The Knox Family (Mill Owners) of Kilbirnie

Moveo et Proficior

The story of the

Knox Family

Kilbirnie

KNOX

The Knox Family

Introduction

Note; This was written in 2001 – there may be some updates required. Copies of  this document as well as Certificates, letters and other documents compiled in this research were given to St Bridgets Primary School, Garnock Academy, and the Local History Dept of North Ayrshire Council based at that time in Ardrossan.

 

My reasons for compiling this information was to somehow try and capture a part of social history which seems to be vanishing rapidly in Kilbirnie. Buildings are disappearing and with them, the memories and stories of the way we used to live. The Garnock Valley has gone through tremendous changes in the last twenty years, with the closure of the Iron Works at Glengarnock, which shaped Kilbirnie from the 1840s until the 1980s and the decline in industry generally.

People who have grown up in Kilbirnie will be well acquainted with the name “Knox” particularly in relation to the Thread Mills which are still surviving today, known as W. and J. Knox even though the business has not been owned by the family since the 1970s.

The first few chapters of this book talk of the formation of the company. After which, commentary is given on the Knox family and their lives. You will see that favour is given to the Knox family of Moorpark. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, my interest in the Knox Family was sparked by a monument in Kilbirnie cemetery, dedicated to William Knox, who was killed during the First World War. William was from this branch of the family so the majority of the information I collated was from sources connected to this branch of the family. This enabled me to get a clearer picture of his life.

Secondly, since I was a child I loved Moorpark House and the grounds there. The other family houses were not quite so accessible. Place House has now been demolished and the operations at Redhugh House (until recently owned by the Salvation Army) have been scaled down considerably.

Thirdly and perhaps a more morbid reason, the Knox Family of Moorpark suffered tremendously at the hands of fate and of all the family the events in these few lives deserve to be noted.

I have where appropriate mentioned the other members of the family who resided at Place, and Redhugh with the information gathered when looking at Moorpark.

I would like to extend thanks to all of those people who gave their valuable time and assistance in answering my many questions about the Knox family. Particularly Colonel Sir Bryce Knox KCVO, MC, TD, Robin Mathew QC, the staff at Moorpark House, Brian Thompson of the Merchiston Club at Merchiston Castle School Edinburgh, Staff at the Mitchell Reference Library, Glasgow. and Mrs Ann Wilson, who provided the information on “Sandy”.

Chapter 1 – The Beginning

When travelling from Kilbirnie to Dalry by car, you will notice Davidshill farm on the left hand side which is actually on the Parish Boundary between the two towns. The drive takes you between many green pastures and you would be forgiven for not knowing that this is where a business began officially in 1778, one which was to last well over two hundred years, trickling blood into a small farming community, paving the way for a sudden explosion in the mid 1800s which would bring people from all over the country and world to descend on the area. The main attraction was the local Iron works at Glengarnock which was to open blast furnace works creating hundreds of jobs. This coupled with the opening of a major Railway line between Glasgow and Ayr meant an economic boom.

In those days, Flax was a valuable commodity in North Ayrshire and was indeed one of the main crops. The soil and climate were both suitable. This farm was where it began for the Knox family, (who were originally from Kicudbrightshire) the eldest son William started a bleaching operation on the banks of the River Garnock, using an old fashioned water wheel for power. Today, we can still see the evidence of where the flax straw was submerged in order to create the desired effect.

This paved the way some years later for James Knox and his young son Robert (born 1763) to set up a small textile mill in Kilbirnie to spin to Flax which was being produced. In 1778 they registered this company as a linen thread manufacturing company. It is the earliest record of a registered company in the County of Ayr. Only two other companies in Scotland had been registered at that time, Gourock Ropework Company of Gourock and Scott Lithgow Shipbuilding company on the Clyde. Robert used the power from the River Garnock and the remains of this old mill can still be seen at the back of where Moorpark House stands today. Soon he was manufacturing sewing thread for the tailoring trade and flax twine for Fish Netting.

