26 June 2022
  • 26 June 2022

The Life and Times of Jane Arthur – Not The Weaker Vessel part 1

on 3 August 2021 0

In the first of a series of articles that looks back upon some of Renfrewshire’s pioneering figures that helped to mould our area into the prosperous and forward-thinking community that it is, artist and heritage consultant Lil Brookes guides us through the revolutionary and civic duty-led life of Jane Arthur.

The bells of the High Church, Paisley, tolled out on the afternoon of 28 May 1907 as around thirty five carriages, many with their blinds down to conceal the occupants, followed in a cortege behind a horse drawn hearse. Accompanied by a carriage full of wreaths and flowers, the procession through the town would lead to Woodside before making its final stop at the family vault. This was the largest funeral seen in the town for some years and many shops closed their doors, while residents whose houses were situated along the route closed their curtains in respect for the deceased.

Who you might ask was this funeral for- a prominent industrialist? A master craftsman? Or a gentleman of one of the medical or legal professions in the town?

The answer is found in the obituary which was published at the time in the Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette and read as follows:

“Her’s was a life spent in visiting and helping the sick, encouraging the poor to rise above their hopeless surroundings, doing good in a hundred ways that will never be fully known.

Not only can all this be sincerely said of her, but her steadfast example and demands brought others to work with her and for her. Long will the memory of Mrs Arthur remain green in Paisley – a vivid memory of kindly advice, of untiring activity, of an ever open hand.”

This was the funeral of a well-connected, prominent lady of the town well known for her philanthropic and charitable work in assistance of many causes in both Paisley and beyond. She achieved much in her life, including becoming the first woman in Scotland to serve in an elected office and promoting the cause of women’s suffrage. Her name was Jane Arthur and this is her story.

Conventional Beginnings…

Jane was born in Paisley in 1827 as the daughter of Thomas Glen and Jessie Fulton.The town of her childhood and adolescence was one of an emerging industrial manufacturing hub, primarily focused on thread-making development alongside the existing textile trade where harness loom weaving and master weavers produced the fashionable Paisley pattern shawls. Her father owned the Hawkhead Grain Mill and Broomlands Bakery. His business interests were therefore well positioned in this environment to benefit from the ever growing population, with a hungry workforce in need of bread and all manner of baked goods.

I like to think that Jane, along with her older sibling Margaret (born in 1821), enjoyed a pleasant upbringing without need or want within this hard working family. That said, I also wonder if the Glen sisters were aware of other social factors at play in the town in those early years of childhood and adolescence. Factors such as the impact of the cholera outbreak on the town in 1832 which claimed many lives and highlighted the unsanitary living conditions of many parts of the town or the questions raised by the active Chartist movement in the town and the unrest, severe poverty and unemployment caused during the textile industry’s economic slump in n the decade of the 1840’s. How much these and other social factors affecting the town impacted on the early experiences of the Glen sisters and in particular that of Jane is conjecture by me, but in light of Jane’s future life choices and events, it’d stand to reason that they may have had some influence.

Following the conventional path for young ladies of their station in Victorian times, both of the Glen sisters married and made good matches within their social circle and class. In 1840, Margaret married an engineer who worked in partnership with his brothers in the prosperous family thread manufacturing business based at Ferguslie Mills.

His name was Thomas Coats. The couple went on to have eleven children and lived near to the thread mills at Ferguslie House. Some years later in 1847, aged twenty, Jane also married. Her new husband was several years older than her and already an established and prosperous businessman called James Arthur. James had established a successful and very profitable firm of clothing wholesalers and manufacturers based in Glasgow known as Arthur & Co Ltd.

Mr and Mrs Arthur settled down to married life and over the course of several years, the couple had five children- a girl Jessie and four boys, Matthew, Thomas, James and Andrew. As James Arthur prospered in business, the family moved to Barshaw House in Paisley and oversaw the expansion and remodelling of the house and gardens. Further in line with the fashion of wealthy families of the time, a house in the countryside was also purchased by the Arthur’s, one which could easily be reached by a short train journey from Paisley Gilmour Street. The residence in the country was called Carlung House and sat just outside the village of West Kilbride, boasting views across the firth of Clyde and the beautiful castle and harbour at nearby Portencross.

Looking at this description of Jane’s family and home life, it is fairly conventional for the wealthy elite of the town of Paisley at the time and there the story might stop if not for the other atypical achievements of Jane in terms of her philanthropic and charity work, her advocacy for women’s suffrage and the crowning achievement of taking part in and winning a seat on the first elected Paisley School Board in 1873.

