Shared Lives: Alexander Stephen, shipbuilder & James Templeton, carpet maker
Kilmarnock: Maureen Borland, 2006
ISBN 0 9552714 0 1
302 pages. 16 B&W illustrations.
Alexander Stephen (1795-1875) was the grandson of a farmer in Aberdeenshire. His father, William, left the farm and joined his uncle in Burghead where in 1750 he had set up a business making and repairing small fishing-boats. Two years before Alexander was born his father had his own shipbuilding yard in Aberdeen, and Alexander was to follow in his father's footsteps before making strides of his own.
James Templeton (1802- 1883) also came of farming stock, in Campbeltown in Argyll, but left when he was a teenager and went to Glasgow to work in a wholesale drapery company. After a three year intermission working in Mexico he returned to Glasgow and set up as a manufacturer of the ever-popular Paisley shawls. In 1838 he established a new carpet factory in Glasgow, using an innovative chenille process which he had originally co-developed for making fluffy shawls, but which he realised could also be used to make a new style of carpet.
From these modest beginnings Alexander Stephen and James Templeton became the founders of one of the great shipbuilding industries, and one of the great carpet manufacturers, of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1857 Alexander Stephen's son married James Templeton's daughter, inaugurating a century or more of dramatic and fascinating shared lives between the families: friendships, marriages and (inevitably) disputes.
The shared lives are full of drama. Stephen's sloop Amethyst, built in 1943 for the Royal Navy, sank a U-boat off Iceland, was captured a few years later by the People's Liberation Army in Nanking, and eventually reached freedom by being disguised as a Chinese cargo boat and fleeing down the Yangtse under fire. Templeton's was the factory that was chosen for the honour of making the carpet for the House of Commons when the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt after being bombed in 1941.
It was an age that has now vanished. "The Clyde is now silent, the few cranes and gantries that do remain are memorials to the past. ... The future of the magnificent Templeton building (modelled on the Doge's Palace in Venice) is still to be decided. The looms are silent, the chatter and laughter of the girls has gone. Who now looks at that façade and remembers the family who commissioned it... ?"
But even so, in 2002, in a random survey in Sauchiehall Street, four out of five of the shoppers said their great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles or cousins had worked for the great Templeton carpet factory. Vanished, yes; not forgotten.
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