Erskine Beveridge & Co. The origins of a famous Dunfermline business

by Donald Adamson

Dunfermline in 1914 – A linen town

At the outbreak of the First World War, Dunfermline had ten major damask linen mills. They employed over 7,000 people. Erskine Beveridge & Co had the largest factory with 1,000 looms at the St Leonard’s Works, and in addition had another 900 looms in Cowdenbeath, Ladybank and Dunshalt.  The company, incorporated in 1893, also had warehousing operations in London, Manchester, New York and Montreal, as well as agencies all across the British Empire. Other notable companies in Dunfermline included Hay & Robertson, Andrew Reid & Co, Henry Reid & Son, Inglis & Co and J & T Alexander. In 1867, it was said that “Dunfermline is the chief seat of the manufacture of table linen in Britain – indeed, it may be said, the world.”

The commencement of Erskine Beveridge & Co: retail draper

Erskine Beveridge came from a family of trades people, long established in Dunfermline. His father was David Beveridge, master baker, deacon of the Dunfermline baxters, and in due course Convenor of Trades in Dunfermline. David married Margaret Thomson in 1794. They had five sons; John (born 1797), Henry (born 1799), David (born 1801), Erskine (born 1803) and Robert (born 1805). There was also one daughter, Elizabeth (born 1795), who married a wheelwright, James Adamson from Crossgates. Henry was the grandfather of Lord Beveridge, the author of the 1942 Beveridge Report on health and welfare reform.

Photo of Erskine Beveridge in his Uniform as Commandant of the Dunfermline Rifle Volunteers, which was raised in 1859. [By kind permission of OnFife Archives (Dunfermline Local Studies) on behalf of Fife Council]
Erskine Beveridge in his Uniform as Commandant of the Dunfermline Rifle Volunteers, which was raised in 1859.

Lord Beveridge wrote short sketches of the five brothers. It is Erskine Beveridge with whom we are mainly concerned in this article. Born in February 1803, he attended Dunfermline Grammar School, which was increasingly being called Dunfermline High School. He is said to have been named Erskine after Sir William Erskine of Torry, (1770-1813) who was anxious to be in parliament. Lord Beveridge notes that the assistance of David Beveridge, the influential Convenor of Trades in Dunfermline, would have been helpful to him in obtaining the parliamentary seat of Fife.  Sir William Erskine, having no family and keen for his name to be perpetuated, had then deposited £100 in the Bank of Scotland. This sum was to be drawn by a son of David Beveridge, to be named Erskine, upon him reaching the age of twenty-one, which according to Lord Beveridge, duly happened. Sir William became an MP in 1796, and again in 1802 (when the deposit was made) and £100 was collected by Erskine Beveridge in 1824. This money seems to have been most helpful to the young Erskine Beveridge. Having been an apprentice draper in Bridge Street, Dunfermline, and having worked with a drapery store in Glasgow, he returned to Dunfermline aged twenty and on reaching his majority quickly set up on his own account in the High Street. Lord Beveridge describes this as an electoral bribe by Sir William Erskine. Whatever its characteristics, it would have provided the capital for Erskine Beveridge’s draper’s shop. It did not however make his fortune as Lord Beveridge supposes. For that, another and, until now, anonymous benefactor would be required.

Capital required for a linen mill

When Erskine Beveridge decided in 1833 to move into the manufacture of damask linen, he had already demonstrated an entrepreneurial spirit. His drapery was a success, and he was following in the footsteps of his father and earlier Beveridges by being in trade in the burgh of Dunfermline. At this time, there were over 3500 handlooms in and around Dunfermline, and thus there was a ready supply of skilled labour. These people were self-employed and often sub-contracted to drapers or cloth merchants. What Erskine Beveridge and others perceived was that by putting the handlooms in groups within a weaving shed, the production could be made more efficient. Thus costs would be driven down, quality raised and a profitable business established which exploited economies of scale. There was just one more item required to enable Beveridge to make the leap from retailer to manufacturer. That element was capital.

