Friday, 23 February 2018

Earlston Woollen Manufacturer - John Simpson

A local historian in Hawick   recently came across in the town's Wilton Cemetery these gravestones  to the family of  "John Simpson, Woollen Manufacturer, Earlston".  He contacted the Auld Earlston Group with this information.

Intriguing?   Why was an Earlston businessman remembered in Hawick? 

Simpson Gravestones in Wilton Cemetery, Hawick 

In Loving Memory of John Simpson, woollen manufacturer,Earlston who died 
 at Eildon Grove, Melrose on  June 8th 1919.
And his wife Anna Robertson who died 8th Feby 1944 aged 86 years.

Who was John Simpson?
He  was born in Galashiels in 1856, son of John Simpson, a wool hand-loom weaver.  At the age of 15 in 1871, young John  was working as a warper ** in a wool factory in   Innerleithen,  where five  years later he married Anne Robertson .   

By the time of the 1891 census,  the couple were  at 1 Rosevale Cottage in Wilton Parish, Hawick with their two son and two daughters - John, George, Euphemia and Jessie.    John, then aged 35,  was described as a tweed warehouseman. 

Ten years later in 1901, the family  was living at 2 West Stewart Place, Wilton, Hawick in a road of substantial Victorian houses,  with John's occupation listed as commercial traveller. Clearly he was going up in the world, culminating in the purchase of what became Simpson and Fairbairn Mill at Earlston, which was listed under that name in a 1903 Trade Directory.   

The 1911 census saw the family at Eildon Grove,  Melrose, Roxburghshire with John described as woollen manufacturer, with his wife and youngest daughter 28 year old Jessie, plus one servant.    John died there in 1919. 

His death at the age of 63 was reported  in "The Scotsman" newspaper,  intimating that John's funeral would be held at Wilton Cemetery, Hawick.   

The Scottish National Probate Index online  gave the value of his estate as £69,498.19s.5d. - estimated at over two and a half million pounds in today’s money values (

AAn obituary in the Berwickhire News:  10th June 1919  gives us a profile of John Simpson.
".......He was Chairman and Director of Simpson & Fairbairn Ltd, Rhymer's  Mill, in Earlston.  His early years were spent in Innerleithen where he acquired his knowledge of the tweed trade, and afterwards went to Hawick and became associated with the firm of Blenkhorn Richardson Ltd. of which he was a Director.  Fifteen years ago with Mr Thomas Fairbairn, he took over the business of  Robert Dunn & Co. at Earlston.   Mr Simpson was one of the best known and best liked of personalities in the Scottish tweed trade.
An ardent and successful golfer, he was a well known figure on several popular courses."

 Rhymer's Mill, Earlston,   early 1900's.  (Auld Earlston Collection) 

Rev. Walter Davidson of Earlston Parish Church, having heard the news that Sunday morning,  paid a tribute to John Simpson, at his  service, as reported in the press article,  saying:
........He was very closely associated with the church ......... As head of the firm which is by far the largest employer of labour in the town..... he was known as  an upright, conscientious and thoroughly efficient business man, a just and honourable master. 
Long before he came to Earlston I had heard him spoken of "as a prince among commercial travellers" and after he entered business on his own account here, his wonderful ability in this respect meant greater employment and consequently increased prosperity for Earlston, and for these things we owe him a debt of gratitude.

God endowed him with certain talents and these he developed as a faithful steward for the greater good of the community.  In his life he was greatly respected and widely esteemed. A keen reader, he possessed a library, rich in  beautiful works, as seldom seen.  .....Most of all he endeared himself to his own  by his kindly,  loving disposition"

Earlston Monumental Inscriptions, published by the Borders Family History Society, notes that in 1920 a carved oak Communion Table  was gifted to the church  "To the glory of God and in loving memory of John Simpson, manufacturer,  Earlston."

“The Kelso Chronicle” and “The Berwickshire News” of January 1920 reported on this memorial being dedicated by his son John M.D. Simpson, whose wife donated the embroidered communion cloths in memory of her father-in-law.


