James Fairweather (1828-1876)

James FAIRWEATHER – born 27 MAR 1828 • Alyth, Angus. Death JUL 1876 • Stepney, London

Despite having taken place around 160 years ago, the story of James Fairweather is one that would not seem out of place in this modern age of commerce and the juggling of credit. James was the son of Robert Fairweather and Margaret Millar. He was born 27th MAR 1828 in Alyth, Angus and died in Stepney, London in July 1876. He was described as a man of average build, 5′ 9” tall with fair hair and blue eyes. A few years before his death he was a manager for the Standard Works in London’s East End and he hobbled through the streets on his wooden leg – a man in his late 40s but a shadow of his former self. Changed days from just a few years previous as he frequented the Coffee House in St Paul’s Square, meeting merchants and doing deals; relaxing after a trip to Paris or Berlin; passing the odd hour before heading off to catch the next train back to Glasgow or Brechin.

James was a commission agent, buying a selling goods, generally bales of jute yarn relating to the Dundee jute industry. He was ambitious, driven and keen to make a success of business. He was a well regarded merchant in Dundee and a director of the Chamber of Commerce. He was a key figure in a delegation that went to Paris to negotiate a reduction in the import duties applied by France to the import of flax. In this they were successful in that the tax was reduced from 150% to 30%. In later years the tax was completely removed.

The Dundee Advertiser of 4th Dec 1861 records the following:

“Some time ago there was in Dundee a prim, fair, young man, whose quiet manners, whose cultivated tastes, whose temperate, home-keeping habits, and whose reserved, but gentlemanly bearing, won him some little favour among our merchants. He was abstemious, studious, thoughtful, fond of reading, fond of his home, and was remarked as one as regular as the clock, a pattern citizen, a model of propriety. In commercial circles it was known that he was ambitious in his transactions, and it was whispered that he traded on such a scale as his supposed means were thought not to warrant; but then, any misgivings that arose from such observations were much allayed by the remembrance of his staid demeanour and exact habits.”

“This young merchant became associated with good families, and, although, after marriage, he failed, the fault was rather attributed to circumstances than to him. That he was a gentleman of high principle was inferred from the circumstance that he had soon paid his depots (warehouses) in full; and all who knew him knew that he was no spendthrift, no rake, no ‘bon vivant’, but a most precise and exemplary person.”

He married Margaret Scott on the 21st February 1855 in Brechin. At the age of 33 he is recorded in the 1861 census as living in Monifieth but within weeks of that census his world would crash around his head and it is likely that if he ever saw his wife again it was across a crowded court-room.

On the face of it James became extremely successful in business, opening houses in London, Paris and Berlin. But as often happens in the modern age, extremely successful traders in the stock market, over-confident in their own ability begin to juggle risk and opportunity and are sometimes tempted to take chances on just one more deal. Sometimes the dizzying possibilities can unwittingly lead to  crossing the line of legality. James’ business involved the sale of goods on behalf of suppliers and involved vast sums of money. It was said he was turning over between £80-100,000 a year – the equivalent of around £10 million today (2020). He was shifting a lot of stock; he needed payment quickly; he was juggling bills of sale – and sometimes invoicing out before goods were invoiced to him. One newspaper at the time said he was building a pyramid on its apex.

A newspaper article published before his trial in 1861, if published today, would have probably prejudiced a fair trial.

Dundee Advertiser July 1861

“The story is instructive and interesting, and reads like a bit of a wonderful romance. But, unhappily, these brilliant successes are like fireworks – they dazzle, but they don’t last – and when they go out there is an aroma not of the sweetest – a sulphury, unsavoury odour left behind. There are certain inexorable necessities. The man who buys largely without money, must sell or pawn largely without delay. What he gets of A he must pledge to B, and in his hurry he cannot be nice as to terms. He becomes at once the creature and the victim of “advances”. He gets on to a commercial treadmill, which exhausts him the faster the faster he tries to get to the top. So our general merchant, eaten up with discounts, had to keep ordering, ordering, ever faster and faster, not because he wanted the goods, nor because the market wanted them, nor because there was any profit on the orders – and he had to keep selling, selling quicker and quicker, not that he had any legitimate call to sell, but that he wanted, and must have, money. His business was his master, and he the slave of his business; and trade, like fire, is a good servant, but a bad master.”

“A difficulty here occurred. It was easier to order goods than get rid of them; easier to buy on credit than to sell or pledge the goods bought. For the convenience, then, of James Fairweather – the chief house – branch houses had to be opened in Berlin, London, and Paris, for the disposal of immense quantities of goods with which the aforesaid James was, by the credulity of his creditors, entrusted. These foreign agencies were facetiously called “Firms”, although there was more of a shadow than of firmness about them.”

“… it seems he, as general merchant was, during the latter part of his time, little more than a jackal or lion’s provider, and that when he was hungry he wanted to pick such a bone as a thousand pounds, he ordered goods and yarns, straight-away had them transferred, and occasionally actually invoiced the goods some days earlier than they were invoiced to him. That Fairweather built so large a pyramid, that he balanced it, and kept it up, while he made it broader, and heavier, and taller, for more than four years, seems to us a great achievement. But Fairweather’s experience is a melancholy one. These inverted commercial pyramids may sometimes be reared until they attain to monstrous dimensions, but the effort to give them permanence is an effort to achieve the impossible, and woe be to the builders when, after three or four years of desperate scheming to keep the monstrosity upright, down it comes.”

