Following a request about who the “John Moffat” is mentioned in the large circular window which is currently boarded up in the church, I received this wonderful letter from George McGrattan detailing a biography of the man;
Records at Liberton Parish Church in Edinburgh show that John Moffat was born on 7th May 1818, the son of John Moffat and his wife Barbara Brown.
So, what is John Moffat’s connection with Ardrossan?
Well, he was a Civil Engineer who came to Ardrossan and helped develop Ardrossan Harbour, evenutally becoming the Harbour Manager as this obituary for his sister (Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald, 28th November 1902) intimates;
“In 1843, John Moffat, so long honourably connected with the Harbour, began his visits as engineer of the Wet Docks and to his untiring efforts, the present day prosperity of Ardrossan is largely due.”
Throughout his working life, John Moffat featured in several newspaper reports both locally and in the Glasgow Herald including:
- being toasted by the Earl of Eglinton at the opening of Ardrossan Docks in 1845
- being a founder member of Ardrossan Volunteer Corps in 1859
- presenting the 4th Ayrshire (Ardrossan) Artillery Volunteers with brass musical instruments in 1874 (which I detailed in my last article The John Moffat Window)
- paying for the distribution of twenty tons of coal to the poor in 1875
- opening the bazaar on behalf of the Volunteer Band in 1875
- being associated with the Ardrossan branch of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1876
- addressing the Ardrossan Young Men’s Society For Religious Improvement in 1877
As I mentioned in my previous article, on 18th November 1874, at the age of fifty-six, John married Jessie Arthur who was only twenty five years old.
Having settled in Ardrossan as a single man, initially living in Montgomerie Street (according to the 1851 census) and latterly at 11 South Crescent (according to the 1861 census), John and Jessie moved to Glasgow where their two children were born, Edith in 1876 and John in 1879.
According to the 1881 census, the Moffats lived at 7 Woodside Terrace, Glasgow and as well as being described as a civil engineer in the census, he was also described as a Justice of the Peace.
On 23rd March 1882, just over seven years married and at the age of only sixty two, tragedy struck. John’s body was found in a reservoir near Parkhouse Farm, in what is now Parkhouse Walkway, off Parkhouse Road, Ardrossan. His death certificate states that he committed suicide by drowning.
The Glasgow Herald published an obituary. It read;
“It is with regret that we announce the sudden death of Mr John Moffat, superintendent of the Ardrossan Harbour. Mr Moffat came to Ardrossan forty years ago and has always been noted for his close attention to duty and great business aptitude. He was a member of the School Board and always took a ward interest in education and indeed in most public questions. He was a director of the Ardrossan Gas and Water Company and held a similar position in several other important companies throughout the county. He was also noted for many deeds of un-ostentatious charity and by his death, many of the poor in the locality are deprived of a kind and liberal friend. Mr Moffat was appointed Captain of the Ardrossan Volunteer Corps at its formation in 1860 and continued in that position for many years. Even after retiring, he took a warm interest in the Corps.”
Why would an apparently successful and esteemed man with a wife and two young children kill himself? A clue is given in the opening sentence of a testimonial in the Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald. It states;
“The late Mr John Moffat is one other victim to overwork. More than a quarter of a century ago, he succeeded his brother James in the management of the then Ardrossan Railway, afterwards incorporated into the Glasgow and South-Western Railway System and the Ardrossan Harbour. He had immense capacity for work and it was due to his foresight and untiring energy, while lessee of the Harbour, that some years ago, Ardrossan became one of the most ﬂourishing and best managed ports in the West of Scotland. With Messrs Henderson and Son, Belfast, he owned the magniﬁcent steamers of the Ardrossan Shipping Company. He opened up a most lucrative trade with Spain and for years has been one of a few gentlemen who were directors of more than half a dozen companies. He could take a singularly clear and strong grasp of any matter of business brought before him and few could excel him in his exposition of details. Only lately, after a meeting held in Saltcoats on the Water question, a gentleman present said to the writer that he could have listened to him all the evening. His position at the Harbour naturally gave him great inﬂuence in the place but the deceased gentleman would have commanded a foremost place anywhere. An excellent education had developed a love for the best literature and to an extensive acquaintance of the works of the best authors, there was added the culture which comes from travel in foreign countries and friendly personal intercourse with some oi the best informed and most learned gentlemen in the country. When the occasion required he could show considerable tact in dealing with an opposition. He had superior conversational powers, was a good speaker and a lecture which he delivered some years ago, at the request of the Library Committee – full of information relieved by happy strokes of humour – showed that even in this he would have excelled, had he given his mind to it. He was a prosperous man but, as he strongly disliked anything like ostentatious display, only a few knew how generously he bestowed money where help was needed. If the case was an urgent one he gave liberally and while we would have hesitated to approach him on a pure matter of business, if money was needed for a good cause, all hesitation vanished. We knew that we could get from him all that we wished for. For Mrs Moffat and his sisters, there is the deepest sympathy. It is felt that their sorrow is a calamity which even sympathy – the deepest and truest – can relieve but faintly’.
I find it hard to believe though that John would commit suicide because he was overworked. He could have retired happily and not worked another day in his life. My suspicious mind does make me wonder if it was suicide, an accident or something more sinister.
John’s widow, Jessie, remarried on 13th April 1886 in Dundonald. Her husband was Charles Edward Hay, a thirty-six year old bachelor chemical manufacturer. Charles was the son of Sir John Hay, Seventh Baronet of Hay and Sheriff Substitute of Stirlingshire.
Jessie died on 17th November 1931.
John’s children also had notable lives; The Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald reported that on 30th July 1901, Edith “daughter of the late John Moffat, Ardrossan, and Mrs Jessie Hay of Castlehill, Ayr, was married to Captain Henry Scrymgeour-Wedderburn of Wedderburn, Kirkhill, Fife. The Reverend George Grub, rector and Reverend Alexander Copland, senior curate officiated at the ceremony. The bride was given away by her brother John Moffat. Mr Norman Lamont, younger of Ardlamont was best man“.
Henry Scrymgeour-Wedderburn was the Tenth Earl of Dundee. His and Edith Moffat’s son, Henry James Scrymgeour-Wedderburn (1902–1983), was the eleventh Earl of Dundee.
Among several military and political posts, he was Under-Secretary of State for Scotland from 1936 to 1939 and 1941 to 1942.
Henry’s son, Alexander Henry Scrymgeour, the Twelfth Earl of Dundee has been a member of the House of Lords since 1983 and still attends.
Edith died in Edinburgh on 16th October 1967.
On 21st November 1902, the local paper stated that “Mr John Moffat, who has been unanimously adopted as Unionist candidate for Paisley, is a son of the late Mr John Moffat, Ardrossan. He is about twenty-four years of age and was educated at Cheam, Eton and Cambridge where he is said to have made a special study of mathematics, chemistry and political economy”. John did not win the next election. He then pursued a career as a merchant.
On 19th January 1926, John married Fern Clarisse King in Paris. Fern was the daughter of Lloyd Stanley King, a man of independent means. It appears that John continued to live in France where he was still resident in 1950.
Although John Moffat’s life had a sad ending, he left a distinguished family and played a prominent part in the industrial and community life of Ardrossan. He was clearly held in high regard by his contemporaries who symbolised their affection by the installation in 1889 of a large circular window in his memory which dominates the in the Barony St John Church. May John Moffat rest in peace.
Many thanks to George McGrattan for writing most of this article.