Doing Good Works…

Philanthropy, charity or simply ”doing good works” were common pursuits for many members of the wealthy elite, not only in Paisley but for the paternalistic high society of Victorian Britain as a whole. As the 19th century unfolded and fortunes were made from the industrial explosion in manufacturing and trade, there was also a growing recognition among social commentators that with this came attendant problems associated with slum housing, poor sanitary conditions, overcrowding, disease, poverty, alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, criminal activity and the list goes on. Charles Dickens was one such onlooker who,via his popular novels, was able to highlight and provide insight on the “underbelly” of prosperous Victorian Britain.

In Paisley the wealthy elite led by “power” families such as the Coats and Clarks took on many philanthropic and charitable roles, funding many of the institutions still very much treasured in the town today such as the Paisley Museum and Art Galleries, the Coats Observatory, Paisley Town Hall and the Fountain Gardens. The Arthurs were very much a part of this circle and among the many causes they contributed to, the funding of the Paisley Infirmary as well as the building and maintenance of the Paisley Convalescent Home in West Kilbride ranked chief among them.

Perhaps their most significant contribution, and one which James Arthur did not live to see as he died shortly before it was opened, was the model lodging house for men which was situated in the west of the town just off Well Street at what today is known as Arthur Street. This provided affordable hostel accommodation to poorer, working single men. The hostel provided safe, cheap accommodation with a high standard of sanitation and some privacy for occupants, unlike the overcrowding and unsanitary conditions afforded by many of the common lodging housing in the town.

Furthermore, there was a superintendent employed to care for the premises and ensure that the character of potential lodgers was of an appropriate temperament to gain entry to the accommodation. Noted in the Paisley town council minutes from August 1885, the first individual employed as Superintendent was a Mr George Mortimer. His pay per year was to be £60 with free rent, rates, coal and gas with a uniform also provided with the post. In accordance with the wishes of James Arthur, the lodging house was handed over to the town council a year after it had opened and was successfully operating. Further again from the town council minutes in February 1889, a letter from Mrs Arthur is commented on as follows:

“…Mrs Arthur will always feel a deep interest in the fortunes of the lodging house, as it embodies a cherished scheme of her husband and herself to provide accommodation for respectable poor people finding other lodgings difficult to find or impossible.”

All of this said, I think as a couple, both James and Jane took an active interest in many philanthropic and charitable causes throughout their married life and I think could be considered as a team to be to be reckoned with. So, we need to backtrack a little here to focus on the singular contribution of Jane Arthur in terms of her involvement in many charitable organisations and philanthropic causes.

As a lady of some wealth and standing in her social class, Jane followed the conventional division of labour in an upper middle class Victorian household and did not take on paid work. Her role was as wife, mother and homemaker BUT akin to many other ladies of her social standing, it was acceptable for her to become involved in philanthropic and charitable roles. Many of these pursuits were governed or run by religious institutions, so these types of roles were seen as safe and acceptable for respectable ladies who were wives, mothers, daughters and sisters.

By the mid 1860’s, there is no doubt in my mind that Jane was interested in and aware of the poverty and social problems of her town and because of her sex, she was ultimately denied the opportunity to study a profession such as medicine or indeed to become involved in local politics. So, her route to making a difference in her community was via her work in various charities.

Jane appears to have been an enthusiastic member of numerous organisations and took on various roles in the committee structures, either as President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer or ordinary committee member. The skills needed or acquired by taking on any role on a committee involves, to a greater or lesser extent, a managerial temperament plus skills of organisation, negotiation, conciliation and leadership among many other things.

Jane’s enjoyment and enthusiasm for taking on numerous roles with various charity committees points to her wanting to make a meaningful difference in her community, while no doubt enjoying organising or asking others to oversee events such as charity bazaars, soirees and appointing guest speakers to raise subscriptions and funds for charity.

Advert for Mr Curries Bath House from Trade Directory

Advert for Mr Curries Bath House from Trade Directory

Over a period of several years, Jane must have acquired or honed existing skills to allow her to take on more demanding roles, while retaining her social position as mistress of Barshaw House and wife of a prominent businessman. To highlight a few of the many charities Jane was involved with, she is listed as being Vice President of the Paisley Ladies Sanitary Association (her Sister Margaret was President), Treasurer of the Paisley Infirmary Dorcas Society and Vice President of the Scottish Girls Friendly Society.