Lord Beveridge says that his great uncle, Erskine Beveridge, “decided to set up on his own account with a friend who promised capital; the friend could not perform his promise, but young Erskine was able to find the capital himself.” The source of that start-up capital, which was critical to the move into manufacture, was his father-in-law, Captain James Adamson. He lent him £2,000 at an interest rate of 4%.

Erskine Beveridge set up his Linen Mill and Warehouse here (building on left) around 1833. He lived in Priory House, which was just a few yards further down the New Row. It was here that his first wife, Amelia, step-daughter of Captain James Adamson, died in 1848. [By kind permission of OnFife Archives (Dunfermline Local Studies) on behalf of Fife Council]
Erskine Beveridge set up his Linen Mill and Warehouse here (building on left) around 1833. He lived in Priory House, which was just a few yards further down the New Row. It was here that his first wife, Amelia, step-daughter of Captain James Adamson, died in 1848.

Who was Captain James Adamson?

James Adamson was born in 1756 at Heathermount, close to Fordell, in the parish of Dalgety. He was the son of James Adamson, a collier at Fordell, and the grandson of Robert Adamson who was coal grieve to the Henderson family at Fordell. We know James had three brothers and two sisters. One of these brothers was Adam Adamson, born 1754, inn-keeper at Crossgates. His eldest son was another James Adamson, born 1791, and thus nephew of Captain James Adamson. This James Adamson marries Elizabeth Beveridge, sister of Erskine Beveridge, in 1819. He is a struggling wheelwright who emigrates with his family to Adelaide in 1839 and prospers there as a farm machinery manufacturer. This is the first direct link between Captain James Adamson and the Beveridges.

Secondly, Captain James Adamson is a long-time resident of Rotherhithe in London. There are tax records of him from 1796 resident at Neptune Street, Rotherhithe. In 1827, John Beveridge, eldest brother of Erskine Beveridge, dies at Adamson’s house in Rotherhithe. John Beveridge was a baker in Crossgates who went bankrupt. He then undertakes some medical training in Glasgow and gets a position on an East Indiaman as ship’s surgeon. A second voyage is less fortunate as the ship catches fire at harbour in Canton. On his return, John Beveridge joins a naval hospital ship, HMS Grampus, moored in the Thames, off Deptford. He contracts typhus after carrying out a post-mortem and dies, aged 29 in the nearby house of Captain James Adamson. The Thames around Rotherhithe is the centre of the trade with the Indies. It is tempting to see the hand of James Adamson in the appointment of John Beveridge as a ship’s surgeon on two voyages to the Far East. Rotherhithe was well placed for both the new West and East India Docks, which were built between 1800 and 1806. It should be noted that the construction of the West India Docks, which are directly across the river from Captain James Adamson’s house in Rotherhithe, was largely the work of a wealthy Scottish slave-owner, merchant and ship-owner Robert Milligan. He returned to London in the 1790s, having managed his family sugar plantations in Jamaica. There is circumstantial evidence to suggest that James Adamson’s marine career had started in the important east coast coal trade from the Forth and Tyneside to London by ship. However it would seem that James Adamson’s voyaging extended well beyond the North Sea. Indeed a silver cup presented to James Adamson by his fellow captains in the West India trade is mentioned in his widow’s will in 1866. This might explain his re-location from Fife to Rotherhithe in the 1790s, where appointments to skipper ships to the Indies were available.

Thirdly, on 19 September 1809, the widower James Adamson, captain in the merchant marine, aged fifty-three, marries a widow, Amelia Boyd, who is twenty-eight years old, at St Dunstan’s Church in Stepney. She has an infant daughter, also named Amelia, who is eighteen months old. The deceased father was Captain Ralph Boyd (merchant marine), who had married Amelia Hazell at Lowestoft on 29 April 1801. Ralph Boyd was from Norham, near Berwick upon Tweed, and was born in 1773. This all suggests an east coast trading connection.

James Adamson now has a step-daughter, who does not change her surname from Boyd. On 15 October 1829 at St Mary’s Rotherhithe, Amelia Boyd marries Erskine Beveridge. The witnesses are Erskine’s younger brother Robert Beveridge and James Adamson himself. The young couple then return to Dunfermline where Erskine’s draper shop on the High Street is prospering.

