Families of Annan
The Robinson name is synonymous with Annan. It all started with Robert Robinson,son of a miller and his young wife Jane Scott, a daughter of a tailor from Gretna. They married in 1858 in Carlisle. In 1861 the young couple travelled to Annan pushing a handcart across the border to start their work as a country miller at the Old Water Mill at Galabank, which is probably known as the Newbie Mill. At that time the townsfolk of Annan had to buy their oatmeal from the mill. Robert saw the opportunity to bring the oatmeal to the townsfolk especially as the population in Annan was growing at that time.
In 1866 the young couple rented a shop on Annan High Street where they sold oatmeal which had been ground at a Brydekirk Mill. A few years later an opportunity arose in Annan for Robert and Jane to purchase the windmill on North Street and the business began to grow. To attract more people to their shop they started to sell bacon cured over stoves. Jane looked after the shop while Robert worked the mill and processed the bacon. Sometimes he milled through the night so he could help in the shop during the busy times. Oatmeal was the mainstay of their business. It was a struggle for both Robert and Jane but their little shop had now grown into a thriving business. They lived at first in Church Street, then in about 1870 moved to 90 High Street, now known as Savers.
In 1894, they built a house beside the mill on North Street and called it Cereal House, where Jane would raise eight children. William John born in 1859 was the eldest child and was put in charge of the milling and prepared the food side of the enterprise. Joseph who was a year younger was in charge of buying the harvest and for developing trade in animal foodstuffs. Robert’s instinct for commercial business was passed on to his sons as well as his energy. Together they expanded their sales beyond Annan and district to a much wider market.
To meet the growing demand for processed foods, they developed a rolled oats for porridge which they called Groatine at first. William John was sent out on the road to sell this and as the product was ahead of its time he initially had a hard and discouraging job. The Robinson family kept its nerve however and the orders swelled from a trickle to a flood. Robinsons rolled oats eventually became nationally known. Many other products were launched including a binder for sausage called crisk, which was made from toasted stale bread. Rice, tapioca and soya were imported and processed to suit the home market. Their food business grew so large for the Robinsons that a separate factory was built at Welldale Mills in Port Street fronting the Annan River, with a quay for loading and unloading cargo ships. Engineers were employed to devise the new plant for new products with Isaac, the third brother, being in charge of this development of the mills. The whole operation quickly gave mass employment to the town with over 150 people including staff trained in using the fleet of steam traction engines.
William John Robinson now directed a force of fifteen travellers and spent heavily on advertising. Always in touch if not ahead of business trends, he was a pioneer of his time. The firm had become an international operation, shipping raw materials from such diverse sources such as Smyrna, Rangoon, Manchuria and Morocco, The direction of Robert Robinson & Sons increasingly devolved upon William’s shoulders and his status in Annan grew. In 1894 he was appointed chairman of the Annan Harbour Trust and five years later was elected to Annan Town Council. He then was made a magistrate and in 1907 was elected Provost of the Burgh. With a fine instinct for publicity he launched Provost Oats, an improved version of the old Groatine with his portrait on the packet wearing a red robe. It became a national best seller.
At the age of 48 William John was in his prime. He was a well built man of medium height like his father with a head of unruly hair that he tamed by cutting it short as well as a more luxuriant moustache. In 1886 he married Mary Derby, a daughter of James Derby of East CLuden Mill near Dumfries. This then leads on to part two of the Robinson story, Cluden House and the connection to the Roddicks.
At the age of 26 Walter Glendinning opened his own gents’ outfitters business at 109 High Street Annan, in August 1882. The rent for the first year was about £38, going up to about £46 the following year. As per his advert in the Annandale Observer of 4th August 1882 he sold hats, caps and haberdashery. According to his stock list, caps were 1/-6p (7.5p today).
Walter died in 1936 and his son James took over the business. His son Walter and his brother used to do the shop’s messages every second week for 15/- which worked out at 7/6 a week – their only pocket money.
The firm purchased the next-door premises in 1961 and extended into it, giving the present-day shop, and sold general menswear. In the 1970s poor support from their hire-wear supplier was instrumental in the beginning of the kilt hire department The final straw was getting a wedding party set of outfits by courier at 10.30pm the day before the wedding. Walter had to deliver them and as he says ‘you can imagine the reception I got’
The resulting kilt hire department that Walter started has been a great success.