The company was to expand with Robert’s sons William and James who called the company W & J Knox. William was born in 1802 and James in 1807. They built and owned the “Dennyholm Mill” which is an area in Kilbirnie, still holding the same name.

It was these two men who moved the company in 1864 to where it stands presently at “Knoxville Road” in Kilbirnie and they built a large five storied building to accommodate the flax machinery. ”Stoneyholm Mill” (named because it faces Stoneyholm Road) already existed as a cotton mill but went into liquidation before being occupied by W. and J. Knox. The following was documented at the time of the takeover:-

Originally built in 1831, the oldest part has four stories and an attic. An eight bay block was built as a cotton mill in 1831 with a similar three by four bay extension. Adjacent to the first part is a bean engine house and adjacent to the latter is a later horizontal engine house. This old part is now used for storage and forms part of an E. Block with a newer building. The Latter is a three story and attic rubble structure with a nine bay pedimented frontage and eight bay wings. Behind this is a four story rubble block, a range of single story weaving sheds and a two story five by twenty eight bay yellow brick net weaving factory, built in two portions. There is also a very large red brick circular section chimney.”

Chapter 2 – Growth

William was responsible for the manufacturing side of the company while James travelled extensively around the world, appointing agents not only in the UK but also abroad. Only ten years after Captain Cook had discovered New Zealand, an agent was appointed there. In the early years, Norway played an important part, requiring hemp twine for cod gill nets. The River Clyde provided excellent and convenient shipping facilities.

Canada was another, requiring flax gill nets for use in Lakes Ontario and Erie. In 1856, John Leckie, a customer of Knox Twines and Sewing Threads emigrated from Glasgow to Canada. Before leaving, William and James agreed to appoint him as an agent in Northern Canada. John worked amongst the fishing communities and the business expanded a great deal as a result. Years later, the Knox company purchased John’s company “John Leckie Limited” which had evolved into the leading ship chandlers with branches all over Canada.

William lived lived at the Mill House in the Dennyholm Yard, later to become the Office. He married Barbara Wark. James lived originally in Knoxville and later in Riverside House. At this time, the company saw great expansion and were leading the market in high quality linen threads which were used for suits, saddlers, leather goods, shoe manufacturing and even a range of embroidery threads were introduced later. As well as this, the company were now manufacturing a complete range of netting twines which were being sold worldwide to fishermen who knot the threads by hand from the Kilbirnie made twine.

It was not until 1878 that the first netting machines were installed at the mills in Kilbirnie and these were the old “Jumper type, semi automatic”. They were designed for the manufacturers of cotton herring nets which were sold to the very large herring fleet in the Firth of Clyde. Irvine was very important in herring fishing at that time.

Around 1900, machines became available for the manufacture of double knot fishing nets. These were semi automatic who had to use wooden pedals with their feet. These were known as “Scotch” machines and were made with bobbin and shuttle to produce herring Drift nets and only single know netting could be made.

Many of the nets were hand finished in the cottages in Kilbirnie by what was called “Outworkers”. A horse drawn cart would visit these cottages with the twine. At one time, as many as 20 Clydesdale horses were being used for this and also to go to and from Kilbirnie railways Station. In 1898 the Knox company, along with its two competitors formed the first and largest textile merger in Britain, to form the Linen Thread Company Limited with its registered office in Glasgow. The two competitors were William Babrbour and Sons of Lisburn, Northern Ireland and Finlayson Bousfield and Co of Johnstone Renfrewshire.

William had only one son, Robert William Knox (later of Moorpark) James had two sons, Sir James Knox (later of Place) and Bryce Muir Knox of (later of Redhugh).

Robert William looked after the purchase of Raw material such as Flax from Ireland, Russia and Belgium. Bryce Muir was in charge of the Manufacturing side of the Business and Sir James was in charge of the Marketing side. He was a first class salesman and he travelled around the world, with two suitcases, one with gifts for potential clients for example cigars and whiskey and the other for personal clothing.

During both Wars, James was responsible for reporting to the Government for the promotion of flax growing in the U.K. and New Zealand. The traditional sites had now became battlefields.

