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42 . Glasgow Business March/April 2013



We take a look at the life of one of Glasgow’s most famous entrepreneurs – a life boasting both public and private endeavour!


ny list of the handful of individuals who have done most to make Glasgow the great city it is today would have to include the name of

Kirkman Finlay. His was a remarkable life, full of

achievements. He was a leading businessman, a textile baron, a Member of Parliament, Lord Provost of Glasgow and President of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce no fewer than eight times. It was a mixture of private sector and public

achievement, of commerce and civic life that seems incredible to us looked at from the vantage point of 2013. Born in the Gallowgate in 1773 – 10 years

before our own Chamber was formed – he was the second son of textile manufacturer James Finlay. When we think of the family business James

Finlay & Co today, we immediately think of tea, but the business that Kirkman inherited with his brothers on their father’s death in 1790 was described as Manufacturers and East India Merchants and was mainly in textiles. At a time without the benefit of modern

travel and communications, Kirkman Finlay, beginning at the tender age of 18, expanded the family business and built an impressive export trade. He set his sights on capturing lucrative Asian

markets and, in doing so, successfully took on the then-unrivalled British East India Company.

But the textile expansion he wove was not

just in export markets – he also moved into new areas of business, taking the company into coton manufacturing by buying the Ballindalloch Works in Balfron in 1798. Te purchase of other coton works

followed. He acquired a spinning mill in Catrine, Ayrshire, in 1801 and in Doune in Perthshire in 1806 to add to the one he already had in Deanston, Perthshire. By 1810, the Finlay business was the largest

exporter of coton yarn to Europe. He was innovative in his approach to trade, willing to circumvent obstacles. Te growth of the business coincided with the Napoleonic Wars and he made use of bases in Heligoland and Malta to run the continental blockade. Te Finlay business became the largest

textile enterprise in Scotland and the first business to trade directly with India. But he accompanied this life in business with

an incredibly active one in public, holding a staggering succession of offices. In addition to his time as Chamber President, he was Governor of Forth and Clyde Navigation, Dean of Guild and became Lord Provost of Glasgow in 1812. Having served as Lord Provost for a year,

Kirkman Finlay became a Member of Parliament representing Clyde Burghs, of which Glasgow was one. For eight years, he served as a noted Member of the House of Commons, where he was listened to on maters relating to

business, trade and the economy and was still quoted there aſter he had leſt the House. He developed a considerable knowledge of

banking and served as an extraordinary director of the Royal Bank of Scotland from 1821 until his death in 1842. He was part of a plan to raise a joint stock

bank in Glasgow around 1793. He was unsuccessful. It is interesting to speculate how different the history of banking in Scotland might have been had he succeeded. However, his career was not without

controversy. It suffered from the revelation that he

had used paid informants to try to infiltrate the radical movements that had sprung up at the time. It was these revelations and his opposition

to widening the then very narrow electorate that led to him being voted out of his parliamentary seat in 1818. Finlay Kirkman used a large part of his

fortune to restore the 16th century Castle Toward on the Cowal Peninsula as his country home. Towards the end of Kirkman Finlay’s life,

the trading part of the family business empire overtook the textiles and in 1844, the works at Ballindalloch that Kirkman Finlay had bought were sold. It was this change that laid the foundations for the modern day business of James Finlay & Co in the tea trade.


The history of James Finlay & Co is one of moving into different sectors to seize new and changing opportunities. From its beginnings in 1750, when

it was formed by Kirkman’s father, to the present day it has been successful in a range of different areas. Its first focus was in textiles and it

was highly successful, operating in both the UK and foreign markets, opening textile mills all round the world. During the second half of the 19th

century, company representatives were sent to India to plant tea and Finlay played an important part of the development of the industry there.

Their Indian connections were

strengthened in 1862 when an outpost of the business, Finlay Clerk & Co was set up in what was then known as Bombay. In 1870, the company having changed its name to Finlay, Muir and Co, followed this with the opening of a branch in Calcutta.

From about 1882 the company

began to change its focus again, diversifying into tea estate management. By the turn of the century, Finlay Muir managed extensive tea estates in both India and Sri Lanka. The Assam, Sylhet, Cachar, Dooars, Darjeeling and Travancore estate covered over 270,000 acres, 77,000 acres of which were planted with tea.

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