The First Local Boy
William Purdie was born and raised in Motherwell in the early 1850s. In fact, he appears to be the first Motherwellian to take on the leadership of a burgh that was just shy of its 40th anniversary.
He attended school in the suburb of Craigneuk, at what was described as the “but and ben” school. A “but and ben” building is a simple, one-storey building comprised of an outer room (a but) and an inner room (a ben). It is a type of building that was much romanticised, evoking the poverty, hard-scrabble, rural life. As a schoolhouse, it must have been a cramped and noisy place.
So, it is unsurprising that Purdie did not want to stay at school for long. He left early to become a grocer’s boy and later a shop assistant.
Dalziel Co-operative Society
At around 21 or 22 years old, William Purdie applied to be managing director at the new Dalziel Cooperative Society and was immediately rejected. Despite a decade or so of working experience, the board felt that he was much too young to be managing director of anything.
But as the months went by and the post remained vacant, the board of directors decided to give the young man a try. It was an unconventional choice, but it paid off. Purdie would remain as manager for 57 years, retiring only when his age and health no longer permitted his busy schedule. Yet even in retirement, he could not quite let go of the organization he dedicated his life to. He remained as a consultant, checking in with the society every week until the end of his life. His last visit to the head office was two days before his death.
When Purdie joined the Dalziel Co-operative Society in the early 1870s, it was still a fairly small organization. It occupied only a front and back shop on Merry Street. Yet from these humble beginnings, the Dalziel Co-operative Society grew to become hugely important resource for the working people of North Lanarkshire. Not only did it provide cheaper prices than many high-street competitors, but it also filled the roles of a number of social services. It ran a bank, offered classes, put on lectures, and scheduled community events.
In his nearly six decades of management, the membership of the Society grew from 150 to 12,000 and from a single small shop to 16 branches – including a public library. Eventually, in 1981, the Dalziel Cooperative Society merged with Edinburgh’s St. Cuthbert Society to create the Scottish Midland Cooperative Society (Scotmid), which is still around today.
Leadership and Conflict
Purdie entered the town council of Motherwell as the member from the Third Ward. While on the board, he acted as both magistrate and finance convener. It was his sound financial sense that really endeared him to the council, and he was unanimously elected as the burgh’s 12th provost in both 1904 and 1907.
While he was provost, the town saw significant conflict between the magistrates, law enforcement, and the Salvation Army. At issue was the Salvation’s Army’s ability to hold meetings at the Cross (a busy intersection), which was felt to be a traffic impediment. Many were arrested and this sparked months of meetings, protests, and conflict.
At one point, a crowd of angry Salvationists arrived at Purdie’s house, demanding the release of several of their members. They had been arrested for blocking the streets and refusing to pay the fine of 2 shillings and sixpence (roughly £10 today). As the provost and a lifelong advocate for working people, it is little wonder that the frustrated locals turned to him to help resolve this conflict. True to form, he immediately went to the magistrate’s office, and mediated a compromise.
Purdie continued to serve as provost until 1910, after which he stepped down from political life to focus on his work at the Co-Op. He was a notoriously busy man, organizing the many events and programs, and giving speeches. All the while, he was supported by the hard work of another Purdie, who’s contribution is less well recorded.
Purdie’s wife, Agnes Robertson Purdie, was very active in the Cooperative Society. She was apparently a shy, mild-mannered woman who did not prefer the publicity of public office. Yet, like her husband, she was always busy, working behind the scenes to support William’s political and professional career.
Agnes Purdie was particularly involved with the Educational Committee of the Dalziel Cooperative Society. She was always present at the awards ceremonies of the nursing and ambulance training programs and presented certificates to hundreds of ambulance students.
In 1931, while out shopping in Brandon Street, Agnes suddenly fell ill. William Purdie was in a town council meeting when he received the message that he needed to come at once. The doctor and the ambulance arrived, likely crewed by first responders to whom Agnes herself had awarded their degree. They rushed her home, where William met them but she never recovered. The stunned newspapers reported her death as heart failure.
It would be the same cause that, in 1939 would take William Purdie’s life. He died at 87 and is buried in the Globe Cemetery, next to Agnes.