The company survived the depression of the thirties with difficulties but picked up only to be faced with the war! During the War all linen threads supplies were commandeered by the ministry of Supply for sewing uniforms and supplies for soldiers such as Parachutes etc. and the fish net side of the business had to focus entirely on camouflage netting.

The main customer for netting was in Canada and a service was still provided to them at that time. The demand for linen thread gradually declined when nylon was introduced. Single knot gill nets could be manufactured from nylon at speed on bobbin and shuttle machines with which all of the net makers were equipped.

It is also interesting to note that the company never had a strike or walk out, which is unusual for one which has been in existence for a considerable length of time.

The company has certainly always been open to change in order to survive as is clear from what has been covered already. Another good example is documented in 1978 when the purchase of Morrison Whyte Ltd took place. At the time of sale they were producing 40 tonnes of carpet yarn each week, employing 120 people. Sadly that was relatively short lived. Another example was the formation of Knox Engineering which was formed by taking on an agency of Japanese Fish Manufacturing. The company was also severely hit by the Icelandic Cod war which hampered the Trawl net area of the business.

The company became part of the Cosalt group and survives by producing all kinds of netting for a variety of purposes. It still employs a large number of people who operate on a shift basis. The numbers do however tend to fluctuate depending on the company’s requirements at any given time so it’s difficult to give an exact number. We do know however that in 1977, there were 200 employees. Recently the company was recognised for producing camouflage netting for the troops when the Gulf was broke out. It also provides netting for fish farms, synthetic carpet yarns and work clothing.

Chapter 3 – Family

The Knox Family Linage so far mentioned:-

Robert Knox

James Knox William Knox

Sir James Bryce Muir Robert William

Sir James Knox (1850-1926)

Sir James was a very distinguished figure. He built Place House in 1906 which stood off the Largs Road in Kilbirnie, on the other side of the Road from the Golf Course. Also known for being an Ardent Unionist and giving much of his time and efforts to the community. He was Knighted in 1905. Sir James had two daughters, Miss Martha Knox and Janet Muir Knox who became Lady Mathew. She married the much celebrated war veteran Major-General Sir Charles Mathew. Miss Martha never married.

The following is an extract from the King’s Birthday List of Honours in November 1905:-

The King has been pleased to confer a series of honours in celebration of his birthday. The King having been graciously pleased to confer a Knighthood upon Mr James Knox of Place, Kilbirnie. Mr Knox is a director of the firm W. and J. Knox Limited, the well known thread manufacturers and has for many years been a prominent figure in the local affairs of his native town. In addition to promoting the best interests of the firm. In Politics, he is an ardent Unionist and is one of the chief factors in the organisation of the party in North Ayrshire which has been so successful in retaining the seat for the Unionists since 1893”.

Major-General Sir Charles Massy Mathew (1866 –1932)

Sir Charles was born in Wexford, Ireland in 1866, educated privately at Portsmouth Grammar School, started his career in the Durham Light Infantry, in 1884.

He abandoned regimental work in 1890 when he took service in the Ordnance Store Dept. In 1904 he went to the war Office as Deputy Assistant Director of equipment and Ordnance Stores and two years later became Assistant director. He spent much of his time on Sudan and South Africa. He married Janet Muir Knox in 1904. His family became very well known in the world of Politics and Law, in fact one of his sons, Mr Robert Mathew was a Member of Parliament for Devon and also a secretary to Harold McMillan. Even today, you will find the Mathew name appearing in “Who’s Who”, amongst the celebrated list of well known people.

