Author: Frank Donnelly
In every continent
throughout the world, the words ‘Darvel’ and ‘Lace’ are well known. It was
thanks to Alexander Morton, a son of the village who came from humble origins,
that, in the days of the lace industry, over 1000 people were employed in 20
lace factories in Darvel and almost as many in the 13 factories in Newmilns. Sadly,
these days are over, and all lace factories in Darvel are closed but there can
be no doubt that Alexander Morton was a local hero for the prosperity he
brought to the Valley.
Alexander Morton was born in a weaver’s cottage in Ranoldcoup Road, Darvel on 9 February 1844. His father, Guy Morton, combined handloom weaving with employment as a woodsman on Lanfine Estate in order to support his wife and family of two sons and three daughters. Life was hard and was made harder for Alexander when his father died in 1850. The family subsisted on parish relief, and Alexander started work at the age of eight as a farm worker at Greenbank Farm then as a herdsman at a farm on the Sorn Road, before moving on at age nine to herding on a moorland farm near Muirkirk for the next three years. At the age of 12, his mother brought him back to learn the weaving trade along with his brother. He devoted himself with characteristic enthusiasm to the new task and by age 15 he had managed to save £16 which he used to buy a new loom.
Through his love of singing, Alexander Morton met Jeanie Wiseman in a church singing class, and they married when he was 19 and she was 18. They set up home in a ‘but and ben’ at 104 West Main Street, Darvel, and soon Alexander became an agent, selling lace curtains to Glasgow buyers as well as manufacturing lace himself on his hand loom. Then he decided to by-pass the middlemen and sell directly to the Glasgow shops. A steady market was built up for his goods which were of high quality, and he decided to try to break into the English market. At the age of 24, armed with a case of sample patterns, he crossed the border to Carlisle and booked orders for 100 pairs of curtains. Flushed with success he proceeded next to Newcastle, then later to London. However, San Morton could foresee that the weaving of lace curtains by hand was a dying industry. In the autumn of 1874, on one of his business visits to London, he went to the South Kensington Museum where an industrial exhibition was being held. To his delight he saw there a Lever’s lace machine in operation, and, on his return journey, he stopped at Nottingham to visit the firm of Sharman and Tilson, lace machine builders, who gave him an estimated price of £1050 for a lace machine.
On his return to Darvel, Alexander Morton called a meeting of lace weavers and agents and proposed that they should all co-operate to establish a new lace industry using power-driven looms. They refused to risk their savings in such a costly venture, and in 1878 Big San, Wee Rab and cousin Alexander Morton formed the firm of A. Morton and Company, ordered the lace machine, and erected temporary premises to accommodate it beside the ‘clipping mill’ at the Townhead, on the east side of the Glen Water. Power was supplied firstly by a waterwheel and later by steam. Such was the success of this and so popular did the new curtains become, that the firm found it impossible to meet the demand. So, within a year, two more lace machines were bought, then a new more spacious factory was built west of Ranoldcoup Road, and within the next ten years 24 lace machines were installed. The result was that the click-clack of the handloom was heard no longer in the long village street, many young men began to leave the village, and many old thatched cottages stood deserted and derelict. To relieve the distress of the out-of-work weavers, Alexander Morton started a new venture — hand-woven tapestry which gave employment to 150 people. The demand for lace curtains continued to increase, and other manufacturers set up factories, so labour had to be brought in from Newmilns, Galston, Hurlford and even Kilmarnock.
Such was the growth in the industry that A. Morton and Co. decided to build a new factory in Carlisle. Lace and madras weaving continued to be conducted at Darvel, but the tapestry and chenille curtain production was transferred to Carlisle. Alexander Morton then turned his attention to carpet making, and at Killybegs, County Donegal in Ireland, he converted a barn into a carpet weaving shed. The beautiful Donegal hand-tufted carpets became so popular about the year 1900 that four large factories were erected to cope with the demand. Donegal carpets were installed in Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, 10 Downing Street and the Bank of England, as well as into the houses of ordinary people. Yet in spite of his business dealings, this man, who had only the bare rudiments of education, developed a wide variety of interests – reading, horse-breeding and judging (he established a hackney stud at Gowanbank House), farming, fruit growing, history, architecture and horticulture (he specialised in the growing of pansies). He once bought a horse called ‘Goldfinder’ for £100 and a few years later sold it for 3,000 guineas!
In the public life of Darvel, Alexander Morton served on the Town Council and became Chairman of the School Board. He also bequeathed to Darvel the land now known as the Morton Park on condition that no housing should ever be built on it. In August 1923, he and his wife quietly celebrated their diamond wedding, but on 28 December that year Alexander Morton died at his fruit farm in County Donegal. He was interred in Darvel old cemetery on New Year’s Day 1924.
On Saturday 12 November 1927 the memorial to Alexander Morton, erected by public subscription, was unveiled by the County Convener J. Harling Turner in the presence of a very large gathering of people. This memorial is by the roadside midway between Newmilns and Darvel, close to the home he built at Gowanbank House, and commanding a magnificent view of the Irvine Valley and the Lanfine woods which he had loved so well. In a recess in the centre is a bust of Alexander Morton, and underneath it are the words carved in stone: “Alexander Morton, who led this valley to industrial fame and prosperity”. The two stone panels on either side of the bust illustrate the old handloom weaving and the modern power loom. At the top of the wall, running from end to end of the monument, are the following words carved in relief in the stone: “The wonder of the world, the beauty and the power, the shape of things, their colours, lights and shades, these I saw: Look ye also while life lasts.” This is a very fitting epitaph for a man of such aesthetic sense and artistic taste as well as first class business acumen.