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. 



No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for taking the time to comment. Your feedback is much appreciated.