Service List of Major General Sir. Mathew is as follows:-

Soudan 1885-1886

Action at Giniss 1886 (medal, Bronze Star)

Ashanti 1895-1896

Action at Hafir 1896 (despatches, medal and clasp)

Nile expedition 1898

Battle of Khartoum 1898 (despatches, medal and clasp and DSO)

South African War 1899-1901 (medal three clasps)

European War 1914-1917 (despatches, eight times promoted Major-General, KCMG,

CMG)

Major General Sir. Charles Mathew and Kilbirnie War Memorial

The war memorial which is situated at the bottom of Kilbirnie Public Park was unveiled on 13 October 1922. At that time, Major General Sir. Charles , before unveiling the monument gave these few words:-

I regard the unveiling of this Memorial as a very high honour. These men in whose memory this memorial was erected did their duty with simple fortitude when their country called upon them to do so. By their sacrifice we had been saved from a despotism which aimed at the domination of the world. It was a duty of all who remained to see that these men had not died in vain. At present time it was clear to all that our country was still in peril… The power of this great empire could never be broken if the people were united”.

Obituary

The following is an extract taken from a tribute to the General, after his death in 1932.

The community was stirred to its depths when the news of the death of the galient officer began to be circulated. At the funeral, there was a stirring of great sorrow at the loss which Lady Mathew and her two sons had sustained. The General had retired from active service in 1924, though he was Colonel Commandant of the Royal Army ordnance Corps, the funeral was not a full military one.. Many Military were in attendance with representatives from all of the Corps which the General was involved with”.

Lady Mathew died in 1956.

Place House

Of all the Knox Houses in Kilbirnie, Place was arguably the one with most character. Surrounded by acres of land , much of which was Orchard and Gardens. Many plants and trees had been imported from all over the world. Greenhouses held many rare specimens. Miss Martha Knox continued to live there after her Parents and family had died. During the 1950s. Place employed a number of staff, acting as Maid Servants, Cooks, Housekeepers Chauffeurs, Stable attendants, and Gardeners. Anton Liemanis, Herman Udris, both from Latvia and David Rice (who was a trainee Gardener) worked there in the 1950s under the direction of Miss Knox.

Place House was indeed very grand and sadly was demolished a number of years ago. The gardens are still very attractive although overgrown. The Chauffeurs cottages still stand and are occupied.

Bryce Muir Knox (1855-1924) and Redhugh

Bryce Muir Knox moved from Knoxville to Redhugh in 1901 and was responsible for extending the house greatly in 1908. Since it’s early days, Redhugh has been know for its fetes which used to be hosted by Mr and Mrs Knox. It had a Billiard Room and stables at the side of the house. Bryce Muir had six children, two daughters, and four sons. James, William Barr , Bruce and George.

James and Bryce ended up in charge of manufacturing at the Mill and Willie Barr and George were in the Sales Department in the Glasgow Office.

After the War, James became Chairman of the Linen Thread Co. Bryce retired and George remained at the Glasgow Office.

James had three of a family, one of whom is Colonel Sir Bryce Knox, KCVO, MC, TD who went on to become chairman of the firm. He joined as an apprentice in 1936. married Dorothy fry who was related to the Fry Chocolate manufacturers in Bristol.

Another member of James’ family was called Sandy. He was tragically killed in a car accident at Parkhill, where the family lived in Dalry. He was only sixteen years old and was a keen amateur radio enthusiast.

Robert William Knox (1845-1905) and Moorpark

Robert William Knox was the Great Grandson of the founder member of the business. His parents were William Knox and Barbara Wark. He married Jessie Fulton of Dalry and they lived at Moorpark. They had three of a family William, Anne and Barbara. As his Mother died at a young age, he was raised with his Father and Aunt Miss Jean Knox.

When Robert William died, the family had a memorial stained glass window inserted into the local Church (Church details mentioned later) and that window still stands today.

Robert was a pillar in the community and was involved in many projects. Here are a few of them:-

  • Consented to be Standard Bearer at the Next Liberal Election before his Death.

  • Chairman of the Northern District Committee of the County Council.

  • Member of the Parochial Board.

  • Chairman of the Parish Council.

  • Director of the Lanarkshire and Ayrshire Railway Co.

  • Chairman of the District Road Board.

  • Chairman of W. and J. Knox.

  • Chairman of the Linen Thread Co.

