Ship-owner, Merchant, and Banker of Garvel Park, Greenock, 1735-1825
James Gammell was the 4th child and 2nd son of William Gammell and his wife
Margaret Scott. He was born in Greenock on 12 December 1735, and his baptism
as James Gamel is recorded in the Parish Register of Greenock West under date
of 15 December of the same year.
With his elder brother William, James attended Greenock Grammar School, and
in the book "Old Greenock" by George Williamson published in 1888, on page 150
appears the following:
“James Gammell, and his elder brother William, were also pupils of the Grammar
School, and school-fellows of Watt of James Gammell it is not necessary to say much
n the town where he was so long and so well known as the enterprising, successful
merchant and banker. Garvel Park formerly bore his name.
The father of the Gammells was Captain William Gammell, who had been bred to the
sea, and on retiring from it assumed, like many others of the day, the title of
Merchant. We have in our possession the Greek Testament used by both brothers
in Arrol's class, and by ourselves more than eighty years later. The title page is
printed in Greek and Latin in alternate black and red letters. A wood-cut represents
the flying figure of Fame blowing her trumpet, and at the foot of the page are the words " Edinburgi, apud Tho. and Wal. and Tho. Ruddimannos, MDCCXLn" It bears the autographs, "Wim. Gammell, His Book, Anno Domini, 174s," and "James Gammel, 1745," and below the signature of James he has printed his name, "James Gammell, Greenock," James Gammell and Watt were about the same age. The former was born at Greenock, 12th December 1735, the latter 19th January 1736, Gammell being thus Watt's senior by 38 days. Watt died in his 84th year: Gammell survived him nearly 10 years. The fathers of these remarkable men were intimate friends, near neighbours, and feuars of house property in the vicinity of Longwell Closs. Both had rendered good service to the community as members of Town Council.”
Though James Watt, the famous marine engineer and James clearly knew each other well, there is no evidence that the two worked together in later life, or that James ever invested any money in Watts' enterprises.
It does not appear that James entered University as his elder brother did, but was probably drawn early into commerce. It would be fair to conjecture that he joined his father's merchandising business in Greenock as soon as he left school, and that he got his early training there.
In 1760 or 1761 James married Janet Geils, daughter of Andrew Geils, a Glasgow merchant, but no record of the actual marriage has been found; it probably took place in the village where Janet lived, and this is not known. James and his wife set up house in Greenock, and there, their three sons were born:
William b. 6 August 1762 Died in infancy
Andrew b. 19 January 1764 d. October 14th 1815
William b. 25 August 1765 d. date unknown 1796
The next record we have of James is an old letter book found by a member of the Scott (shipbuilding) family in an attic in the 1960s. This letter book of James' covers the years 1767-1769 and brings to light the following:
a) Reference is made to the firm of Gammell Mathie & Co. 'now wound up'. This could have been his father William Gammell's firm, as the latter died in 1765.
b) James was at that time trading under the name of Crawford and Gammell.
c) The following is taken from a letter written by James to Mr. Thomas Campbell in Maryland U.S.A.: 'I must beg the favour of you to use all lawful means of recovering the debt due to me by Carroll and Brent and remitting same expeditiously, as I am in much want of money having lately built a large and expensive house'. This was not Garvel Park House, which was built in the 1770s, but a town house in Greenock which we know James also owned.
d) 5 August 1768. 'Our copartnery (presumably Crawford & Gammell) has expired, and we have renewed it with some alteration, and all our business after this, will be under the firm of James Gammell & Co.'
e) There are many letters to ships captains and contacts in Scandinavia, Jamaica, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Lisbon and Rotterdam, which indicates the size of his ship-managing and trading business.
Whilst it appears that he was trading with a number of locations in north America and the Caribbean, his main trans-Atlantic trading business seems to have been with North Carolina using the ports of Brunswick and Wilmington. We know that he established trading premises at Wilmington and Cross Creek (now called Fayetteville) and also appears to have had an estate at Cross Creek.
He also had a thriving business re-exporting goods from Greenock to ports in northern Europe. He certainly owned several ships, though it is not clear whether he owned all of the considerable number of ships that were involved in his trading business. The ships he used in his trans-Atlantic trade were typically called after gods and Goddesses: The Ajax, Jupiter, Aurora, Juno, Minerva, and Ulysses; or had girls’ names: The Flora, Betty, Penelope, Ruby, Jenny, Lucretia, Nancy and Jean, Mary and Jean, and Fanny. But there were also others: The Speedwell, Caledonia, America, Brave Corsican, Alexander, and Carolina Packet.