It seems that John's eldest son,  John Melville Drummond Simpson,  remained involved in the family business and in Earlston community affairs, as reported in the Berwickshire News.  In the 1920's he was a candidate  in local  elections, sitting on the School Management Committee.    He was also organist at Earlston Parish Church until  1929. In  1931  a report noted that "Delegates of the Scottish woollen industry on a visit to American and Canadian markets included John  M. Simpson of Simpson and Fairbairn, Earlston." 

A newspaper death announcement reported  "At Broomiebrae, Earlston on the 27th August 1931 John M. D. Simpson died, dearly beloved husband of Catherine Robertson".  
John was buried besides his parents in Wilton Cemetery, Hawick.  His death certificate, (on ScotlandsPeople website)  confirmed his distinctive middle names and his occupation as a woollen manufacturer - the informant his son J. Stanley Simpson.  

In 1946 as part of a major refurbishment of Earlston Parish Church, electricity was installed, and  Stanley Simpson,  as a memorial to his father,  gifted the electrification  of the organ blower, which previously had been pumped by hand. 


  • ** "A warper", the occupation of 15 year old John Simpson in 1871, was a textile worker who arranged the individual yarns which created the "warp" of the fabric. 
  • Simpson and Fairbairn
    In  a  1903 Directory  Simpson & Fairbairn  was described as "a tweed manufacturer and dyers at Mid Mills, Earlston"  It appears that the firm later adopted the address of Rhymer's Mill.  The photographs below, are believed to date from the early 1900's, and are in the Auld Earlston Collection. 

  • At the time of John Simpson's (Senior) death in 1919, Border woollen manufacturers were starting to face  e global depression, with tariff barriers, and difficult export markets.   However Simpson and Fairbairn  weathered the storm,  although short time working was often prevalent. 

    During World War Two, the mill was fully employed on service and  utility clothing  and the post war years saw  a boom time for the Borders as world wide stocks of clothes had to be replaced, with the firm employing more than 300 workers,
    making it  the economic mainstay of Earlston. 

  • But by the late 1950's and early '60's, the old problems of cheaper competitors and vulnerability to changing fashions had returned.  The   firm tried  to innovate by making cellular blankets and moving into  ladies' wear.  But the decline could not be stemmed.  The mill finally closed in 1969 when a workforce of almost 100 was made redundant.
Earlston's role in the  Borders textile industry came to an end.  

  • Blenkhorn Richardson, Hawick.
    At the time of his death,  John Simpson, senior was a Director at Blenkhorn Richardson, Eastfield Mills, Hawick.  The business was   founded by two brothers-in -law  and become one of the largest manufacturers in southern Scotland.  The company closed in 1974, with its archives now held at the Heriot Watt University, Galashiels. 

Both Earlston and Hawick had  a major part  in John's  Simpson's life, with his choice of a final resting place - Hawck.  But  he made a key contribution to  Earlston's textile industry, as reflected in  the eulogies on his death. 

With thanks to  David Lothian of Earlston and Gordon Macdonald of Hawick for their help with information on John Simpson, his  life and family. 



Monday, 5 February 2018

A Look at Earlston Churches

In 1866 Earlston had three churches Ercildoune Parish Church, West United Presbyterian Church and East United Presbyterian Church.   Rutherfurd's Southern Counties Directory of 1866  noted that the three churches offered seating for 1400 worshipers - in a village with a population of 1825.  Religion was an integral  part of community life.

In the 12th century, the foundation charter for Melrose Abbey was signed by King David I at Ercildoune (the old name for Earlston),   It is known that a chapel was built in Earlston at the end of the 11th century  and in 1242 a new church was built and consecrated.  After the Reformation in 1560,  it became the Church of Scotland.

The  medieval church was replaced in 1736, enlarged in 1834 which in turn was replaced  on the same site in 1892 by the present building of red sandstone from Cowdenknowes Quarry, with seating for 700 people.   It was known as Ercildoune Church until its union with St. John's Church under the minister Rev. John Duncan in  1946 after 200 years of division.