To The Electors of Kilbirnie Parish”

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN – In view of the Election of a County Councillor for your Parish, on the first Tuesday of December 1892, I solicit a renewal on the confidence you placed in me nearly three years ago on a similar occasion.

If again favoured I shall look after your interests to the best of my ability in all matters that have been placed under the control of County Councils and shall especially use every effort to right the wrong recently done to the Northern district of Ayrshire and especially to Kilbirnie by the decision of the boundary Commissioners in fixing the Electoral Divisions of the County, whereby Kilbirnie is deprived of one Representative, and the Northern District of Two Representatives, to whose services they are entitled by the population and valuation.

As regards the powers of the County Council, I desire to see them extended so as to include powers for the Compulsory Purchase of Land, and the Full Administration of the Public health Acts. I desire also to see Elected Parish Councils speedily established, charged with the administration of local business.

I shall do myself the honour at an early date to address you at a Public Meeting on these and other Topics.

Your Obedient Servant

R.W. Knox

Moorpark

Kilbirnie

16 Nov. 1892

Barbara, the eldest daughter never married and moved to England at a young age.

Anne Knox

During the first World War, Anne Knox worked as a nurse at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow, where she became good friends with a woman called Nurse Fletcher. Anne met James Fletcher, the brother of this nurse after the war, when she was on holiday in Africa. She subsequently married him and he changed his surname to “Knox Fletcher”. James and Anne Knox Fletcher lived at Hillhead House for two years and then returned to Moorpark House. At that time, Moorpark was let out to another member of the family. The Knox Fletchers did not have a family.

At the time the Knox Fletchers resided in Moorpark, the estate owned six farms in the are. These were – The Lintels, The Auchencloigh, The Conneliston, The Baillieston (the Home Farm), the Geerston and the Birtlebog.

James Knox Fletcher died in 1960, Anne herself died in 1966 leaving Moorpark to her relative, a descendant of Sir James Knox of Place. Mr Robert Mathew was a Member of Parliament for Devon and also a secretary to Harold McMillan. He and his wife travelled to Moorpark the day Anne died but tragically Mr Mathew himself died of a heart attack the following day at Moorpark. The family retained the house until the youngest son had reached age twenty one for the Will of Mr. Mathew required that the estate could not be settled until this time.

William Knox (1888-1916)

William was born on 9 April 1888. The following extract gives announcement to his birth:-

Knox – At Moorpark, Kilbirnie, on the 9 April 1888, the wife of R.W. Knox; a son”

As a young man he worked for the Knox Family Business, in Northern Ireland.

Sadly he was killed in action on 20 February 1916. William was a Captain in the Queens own Cameron Highlanders and RGC. He was also active in the Home Guard until eventually being called for service in 1914. His name is engraved on the War Memorial in Kilbirnie.

William was a close friend of James Knox, the son of Bryce Muir. An obituary does not seem to have been entered in any newspaper although the following is noted from a local Newspaper dated Mar 3 1916:-

In the list of casualties in the Expeditionary Force, under date Feb 20-26, Captain William Knox of the 3rd Camerons and Royal Flying Corps, is reported as missing”.

Although no trace of an obituary has ever been found, his death is recorded in the Kirk Session records and a communion table exists in the Church (St Columbas) remembering those who died during the war.

Details of the location of his grave are given later.

Moorpark House (1860)

Staff

According to an extract of the 1871 census, the residents at that time were:-

Robert William Knox age 25

Hugh Knox age 60 (house proprietor)

Jean Knox age 32 (aunt)

The Servants were:-

Mary Glass age 21

Maggie Glass age 19

Both from Stewarton.

And on the 1891 census, the following is recorded:-

Robert William Knox age 45

Jessie age 32 (wife)

William Knox age 2 (son)

Martha Brown age 25 (Nurse & Domestic Servant)

Annie McColl age 25 (housemaid)

Agnes Gallacher age 32 (cook)

The estate encompasses 20 acres of land, and the original Mill where the small business began in the 18th century. Today it’s owned by North Ayrshire Council.

