David Malcomson, founder of the cotton mill of Portlaw, County Waterford, Ireland, was known as a devout Quaker.
His eldest son Joseph, not so much.
Check out how I depict Joseph in the Prologue of Horse Thief 1898 with his fictional son Peter. You can access the Prologue by signing up for email notifications on the homepage.
Wait! Back up a bit! David was . . .
Oh, right. David Malcomson (1772-1844) was an Irish descendant of Presbyterian Andrew Malcomson from Scotland, who arrived in Ireland in the late 1600s, supporting himself through manufacturing linen. Andrew’s son Joseph married a Quaker lass named Rachel Greer, who was disowned for marrying outside her faith, since her husband remained Presbyterian. Later, though, the Quakers recognized Rachel’s piety and received her back into fellowship, allowing her to raise her eleven children as Quakers. David Malcomson was Joseph and Rachel’s youngest son.
When David was just two years old, his father died. With his thirteen-year-old brother John, at age nine David was sent to live with Quaker cousins in Clonmel, County Tipperary. There he learned corn-milling, but when he was eighteen, his cousin Sarah dismissed him for “keeping late hours.” He was on his own with just one sovereign in his pocket. Leaving the mill, he gave half of his money to a beggar woman, who prophesied he would have luck. He—
What? For real? You’re making that up.
Nope. For real. At least according to Bill Irish in Shipbuilding in Waterford 1820-1882, Chapter 4, “The Malcomson Family.” So, David tried a little of this and a little of that, and eventually charmed his way into becoming the agent and confidential clerk of Colonel Bagwell, landlord of much of Clonmel. He learned commerce and trade and became part of the local business fraternity. Within five years, he was well enough positioned to marry Mary Ffennel, with whom he had seven sons. David named the oldest Joseph, after his father. He and Mary raised their sons in the Quaker virtues of integrity, industry, and thrift, which he applied with great success to Malcomson Mills, which ultimately monopolized the corn industry in Clonmel. Things went swimmingly until 1815 when England passed the Corn Laws, prohibiting import of foreign grain. David began exporting his flour directly from Waterford, thirty miles away from Clonmel, rather than through Liverpool.
Do we really need to know about all that?
I thought you wanted to know about David. OK, to shorten the tale, I’ll say that David Malcomson & Sons prospered to the point David established a corn mill in Portlaw. Malcomson Mills accounted for one quarter of all the flour exported through Waterford. David exercised his power and wealth with true Quaker benevolence and honesty. He lived in an “elaborately plain” house, “luxury only thinly veiled by ostentatious simplicity,” according to Bill Irish. He treated his workers with respect and dignity. He was both shrewd and wise. He exploited the swift-flowing River Suir with ingenuity. In 1824—
This is the short version??
Well, this is how David’s son Joseph came to live in Portlaw, where he eventually rebuilt small Mayfield House into a mansion fit for his status as one of the leading industrialists in Ireland. In 1824 David built a huge cotton mill visible from Mayfield House, which surpassed the two largest mills in Belfast. The spinning and weaving of more than two thousand workers in 1860 produced more cotton cloth than any other enterprise in Ireland. Don’t forget—Joseph’s fictional fourth son Peter, and his fictional fourth child Charlie in Horse Thief 1898 lived in Mayfield House. By then—
Wait, you just skipped from 1824 to 1860. David couldn’t have still been alive.
There’s no pleasing you. I thought you wanted the short version. You’re right. David died in 1844. His son Joseph had already been leading Malcomson & Sons for several years by then, exporting cotton fabric to China, India, North and South America, and the Caribbean. As they expanded into railroads, steam navigation, and shipbuilding, the Malcomson Brothers Shipping and Trading empire was unequalled anywhere.
By 1858 they owned seventy ships regularly plying the port of Waterford and an unknown number as shareholders in various companies. Joseph’s first love was shipbuilding. He was involved at every level of planning and building ships at Neptune Ironworks in Waterford. “It is impossible to overestimate the influence of Malcomson Brothers in the commercial steamship world. Malcomson Brothers transactions extended to every quarter of the globe,” observes Bill Irish.
I get it. The Malcomsons were rich.
Yes. But tragedy awaits.
Oh no. What happened?
Well, Joseph was a bit full of himself. He didn’t adequately prepare his succession. So, when he died unexpectedly in 1858 at age 62, Malcomson Brothers went into a tailspin. Joseph’s brothers by now were happily heading their own enterprises under the MB umbrella. No one wanted responsibility for the whole thing. Eventually, leadership fell to his little brother William because no one else would take it on. And Joseph’s wife Charlotte, still miffed about her husband’s disobedience to Quaker policies, upon his death withdrew all of her and Joseph’s shares from Malcomson Brothers.
Not eccentric Uncle William, who tries to steal from Peter in Horse Thief 1898??
The very one. William didn’t have Joseph’s skills. He made a series of really bad business decisions. Most of the brothers got out while they could, taking their own enterprises with them. The only ones who tried to stick it out with William were John and Robert, who agreed to be “non-active” members of the partnership. Joseph and Charlotte’s sons George (26) and Frederick (21) were too young to be partners, but they tried to do what they could to salvage the mess.
Long story short: In 1866, after John pulled out his shares in cash, Malcomson Brothers went into a tailspin, and finally declared bankruptcy on January 17, 1877. William emerged a bitter man, resentful of the extended Malcomson family resentment toward him. He’s becoming an interesting character in Book Two, Treasure Hunt 1904.
What a sad story! So where did Peter fictionally end up with all this?
At the time his father died, Peter was twenty, immersed in his studies at Oxford. His dream was not to build ships, but to sail them. He was pleased to inherit the Malcomson commercial and passenger shipping line from Waterford to New York, as well as Mayfield House, since his brothers had already married and built their own houses. Upon graduation from Oxford, Peter went to work on his favorite of his father’s ships, the Lion III, eventually becoming Captain as well as owner of the line.
Even so, maintaining his beloved Mayfield House in his family’s customary style proved challenging. Peter and Cathleen decided to use half of the mansion as a girls’ school, which fit Cathleen’s interests. I’ll write more about Mayfield House in another post.
Peter loved his mother and was deeply influenced by her Quaker teaching, but he idolized his father. After Joseph was excommunicated from the Society of Friends, Peter never went back. Marrying Cathleen, a Roman Catholic, was a huge departure from Quaker practice. His mother Charlotte and fictional younger sister Jemima moved out of Mayfield House to live with Quaker relatives in Dublin.
So, remind me: When was Charlie born?
Charlie was born in 1879, two years after the Malcomson Brothers bankruptcy. He was the “surprise!” fourth child of Peter and Cathleen; his siblings were 17 (Daniel), 13 (Margaret), and 10 (Thomas) when he was born. So, he grew up largely alone at Mayfield with his mother, since his siblings went to boarding schools. You’ll learn more about all of them in Horse Thief 1898. But if you have more questions about the Malcomson extended family, please ask! They’re an interesting clan. Uncle David, for instance, died of intemperance at age 37. And—
Thanks, but I think this is enough for me to absorb at the moment.
Hey, no problem. Have a great day!