See all stories
9 Dec 2020

High Water at Glasgow Bridge

Written by Emma Inglis, Curator (South & West)
Detail from an ornate clock face
The clock in the hallway at Pollok House shows more than just the time. Inscribed with the words ‘High Water at Glasgow Bridge’, as well as signs of the zodiac and maps of the northern and southern hemispheres, it provides a window into the lives and interests of the Maxwell family.

| Update 20/11/23: Pollok House closed on 20 November 2023 for approximately two years to facilitate the second phase of a £4 million programme of investment led by Glasgow City Council. |

The story of the astrological clock at Pollok is more than the story of an object. It’s also the story of a family whose interests stretched far beyond the traditional ownership of inherited land. This clock, with its complex measurements of time, days, months and seasons, suggests a very outward view of the world – more than might be required, or expected, for the business of land management, crop growing and farm rental usually associated with the ownership of landed estates.

Black and white engraving of a river scene in the 18th century, with Glasgow Bridge to the left of the picture
Glasgow Bridge in the 18th century, before the river banks were built up to take wharves and shipping. Ocean-going ships anchored at Port Glasgow before the cargo was offloaded and ferried onwards

When this clock was made, around 1764, Glasgow was a town dominated by trade. It served as an entrepot between America and the West Indies on one side and continental Europe on the other, importing and re-exporting goods such as tobacco, sugar, timber and spices. Luxury goods were also shipped onwards to London where a concentration of wealth provided a ready market. Fortunes were made in moving goods, as well as processing and manufacturing new products for sale overseas.

At this time the inheritance of Pollok had been through a difficult time. In the space of eight years the baronetcy had passed through two half brothers, Sir John and Sir Walter, and one infant, before finally settling on a third brother, Sir James, in 1761. As younger sons, neither Walter nor James had expected to inherit. Instead, without the prospect of Pollok in sight – the title, social position, house and income-yielding land – they had to make their own way in the world. With the abundant trade and manufacturing opportunities offered by nearby Glasgow, it’s hardly surprising that commerce was the route they chose.

A newspaper advert from the Caledonian Mercury, 12 June 1755, where Walter Maxwell is listed as a merchant
An advert from the Caledonian Mercury, 12 June 1755, where Walter Maxwell is listed as a merchant

Walter Maxwell’s accounts from the 1750s make interesting reading. They detail a wide network of merchant contacts, direct involvement in manufacturing ventures such as the Pollockshaws Printfield Company, sales negotiations with other city manufactories such as the Silvercraigs Weaving Factory, and financial support for trading ventures to America, Jamaica, England and Europe. Walter sometimes acted as business partner, directly investing in and benefiting financially from a manufactory or voyage, and at other times provided security by underwriting shipping insurances. Records show that he was importing sugar, raw cotton, logwood, ginger, rum, tobacco and pimento from Jamaica and exporting goods such as printed linens to Boston. He provided financial assurance for other merchants shipping from Leith to Rotterdam with tobacco, from Glasgow to Virginia with bale goods (possibly textiles) and from London to Leith with hops, soap and sugar.

Like many other merchants at the time, Walter had a wide range of commercial interests, which would have helped spread his financial risk. Most of his ventures depended in one way or another upon the slave plantation system, whereby British manufactured goods were sold for the benefit of plantation owners and settlers in America and the produce of their plantations was returned through Glasgow for processing and distribution. It’s difficult to tell whether, in total, Walter made or lost a fortune through his trading activities but large sums were involved. His rough reckoning of the sales from Jamaica in 1754 show that the cargo of the Caesar cost £3,006. Sales of the same came to £5,159. If this is any indication, a substantial share in the cost and profit of such voyages was probably worth the risk when it was needed. The profits compared favourably with the £1,000 achieved annually in rents across the Nether Pollok estate. By comparison, a butler in a house like Pollok would have earned only £15 a year.

If Walter did profit from his trading activities, it didn’t serve him for long. He unexpectedly inherited Pollok in 1758, married soon after, and embarked upon what his wife referred to as a period of riches, honour and pleasure. Within two years he was dead.

An advert from a newspaper in the 18th century with a picture of a galleon in the top left.
James Dunlop was a business associate of Walter Maxwell. He had several ships, which were often well armed to protect costly cargo from theft at sea by privateers

James Maxwell took a different path to his brother. As a young man he travelled to the Caribbean island of St Kitts with the intention of becoming an overseer on one of the many slave plantations. It was a path taken by many younger sons of Scottish families, with the knowledge that there was money to be made and opportunities for advancement. James’s time there is not recorded, but in 1762 he returned to Pollok as Baronet and in 1764 married Frances Colhoun, the daughter of a sugar plantation owner from St Kitts. Frances brought £5,000 to the marriage – money that had been generated through the hard labour of the enslaved people on her father’s estates in St Kitts and Jamaica.

Although no longer directly employed in the plantation system, James didn’t abandon his trading links entirely. Instead he co-founded the Thistle Bank in Glasgow, putting onto a more formal footing some of the financial services previously carried out by his brother Walter. Lending to city merchants and facilitating trade was a major function of the bank.

Both Walter and James Maxwell had business and personal connections with the plantation-owning Cunninghames of Craigends in Renfrewshire, who were well established in Jamaica. James’s wife Frances maintained the connection with the marriage of their daughter to John Cunninghame of Craigends in 1794, an event which occurred several years after Sir James’s death and her own remarriage to John Shaw Stewart of Greenock. Cunninghame owned the Grandvale estate in Jamaica, including a plantation, sugarworks and 185 enslaved men, women and children. When slavery was abolished, John Cunninghame’s son (from his second marriage) received compensation from the British government of around £3,278 – £429,300 in today’s money.

An ornate clock in a dark wood casing. As well as the clock face for telling the time, there are other faces showing seasons and also the northern and southern hemispheres
The clock pre-dates Captain Cook’s discoveries, so the outline of Australia in the map of the southern hemisphere is incomplete. At the time the area was known as New Holland

The more recent history of the Maxwell family leaves behind their merchant past. But the continued presence of the Pollok astrological clock stands as a symbol of a period in Scottish history when Scots were exploiting places and people in the pursuit of individual wealth and a growing local economy. As a fine piece of workmanship, the clock must once have been something of status symbol, unashamedly displaying the wealth, business interests and connections of the Maxwells to the world.

What we do: Collections

Find out more about the 300,000+ objects we care for in over 50 of our properties.