Some of the trans-Atlantic ships were also used for European trading, but he also used for trade ships called the Polly, Elizabeth, Monimia, Gorbals, Christiana, Christian, Alison, William, Sussannah, Olive, and Grizzle, for his trade with the continent.
Cargo imported from north America typically comprised tobacco, but also tar, turpentine, Indigo, pitch, barrel staves, deer skins, pine planks, mahogany, wheat flour, rice and linseed. Voyages to America carried a huge range of products, in fact everything that might be needed by people in the rapidly growing new colonies. These included kettles, pans, leather, linen and silk goods, stationery, glass, lead, bricks, coal, steel, gunpowder, beer, rum, and salted beef.
Inevitably in trading so extensively with North America, he got caught up in the American War of Independence (1775-83). In that war he seems to have tried not to take sides, but rather trade with both sides, but he lived in Scotland and seems to have leaned to the loyalist (Britain’s) side – and certainly it was seen that way by the Patriots since after the war’s conclusion, his properties in Wilmington and Cross Creek were confiscated by the Patriot North Carolinian government.
As a result of these losses he claimed from the British government. His memorials report that in 1769 and 1770 he was in trade with North Carolina and established trading premises at Wilmington and Cross Creek (now called Fayetteville). He reported that his ship, the Ajax, had had its cargo impounded and its crew impressed by HM sloop “Cruiser”, and claimed also for the loss of a plantation at Cross Creek; five negroes, and goods supplied in February 1776 to loyalists at Cross Creek. His ship America was burnt
James was elected to Greenock Town Council in September 1769 and at that time was described as 'a merchant and fewer'. (“fewer” means a person who paid a “feu” which was a property/land levy to the feudal owner of the land). In 1773 he was sent to London as representative of the Council to press the Bill in Parliament for improving Greenock Harbour, in which task he was successful, and later in the same year he was elected Baillie. He resigned from the post of Baillie in 1778 and resigned from the Town Council in 1784. (Greenock Town Council Minute Books), but evidently continued for the rest of his life to be known as 'Baillie Gammell'.
Although presumably James' merchandising business suffered as a result of the American War of Independence, it is clear that his business flourished, as by the early 1780s he had acquired a considerable number of properties in Greenock, as well as having built himself a country mansion at Garvel Park on the outskirts of the town. By that time also he had become a partner in James Hunter & Co. one of the first firms in Greenock to open up trade with Newfoundland.
James' resignation from the Town Council coincided with the establishment of local banking, and as a prime mover in this project, he may well have thought that as a banker, hoping to have the Town Council as a major customer, it might be unwise to continue to serve as a counsellor. This however is conjecture.
It was in 1785, that James became a founder director of what was to become The Greenock Bank. According to 'The History of Greenock' by Robert Murray Smith published in 1921, the bank was founded under the firm of Dunlop, Houston, Gammell & Co. as a bank of issue in that year and was the first banking concern to be established in Greenock, finance previously having been transacted in Glasgow.
The original partners were James Dunlop of Gainkirk, Andrew Houston of Jordanhill, James Gammell of Greenock, Andrew Thomson, Newfoundland (? a cousin of James G.) and James McDowell, merchant of Glasgow. The title of 'The Greenock Bank' was assumed in 1793, and James as well as being a large shareholder, was appointed the first manager. The Greenock Bank occupied various premises in Greenock, including Hamilton St., The West Breast next the Customs House, and finally 57 Cathcart St. at the corner of Watt Place. The centre of Greenock has, since the Second World War, been completely redeveloped, and Cathcart St. is mostly laid out as gardens, and no trace of the old Greenock Bank premises remains.
What part James' sons played in the family business is unclear, but both sons were reputed 'Tear-a-ways' and family tradition is that they were both a constant worry to their father, and a considerable drain on his pocket. Suffice it to say here that in the early 1790s they both joined the Army, and thus forsook any interest they may previously have had in their father's business from then on. Both sons were painted by Opie in military uniform in the 1790s, and these were no doubt paid for by their father, and there is evidence in the late 1790s and again in 1806, from letters written to James by his son Andrew, that he was financing him in the first instance, and his son William in the second. This evidence seems to scotch the family story that James disinherited both sons, although no doubt on occasion he must have been tempted to do so!
In 1808, for some reason or other James decided to invest in property in North East Scotland, and his first venture was to acquire from the Burnett family the estate of Countesswells, some 5 miles to the west of Aberdeen. A few years later he bought the estate of Ardiffery for his grandson James, Portlethen for his grandson Ernest, and finally Drumtochty and Lethendy with Whitewell for himself. These purchases were all made between 1816 and 1822, and in aggregate must have cost him well over £100,000.