The patron status of Captain James Adamson and his wife Amelia (maiden name Hazell) is already well established in Dunfermline. Not only do Erskine and Amelia Beveridge name a son James Adamson Beveridge (1832-1887) and a daughter Mary Ann Hazell Beveridge (1844-1915), but when his nephew, James Adamson, the struggling wheelwright, and his wife, Elizabeth Beveridge have a son on 27 June 1829 (just prior to the marriage of Erskine and Amelia), they name him James Hazell Adamson, which is a clear tribute to the couple.

James and Amelia Adamson relocate from Rotherhithe to Dunfermline after the marriage of their daughter to Erskine Beveridge in 1829. James is listed on the Dunfermline voters’ roll in the years prior to his death in 1841. They live in a large house at Viewfield Place, Dunfermline. Amelia Adamson lives on as a widow for a further twenty-five years in Dunfermline and dies at Comely Park Place, Dunfermline on 31 December 1865. Amelia’s death certificate confirms that both James Adamson and Ralph Boyd were captains in the merchant marine and not the Royal Navy as has been erroneously assumed on occasion in the past.  

Evidence from the Wills and graves of James and Amelia Adamson

Captain James Adamson died on 16 February 1841 at Viewforth Place, Dunfermline at the age of eighty-four. He is buried in Dunfermline Abbey.  His will was confirmed at Cupar County Court on 17 September 1844 and can be read on-line via the Scotland’s People web-site. The largest part of his estate was a promissory note from his son-in-law Erskine Beveridge, manufacturer, for £2,000 at an annual interest rate of 4%. In addition, Adamson held a note of £500 for monies advanced to Mr and Mrs Blackwood and secured over land at Pitreavie. He additionally owned shares in the new Dunfermline Gas Company. His philanthropic nature is underlined by an annuity of £25 per annum purchased from the Scottish Life Company for the benefit of his brother, William Adamson, retired coal miner, resident at ‘Entry of Pitreavie’, Dunfermline.

Amelia Adamson died on 31 December 1865 at Comely Park Place, Dunfermline. Her will was confirmed by the Cupar County Court on 18 June 1866.  This reveals that the loan to Erskine Beveridge was reduced in 1854 to £1,000 albeit at an increased interest rate of 5%. Erskine Beveridge had in fact died in 1864, and the business was now in the hands of his son James Adamson Beveridge and Trustees for Erskine (II) Beveridge and Henry Beveridge who were his sons by a second marriage and still minors at the time of his death. In addition Amelia held promissory notes for £500 in respect of a church property in the New Row Dunfermline and £900 lent in 1835 to Erskine Beveridge by a Miss Janet Crawford, which was purchased from her by Amelia Adamson in 1843. It might also be noted that Amelia continued to hold the shares in the Dunfermline Gas Company and had added shares in the Dunfermline Water Company to these. Captain James Adamson’s gold watch and “the silver cup presented to my said husband by Captains of vessels trading to the West India islands” were directed to be given to her grandson, James Adamson Beveridge.

As noted above, Erskine Beveridge dies in 1864, but in fact his first wife, Amelia, had died young in 1848 in Priory Lane Dunfermline of ‘inflammation’. Despite the fact that she had lost her daughter, and Erskine Beveridge had re-married in 1850,  Amelia Adamson continued to support her son-in-law with her money until his death. Her will also shows a keen interest in her one surviving grandson (James Adamson Beveridge) and five surviving granddaughters. Erskine Beveridge went on to have a further two sons and two daughters by his second wife, Maria Elizabeth Wilson, between 1851 and 1857. Erskine (II) Beveridge, 1851-1920, prominent industrialist and antiquarian, was the elder of these two sons by the second marriage. He and his brother Henry ran Erskine Beveridge & Co Ltd when it was at its zenith and one of the greatest linen firms in the world between 1890 and 1914.