In many ways, James had created a commercial monster that had to be fed with ever more credit. He returned from Europe in 1861 full of high hopes and feeling finally that he had turned a corner – only to be detained by police on the 31st May as he relaxed in the London Coffee House, Ludgate Hill. He was escorted on the train to Glasgow on the 1st June in the company of Sergeant Russell and remitted to the Sheriff on a charge of forgery. He was sure it was all a mistake and that he’d be cleared of all charges. By issuing as genuine a bill of exchange for about £400 (£32,000) he seems not have reckoned that it could be viewed as a forgery and therefore fraudulent. No doubt his intentions for honest trade were of the highest and his father, brother and sister had all invested in his business sums that totalled, at today’s values, around £160,000. It is not clear if they ever got that money back. It was estimated that the business collapsed owing roughly £2 million. By this time his father had retired but did it impact on his two brothers who within a matter of years had given up large farms? In 1861 John was still farming at Chapelfield but in 1863 the tenant was Charles Rankin from Candy, Glenbervie. John moved with his family to Glasgow. In 1881 Peter was with his family in Edinburgh working as a general merchant and in the early 1880s they all emigrated to America.

Against his better judgement, James pleaded guilty to two charges of forgery and was hopeful that after serving a few months he would be released, in fact, his solicitor indicated that this was a likely outcome. In his own mind he had done nothing wrong and that he would be vindicated if his business partners came forward to testify. None did. Without doubt, he had “more balls in the air” than he could manage. The business existed by juggling credit and taking risks that might have worked now – but not then. He owed vast sums of money to numerous people and the whole enterprise became unsustainable.

Dundee Advertiser Dec 3, 1861

The Lord Justice Clerk, in giving judgement said: “James Fairweather, this is a very serious case indeed, and not the least serious aspect of it is, that it has been committed by a person in such a position as yours, obviously carrying on business to a very considerable amount as a trader in Dundee. It is a kind of offence which, in this commercial country, it is the duty of the law to put down, and to repress by most exemplary punishment; and certainly there are no circumstances disclosed on the face of these two first charges that can lead the Court to take anything like a lenient view of the case. You have pleaded guilty to uttering two bills of exchange – two forged bills of exchange of a very considerable amount – one for £400, (£52.333.00) and another for £750 (£98,124.00). You sent them both to the same house in Glasgow, Messrs Fletcher and Co., flax merchants there, for the purpose of being placed at your credit and account with them, which shows clearly that you must have been doing very considerable business with that one house. Now, that a person in such a position as that, should have been guilty of forgery is a very serious calamity in such a country as ours, and it is impossible that this Court can pronounce upon you anything but a very severe sentence. The sentence of this Court is, that you be subjected to a penal servitude for eight years.”

James later records in his book: “I was removed from the court to the prison, stripped of my clothes, clad in the garb of a convict, and turned into a cell, there to writhe in tearless agony, and to indulge in unavailing regrets.”

He began his sentence in Dec 1861 in an Edinburgh prison, then to Wakefield and in 1862 to Woking, miles from family and any remaining friends. Conditions were intolerable in Victorian jails and the diet was inadequate to sustain good health. He developed an abscess on his knee and was denied proper medical attention other than being strapped to his bed. He was desperate for help but kept quiet for fear of punishments. Eventually the leg had to be amputated two-thirds above the knee. He spent 6 years in jail often wishing he could join other convicts who had been transported to Australia. He was released on license after 6 years and took up employment in the East End of London. At the time of the 1871 census he was lodging with David and Ann Randall at Haytor Road, Brixton. Apparently he died at his place of work from liver disease, probably hepatitis contracted while in prison.

Writer Paul Robinson recently identified James as the author of a book published anonymously in 1869 by “A Merchant”.

“SIX YEARS IN THE PRISONS OF ENGLAND” The book is dedicated “To a kind and devoted brother, who cheered me with words of Christian sympathy and brotherly love during the darkest and most desolate hours of my past unhappy career, the following pages are affectionately inscribed by the author.”


In the beginning of the year 1856 I commenced business on my own account, as a merchant in a Northern City. Previous to that time I had been engaged in an unsuccessful partnership, but I paid my creditors in full with the small capital advanced to me by my friends for the purpose of my new adventure. When I began operations, therefore, I was literally without a shilling in the world, but I had a spotless character, enjoyed good credit, and possessed a thorough knowledge of my business; advantages which I easily persuaded myself would enable me to succeed without the actual possession of capital. My business connections were scattered over various parts of the world, and generally ranked among the very best class of foreign merchants. I usually received orders by letter, sometimes I gave open credits to houses whose orders I could not otherwise secure, but frequently I had remittances long before the merchandise could arrive at its destination. The trade was one of confidence, requiring both character and position for its development, and had I been prudent enough to confine myself strictly to this branch of the business, I would now, without doubt, have been a wealthy and successful merchant. At the end of my first year’s operations my ledger showed a satisfactory balance to my credit. The year 1857 opened auspiciously, and I continued to prosper almost to the end of it, when a storm swept over the commercial world, which involved hundreds of firms in bankruptcy and ruin. (US Dollar collapse of 1857)

Here’s the link to the book “Six Years in the Prisons of England” – http://www.gutenberg.org/files/21284/21284-h/21284-h.htm.

Rise-fallThe Rise, Fall and Redemption of James Fairweather by Paul Robinson. “The book ‘Six Years in the Prisons of England’, published anonymously in the 1860s, offers a fascinating glimpse into the harshness of Victorian prison life. Written by a once wealthy and respectable Dundee jute merchant, the author’s first-hand account describes the conditions under which he and fellow convicts were kept and exposes the many failings in the prison system of the day. Now, a century and a half after his story was first told, the author is identified and the events leading to his fall from grace, his imprisonment and subsequent release are laid out alongside the original text. ‘The Rise, Fall and Redemption of James Fairweather’ provides a detailed and unique accompaniment to a fascinating human story and an important social commentary.” You can order the book here.