In the 1870s Robert Gibson, born in Newton on Ayr in 1826, was the founder of Glentyan Laundry in Merchants Close. Robert was brought up in Kilbarchan. His father, an Ayrshire handloom weaver, had moved to Kilbarchan, and in the 1840s the Gibson family lived in Barholm where James and three of his sons, including Robert, were silk handloom weavers. Robert married Mary Love in 1861. Over the next twenty years, the demand for handloom weaving declined and the number of village weavers dropped from around 883 to 678.
Robert must have seen the writing on the wall. Before 1881, he had established himself as a ‘washer and dresser’, living with his family in Merchants Close. (A ‘washer and dresser’ was a laundryman.) Robert set up his laundry in the old bleachfield building in Merchants’ Close and he and his family lived in Bleachfield House (later known as Woodside Cottage). The laundry was a family concern. Robert’s three eldest daughters were ‘laundress ironers’ and the youngest, Elizabeth, aged 13, was a ‘laundress collar machine ironer’. Matthew, aged 18 was a ‘ mangler and packer’ and John had worked as a washer and dresser.
Work in the laundry was hard and, at times, dangerous – steam presses, hot irons, and moving machinery. One serious accident occurred in 1900. A local girl, Mary Munn was seriously injured in the laundry when her hair became tangled in an overhead revolving shaft. She seems to have made a good recovery and later married Robert’s youngest son, Tom.
Robert’s Glentyan Laundry appears to have been a very successful, lucrative family business. In 1885 Robert still rented the laundry building and house from Thomas Mann of Glentyan, but by 1895 he was owner of both properties. In 1898 his wife, Mary, died and Robert appears to have taken a backseat in the business and his sons became partners in the laundry. However, in 1904 sons John and Tom, as partners, left the business to set up their own establishment at the other end of the village, and Glentyan Laundry was sold to James Guthrie McVicar.
James McVicar, too, was an Ayrshire man, born in Newton on Ayr on 20th August, 1879. According to his descendants, his father, also named James Guthrie McVicar, had business dealings with the Kilbarchan weavers in previous years. He is documented in census records as a mercantile cashier. Young James became proprietor of Glenyan Laundry and Woodside Cottage before his marriage to Agnes Rintoul from Glasgow in 1908. The couple had two children, Agnes, (b 1909) and William (b 1915), both born in Kilbarchan.
When James took over the business, the laundry was mainly steam powered. The building with an adjacent chimney, shown upstream from the main laundry building on the OS map of 1812, was probably the boiler house. Glentyan Laundry served the village through WW1, but after the war, times were hard and James was concerned that trade was not picking up. As a member of the Laundry Trade Board (Great Britain), in 1922 he forwarded an objection to the Trade Board concerning their proposals on changes to piece rates for laundry workers. Trade seems to have improved in the 1930s. In 1941 James, aged 61, died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. His wife Agnes died the following year and the laundry closed a few years later.
James’s grandson found this painting (unknown artist) of the Glentyan Laundry and Woodside Cottage among family papers. It dates from the early 1900s.
Merchants Close (early 1900s) Courtesy of Ewan McVicar
© 2021 Helen Calcluth, Renfrewshire Local History Forum