The close relationship between James Adamson and his son-in-law Erskine Beveridge is underlined by their respective graves. A booklet on the Abbey graveyard by J.F. & S. Mitchell shows Captain James Adamson and his wife Amelia (nee Hazell and then Boyd) have plot 4. Immediately next to them is plot 5 which contains Erskine Beveridge, both his wives and two infant children. They occupy a very high-status position at the south-west front of the Abbey.

The St Leonard Works on the left-hand side of the photograph was opened in 1851. Originally it contained both hand looms and power looms, but hand looms were phased out over the next twenty years.
The St Leonard Works on the left-hand side of the photograph was opened in 1851. Originally it contained both hand looms and power looms, but hand looms were phased out over the next twenty years.

Weaving some loose ends together

Erskine Beveridge was undoubtedly a man of ability and drive. However he needed capital to make the leap to becoming a draper and shop-owner. This seems to have been funded by the £100 legacy (perhaps £50,000 in today’s terms) from Sir William Erskine. Ten years later he needed considerably more capital to move from retail to manufacture in the linen trade. It is known that Erskine Beveridge was let down by a potential business partner. We now know that when Lord Beveridge was referring to him being able to find the capital from his own resources, what was actually happening was a loan from Captain James Adamson of £2,000 (perhaps a million pounds in today’s terms), who was the step-father of his wife. Effectively, Adamson was his father-in-law.

When Erskine Beveridge died in 1864, a value of £127,000 was placed on the business. It continued to grow. The linen business was incorporated in 1893 with a capital of £200,000 and was then controlled by his two sons by his second marriage, Erskine (II) and Henry Beveridge. Their elder half-brother, James Adamson Beveridge had died in 1887 without heirs.

Captain James Adamson, the son and grandson of Fordell colliers, acquired his money from his career as a ship’s captain. The evidence points firstly to the east coast coal trade of brigs from Scotland and Newcastle to London, followed by a move to a Rotherhithe residence in the early Napoleonic Wars. There he was ideally placed to pick up appointments sailing to either the West or East Indies. The silver cup suggests a career in the West Indies trade, and he evidently was held in high regard by his fellow captains.

It is worth mentioning that the slave trade to the West Indies was only abolished in 1807, whilst slavery continued until 1838 in British territories. Merchant ships leaving London and other ports sailed with trading goods to West Africa where they exchanged the goods for slaves before sailing to the West Indies where the sugar plantations in particular were powered by slave labour. Sugar was then brought back to Britain.

It is likely that Captain James Adamson was engaged in this trade. The silver cup mentioned in Amelia Adamson’s Will and presented to him by his fellow Captains in the West Indies trade seems conclusive. In addition, his long-term residence in Rotherhithe, directly across the Thames from the West Indies Docks is also highly suggestive. Erskine Beveridge was himself a prominent supporter of anti-slavery, electoral reform, free trade and Liberalism. He served twice as Provost of Dunfermline in the period 1842-48. It would seem however, that his start-up capital came in all probability from the slave trade, via his father-in-law, James Adamson.

Further Reading

The Story of Erskine Beveridge and St. Leonard’s Works 1833-1989 by Hugh Walker

Dunfermline to Down Under: James and Elizabeth Adamson and family, early pioneers of South Australia by Robert Adamson and Ben Evans

India Called Them by Lord Beveridge

Note of Interest

William Adamson, mentioned above, was my fourth great grandfather. He was born in 1759 near Fordell and was Captain James Adamson’s youngest brother. He was a coal miner and by the time that James returned from London to Dunfermline, around 1830, he would have been finding work difficult being aged over seventy. It is pleasant to note that James purchased an annuity for him. William died six weeks after his brother, on 30 March 1841, and was buried in ‘common ground’ at Dunfermline Abbey without a headstone or marker.


All photographs by kind permission of OnFife Archives (Dunfermline Local Studies) on behalf of Fife Council.

I would like to thank George Robertson and Jean Barclay for all the help they have given me in preparing this article. I am very grateful.

I also received considerable assistance from Sharron McColl at the Dunfermline Carnegie Library in sourcing the photographs.