Alexander Findlay (1845-1912) was an industrialist, philanthropist, politician and the “Grand Old Man” of Motherwell. In his 77 years, he travelled the world, built a thriving engineering company, and was seen by contemporaries as tirelessly trying to better the world. Yet for all that his name has become associated with Motherwell, he did not come to the burgh until halfway through his life. His is a story of persistence and ambition, but like all lives, it’s not a perfect one.
Early Life: From Apprentice to Draughtsman
Findlay was born in Irvine in 1845 and spent all his early life there. He was educated at Loudon Street School but left when he was 13 to become an apprentice patternmaker in his father’s foundry and bridge works.
As a patternmaker, the young Findlay would have spent his days creating models out of wood or metal for sand casting. In sand casting, the desired metal object is sculpted out of wood, wax, metal or plaster. This model is then pressed into sand and removed, creating a mould. Metal is then poured into the sand mould, creating a perfect metal replica of the model.
Patternmaking was and is highly skilled work, and by the time Findlay left Irvine in 1864 he was experienced enough to become a journeyman at Messrs Randolph & Elder, marine engine manufacturers in Glasgow. In that year the firm had opened the Fairfield Shipyard in Govan. During this time Findlay also studied to become an engineer, taking science and drawing classes in town.
By 1869, Alexander Findlay’s studies payed off. He was skilled enough to become a draughtsman at the Missouri Car and Foundry Company in St Louis, Missouri in the USA. By all accounts, Findlay enjoyed his four years in America but after a financial panic he decided to return again to Irvine.
Travelling would stay a regular part of Findlay’s life, and he would go on to visit the US, Canada, South America, and Australia.
Findlay and the Civil War
In many ways, Findlay’s story is an inspirational one: he worked hard and rose through the ranks to become a successful businessman and respected leader. He was admired by many in his community and he strove to make Motherwell a better and fairer place for everyone.
But that does not mean that he lived a perfect life.
When Findlay was a journeyman in Glasgow in 1864, one of his first projects there was to produce four-funnelled steamers to run the Union blockades during the American Civil War and bring cotton to the Lanarkshire mills.
Though slavery was technically made illegal in Scotland in 1778, Lanarkshire’s cotton industry still benefitted from chattel slavery in the United States. The cotton mills spun, wove, and made a profit from the cheap cotton picked by American slaves.
In fact, Britain’s textile industry was so reliant on slave cotton, that when the American Civil War broke out in 1861 (over the issue of slavery), the Southern Confederates believed that Britain was on their side. They hoped that its reliance on cheap Southern cotton would force Britain to intervene and help the Southern States gain independence.
To prevent trade with Britain, the Northern Union Navy set up a sea blockade of Southern ports. No ships could get in and out. Britain could not get cotton for its mills, and the Confederacy could not get money for its war. In the end, Britain never took a side in the war, but many people did try to get through the blockades to trade cotton. Every shipment that got through helped strengthen the cause of Southern slavery.
We do not know how much the teenage Findlay knew or how he felt about his role in the American Civil War. He was working to benefit Lanarkshire and advance his career, but in doing so he was also working to further the horrors of slavery.
Telling Hard Histories
It is a contradiction that is not unique to Findlay. Slave cotton was central Lanarkshire’s textile economy. Slave sugar was used in its sweets industry. Slavery was a key cornerstone in the trade of tea that so benefitted the Scottish Enlightenment.
To learn more about the complex connections of Lanarkshire to slavery, check out:
Our histories are imperfect, they are messy, and they are often unkind. Findlay’s story is no exception. That does not mean he worked any less hard or that his impact was any less important. It means that, as we recall the life of a successful man we should reflect on the other lives of which there are no record. History is not always just. The best we can do is to tell it honestly.
After all, for a man who aimed to make his world better, we owe him nothing less.
Findlay Comes to Motherwell
Alexander Findlay finally came to Motherwell in 1880 at the age of 36, to work as the general manager of Messrs Goodwins’ of Park Street. This was an ironworks owned and managed by the Goodwin brothers.
One of these brothers was Matthew Dean Goodwin, who served as Motherwell’s provost from 1886 to 1888 (while Findlay was still employed as a manager). Goodwin was, like Findlay an energetic liberal. He was also only a few years older than Findlay, and it seems quite likely that he would have encouraged the latter to pursue his political career. Sadly, Goodwin would never see his former employee rise to the provostship of Motherwell. His health began to falter in the mid 1880s and he died in 1891 at the age of 50.
By the end of the 1880s, the ironworks of Messers Goodwin was in decline. It would close in 1889 and the Goodwin brothers would go on to found the Brandon Steel Works. But Findlay would not join them in this new endeavour. Instead, in 1888 he struck out on his own to start the bridge-building firm of Alexander Findlay & Company Ltd.
This turned out to be a highly successful move. Within a few short years, the firm had landed a lucrative contract to produce all the steelwork for the West Highland Railway, including over 400 bridges. Built in the late 1890s, the West Highland Railway is still in use today by Abellio ScotRail. Much later, the firm also became a main supplier for the British Steel plant at Ravenscraig.
By the 1910s, the company had opened four works in Motherwell, filling contracts from all over the world. The company would eventually be bought out by the Sears and Ewing group in 1956 and would continue production until it closed in 1985.
Findlay joined the Motherwell town council in 1883, just a few years after arriving in Motherwell. A staunch Liberal Party member, he was an ardent follower of another of Motherwell’s former provosts, John Colville. Colville was Motherwell’s 8th provost from 1888-1895 and went on to serve as the Liberal MP for North-East Lanarkshire.
Findlay would follow in Colville’s footsteps. He served as Motherwell’s 11th provost from 1901 to 1904, and then as the Liberal MP for North-East Lanark from 1904 to 1910. Tragically, Colville was not there to guide him in either endeavour. He died of cholera in August of 1901, just a few short months after his protégé gained his former provostship.
Throughout his life, Findlay tried to live up to his liberal ideals and give back to his adopted community. During peace time, he was also chairman of the Motherwell Savings Bank. During the war years, he worked to help local industry adapt to to war-time needs.
Particularly close to his heart was an evangelical organization called the Young Men’s Christian Association. The YMCA, founded in London in the 1844, was popular among social reformers at the time. It was seen as a way to protect the working classes against the corruption of industrial city life by encouraging health, wellness, sobriety, and moral uprightness.
As a devout factory owner and a life-long “tea-totaller,” the mission of the YMCA was deeply important to Findlay. He would remain deeply involved with the organization for over 50 years and was honorary chairman until the very end of his life.
Alexander Findlay died in 1921 at the age of 77.