry which was to dominate the market for wooden souvenirs during most of the Victorian era.
In the course of their diversification, which was to become the secret of their phenomenal success and survival for three generations, the Smith Brothers produced a seemingly endless variety of souvenirs in at least a half a dozen styles of décor. Their greatest success from the 1850’s onwards was in the production of nick-knacks, almost all of them useful as well as decorative, embellished with transferred engravings of scenes in or around the area of Mauchline.
William (1795 – 1847) and Andrew (1797 – 1869) were the youngest of five children born to William Smith, who was a mason (builder) in Mauchline, and his wife Jean (Nee Merry). The brothers followed their father’s trade. In the 1820’s both still bachelors, the brothers were running a Hone stone factory at Milton Mill, near the Hamlet of Stair, on the North bank of the River Ayr. It has been assumed that the Smith brothers started as Box Makers in the village of Mauchline because they wished to have their own source of cases for their “Water of Ayr Stones”. This may have been the case, but by Andrews own account what decided them, was Andrews exploitation, if not the invention of a variation of the Pantograph, by which prints and pictures could be reduced to the size of a snuff-box lid.
Snuff-box making was already well established in Ayrshire, having started in Cumnock around 1807, when a man called William Crawford, by all accounts, “A clever and ingenious man” successfully reproduced the “Scoth Hinge”. This mechanism, a series of knuckles cut alternatively in the side and lid of the box, has never been radically altered, or indeed bettered for snuff-boxes or tea-caddies, until William Crawford applied himself to it, the hinge had been the monopoly of a man called Charles Steven, of Laurence Kirk, Kincardineshire.
However, William Crawford was not the only “clever
and ingenious man” in this part of Ayrshire. By the time the Smiths
had set up shop in Mauchline, Snuff-boxes (decorated with miniature paintings,
pen and ink drawings and in tartan) were a well established and still
reasonably prosperous industry in Cumnock, Auchinleck and Catrine. The
decline in the taking of snuff, however, had already began, and the Box-makers
of these three villages were seeking to off-set it by extending their
range to ladies work boxes, tea caddies, trinket boxes and later card
cases and needle cases. They relied chiefly on a London market and almost
certainly lacked any sort of sales organisation. They certainly lacked
Andrew Smith’s knack of attracting distinguished patronage.
The first application of Andrews “Profile machine” as he sometimes called it, was to Snuff-boxes, for which, the chief market was Birmingham, not London. As early as 1829 William opened a Birmingham warehouse, which later developed into a factory with independent production, mostly for the English market, and some finishing of articles in Mauchline.
Andrew was to later describe William as “A man of the most excellent taste and of the most sober and industrious habits” however, sad to relate, the brothers quarrelled. From 1843 till William’s death four years later, each ran his own factory in Mauchline and Birmingham, each producing the exact same range of goods as the other, and each claiming Royal Patronage on the basis of a warrant granted to the joint firm in 1832 by William IV at the request of the second Marquis of Hastings.
On Williams’s death, his independent business was wound up. The firm W & A Smith was reconstituted, the new “W” being Andrews’s son William, then aged only 20, but already with clear evidence of his business and artistic talents showing. George Smith, son of the deceased William, took charge of the firms “Mercantile Business” in Birmingham.
The next 20 odd years saw the Smiths at the peak of their business powers. By the late 1840’s, perhaps even earlier, tartan had overtaken oil painting and pen and ink drawing in the decoration of the ever rapidly increasing range of Mauchline ware. The proscription of the tartans of the clans, one of the severest aftermaths of the 1745 rebellion was lifted in 1782, but it was only after the ridiculous comic visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822 that the tartan craze, undiminished, even today, began. The visit, which was brilliantly stage managed by Sir Walter Scott, had (to quote John Buchan) initiated “A Golden Age for Haberdashers. A bogus Celticism became the rage, and the Scottish Houses, whose ancestors would as readily have worn woad as the dress of their secular foes, were provided by imaginative tradesmen with family tartans”.
Others besides the haberdashers joined in, including the Smiths – indirectly at first as the printers of the 75 coloured plates for the Vestiarium Scoticum (1842), an imaginative and monumental work of antiquarianism by a man called John Sobieski Stuart. Partly because of Sobieski Stuart’s wilder flights of fancy, in which others were all to ready to follow, the Smiths prepared, and published in 1850, their Authenticated Tartans of The Clans and Families of Scotland, Painted by Machinery. Printed by McCormick and Gemmil, Ayr Advertiser.
