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42 . Glasgow Business May/June 2013


We look at an innovative businessman and philanthropist who was a key figure in growing the textile industry in Scotland


avid Dale was a remarkable man. He was a leading business figure of his day, as well a philanthropist who proved that industry did not have to

equate with inhuman conditions and that factories could be places of dignity and learning. Born in Stewarton, Ayrshire, on 6 January

1739, Dale’s first work was as a herd boy herding catle. However, it was his second career as an apprentice weaver that was to set the direction in which he was to rise and make his fortune. With the help of friends, he set up business

in Glasgow on his own in the linen yarn trade, importing large quantities of French yarn from Flanders. It was a highly profitable business. In 1783, Dale was appointed agent for the

Royal Bank of Scotland in Glasgow and gave over half his High Street premises to turn into the bank office before it was moved to larger premises in St Andrew‘s Square as its business grew. Aſter he had been in business for about 20

years, Dale had a meeting that would change his life. He was one of a group of bankers, merchants and manufacturers who entertained Sir Richard Arkwright at the then equivalent of a Chamber Influencers’ Dinner. Arkwright was hailed an innovator who had

patented inventions of the improvement of coton spinning, which had been introduced in England. Dale immediately saw the potential of

applying the inventions to industry in Scotland

and the next day took Sir Richard to inspect the waterfalls of the Clyde, with a view to seting up a coton mill based on Arkwright’s improved processes. A site was agreed on and the building of

what would become the New Lanark coton mills quickly begun. Mechanics were sent to England to be instructed in the new machines and processes. However, the fast-moving plans hit a snag

when Arkwright’s patents were successfully challenged in the English courts, a development that would lead to the dissolving of Dale’s partnership with him. Tis was not the only hurdle – neighbouring

landowners were opposed to the arrival of large numbers of labourers, who they thought would cause trouble and would be a financial burden on the local community. However, the quality of the conditions in Dale’s

mill led to happy and peaceable workers who were customers for the produce of neighbouring farmers rather than causing them trouble. Dale provided his workers with proper housing, a balanced diet and free schooling, conditions that stood out in the industry of those days. Dale became much sought aſter as an adviser

to seting up mills on pieces of land with powerful waterfalls like New Lanark which, along with the new processes, was the key to a successful and profitable mill. He was an adviser and sometimes co-partner

in a range of new mills, including the extensive mills at Catrine on the banks of the River Ayr

and at Spinningdale on the Firth of Dornoch in Sutherland. In addition to mills, he was involved in the

manufacture of coton cloth in Glasgow. In 1783, he set up the first works in Scotland to employ the turkey red method for dyeing coton which produced bright red cloth and other bright colours, another innovation. Te one-time herd boy became an

increasingly successful business figure as the sole proprietor or managing partner of a string of mercantile, manufacturing and banking concerns. In addition to a remarkably full and in many

ways groundbreaking business career, Dale was also an eminent philanthropist. A man of strong Christian faith and founder

of a dissenting Congregationalist church known as the Old Scotch Independents, Dale put his Christianity into practice providing work and homes for Highlanders evicted by the Clearances. He also employed hundreds of Glasgow and Edinburgh pauper children, for whom he provided homes and schooling. Dale retired in 1799, selling on the New

Lanark business to his son-in-law Robert Owen, who continued and expanded New Lanark to become an example of industrial work and living based on more communal principles. A biographical sketch of David Dale

summed him up by saying: “He did essential service to the commerce of his country, at a period when it required the impetus of such a mind.”


David Dale had a remarkably successful and innovative career, but not every business venture was a success. One investment was a total failure with him

losing all of the £20,000 he invested in it, a considerable sum in his day. The plan was to sink a coalfield in Barrowfield,

in an area that boasted no coal mines. It turned out that the soil was a kind of quicksand and despite many efforts by engineers to sink mines

– including laying the shaft with iron cylinders – it was unworkable. The venture was a rarity and Dale amassed a

vast fortune from his range of business interests. From his earliest days in business he kept a

keen eye on costs. When he rented his shop in Glasgow’s High Street for his linen yard trade he thought the rent of £5 was extravagant. So he sublet half of it to a watchmaker for 50 shillings to defray that part of the cost.

However, he soon saw a better opportunity for

that part of the premises when he was appointed agent of the Royal Bank of Scotland. It is likely that the opportunity came about via

his father-in-law, John Campbell, an Edinburgh lawyer who was a director of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

In 1782, David Dale built a house for himself

and his family in Charlotte Street, Glasgow, between London Road and Glasgow Road. The building would become for many years the dispensary of the Eye Infirmary before being demolished in 1954.

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