2022 sees the business celebrate its 140th birthday and it is still run by the Glendinning family with Duncan, great-grandson of the original Walter Glendinning, in charge.
James MacLean, an auctioneer at the Albert Hall in Port Street, was responsible for introducing John Thomson to the auctioneering business. The Thomson family began as drovers who collected sheep and cattle from all over Scotland and took them to Norfolk, which was a 4 week journey, for sale.
They were quick in recognising that the arrival of the railway would probably signal the end of droving and John Thomson (grandfather of the present John A Thomson) went to work for the Maryport Hermatite Iron & Coal Company, although ill health eventually brought him back to Annan and he began working with James MacLean in the 1870’s.
By 1880 he had become a partner in the mart, and on McLean’s retirement in 1886, he took over the business.
By the turn of the century, his son, Matthew Thomson, who lived at The Elms, was the principal auctioneer and John A Thomson joined his father in 1946, and by 1953 he was promoted to manage the business of Thomson, Roddick and Laurie. For the next 50 years, John A Thomson was to continue auctioneering for four or five days every week. Alongside the firm of Kirkpatrick & Sons, Thomson, Roddick & Laurie were responsible for the auction marts in Annan.
In 1951 Kirkpatrick Thomson and Co. joined with Thomson and Laurie Ltd, who had marts in Dumfries and Thornhill, to form Thomson Roddick and Laurie Ltd. In 1994 the mart at Butts Street was sold for the building of a supermarket and part of Murray Street was sold for the building of flats (Murray Court) and in 2000 they finally closed their Annan auction marts. John Thomson’s sons, John and Stuart joined him in the partnership and in 2000 the Thomson’s joined the property boom after closing their auction marts and built houses in Annan. C&D Rural had been established in 1988 as a land and estate agency for Longtown Auction Mart and merged with the Thomson family in 2001.
When Longtown Auction Mart got into financial difficulties John Thomson & family bought it and expanded the business into the largest sheep market in Europe known as C&D Marts Ltd. A new purpose-built office was built on site and John & Stuart (sons of John A Thomson) are joint managing directors.
Thomson Roddick also continues with a large Property Sales Department managed by Louise McElroy (granddaughter of John Thomson) and Fine Arts Departments in Dumfries, Carlisle and Edinburgh headed by Sybelle Thomson (daughter of John Thomson)
It was in his retirement that Mr Thomson began writing books, firstly a history of the livestock marts of Scotland from 1880, and then others showing his passion for the auctioneering history of livestock marts.
In 2018 the Livestock Auctioneers’ Association presented John A Thomson with a Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his contribution to the world of livestock marts and auctioneering. John and his family have lived and farmed at Summerhill for over 60 years.
In 1908 John Armstrong, who worked at Annan Distillery died at the age of 38 years. His wife, Janet, and her four young children had to leave their tied cottage at Northfield and move into rented accommodation in Annan. In 1913 she moved to 53 Johnstone Street and opened a shop in part of the house and a bakery in the outbuildings at the back of the house. She then started outside catering for weddings, funerals and masonic dinners. A truly entrepreneurial lady. In 1931 she married Bob Isherwood and they bought two travelling vans. Bob drove one and John Armstrong’s son drove the other, visiting all the neighbouring villages and farms. When John Armstrong’s son returned from the second world war he built the existing shop in partnership with his grandmother and aunt Jean. The shop traded as Isherwood & Co.
John Armstrong, grandson of the original John Armstrong, started working at Isherwoods as an 11 year old boy with a school friend Alan Trout. They were message boys. In the 50’s and 60’s every butcher, baker, grocer and hardware shops had message boys. As only 10% of the population had cars, these boys were essential to the housewife in delivering her weekly shopping. In rain, snow or shine they cycled as far as Powfoot, Creca and Dornock. If you met other message boys great races started round the streets of Annan as to who was the fastest. They still have their bikes and they are sometimes borrowed for museum displays or for the Riding of the Marches.
At 15 John left school and started working in the shop full time. His jobs included packing 1lb bags of sugar and tea and the worst job of all – cleaning huge, smelly truckles of cheese ready for cutting. In the 1970’s supermarkets arrived and one by one the eight grocer shops on Annan High Street began to close and today we have none. When John’s parents ran the shop, with Janet and Jean, they were open seven days a week and worked over 100 hours. The current shop is open six days and 60 hours a week. They also had a second shop in Creca during the 1950’s while Chapelcross Nuclear Power Station was being built.