It is dedicated to the president of the society of antiquaries of Scotland, (The Marquis of Breadalbane) and the vice-president and Fellows of the society. The Marquis was already a well publicised patron of the Smiths, who even named a range of popular tartan buttons after him. The Marquis persuaded his friend and master, Prince Albert to put the buttons under his “Especial Patronage”.
The Smiths made great play of the historical accuracy and authenticity of the 69 tartans illustrated in their textbook. In fact they relied very heavily on the tartan trade, who with the clan and antiquarian sources they consulted, were all too willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of a picturesque set. Now overtaken and even forgotten, it served its day as a standard work of a kind. Its chief merit was, and remains, the brilliance on the illustrations. “Mauchline Machine Paintings”, the Smiths explained, was “A weaving with colours”. Exactly as each thread of the weft is successively introduced so each line of colour in the tartans is drawn in succession, and thus produces the desired result by the same harmonious co mingling of the primary colours.
The publicity and prestige resulting from the authentic tartans was reinforced by the Smiths’ success at the international exhibition in London in 1851. The Smiths exhibited “A variety of Scotch Fancy Woodwork”, made chiefly from wood of the Sycamore tree. Consisting of snuff boxes, cigar cases, card trays, writing folios, books bound in wood and candlesticks ornamented in different styles. They were awarded “Prize Medals”, the only one to go to Ayrshire at that time. The Smiths employed around 80 people, all of whom were local people. William Smith said “We have more than once brought hands from Birmingham and London, but our best workmen have been reared by ourselves” he also left the following description of the business around 1850’s:-
“Our premises are situated in a garden, light and airy: the people enjoy health far above the average, are all cleanly in their persons and are sober in their habits: the girls are so superior to factory girls generally that their appearance always excited the admiration of our numerous visitors. Among these sixty men, women and boys, there is not one who cannot read and not more than one or two who cannot write”
To his credit he does not claim responsibility for this.
In 1859 comes a glimpse of the prestige of the Smiths. To celebrate the centenary of the birth of Robert Burns a procession to Mossgiel took place, led by two of Burns contemporaries (William Patrick, Burns “Gaud Boy” who died aged 88 years in 1864, and James Hamilton, who used to carry messages to Jean Armour from the poet, and who died aged 84 in 1862. Both are buried in the Kirkyard.) Carrying a bust of the poet encircled by a Lyre. Then came Smiths workmen, “The Females of the work, and other Mauchline Belles,” and finally “Several Promiscuous parties, each having some appropriate banner of device,” (The Masonic Lodges, Rachabites, Ancient Free Gardeners etc). At Mossgiel Andrew “Addressed the multitude” and his youngest daughter Agnes, aged 12 crowned the bust with holly. At the dinner that evening Andrew was croupier (Master of Ceremonies) and William recited a poem written for the occasion.
The Smiths were now about to embark on a new style of décor for their wood ware. The transfer of engravings that looks so effective on the creamy white of the Sycamore wood. The application of engravings to wooden surfaces might have begun a century earlier, had there been a market for such goods. The transfer process had been discovered about a century before (1750?) and its application to pottery followed almost immediately. I am led to believe that transfer decoration of Mauchline ware began about 1858. I base this on the fact that there is no mention of this style being exhibited at the great exhibition in London in 1851.
1858 roughly coincides with the opening up of Britain to the new class of tourist created by the first railway boom. A wooden souvenir, decorated with a local scene and purporting to be made from local wood, made an attractive keepsake of ones travels.
The tourist boom came at the right time for the Smiths. The popularity of their tartan ware was waning in England, though still popular in France. In Scotland the market remained popular, due probably to the zeal for all things Scottish be Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. This was also enhanced by the popularity of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns and views of scenery previously only seen in Switzerland. The appeal was virtually limitless.
In England, London apart, the market was mainly in the seaside resorts and inland watering places, which the railways had made accessible. Whilst there was a predominance of historic sites and places of natural beauty, nothing that might attract the tourist was neglected. The Smiths also supplied souvenirs to the French and American markets with numerous views and scenes from both these countries, (they had a Paris agent for many years.
