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William Templeton
- the Irvine bookseller who introduced Burns to new authors and became a good friend of the poet

and the new display at 'Wellwood' -
" the chair that Burns always used to sit in and many a good laugh and joke he had in it "

The Bookshop . . . . The Chair used by Burns . . . . Silk Stockings

Helen Templeton's stamp . . . . The Templeton family

The Gilroy family . . . . Gilroy letters to Irvine

(page compiled by Past President I J Dickson)

 

The Bookshop

The bookshop of William Templeton was situated at today's entrance to Caledonian House, near the bus stop for Kilmarnock. The box on the pavement held a weighing machine, used, for a small fee, to check the weight of goods being bought and sold in the burgh. In this old photo, the shop is an Ice Cream Saloon.[1] Templeton had the first Post Office in Irvine, though it later became a separate concern further along the High Street. Book-buying was a growth area in 1781, and Templeton stocked a wide range of books and magazines [2].

William Templeton's grand-niece, Mrs Margaret Gilroy, recorded, in a letter in 1930, that "when Templeton died Bobby Burns and Dainty Davy (sic), that was David Sillars [Sillar], used to go and make up Mrs Templeton’s books". David Sillar lived in Irvine from 1783 till his death in 1830.

She added: "I am enclosing the sketch of the house – it is just the same as when I was a little girl I used to run up and down these same stairs – that is over sixty years ago [in the 1860s]. There is only one difference in the sketch - then when I was a girl that weighing machine was not there then. The little top window is where Burns learned to weave before he started in the Glasgow Vennel. The window straight under this is a stair head inside with a passage straight ben to the kitchen and back bedroom and the stair up to the weaving shop; the other window is a sitting room, that is where she [Mrs McGavin] died. The windows underneath belong to the shop Mrs McGavin lived [in] for five or six years after her brother’s death and my mother looked after [her] as she was the only relative left."

The friendship of Robert Burns and William Templeton, shown in the 'Wellwood' mural below, is known from a number of sources.

Burns himself, in his autobiographical letter to Dr John Moore, recorded: "My reading only increased, while in this town [3], by two stray volumes of 'Pamela' and one of 'Ferdinand Count Fathom' which gave me the idea of novels. Rhyme . . I had given up, but meeting with Fergusson's Scottish Poems, I strung anew my wildly-sounding rustic lyre with emulating vigour."

The local oral tradition is recorded by Rev Henry Ranken in a 1905 Burns Chronicle article on 'Burns and Irvine':
"Glimpses of Burns in his daily life come to us from various sources . . . The poetic instinct was upon him . . . Part of Templeton's stock in trade, always being added to as material provided, was a collection of ballads, as we have all seen them, on slips like newspaper columns. This shop was a frequent resort of our poet, who regularly put the question, 'Is there anything new in that line?' He would then take the 'anythings new', and, seating himself on the counter, would read them, and, coming on something that satisfied his taste, would read it aloud. Templeton would later owe much 'new in that line' to his inquirer, and when the first edition of Burns' poems was published, he acted as a kind of local treasurer, collecting and forwarding to him the Irvine subscriptions." (p.44-45, used by Mackay in his biography, p.102, and drawn by Colin Hunter McQueen in 'Rantin Rovin Robin' on p.40).

Catherine Carswell, in her excellent and very readable biography of the Bard, writes (p.96): "The good-natured Templeton had got into conversation with his unprofitable customer, speedily discovered his real interest, which was not fiction, and introduced him to the shop's stock of Scots verse. . . . From every visit to Templeton's [Burns] came murmuring verses, stepping in time to a new rhythm, alive to fresh subject matter. He was finding Irvine a wonderfully educative place."

Templeton's bookshop also features in the third novel of John Service - 'The Memorables of Robin Cummell' (1913). Part fact, part fiction, it describes Robin Cummell and his friend Ritchie Broon going into the bookshop and meeting the young poet talking to Templeton on the subject of women.

The Chair

Irvine Burns Club, thanks to the generosity of the Gilroy family, now displays the very chair on which Robert Burns would sit while spending time with the bookseller - a friend who shared a similar interest in the literature of the day.

We know (from Mrs Gilroy's 1930 testimony) that the chair was kept safe by Templeton's daughter, Mrs McGavin, till her death in 1881, then by Templeton's niece, then by his great-niece, who took it with her to Australia in 1909. She wrote: "[This was] the chair that Burns always used to sit in and, as Mrs McGavin used to tell my mother, many a good laugh and joke he had in it." According to her son, the chair was in a room at the back of the shop, and was "a favourite seat of the poet".

