A number of firms tried to perfect the Turkey red process and capitalise on the demand for these brightly coloured printed cottons, but many of these enterprises were short-lived. Three firms from the Vale of Leven, however, successfully produced and exported Turkey red dyed and printed cottons and became leaders of the industry.

William Stirling and Sons

Of the ‘big three’ Turkey red firms in the Vale of Leven, William Stirling and Sons were the first to establish themselves in the area. The firm was founded in Glasgow in the mid-eighteenth century and relocated to the Vale of Leven in the 1770s to take advantage of plentiful fresh water, good bleachfields and cheap labour. The first established works was Cordale and the company purchased the Dalquhurn factory in 1789, which was a fully operational calico printing establishment with three copperplate shops that also employed 200 pencillers who were responsible for brushing in blues and yellows by hand onto fabric. In the second generation of Stirling ownership in the 1820s, the company expanded into Turkey red dying and printing, adopting and perfecting a technique in which many Glasgow firms had failed. Third and fourth generations of the Stirling family were active in the business, but by the 1850s others had entered into the partnership, including John Matheson, who became a significant innovator in the firm’s history.

By the mid-nineteenth century, William Stirling and Sons was the largest and longest established firm of its type in Scotland and occupied two distinct manufacturing sites in the Vale where it processed unbleached ‘grey’ cotton textiles woven in either Glasgow or Manchester. The Cordale Printworks and the Dalquhurn Dyeworks near the village of Renton, employed almost 1,500 workers in 1868, using state of the art technology housed in extensive, utilitarian shed-like buildings, with housing for workers nearby. Two thirds of the workforce was women, many of Irish background, mostly engaged in the dyeing process, which was less skilled than printing where the workforce was mainly male. Irish women were also employed in the other Vale of Leven firms with their presence in Dunbartonshire due to concerted efforts to attract ‘strong girls’ from southern Ireland who were ‘willing to work’. Stirling’s annual production, mostly for export, was almost nineteen million yards of cloth, about half of this plain dyed, the other half patterned, along with 800,000 pounds of dyed yarn for weaving elsewhere. The company also manufactured large quantities of patterned bandanna handkerchiefs, produced at a rate of 4,000 a day according to order. The extent of the works, the workforce and the scale of production and export was such that William Stirling and Sons factories were described in detail in a Scotsman article of 1868 by one of the first journalists to undertake a systematic industrial survey of Scotland.

The different partners in William Stirling and Sons kept country houses in the vicinity of their Vale of Leven works or nearby in Helensburgh, but they also lived part of the week in Glasgow because the commercial side of this and similar businesses was conducted from premises in the city centre. These premises were extended in the late 1850s with the building of a new complex of warehouse, salesroom and offices at 138-140 West George Street, designed by the architecture practice Baird and Thomson in the ‘modern Italian style, rich and dignified in appearance’ and costing £5,500.

The most important partner in the firm was probably John Matheson, who was responsible for commissioning the new Glasgow offices. He entered the business in 1846, having previously worked as a salesroom clerk for a Glasgow cotton-broker and he had family background in printing and dyeing. He started his career with Stirlings in charge of their Glasgow salesroom and then moved onto the Vale of Leven works, which was largely under his management by the late 1850s, where he made many technical innovations and expanded output. He was actively involved in the commercial life of Glasgow as a director of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce and as President of the Chamber in 1872. He wrote on commercial and financial subjects and took a detailed interest in the marketing of his printed cottons sufficient to take a trip to India via the overland route in 1861, just before the opening of the Suez Canal, which he later published as a travel account with his observations on the dress, manners and industry of the people.

Like the other two major firms in the Vale of Leven, William Stirling and Sons exhibited their products at a number of the great and international exhibitions in Britain and abroad. For the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851, the company produced an elaborately decorated and widely reported ‘exhibition handkerchief’ containing an image of Britannia, views of the Crystal Palace, various exotic animals to represent the four corners of the globe, along with trains, boats and classical gods.

John Orr Ewing and Co.

John Orr Ewing, founder of the company that bore his name, was born in Stirlingshire in 1809. As a young man he worked in Glasgow as a clerk for a calenderer, where he later became the firm’s sales agent, which brought him into contact with the Turkey red products of the Croftengea Works in the Vale of Leven. With a partner, Robert Alexander, he acquired Croftengea in 1835 and was soon one of the major producers of Turkey red, expanding with the increasing export demand for such wares. A report of 1839 in the New Statistical Account of Scotland described the company as employing 192 men, 142 women and 104 children with an output of close to three million yards of printed goods per year. A list of Scottish calico printers in 1840 recorded John Orr Ewing and Co. as having one machine (possibly a cylinder printing machine), five presses (probably copper plate presses or lead plate presses) and eighty-four tables for block printing. Though big by any standards, they were not yet in the same league as the older firm of William Stirling and Sons, which at the same date had two machines, seventeen presses and 140 tables.