John Armstrong said of their success ‘with each generation you have to adapt as to how households are run and the expectations of the customer – and be prepared to change. This is one of the reasons we are still in business’. Over the years they have changed from selling basic groceries to specialist foods and produce many of their own meat and delicatessen products.
On reaching 70 John and his wife Margaret took a back seat in the business and let his son Grant take the reins.
T.A.Francis & Sons
T. A. Francis & Sons has been a fixture on Annan High Street since 1927, but the bakery business was founded in Edinburgh in 1913 by Thomas Andrew Francis, when he was given a loan to buy a cellar bakery in the Meadows area of Edinburgh.
Thomas had served his apprenticeship with Elder’s in Stirling and had also run the Co-op bakery in Tillicoultry. He bought the bakery firm Wilson’s in Annan as a going concern. His sons Thomas and David followed him and later Thomas’s son David took the helm.
Now, although David still keeps his hand in, his son Tom and daughter Marilla (great grandchildren of the original TA Francis) have day-to-day responsibilities for the smooth running of this ever-popular Annan bakery. Marilla started working in the shop on Saturdays when she was only 12.
With another shop in Dumfries, the name TA Francis is well-known in the area and, making sure that the business remains in the limelight, they have picked up a number of accolades in the Scottish Baker of the Year awards. 2022 has seen them nominated again in their 109th year of trading.
Irving Family - The Corner House Hotel
My parents, Alex and Sheila Irving, were both born in Annan and, apart from periods abroad during World War 2 and in London immediately afterwards, they lived there all their lives. Dad was one of many children of Sandy and Lily Irving; Sandy was the Post Master in Annan Post Office. My mother, Sheila McCaig, was the elder daughter of Neil and Ruby McCaig; Neil was the minister at Annan Old Parish Church, a position he held for more than fifty years.
Alex and Sheila were married in Annan – by my grandfather of course! – in 1947. They then went to live in Barnes in South-West London since Dad was a rising star with the Standard Chartered Bank, based in the City. However London was a tough city right then; Sheila was pregnant with my older sister, Rosemary, they had few friends and rationing was still very strict in the wake of the war. She was homesick so they decided to come home and – of all things- to buy a hotel!
On the surface it was a crazy decision. My mother had been brought up in the manse with every meal cooked for her by Maggie, the live-in maid; Dad was no more skilled in the kitchen than she was. But he had had a particularly gruelling war, fighting the Japanese in Burma as part of the notorious Wingate expedition. Many of the men on that expedition died of starvation; my father was spared but he had made a pledge to himself that, if he did survive, he would find a way to feed people.
So that was that. Crazy or not, they entered into negotiations with Mr Bridger who owned both what was then The Temperance Hotel at 78 High Street and the Firth Hotel, further up the hill where it still stands today. The Temperance Hotel was a better proposition because it was bigger, it was bang in the middle of the town and it had a popular café on the ground floor.
As soon as the deal was struck, Mum and Dad changed the name of the hotel to The Corner House and within a year or two the café had been replaced by a thriving bakery which boasted the best morning rolls and butter toffee in the region.
How they managed to build that business and how my father, in particular, took on the whole of the Gretna State Control monopoly and got that law changed in 1968 is the stuff of another blog…!
John Frood Printers and Stationers
McIldowie Family – Builders and Stonemasons
John McIldowie from Monzievaird, Crieff came down to Annan with a group of stone masons in 1810 to work on a new mansion at Kinmount for the Marquis of Queensberry, using stone from the Cove quarry at Kirkpatrick Fleming. He married Mary Gourlay from Kirkpatrick in 1811 and they moved to Murray Street in Annan. John then worked for himself and built the Church in Saint Johns Road in 1840. His son and grandsons went on to build many public buildings, including the Corner House Hotel, Central Hotel, Annan Academy School, Regent House, Seaforth Avenue, Mansfield House and most of Charles Street. They also built mansions in and around the Annan area e.g. Milkbank at Kettleholm where John McIldowie died according to the family headstone. At one stage the McIldowies employed over three hundred workers.
C McIldowie Feb 2022