Friday, 2 September 2016

The Whale Sisters - Earlston's Renowned Gingham Manufacturers

The names of the Whale sisters, Christian and Marion,  were once synonymous 
with textile production in Earlston.

In the 18th century, Rhymer's  Mill  was  a corn mill before being transformed by the Whale family into a textile mill where  the  manufacture of gingham was introduced by Thomas Whale.    

A carved inscription on the old mill building, 
with  the names C & M Whale clearly visible today. 

The 1891 publication "Two Centuries Of Border Church Life V2   - with Biographies Of Leading Men And Sketches Of The Social Condition Of The People On The Eastern Border",  by James Tait, includes a paragraph  on the Whale Family. 

"Thomas Whale died on the 11th March 1814, aged 74 years; and his widow died two years afterward; but the business was carried on with great skill and success by their daughters, Christian was the elder, and was a very clever woman, but she modestly gave the first place to her younger sister Marion and the designation of the firm was "Marion Whale Co," The gingham was manufactured of cotton and the weaving was done in private houses; in some of which there was a factory containing twenty or thirty looms. The colours were woven into the cloth, not printed as is now generally done; and everything was of the best material One of the sisters travelled to Edinburgh, along the Northumberland coast and even to London, which was very inaccessible in those days."

Two surviving examples of the Earlston Gingham  in the collection of Auld Earlston.

Contemporary press cuttings indicate how widespread was the reputation of Earlston Ginghams.    In the 1840's "The Morning Post" in London carried regular advertisements for the cloth.  The Scotch Tartan Warehouse in Regent Street promised:  

"The Paris Fashions for the Present Season .........[with] Marion Whale's real Earlston  Ginghams".  (23rd October 1843).  

Queen Victoria's tour of Scotland led to a demand for all things Scottish,  as the advertisement of 23rd September 1844 below highlights, with a reference to:

"Her Majesty's Tour of Scotland  and approval of the different manufacturers. especially of Plaids, has caused them to be the  fashionable article of dress for the approaching season".........Stock includes "the celebrated Marion Whale's Earlston Ginghams (this establishment being exclusive for the sale of  that article). "

 Rutherfurd’s 1866 Directory of the Southern Counties, published in Kelso,   commented
 Earlston produces quantities of the Earlston ginghams. There is no other place in the country where the same class of gingham is made”.

Back in Earlston, the 1851 Census identified Christian  Whale as a 64 year old "manufacturer of gingham and cotton, employing 60 workers, mainly weavers and winders of cotton". Also in the business was her sister Marion aged 56.   

Ten years on in 1861 Christian, age given as 74  and Marion 66, were both described as Gingham Manufacturers, living at 125 Main Street, Earlston (a ten room property) with their older brother Andrew, a former clerk in a drapery warehouse, two domestic servants and a stable boy. 

But nine months later,  Christian Whale died 22nd  January 1862. aged 75.    

"The Kelso Chronicle" of 24th January 1862 noted that "Miss Whale, well known throughout the  greater part of this country, departed this life after a tedious illness........Miss Whale was a person of most active habits and of a shrewd and vigorous understanding;  qualities which account in great measure for her extraordinary success in life".

 "The Southern Reporter" of 30th January  giving a fulsome obituary,  referred to her:
 "stern but invariably kind disposition ....her business habits, her untiring perseverance, her successful career..... At one time the firm employed little short of 100 weavers, who in turn required no inconsiderable number of female winders. ......Miss Whale attending herself to the most minute particulars as well as transactions   of greater magnitude;   she allowed no object, however trifling,  to pass without her inspection and approval;  her presence was everywhere, now superintending the warping, now the finishing, now giving direction for the packing bales of goods for the London and American markets;  behind the counter supplying a single dress to a customer;  all her multitudinous duties being done with characteristic energy and promptitude.  The funeral took place on Monday and a very large attendance of townspeople and a number from  the surrounding district turned out  to testify their respect for her memory."
Southern Reporter 30th January 1862

 "The Berwickshire News" later commented on " Miss Christian Whale (Kirsty in the vernacular)  was a woman of masculine understanding and highest business capacity...  and had a  life of great activity and usefulness.....she will be long remembered in these parts as a woman of ability and enterprise and one who deserved well of her native place".    

Two years later almost to the day,  sister Marion died 24th January 1864 aged 71.  The business was dissolved, and in February 1864, local newspapers carried front page advertisements on "Valuable Property in Earlston for Sale...Belonging to  the late Misses Christian and Marion Whale".  The mill was sold to the textile firm of Wilson & Sons, and the house property was sold to Mr Smail, agent of the Commercial Bank  for the sum of £700. 

   On the middle right - the former home of the Whale Sisters,  
sold to the Commercial Bank.  
The two Whale sisters were ahead of their time and made an enormous contribution to Earlston life.  They were beacons in  mid Victorian Britain when few women showed such enterprising spirit to head successful businesses.  

 Today a street name sign reminds us of the village's past. 

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