A brief outline of each follows:

1. The Paisley Ladies Sanitary Association was constituted in 1864 and was active in the town until the mid-1870’s. The aims of the charity was to

  • Deliver public lectures on various topics related to the promotion of good health and cleanliness
  • Distribute sanitary pamphlets particularly to the poor of the town and aimed at the women in households.
  • Employ several what were termed “Bible” women to hand out pamphlets and also clean fever infected and slum houses of the poor.
  • Operate a “Bath” scheme. “Bath” tickets were given out to use at a Mr Currie’s public bath house in the High Street to allow the bearer to use hot bath facilities for free. 
  • Establish a sick fund where the sick and dying poor could benefit from fresh bedding, blankets and the use of an iron bed frame and mattress.

2. The Paisley Infirmary Dorcas Society aimed to raise funds to allow for the distribution of essential clothing, bed clothes and blankets to convalescent poor patients leaving Paisley Infirmary. From the society annual report of 1868, among the list of essential clothing distributed to the convalescent poor that year were as follows:

Men:
• Simmets – 151
• Shirts – 136
• Drawers – 25
• Trousers – 22
• Coats – 2
• Cap – 1

Women:
• Shifts – 28
• Petticoats – 115
• Bedgowns – 42
• Shawls – 13
• Stockings (pairs) – 184
• Shoes (pairs) – 177

Further the society aimed to help poor patients convalesce by providing the funds for long term stays at Dr Kinnear’s seaside recovery home in Saltcoats on the North Ayrshire coast. In 1867 the society paid the sum of £11. 8 shillings for fifteen patients to stay there to improve their health and aid recovery.


3. The Scottish Girls Friendly Society established and maintained a flat at 16 Moss Street in 1883 with a larger property in 1884 at Forbes Place, before moving to a purpose built home in Weighhouse Close in 1901. The aims of the society were to:

  • Ensure proper and safe accommodation for the many young single country girls who came to industrialised towns like Paisley to work either in domestic service or the thread mills.
  • Provide a home which was to be a focal point where working class girls could not only get cheap and sheltered accommodation but take part in classes to learn housewifery, dress making, arithmetic, reading and writing.
  • Provide single girls coming to Paisley from the Highlands where English was not their first language as they were Gaelic speakers with classes in learning English. 

These are just three of the charitable societies that Jane was associated with and gives a flavour of her commitment to advocating and improving the living conditions of the poor and sick in her community.

Throughout her life, apart from her joint work with her husband and her involvement in many charitable societies, Jane also instigated philanthropic work on a personal basis. Two examples being the establishment of the “Cabman’s Rest” in 1877 and then the Arthur Bursary in 1892.

The temperance and total abstinence movement was a cause Jane supported as the consequences of alcohol abuse, not least in terms of the ill effects on the individual, but the dire effects on the family unit and in particular domestic abuse and violence saw Jane become the benefactor of the “Cabman’s Rest” that was situated in County Place in Paisley.

This building was erected in 1877 near to the hackney cab rank outside of the busy Paisley Gilmour Street train station. It was well-known at the time that hackney cab men who had to wait between fares as trains arrived and departed, in all weathers and often from early morning until late at night, found obtaining shelter and buying warm refreshments very difficult.

The temptation was to resort to finding alcoholic refreshment and refuge in the many pubs and taverns surrounding County Place at the time. To combat this, the “Cabman’s Rest” was a small warm meeting place where the cabmen could sit between fares and buy items from a simple menu of hot drinks like tea, coffee and hot chocolate and warm food like soup or cheese on toast. This became a welcome institution and was hugely popular with the hackney cabmen.

Another cause that is very much integral to understanding the philanthropic and charitable career of Jane Arthur is her advocacy for women’s rights to equality of educational opportunities. This was a desire for equality of opportunity from school years education through to higher educational opportunity, particularly in professions such as medicine.

The Arthur Bursary was instituted by Jane in 1892 at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Glasgow. This bursary is still extant today and is awarded each year to the student who takes the highest place among all of the women candidates at their first professional examination. The prospect of welcoming female doctors to the field of medicine and possibly to general practice may have been particularly appealing to Jane, given her existing philanthropic interests in the community.

Jane’s passion for “doing good works” is undeniable and a matter of public record. Having achieved so much already, this might have been enough for one woman and would have cemented her place in the town of Paisley’s history and warranted the glowing words of praise written in the obituary, but not so for Jane Arthur. Her advocacy for women’s suffrage and her election to the first public school board in Paisley set her, in my opinion, to a further level as an exceptional woman who proved beyond doubt that she was more than a match to her male contemporaries.

Check back in next week as Jane goes on to make history as not simply a leading figure in the suffrage movement, but through winning an election to the Paisley school board.


More information about Lil’s work and community activities can be found on her Facebook page. She has also launched a new website which you can view here.

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