The ruins can still be seen in the grounds today. The rear part of the house which is now used as offices was in addition to the main part and was added by a man called “Barclay” from Kilbirnie.

The Dining Room of the house still displays the original superb gold-leaf ceiling. Robert William commissioned painters from Italy to undertake the work in this room and it is said that these painters returned every two years to repaint the ceiling. It is one of the few rooms on the house still in its original condition.

In the front part of the house beneath the stairs there was a bathroom. Just outside this was a phone where Coachmen were called to take him to Robert to the Mill.

The main stairway was made of mahogany and oak. The columns were made of Marble and Timber.

The windows have a stained glass design and depict Roman and Greek Gods of thread making.

Burial Records

Most of the Knox family are buried in Kilbirnie cemetery with a few notable exceptions.

The Memorial to Robert William Knox and his family is situated in Kilbirnie Cemetery and cannot be mistaken as it is the largest memorial in the graveyard. Ann Knox, her husband and her parents are all buried here. William, as detailed on the plaque is buried in “Aize Court Le Bas” in France, having died in Service during the War. It is unclear where Barbara is Buried.

There is a vault in Kilbirnie old Cemetery, next to where the large Knox Memorial sits today. The head stone is monumental and one would not know that a vault exists underneath. The vault is 12ft by 9 ft and contains six people:-

Sir James Knox

Lady Knox (nee McCosh)

Annie Knox (Daughter of Sir James, Died age 7)

Major General Mathew

Janet Knox (General Mathew’s wife)

Robert Mathew (his son)

Elsewhere in the cemetery you will find the grave of Bryce Muir Knox which is turreted and easy to identify.

William Barr Knox is buried in Largs.

Schooling and education

Generally speaking, the men in the family were educated either at Fettes College or Merchiston Castle, Edinburgh (Robert William generally favoured Merchiston). and then went on to either Trinity or Cambridge. The women, as was the custom of the day were not given such privilege.

The following are extracts from the Fettes school registers:-

Knox, William Barr (Ca), Nov, 1885; son of B.M. Knox, Redhugh, Kilbirnie; b of J. 1897, B, 1906, G.K. 1918; XV; left Dec 1904. Linen Thread Manufacturer; died at Dalry 7 Dec 1947.

Knox, Bryce (Ca), June 1892;son of B.M Knox, Kilbirnie; b. of J. 1897, W.B. 1900, G.K. 1915; H.P, ; XI; X; left July 1910. Clare, Camb; 1914-18 War; Capt Ayrshire R.H.A. Egypt; Palestine; desp; Dir. Linen Thread Co. Ltd. 1939-45 War Lt Col. 2nd Ayrshire HG, Boghall Beith Ayrshire. M.

Knox, George Kerr (Ca) Dec 1903; son of Bryce M. Knox Kilbirnie Ayrshire. B of J 1897 W.B. 1900, B.1906. Father of WS 1946 Sp; XV (capt); VIII (capt); Donegal Badge; Maitland Shooting Cup 1921; left Apr 1922, Clare, Camb. M.A. 1927 M.B.E. Chairman Linen Thread Company Ltd Glasgow , Kersland, Monkton, Ayrshire.

Knox, William Stuart (Ca). Sept. 1932; son of G.K. knox (O.F. 1918) Biol. VI: H.P. Athletics; Discus. 1950 (record) left July 1950. Farmer Kersland Monkton Ayrshire.

Worship

The Knox family were involved with the Churches in the Town. Sir James and his family attended the “Auld Kirk” in Kilbirnie and an area in the Church was reserved for them, which can still be seen today.

The family of Robert William attended the West United free Church in Kilbirnie of “The Red Kirk” as it was known. It merged with St Columba’s which sits on the opposite side from the Red Kirk in the 1900s and latterly they attended there. Older members of the congregation can still remember Mrs Knox Fletcher attending. In the “Red Kirk”, there is a window dedicated to the memory of Robert William Knox, placed there after he died by his wife.

If you have any comments or would like to ask me anything about this treatise, please use the contact me box and I will try to answer them