 

The Silk Stockings

The story behind the silk stockings is best told through the words of the document written by Margaret Gilroy in 1930: "This is to certify that these stockings belong to Robert Burns. Well, the day he went, that was Burns, to Edinburgh to pass his first poem before the Duchess of Argyll in Edinburgh, William Templeton went with him, so after they got back to Mr Templeton’s that night, as he was staying that night as he had to go back to Edinburgh to see if he had passed, as Mr Templeton lived in Irvine, so when he got back Burns said to Templeton, 'Willie, it is lucky to exchange something, so here is my stockings and give me yours' so they were exchanged and never was on a foot after as Mr Templeton prized them and he said before he died that his wife was to prize them and to take care of them. [We do not know to what journey this story relates.]

"Well, Mrs Templeton was a sister of my grandfather. Her name before she married was Nellie Clark [Helen Clark]. My grandfather’s name was James Clark of the Seagate, Irvine. Now when Mrs McGavin, that was the daughter’s name [Janet Templeton], was dying she told my mother [adopted mother, Mrs Elliot] to get them and when she brought them to her she said 'Take care of these stockings for my father’s sake' and after she was gone that I was to get them, so I leave them to my oldest son Francis Clark [Gilroy]." Her daughter, on behalf of the family, sent them boxed to Irvine, then visited to hand them over formally.

 

Helen Templeton's stamp

Mrs Helen ('Nellie') Templeton (née Clark), widow of William Templeton, continued business from the shop, as indeed her son James did later. In the 1837 Ayrshire Directory she is listed as 'Bookseller' and in an other section as 'Stamp Office distributor', meaning that, in part of the bookshop, she collected the stamp duty on official documents, books and newspapers. Her stamp, shown here clearly bearing the letters H T, passed with some other items to her grand-niece in Australia. It may have been used earlier, when the first Irvine Post office was in Templeton's shop.

In 2015, the grand-niece's grandson, Alex Gilroy, brought 'home', for safe-keeping in 'Wellwood', this very small, but very lovely and very meaningful, memento of the Templeton family business. Helen Templeton's office collected stamp duty, and she may well have used this seal (or possibly a more official one), impressed on hot wax, or using an inkpad, to signify that duty had been collected by her. After her death, their son James carried on the bookshop, and her seal was kept by their daughter Janet before being given to her grand-niece.

 

The Templeton family

Currently we do not know William Templeton's dates. We know that he became a town councillor at Michaelmas 1781, supplied books for the English classes at the school, and was also involved in a colliery at the Moor. He married Helen Clark at Irvine on 3 June 1782. A death on 11 Dec. 1787 does not show W.T., but "William Templeton's" meaning his child (in those days, a child's name, sometimes even a wife's name, was not recorded). His son James was born on 4 Feb. 1793 (and baptised on the 10th); he continued the bookshop, did not marry, and became deaf and was retired by 1851. William's daughter Janet was born on 19 Oct. 1795 (and baptised on the 25th), and her marriage to Andrew McGavin, a muslin weaver, was proclaimed on 27 Nov. 1836.

A William Templeton is listed as a schoolmaster in 1770. There were private (?at home) baptisms for children of a W.T. in Apr. 1786 and Nov. 1799 (at 2/6 each). The death of a W.T. in Dundonald Parish, at Dundonald, with burial there, on 22 Dec. 1826, is perhaps not this W.T..

Janet McGavin, his daughter, widowed by 1851, lived in the house for many years, dying there on 16 Nov. 1881, aged 86. Her death was notified by her cousin John Clark, indicating the continuing close links with the Clarks and, through them, with the Gilroys.

 

The Gilroy family donations

The items described on this page passed (after the death of William Templeton's wife Nellie, née Clark) to their daughter Janet (Mrs McGavin; no issue), then, via Janet's friend/relation Mrs Elliot (c.1778-1877, aged 99), the adopted mother of Margaret Clark, to Mr Templeton’s grand-niece Margaret Clark, later Mrs Gilroy (grand-daughter of James Clark), who died in October, 1939. Some other Templeton relics were kept by an Irvine relation, John Clark of Muir Drive.

