Register Search

WILLIAM BROWN, an eminent flax-spinner in Dundee, and who, at the time of his death, was the father of the trade, was descended from a flax-spinner, and in his boyhood became a spinner ; and never, during his long lifetime, did his enthusiasm for his favourite trade falter or flag. Mr James Brown, of Cononsyth, the father of the subject of this sketch, was one of the earliest in this district to engage in flax-spinining by machinery ; and in the beginning of the present century, he had an interest in three spinning-mills namely, Trottick, Friockheim, and Arrot's Mill. In 1806, he erected the West Ward Mill, which, at that period, was a work of no little magnitude ; and for many years it stood unrivalled in the town, and to this day is an enduring monument of the enterprise of its projector. Mr Brown reared his four sons—Andrew, John, James, and William— in the new trade ; and all of them in time became extensive spinners. In 1806, William resided at Trottick ; and although young in years, he was not an inattentive spectator of the operations within the mill. It was there he acquired the rudiments of the trade ; and in 1809, he came to Dundee, and commenced business with his brother as flax-spinners, under the firm of 'James and William Brown,' of East Ward Mill, which they acquired from Mr George Wilkie, of Auchlishie, For the long period of forty-seven years, the firm continued to carry on the trade ; and frequently, during that period, they made additions to their works ; and at the dissolution of the firm, they had become more than quadrupled in extent. When Mr Brown commenced business in Dundee, spinning by machinery was in a very backward state, and almost entirely confined to flax yarn—-tow being in those days all but worthless. For several years, he applied himself chiefly to the production of flax yarns ; and he made good progress, both in improving the quality of the yarn, and in increasing the spin. His great effort, however, was directed to utilise and render practicable tow spinning; and here, too, by intuitive skill and unwearied perseverance, he overcame all difficulties, and so improved the machinery, that he was able to produce a uniformly even tow thread, of a quality suitable for being woven into cloth. Mr Brown visited Aberdeen in 1813, and had an opportunity of inspecting the spinning works there ; but, though the owners thought highly of their works, he did not profit much by the sight of them, as they were little, if any, in advance of his own. He went to Leeds in 1821, to try to pick up information that might be useful ; but the doors of the principal mills there were shut against him, and his journey was all but in vain. Mr Brown, however, by making a good use of his Scottish tongue, soon came to learn that the Leeds men had really nothing to boast of, and that their fears of piracy of their superior methods of working were simply dictated by the narrowest feelings of selfish dread. Though the doors of the larger factories were shut upon him, he learned 'that nothing extraordinary existed in the works;' and on inspecting some of the minor factories owned by men ' less exclusive in their views—though possibly not so prudent,' he ' saw little worthy of adoption in Dundee.'
In the previous year, Mr Brown, alone; with a friend, also a flax- spinner, had visited several mills in Fife, with a view to observe what progress had been made in tow spinning ; but the result of that journey was the same as of the one to Leeds —namely, that, though willing and anxious to observe improvements, and to introduce them into Dundee, he found that the manufacture was quite as far advanced in his own factory. At that time, tow-spinning in Scotland generally was very defective; but the attention of several of the more intelligent of the mill-owners was directed to its improvement. Mr Brown states that, among the foremost of these, was Mr George Moon, of Russell Mill, in Fifeshire, ' who had works producing yarns found fair and satisfactory in quality.' Mr Brown himself was one of the foremost in improving this branch of the flax manufacture ; and by perseverance and industry succeeded in getting the better of the chief drawbacks then to be contended against—namely, the choking of the carding engines, the toothed cylinders of which frequently became choked up with strips or patches of tow. He introduced, too, several minor improvements, until in a short time his 6-lb. tow yarn, made for ordinary clearing equalled, if not surpassed, in evenness, the same size of liar yarn. It was with his tow manufacture in this promising condition that lie and his friend visited Russell Mill, to which access was readily granted by Mr Moon. They came away very favourably impressed both with the mill and its owner ; but Mr Brown, when telling the story, very humorously added, that the impression on the other side seemed to have been less favourable; for, on Mr Moon being afterwards complimented on his liberality in showing his late visitors through his work, he replied that he thought 'he nothing to fear from the investigations o' yon twa raw callants.' He had, however, with all his shrewdness, mistaken his man, and proportionately astounded when his friend told him that one of the ' twa raw callants ' had recently been spinning in Dundee tow yarn equal in quality to flax ! Mr Moon was so astonished at the revelation, that he very soon visited Dundee and inspected the yarn for himself, which Mr Brown allowed him to do. Mr Moon felt bound to acknowledge the superiority of the 6-lb. tow yarn produced by his young rival, but left for Fife declaring that he should soon equal it—which, Mr Brown adds, he very speedily did. This anecdote illustrates Mr Brown's keen business character, and in some measure explains how he took so little part in public matters. The fact is, he was devoted to his private business; and though for many years the firm of which he wras a partner had great difficulties to contend with, their indomitable perseverance and business activity kept them ahead of the times, and gave them one of the foremost positions in the flax trade in Scotland. Within two years of their commencing business—in the year 1811 every mill in Dundee was stopped except their East Mill, and the Dens Mill, then in the possession of Mr Hutton ; but having weathered this financial crisis, they steadily progressed, and in course of time, as already stated, they extended their works to more than quadruple their original stze. They confined their operations entirely to the manufacture of flax yarns, and did not weave the yarn into cloth, as most manufacturers who now commence to spin aspire to do. Their yarns always found such a ready market, that they had no urgent reason for establishing a weaving factory in connection with their works ; and as years passed on, wealth rolled in upon the firm, and splendid fortunes rewarded them for their perseverance, activity, and integrity in business. The senior partner of the firm —who had previously purchased the estate of Lochton—retired from it in 1856, and Mr William Brown was then assisted in the management of the works by Mr O.G. Miller, his son-in-law. After that date, Mr William Brown also retired from the firm, leaving Mr Miller sole proprietor of their extensive works ; and he has gone on extending even more rapidly than his predecessors. Mr James Brown for a long time took charge of the mercantile part of the business, leaving the works entirely to his brother ; and to Mr William's practical skill as a spinner the remarkable success of the firm is, in a great measure, to be ascribed. After he had retired from the active duties of life, he amused himself to some extent in a literary way; and in 1862, he published a small pamphlet entitled Reminiscences of Flax-spinning, which contained much curious and valuable information regarding the early history of the trade. The writing of verses, also, was a favourite amusement with him ; and he had a second collection of these printed after the publication of his historical pamphlet on the flax trade. It was somewhat remarkable that he, who had passed a lifetime in the hard, dry, and matter-of-fact region of business, should in his latter years take a fancy for a species of literature not much affected by business men ; but in so occupying himself, he showed that at the end, as at the beginning of his life, his disposition was still kindly and warm-hearted. He died on Monday, Nov. 14, 1864, at the advanced age of 73.


Norrie, W. (1873) Dundee Celebrities of the Nineteenth Century PP.245-248.

Click here for West Wall Plot.