In spite of advancing years, James remained an active partner in the Greenock Bank until well into the 1800s, as is proved by the inscription on a large silver soup tureen which was presented to him in 1808, perhaps on his retirement from active management. The wording of the inscription is as follows:-
'To James Gammell of Countesswells, the founder and senior partner of The Greenock Bank, for his very great and disinterested services rendered to his other partners, this small, but very unequal testimony of their gratitude is given by George Robertson, James Dennistown, William Forsyth and James Hunter'.
James continued to live at Garvel Park House until after the death of his wife in 1818, by which time he was well over 80, and with both his sons dead, he must have been rather a lonely old man. Whether it was this loneliness or for other reasons, we will never know, but in 1822, he left Greenock, and went to live in Drumtochty Castle - he never resided at Countesswells. Garvel Park remained in his ownership and was not finally sold until after James' death.
Despite his age, James remained mentally active when he reached Drumtochty. He had already bought properties for two of his grand-children, and it appears he now set in train a plan for the advantageous marriage for James, his second grandchild - the eldest already being betrothed. He befriended Lord Forbes of Castle Forbes in Aberdeenshire, and with him prepared a plan to bring together the said James, and Lord Forbes' daughter Charlotte, in the hope that they would become attracted to one another. There is a letter from Lord Forbes to James dated 31 August 1823, outlining these arrangements. But the marriage never materialised because, so family tradition runs, James thought Charlotte 'ill-favoured', and preferred, the daughter of an Irish merchant, whom he had met when serving with the Army in Ireland and whom he eventually married, shortly after his grandfather's death. This rejection of his friend's daughter obviously displeased the elder James, and presumably as a result, he left his uncommitted properties, namely Countesswells, Drumtochty and Lethendy to his next grandson Andrew, who was still unmarried. He left the properties to Andrew, however, only for life, and then to his children, but in the event of his remaining unmarried, on his death the properties of Drumtochty and Countesswells were to revert to the descendants of Lord Forbes. Whether this was to encourage Andrew to marry the said Charlotte, or only to compensate his friend Lord Forbes for the insult of his grandson refusing the hand of his daughter, we shall never know: what we do know, is that James' wishes did not come to fruition, as although Andrew remained unmarried, owing to a slip in James' will, Andrew was able to prove that he was in fact the owner of his grandfather's estates in fee simple.
James eventually died at Drumtochty on 15 September 1825, at the ripe old age of 89. He is buried in the Parish Church in the village of Auchinblae, close to Drumtochty. His tomb is near the entrance gate to the church, on the left-hand side, and bears the following inscription:
'In memory of JAMES GAMMELL Esq. of Drumtochty who died at Drumtochty the 15th September 1825 aged 89, and is interred here. Also in memory of JANET GEILS, wife of the said James Gammell who died 28th April 1818 aged 79, and is buried at Greenock, and their sons, WILLIAM GAMMELL, who died in infancy, Lieutenant General ANDREW GAMMELL interred in Westminster Abbey, and Lieutenant Colonel WILLIAM GAMMELL interred in Martinique.'
In his will James left a great many monetary bequests which amounted to nearly £50,000, and much property in Greenock. After his death, his trustees sold off all his property in Greenock, and after the sale of Garvel Park to John Scott of Hawkshill in 1832, the Gammell family finally severed their connections with the Clyde in favour of the North East. After payment of legacies etc., the residue of James' estate went to his grandson Andrew, who thus became a very wealthy young man, with a rent roll from property of about £8,000 a year, plus a fairly large sum in cash.
Amongst his many bequests was 100 guineas to a certain James Gammell Donald but who this was is uncertain, but it might have been his sister Margaret's son or even grandson? He left another bequest of £50 to Benjamin Andrew Donald who was the grandson of his wife's (Janet Gammell nee Geils) sister (Grizel Donald nee Geils), who was left orphaned in 1806 and who was returned from America to Scotland as a child. The story of Benjamin Andrew Donald, who in adulthood returned to America, though not directly relevant to this Gammell story, is to be found in the downloads section of this website.
It is believed that before he died, and probably before he left Greenock, James severed all connection with the Greenock Bank. The Bank itself remained open until 1843, when, as the last private bank in Scotland, it was absorbed into The Western Bank. This latter stopped payment in 1857, with liabilities of over £9 million, and thus ended the enterprise founded largely through the initiative of James Gammell, who is still remembered as one of Greenock's most famous citizens.