The production of “Mauchline Ware” was absolutely phenomenal It would be impossible to list every scene or subject, but just to name some from in or around Mauchline includes: - Burns cottage, at least 11 scenes, 10 of the monument, Alloway Kirk 4, The Auld Brig O’ Doon, The Twa Brigs O’ Ayr, Scenes on the Doon, Tam O’Shanter, Souter Johnnie, Burns House (Castle Street) Nanse Tinnocks, Mossgiel, Ballochmyle, Poosie Nancies, Barskimming House, and Netherplace. As in other areas of Scotland, the Victorian passion for “Relic” woods found a ready market for the Smiths. Articles made include those “made from wood grown on the banks of the Doon,” “Wood grown on the banks of the Ayr” and even “Wood which grew within the railing of the Burns Monument,” how tenuous can you get? Usual Mauchline Association “relic woods” are: “Wood grown in Gavin Hamiltons Garden,” and “Wood from the house, which was the first home of Burns and Jean Armour in 1788”.
With the new market for cheap souvenirs came an extension of the range of the Smiths production. Andrew once said they were making “Every article you can almost conceive it possible to make”. Amid the many and varied articles are: - Books, Boxes, Games and Toys, Household articles, knitting and sewing accessories. Every item has an identifiable purpose, including miniature wheel barrows and miniature cradles, (for keeping dressing room odds and ends). In every way possible, were the Smiths attuned to the domestic spirit of their age.
In 1862 Andrew Smith built himself a house, with the name of Box Villa, in Barskimming Road, with the purpose of enjoying the fruits of his labours. Four years later William moved into Springfield House, which was built for him in Townhead (High Street, The Loan) to accommodate him, his wife and six children.
Unfortunately, the misfortunes began to come thick and fast. On May 23rd 1867, William died after a short illness aged 40. On January 13th 1869 his wife died. On June 10th Andrew lost his wife Agnes whom he had married in 1821 in Tarbolton. Andrew survived her by less than 3 weeks.
At this time the natural successor as head W & A Smith should have been Andrew’s last surviving son James, who had trained as a box maker. James, however died in 1875 without apparently having taken any share, financial or managerial, in the business, probably because of poor health – he died of “Phthisis” (Tuberculosis), after a year’s illness. The family however were fortunate to have in their employ a man called David McQueen, who had entered Andrew Smith’s Employment as a clerk in 1867.
McQueen became manager of the Mauchline Box works in 1876, while George Smith was in charge in Birmingham (and would appear to have been chief proprietor, the other being William Smiths trustees). Between them McQueen and Smith would seem to have held the business together in an adequate fashion, but without breaking much new ground. McQueen continued to work as works manager and family man of business in everything but legal matters until 1887, when William Smith, Andrew’s Grandson took over at the age of 25. William Smith the last of the Box making Smiths conducted a holding operation, particularly until the death of his Birmingham second cousin in 1902 and the closing of the branch in Birmingham in 1904, which left him in sole charge.
In the last decade of the old and the first of the new centuries, the fancy wood ware trade was in a decline, which swept away such other firms as Wilson & Amphlet and John Davidson & Sons, both of Mauchline and MacKenzie & Meikle of the Caledonian works in Lanark.
It has been suggested that an upsurge in German competition was responsible for the decline in Scotland. A much more relevant cause was probably the craze for postcards, which reached an amazing peak in the early 1900’s, but the simple explanation was that public tastes had become more sophisticated. It has been inferred that the last William Smith, a bachelor and financially independent of the Box works for his livelihood let things slide. This would appear to have been true in his latter years in business, but in or around 1914 he does seem to have tried to diversify and with some success, it must be said. Unfortunately he would appear to have lacked the inventiveness and acumen of his grandfather and father.
The business though diminishing, survived the First World War. A fire in the early 1920’s destroyed the tartan-ruling machines and stopped their own production of tartan paper. A second fire in 1933 was the end of the road for William, now aged 72. After some initial hesitation he sold the company to three local men and W & A Smith (1937) Ltd was formed. The business employed about a dozen men and six women. Capitol for new machinery was not available and the firm went into liquidation. The stock and machinery were sold and the name of W & A Smith disappeared after 114 years, so to, did the possibility of reviving an industry which so epitomised the Victorian era and brought prosperity and a measure of fame to a small Ayrshire village. Such was the volume and variety of articles that now almost all articles made by many different companies, are classed as “Mauchline Ware”.
I mentioned that there were two fires, which hit the Box-work premises in the early 1920’s and in 1933. By a strange quirk of fate, the site of the Box-works is now occupied by the local fire station.
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