By 1845, when John Orr Ewing was still only in his thirties, he had made a sufficient fortune to leave the business and it passed into the sole ownership of his partner. The firm, now known as R. Alexander and Co., was run by two managers based at the Croftengea Works, but it faltered under the new regime and John Orr Ewing resumed an active role in the business in 1860. By the 1870s, the workforce had risen to 1,600 and, with an annual wage bill of over £50,000, it was deemed the largest of such firms in Britain. In addition to enjoying a robust export market, of all the Vale firms John Orr Ewing and Co. was known for its high quality design department. Design espionage by the other Vale firms was generally directed against John Orr Ewing and Co. and of the estimated 1,200 Turkey red patterns that were registered for copyright by the three Vale of Leven companies between the copyright acts of 1842 and 1883, almost 75% was registered to this firm. 

The firm’s success greatly relied on John Orr Ewing’s skill in employing outstanding technical experts. One of these was John Wylie, a colourist who mixed and prepared dyes for yarn and cloth. Having worked in Turkey red manufacturers in Lancashire as well as Scotland, Wylie is credited with introducing to John Orr Ewing and Co. a method of dyeing which meant that Turkey red goods could be produced all year round. The new method, known as the ‘Steiner Process’, after the Lancashire-based German entrepreneur of the same name, whose firm was also the main rival to the Vale producers, allowed indoor drying of processed cloth. This meant that the previously seasonal production cycle – which only permitted full output during the summer when outdoor drying was possible – was smoothed to one of continuous production. When John Orr Ewing left the business in 1845, John Wylie, along with several other skilled workers, joined John Orr Ewing’s brother Archibald in his new firm, which accounts in part for Archibald’s swift success and also the relative failure of Robert Alexander and Co.

Another key technician was John Hyde Christie, a trained chemist who joined the firm as a young man when it was re-established under Orr Ewing management in 1860. He was John Orr Ewing’s right-hand man and became a partner in the firm on the eve of Orr Ewing’s death in 1878. Christie’s interest and contribution lay in the development of artificial dyes, particularly the manufacture of artificial alizarin, which had been synthesised in Germany in the 1860s and offered a cheap and consistent alternative to natural alizarin from madder root. Christie, along with other leading members of the Turkey red community formed the British Alizarine Company to protect British interests. Christie’s son, also called John, continued this chemicals interest and was responsible for further developments in Turkey red dyestuffs in the early twentieth century.

John Orr Ewing and Co. was the most technically sophisticated of the three Vale firms and set a high store by its reputation for quality. But Turkey red dyeing and printing was always a dangerous business. The production process required considerable heat to dry the dyed cloth or yarn and fires were frequent. In 1873 a fire broke out in one of the stove rooms at the Alexandria Works and despite the best efforts of the works’ own fire service, it spread so quickly that the whole building was burned to the ground. The complex and ever-changing chemical process was also a risk to workers. In 1881, John Christie wrote to a business contact about his concerns regarding the dyers who were suffering swollen and pustulated hands and arms from an unknown cause in the production process.

Archibald Orr Ewing and Co.

Having trained at the firm of his brother, John Orr Ewing, and benefiting from the guidance of experienced men such as John Wylie at the Croftengea Works, Archibald Orr Ewing set up his own Turkey red dyeing and printing works at Levenbank near Jamestown in 1845. On the other side of the river to his brother, Archibald Orr Ewing quickly established a strong presence in the industry and within five years was shipping dyed and printed cotton cloth to India. In 1850 the firm expanded to include a yarn dyeing works at Milton, previously owned by John Todd and Co., and in 1866 the company purchased the Dillichip Works, downstream from Levenbank.

James Barr, a pattern drawer at Levenbank, was witness to the acquisitions and expansion. He described the Levenbank printfield prior to purchase as no more than ‘half a dozen houses, of not very imposing dimensions, but substantially built, and well kept, with the addition of a broom drying shed, comprised the whole.’ He went on to observe, ‘much of the ground now covered with huge brick erections was then open grassy fields, partly for bleaching purposes, and partly as pasture for cattle’. Employment inevitably expanded and from a workforce of about 800 when first acquired, the business grew to over 2,000 workers by 1878 with an impact that was soon apparent in the Vale. When Archibald Orr Ewing and Co. acquired the Levenbank Works, there were workmen’s cottages for just twenty families. Archibald Orr Ewing built tenement housing close to the works, along with schools and churches, and the boundaries between the villages merged. The arrival of the railway service and telegraph also helped to transform this once rural area, as did an export profile that embraced the sale of goods in India, Greece, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Mozambique, South Africa, Iraq, Japan, Fiji and Burma.

Though founded by brothers, the two Orr Ewing firms were highly competitive. Archibald Orr Ewing and Co. was fiercely protective of the labels and trademarks that were used in the packaging of their dyed and printed export cottons and the trademarks themselves were often intricate works of art, protected by copyright and designed to represent quality and to target specific markets. In 1877, Archibald Orr Ewing and Co. accused John Orr Ewing and Co. of using a distinctive elephant trademark in India, which they claimed they had registered in 1875, and had been using for thirty years before that. Court dispositions were taken in Calcutta and Britain and the case rumbled on for years before John Orr Ewing and Co. was forced to concede that they had no right to use the elephant mark and agreed compensation. Archibald Orr Ewing brought similar cases against other rival firms at home and abroad.