The Old Parish Church, demolished in 1891

Men from Rodger Builders working on the  church, 1891.
One of the oldest photographs in the Auld Earlston collection 

A charming tinted image of the rebuilt  church,
early 20th century

In 1991 renovation work took place on the church  building, largely thanks to a generous bequest  from the late Miss Ella Newton of Edinburgh, whose father had been works manager at  Simpson & Fairbairn Mill in Earlston.   Again men from Rodgers Builders undertook much of the work. 

Some of the team working on the 1991 refurbishment

Records go back to James Ker in 1549  up to the present day. One of the longest serving was William Mair (1869-1903), who served as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1897.  The Rev. John Duncan also served 30 years 1946-76. 

Communion Plate
The pewter communion plate mostly came from the Relief and  Associate Churches in Earlston, 1750 and 1780 respectively, with the  earliest chalice dated 1760. The Associate and Relief bodies came together in the early nineteenth century to form the United Presbyterian Church.   All the communion plate is kept in the bank and only brought out four times a year for  a  formal sacrament.

Church Records
  • The Church of Scotland Registers go back to  the late 17th century, recording baptisms, marriages and burials, but with some gaps. You can search them online at or consult them on microfilm at the Heritage Hub in Hawick.
  • Earlston Kirk Session Records  give us a unique  social commentary on life in the village at the time - with the emphasis on chastisement and charity, as the church provided help to the poor and needy, but censure to those involved in what was regarded as moral turpitude. As late as 1901, a woman was brought before the Kirk Session  to be questioned on her "sin of fornication and having a child out of wedlock". 

"Having confessed  in sorrow for her sins and resolution to walk through grace in newness of life, the Moderator after solemn admonition did in the name of the Kirk Session absolve her from the scandal of her sin  and restore her to the privileges of the church.

Scottish Kirk Session Records are not available online,  but you can view them   in a digitized format at the Heritage Hub at Hawick, which serves  the whole of the Scottish Borders 
Following disputes over the appointment of  the Rev.  Lawrence Johnston to be minister of Ercildoune Parish Church,  a Relief congregation was formed in 1778 and a church built at the West End of the village with seating for 500.  

In 1887 it joined with the East Church (see below) to form one congregation with one minister, as the Earlston United Presbyterian Church. With some irony  the West Church was sold to the Parish Church (Church of Scotland) and used as a church hall until 1956.    The property was later demolished  and replaced eventually by the modern flats we see on the site  today. 

Dissatisfied members of the congregation at Ercildoune Church joined the Secession movement in 1738.  A church was built and later enlarged to seat 500 worshippers  and became the East United Presbyterian Church.  1887 saw it join with the West United Presbyterian Church  and the name of St. John's was adopted in 1929.  

In 1946 the congregation  reunited  with the  Parish Church of Scotland  under the ministry of Rev. John Duncan.   The old St. John's Church Hall became the parish church hall, with the church itself later demolished.
 United Presbyterian Church (East), later St. John's Church 
The building on the left became the Parish Church Hall, 
when the two congregation united  in 1946. 

There was a congregation for a few years in the mid 19th century.  Worship in Earlston resumed in 1949 in a chapel hall, dedicated to St. Cuthbert, on Westfield Road  which closed  c.2012.  


Earlston Parish Church and Churchyard, 2016

  • The Church in Earlston 600AD-1982, by Rev. John H. Duncan, 1992 - with a copy in the Auld Earlston Archives.
  • The Churches and Graveyards of Berwickshire, by Dr. G. A. C. Binnie, 1985. Available from Scottish Borders Library Service.
  • Earlston Monumental Inscriptions, published by Borders Family History Society, 2005 - available through  BFHS and Scottish Borders Library Service.
  • Website of Earlston Parish Church -


    Future posts will look at other aspects of church life. 
    In Case You Missed: 
    For a fuller picture of the information in the Kirk Sessions Records,   see an earlier blog post  HERE. 

    The Auld Earlston Group  is grateful for the photographs and postcards featured here. It will be pleased  to receive  donations or loans of further material which can be scanned and returned to you.    E-mail: