This article is reproduced here by courtesy of its
author, Angus MacKinnon.
William Robertson was
born in Paisley, Renfrewshire, in 1832. Whilst still in infancy, he
was taken to live in nearby Renfrew where he grew up and went to
school. He was educated at the Old Burgh School and later at the
Blythswood Testimonial School, in Renfrew.
William Robertson began his working life in 1847 at
the age of 15 years, working for the Firm Henderson Brothers, London
Works, a branch of the Firm that built the London Crystal Palace. He
later started in business on his own account at Bowling,
Forming his own Company in 1851, just four
years after he started working, his interest was coal and he quickly
realised that to be really successful it was not enough just to be a
coal merchant but also to have the means of transporting it to
customers. Thus it was, with the purchase in 1852 of the scow
‘Ellen’, he started hauling coal from Kirkintilloch and Renfrew to
Dumbarton and Helensburgh. From this moderate start, William Robertson expanded his interests to sailing
vessels and then to ‘puffers’. In 1854 and 1855, with the
acquisition of the ‘GEM’ and the ‘RUBY’, he increased his sphere of
operations to Dunoon and continued to ‘grow’ his
Initially operating frmm premises in Renfrew,
he moved to Glasgow in 1861 to pursue his business as a shipbroker
with offices at 75 Jamaica Street and in 1862 the first
Robertson ship to trade outside of the
Clyde was the sailing vessel ‘TOPAZ’, of which there are records
showing her outward-bound for Oban via the Crinan Canal.
first steam-engined ship was the JASPER,
built by Swans of Kelvin Dock at Maryhill on the Forth and Clyde
Canal in 1865. This was a ‘puffer’ of dimensions suitable for
working the Clyde and Forth Canal, and she was followed by others
that were later lengthened. It was also his good friend, Tom Seath,
that delivered William Robertson with
his first iron-built sea-going steamer. This was the AGATE of 1878,
built at a cost of £5,100 with a 35 RHP steam engine by W. King
& Company of Glasgow.
By the 1880’s the fleet had grown
to fifteen coasters, primarily engaged in the coal trade (to
Ireland) or in the limestone freight business to the Baltic,
bringing timber back. Limestone became a major part of Robertson’s business as the insatiable demand
of the increasing number of blast furnaces on the Clyde developed.
Robertson took over the management of
the vessels belonging to the Carnlough Lime Company. Many years
later the Company bought the quarries of Kneeshaw, Lupton in North
Wales, having already been managing that Company’s own ships for
them before this.
By the end of the century, the Robertson fleet, most of which were built on
the Clyde, numbered over forty ships.
William Robertson took an interest in many other
areas outside his own immediate business, as was not uncommon in
these times. He was a Member of the Clyde Navigation Trust, a
Director of Merchants’ House in Glasgow, a Director of the Glasgow
Western Infirmary, Member of the Chamber of Commerce, a Deacon of
the Hammermen Incorporation, a Member of several other Guilds, a
Member of the Anderson Weavers’ Society and a Justice of the Peace.
William Robertson never forgot
his humble beginnings and retained an affection for the Burgh that
raised him - Renfrew. As a memoriam to his great friend, Dr.
Mclaren, Headmaster of the Burgh School, he founded a Gold medal for
annual competition. He also placed a stained glass window in one of
the Renfrew Churches, as a memoriam to two of its Ministers and, in
August of 1909 he donated around 30 acres of land to be used by the
Townsmen as a Public Park for the people of Renfrew – which was
named the Robertson park as remains to
The great man retired to Bulwood, his home in
Dunoon, passing the substantial shipping business he had founded
into the care and management of his sons. He lived there until his
death in 1919 at the age of 87 years, and the business he had
started 67 years earlier finally passed over to his sons, who
continued to ‘grow’ the business further, until just before the
Great War when the number of ships reached 49. The brothers were
astute businessmen as evidenced by their purchasing of second-hand
vessels at a fraction of their real value during the ‘slump’ and
then putting them to maximum use when trade picked up again, with
erstwhile competition no longer shipowners.
Wm Robertson operated as the Gem Line from the early
1950s until 1970s when the business was absorbed by Stephenson
Clarke Shipping Ltd.