A country house built from wealth accumulated through the proceeds of slavery. It was never restored after fire destroyed it a century ago, reduced to rubble more than a decade later.
One hundred years ago, fire had broken out at Orbiston House in Bellshill, North Lanarkshire, occupied by Mr James Steel. The south wing of the mansion was practically destroyed, as had parts of the roof in the main house. The Bellshill and Larkhall divisions of the County Fire Brigade had rushed to the scene, but were hampered by the lack of water pressure, the supply having to be pumped from South Calder Water, some distance away.
It was thought that the fire had started in a defective chimney and spread at an alarming rate along the roof. Several rooms, along with their contents, were destroyed before the fire reached the main building. The damage was estimated to be several thousand pounds.
The fire was the end of Orbiston House, eventually reduced to rubble more than a decade later. It was a sad end to a fine house, one of the most prosperous of them all, built on the profits of slavery.
Gilbert Douglas (1749-1807) had acquired much wealth from being the owner of the Mount Pleasant sugar plantation and the Fairfield cotton estate in St. Vincent. In 1794, he married Cecilia Douglas (1772-1862), the only surviving daughter of John Douglas, a Glasgow linen merchant. Gilbert purchased land at Douglas Park in 1800, and a year later, a further 225-acres, known as Bogs, on the banks of South Calder Water, from General John Hamilton.
Gilbert immediately commissioned Robert Burn, father of architect William Burn, to build a ‘modern’ mansion on the site of Old Orbiston House. This was called Douglas Park and was to be the centrepiece for his Douglas Park and Bogs estate. (There are papers available suggesting that the design had been conceived as early as 1795).
Gilbert Douglas died in 1807, leaving his widow one-third of his estate and life tenancy at Douglas Park and Bogs. Unfortunately, he also left debts of £7,700, eventually cleared by Cecilia Douglas from her own personal fortune. The Scottish estate and the West Indian plantations were put in trust, his widow the principal trustee.
Cecilia Douglas turned out to be a formidable businesswoman.
She had watched with irritating fascination a frivolous scheme that had taken place nearby. In 1825, Archibald James Hamilton, the son of General John Hamilton, had gone into partnership with Abram Combe to form an experimental socialist co-operative movement. Combe had bought land off General Hamilton for £20,000, and between them, spent another £40,000 to create a self-sufficient community. Under the banner “Liberty, Security and Knowledge” they established this ‘New Babylon” with accommodation built around a school, theatre, foundry, forge, printing press and a small factory. It ended in failure. Combe died in 1827, the project burdened with debt, local antagonism (no doubt from Cecilia) and the inability to be self-sufficient at all.
In 1830, Cecilia Douglas paid £15,000 to the creditors of the co-operative and added the remaining 291 acres of the Orbiston estate to her own, the enlarged estate now known as the Orbiston estate.
She died in 1862, a wealthy woman of 90-years-old, her estate valued at £40,365. Cecilia’s income had derived from tenant farmers and the slave economy in St. Vincent. Even the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 had increased her fortune, obtaining compensation of £3,013 (about £3 million today) for the 231 slaves on the Mount Pleasant estate. In addition, she held stocks and bonds in banking, railway, navigation, gas and insurance companies – all contributing a handsome dividend. In 1861 she became the sole survivor of the subscribers to the Glasgow Tontine, and inherited the Tontine buildings on Trongate. This had been established in 1781 to build “a public coffee-house with suitable accommodation for brokers, and rooms for tobacco and sugar samples.” The building was sold by her trustees in 1864 for £17,000.
In her will, her collection of paintings, sculptures and artefacts collected during an extended stay in Italy in 1822-23, was to be left to “some public institution in Scotland.” This valuable assemblage containing Gabnelli’s “View of the Roman Forum” and Camuccini’s “The Death of Caesar” was bequeathed to Glasgow Corporation, known as “The Douglas Collection”, and now forming part of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum’s collected works. In 2012, it was questioned whether it was appropriate to display works of art acquired through wealth accumulated through the proceeds of slavery.
Orbiston was inherited by Robert Douglas, a grand-nephew of Gilbert Douglas. He died in 1866 and left half of the Orbiston estate to a relative, John Culcairn Munro, and the other half to his son, Robert Lushington Douglas, who died unmarried in 1888.
The house was leased from 1865 onwards and proved attractive to the Victorian iron and coal magnates in the area.
William Neilson (1810-1882) lived here from 1875. He had founded the Mossend Ironworks in 1840 which grew into the Mossend Iron and Steel Company, one of the largest iron producers in Scotland, and was owner of several coal works on the estates at Carnbroe and Orbiston.
Neilson died in 1882 and the tenancy was taken over by James Addie, a partner in Robert Addie and Sons of the Langloan Ironworks in Coatbridge and the Viewpark Colliery. He left Orbiston in 1896.
It was assumed by William Neilson’s son, Colonel James Neilson (1838-1903), managing director of the Summerlee and Mossend Iron and Steel Company, as well as a director of various railway companies. He died at Orbiston House in 1903.
It lay empty for a long period before being occupied by James Steel about 1914. It was during his tenancy that Orbiston House suffered the disastrous fire of February 1919, which left the left wing of the house destroyed.
The house was owned by the trustees of Lushington Douglas who chose not to restore the house, instead leaving it in the care of Mr and Mrs Drydale, before eventually being demolished in early 1931.
In the 1920s, several acres of land were sold to Bellshill Golf Club, adding to their existing nine-holes.
The site of Orbiston House now sits within Strathclyde Country Park.
Gilbert Douglas was not the only Glaswegian profiting from Caribbean slave colonies in the early 1800s. Scotland itself benefited disproportionately from slavery compensation – Scots made up 10% of the British population, but 15% of the slave owners who got payments, with Glasgow getting much of the cash. The early 1800s have been called Glasgow’s “Golden Age of Sugar.”