While both the Orr Ewing brothers were successful in business, Archibald had the more prominent public profile. He used his accumulated wealth from the Turkey red industry to expand his interests beyond the Vale of Leven for both commercial and personal gain. In 1863 Archibald purchased the estate of Ballikinrain in Stirlingshire for himself and his family. He invested in numerous ventures, including railway and shipping companies, silver mines near Salt Lake City in America and also, closer to home, the production of artificial alizarin. He was a prominent figure in Glasgow society, on the board of numerous charitable institutions and served as a justice of the peace and member of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce. He made a considerable personal contribution to the building of the new university on Gilmorehill in Glasgow and roundabout the same time in 1868, and probably connected, he fought and won the parliamentary seat for Dunbartonshire, which he held for twenty-four years and led to a shift in his sphere of interests towards London. His contributions to public life were rewarded in 1886 when he became the first Baronet of Ballikinrain. Archibald Orr Ewing died in 1893 and his firm faltered thereafter, despite the presence of two of his sons as partners. It was members of John Orr Ewing’s company who rose to prominence in the newly formed United Turkey Red Company Ltd from 1898.

The United Turkey Red Company Ltd

Though often bitter rivals, when the Turkey red industry as a whole faced threat the Vale of Leven firms banded together to protect their wider interests. Local negotiations over wages were resolved collectively so that no firm had advantages over the others, and also to keep wages as low as possible. Attempts to gain exemptions for Turkey red producers from restrictive Factory Act conditions in the late 1870s were argued in parliament by Archibald Orr Ewing on behalf of himself and his rivals, with whom he corresponded on the matter. The rise of German manufactured artificial alizarin and its use in India generated collective court action to prevent the fraudulent sale of synthetic dyed cloth under ‘authentic’ Turkey red labels. The threat from synthetic dyes also stimulated the joint formation of the British Alizarine Company Ltd.

The United Turkey Red Company Ltd (UTR), a merged company formed out of the three Scottish Turkey red firms, was created in 1898 as a defensive measure against increasing competition and protectionism from India. The new firm had its production base in the Vale of Leven, but decisions were increasingly made from the offices in Manchester, the heart of the British cotton industry, where the managers and agents were based. The Board of Directors still met in Glasgow, and included several partners from the earlier three firms, chaired by John Hyde Christie, but there was a growing gap between the works, the agents and the board and there is much evidence of conflict. On its first formation, the combined UTR workforce in the Vale was 5,286, the largest group being adult women and the largest factory, with 45% of the total workers out of six factories, was the Alexandria dyeworks, formerly owned by John Orr Ewing and Co. The output of the business was increasingly focussed on the dyeing of yarn for export, rather than the more valuable printed cloth. Short working was frequent due to low orders. There were efforts in 1900 to collaborate with the Manchester-based Calico Printers Association, including the founding of joint sales offices in North Africa and Turkey. Moves were made to shift the Cordale Works to a new line in calico printing, replacing Turkey red, and additional works were acquired at Burnbrae and Millburn for indigo dyeing and black goods. Clearly there were heroic attempts to diversify away from Turkey red into other export markets and for a while the business seemed to flourish. Indeed, there was a striking show of the UTR’s wares at the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1901.

Yet, despite the efforts of men such as John Christie Jnr., son of John Hyde Christie, who invented an improved, cheaper Turkey red process, the UTR could not compete with its Manchester rivals or with cheap foreign production. In the 1930s and 1940s a number of Vale of Leven works fell into disuse and the original Turkey red process was abandoned in 1936. Other dyeing processes were tried and three of the works were taken into government use during World War II for the production of waterproofing canvas and camouflage printing. The Alexandria works remained the largest and longest lived, but even its diverse product ranges could not keep the UTR afloat. The UTR was taken over by the Manchester-based Calico Printers Association in 1960 and a year later the Alexandria works finally closed. Very little remains today: the factories were soon demolished and few of the associated building found other uses or survived.

  • Elephant and man, trade mark

    Elephant and man, trade mark
  • Flowers and triangles

    Flowers and triangles
  • Lady in sari holding flower

    Lady in sari holding flower
  • Large yellow paisley shape

    Large yellow paisley shape
  • Multi-coloured flowers

    Multi-coloured flowers
  • Multi-coloured paisley shape with peacocks inside

    Multi-coloured paisley shape with peacocks inside
  • Simple flower and spots, maroon like colour

    Simple flower and spots, maroon like colour
  • Skeleton with scythe

    Skeleton with scythe


Next: Dyeing and printing techniques >

Text © Stana Nenadic and Sally Tuckett, ‘Colouring the Nation: Turkey red in Scotland.’

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