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The Bequest of Captain John Smith

by David McClure
a late-18th Century brig

Captain John Smith was a merchant seaman who lived in Newton upon Ayr in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He was a comparatively wealthy man when he died (on 19th November 1817), leaving a personal estate of £2764. (note 1) According to the conventional adjustment for inflation, this is equivalent to £87,094 today, but this calculation considerably misrepresents his wealth. (note 2) Most of his money was on deposit, with the balance consisting of rents due to him. At 5 per cent, which was the yield on his promissary notes, the annual income was about £138, much above that enjoyed by the majority of tradesmen and professional men at the time. Whereas the sum of £87,094 today would yield only £4355 at 5 per cent before tax (if that rate could be found), not much more than half the national minimum wage which from 1st October will be £4.50 an hour, amounting £8190 a year based on a 35 hour week. This is an illustration of how incomplete and distorted a picture can be given by inflation adjustments over extended periods.
Smith was skipper of, and had shares in, a number of brigs built by the partnership of Robert Ralston and Robert Smith, which possessed a timber and ship-building yard on the Newton shore of the river Ayr. (note 3) He was probably the John Smith who, with Dr Robert Smith, was a trustee of Robert Smith the partner. Both partners died in 1806 and their business was wound up. Captain John Smith had shares in Ocean and Favorite [sometimes spelt Favourite]. There were also shares held by John Smith, probably the captain, in Juno, Hercules, and Britannia. The inventory of his personal estate shows that he had a one-sixteenth share in Favorite at his death, then valued at £40.
These boats were generally described as 'brigs' (see illustration), although the term 'brigantine' sometimes appears. (note 4) Their principal business was the carriage of coal from Ayr to various Irish ports - most frequently Dublin; Portaferry, Drogheda, Waterford, and Cork also occur. There were voyages further afield: to Pictou, Montreal, Quebec, Riga, Stockholm, and Memel. From Ireland they often returned with limestone to Ayr, or carried this to Barnstaple, Portsmouth, or Southampton, returning to Ayr with cargoes of timber or bark.
Apart from his earnings as skipper, which are not known, he enjoyed a substantial return on his shares in the boats. Hercules repaid its shareholders in full in four years, and in eight years dividends amounted to 230 per cent of the cost of the boat. Whether in addition he enjoyed any inheritance from Robert Smith is not known.
Captain Smith was married to Jean Chalmers. When his will was drawn up in May 1817, they had no living children. He left the whole of his personal estate to his wife 'in liferent', to be put on deposit or invested in property to provide an income, which, as remarked above, would have been substantial. After her death there were some family and other bequests to be made, amounting to £440, and the residue, possibly as much as £2324 and much later described as 'fully £2000', was left to provide for the education of the children of the poor.
His will stipulated that:
The yearly rents arising from the said purchased lands or interest of the said Jean Chalmers my spouse shall be applied by ... the Provost two Baillies & ministers of the Established Church of the Burgh of Ayr for the time being and their successors in place and office ... for the purpose of educating or assisting in the education of certain poor children in the Burgh & parish of Ayr whose parents live therein and are unable to educate them to be nominated by the said Magistrates & Ministers from time to time and these children thus to be presented shall only be taught to read English, Writing, and what is called the five common rules of Arithmetic so that they may be fitted for the common occupations of life. But if the managers of this fund shall at any time find a Young person whose parents live within the said Burgh & parish of Ayr whom they may think possessed of uncommon abilities and who shall discover a strong inclination for learning are hereby allowed to apply what proportion they may think proper of the said rents or interest for the instructing of such Young person in what other branches of education they may think proper.
So generous was this bequest that 27 years later it was still the greatest of the many 'posthumous benefactions to the poor' with which Ayr 'abound[ed]', exceeding in value those of many with higher positions in society, including Sir Robert Blackwood, Lady John Campbell, and Mrs Crawford of Ardmillan. (note 5) According to the account in the NSA, the bequest was applied to the funding of an existing school for poor children, in place of the subscriptions which had provided for it hitherto, and which was taught in a vacant room in the poorhouse of Ayr. Elsewhere it is stated that 'Smith's Institution' was established in 1825, again in the poorhouse, where in 1838 'William McDerment single-handed taught 245 pupils'. (note 6) A new building was erected nearby for the school in 1842, '"one of the largest and most commodious schoolrooms in the County" measuring 54 x 26 x 17 feet, to which a second storey was added in 1867; by which time 300 scholars paying a penny a week and 70 poor children enrolled free were taught by a staff of three teachers and two pupil teachers.' (note 7)
Smith's Institution was named on the first Ordnance Survey map of 1857 (see illustration showing the Townhead of Ayr - Kyle Street is on the left, Mill Street top right, and Smith's Road, later Smith Street, runs between at an angle to the railway line). The group of buildings immediately above it and to the left of the quarry are the premises of J & A Taylor, Engineers, while the 'Poor's House' can be seen on the extreme right.
Following the Education (Scotland) Act of 1872, Smith's Institution became the responsibility of the Ayr Burgh School Board, and in 1884 it moved into new premises in Holmston Road; in 1930 its name was changed to Holmston School. Holmston Primary School is in the same building today. (note 8)
According to Rob Close, Smith Street, formerly Smith's Road, owes its name to the institution endowed by and named after Captain John Smith. (note 9) Although otherwise long forgotten, he was a significant benefactor to the poor of Ayr, to whom thousands of children owed their basic education between 1825 and 1872.


1. National Archives of Scotland, SC36/48/13, inventory and settlement of John Smith, 6th July 1818.
2. Bank of England, 'Equivalent contemporary values of the pound: a historical series 1270 t0 1999', adjusted by David McClure for inflation from 1999 to 2002.
3. Various journals and ship's books are to be found in the National Archives of Scotland: CS96/654 to CS96/668.
4. 'Brig' was initially an abbreviation of 'brigantine'. By the end of the eighteenth century they referred to two different types of two-masted rigging. Lloyd's Register of 1790 includes 'brig' but not 'brigantine', which appeared as a distinct rig in the Register of 1834. This information was taken from David R. MacGregor, Merchant Sailing Ships: Sovereignty of Sail 1775-1815, London 1985.
5. New Statistical Account of Scotland, Vol. V, 81. The Ayr parish account was written by Rev. Robert Auld and Rev. Alexander Cuthill.
6. John Strawhorn, The History of Ayr: Royal Burgh and County Town, Edinburgh 1989, 196.
7. History of Ayr, 196.
8. History of Ayr, 197-200, and 221.
9. Rob Close, The Street Names of Ayr, AANHS, Ayr 2001.

© David McClure 2003


First Ordnance Survey (1857) 1:2500

(not to scale here)

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