On his mother's death, Francis Clark Gilroy corresponded with the 'Irvine Herald' in 1939 and Editor William Ross passed the letter to Irvine Burns Club. After the war, and after a visit to Irvine Burns Club by his brother Archie Gilroy in 1946, Francis Clark Gilroy renewed contact, offering to gift certain relics. These were sent from Australia to Irvine in 1949, and his wife visited Irvine in September that year, formally presenting William Templeton's silk stockings, the snuff box and the dram glass to Irvine Burns Club.

Other items passed to their son Alex Gilroy, who visited Irvine Burns Club in 2015 partly to see the items donated by his mother and partly to bring 'home' other items. Of the seal, Alex said: “This has been in my family for many years but it belongs to the world, so today just feels like bringing it home.” We are glad that he did so.

 

The Gilroy Correspondence

The two letters from Francis Clark Gilroy make interesting reading,
so we include them here for your enjoyment. (The Bold highlighting is ours.)

A: Letter to ‘Irvine Herald’ 26/11/1939 from Mr Francis Clark Gilroy, a JP for New South Wales:

“I write you in connection with the decease of the remaining link of an old and influential Irvine family extending back well over a century ago, and a family which had connections with the Scottish Bard in his associations with Irvine.

My mother, Mrs Margaret Clark Gilroy passed away on the 25th October, 1939 . . the daughter of Francis Clark, one time shipwright of Irvine, and Janet Welsh Clark, my mother was born at Partick in 1864 and at the age of six months was left in the care of her married cousin Mrs Janet Elliot of Irvine, Francis Clark and his wife having sailed at that time for Mobile, USA, in his father’s sailing ship, the ‘William and Nancy of Wigtonshire’. Nothing further was ever heard of the ship or Francis Clark.

Francis Clark was the son of one James Clark of Seagate, Irvine, a leading light in the affairs of the council or ‘Toonhoose’ early in the last century, and a relative of Nellie Clark who married one William Templeton, a friend and Irvine associate of the ‘Immortal Bard’. William Templeton had one son and one daughter; the latter subsequently became Mrs McGavin, and dying in her late nineties was well remembered by my mother as a little girl. Mrs McGavin was closely associated with Burns, through her father, and was an able exponent of ‘Rantin Robin’ and my mother was the recipient of many unpublished tales of our ‘Ploughman Philosopher’.

William Templeton had a shop at the Town Hall and the first Post Office in Irvine. I have in my possession the first stamp used in that Post Office with Helen Templeton’s (nee Nellie Clark) initials on one end. [The writer is unaware that, by the 1830s, the Post Office was elsewhere and that she was running the Stamp Office.] According to records in the writing of Burns I have in hand, it appears that the son of William Templeton, one James Templeton, absconded with certain monies belonging to the P.O., and Burns in company with a certain David Sillars (Immortalised as ‘Dainty Davie’) made up the books.

Preparatory to proceeding to Edinburgh in November, 1786, with a view to the publication of a new edition of poems, Burns had paid a visit to William Templeton and in the superstition of the times suggested an exchange of some article of clothing with the former gentleman, with the view to steering the course of ‘Dame Fortune’. Burns and William Templeton exchanged stockings. The stockings of Burns, of white silk, are in my possession today and taking account of their age are in a wonderful state of preservation. Those stockings were never worn since and appear to have been comparatively new when exchanged.

It appears that in the back of the shop owned by Templeton, Burns learned weaving and a large arm chair of great comfort and antique design which is reputed to have been a favourite seat of the poet, was installed in that room and is at present in my possession. That was prior to Burns moving to the Glasgow Vennel about the year 1782.

Among other relics which have been passed to me are a whisky glass belonging to the poet, a snuff box and certain account books of Mrs Helen Templeton involving the names of many local notorieties, among some of whom are the names of H. Chrichton, Walter Berry, James Lumsden, Finnie Pedden, etc., bearing dates as late as 1810. In all the histories compiled on the poet I have discovered very little embracing the Royal Burgh of Irvine and his acquaintances in that grand old town. But I have indisputable proof that Irvine filled no mean part of the poet’s life.

James Clark [the writer's great-grandfather] died many years before my mother was born, being nursed by his only daughter Nancy Clark who never married. As the family finances had become negligible, my mother, who was reared by her cousin, Mrs Elliot, was forced to domestic service in Glasgow and some years after marriage she moved to Stevenston. Over a quarter of a century ago she emigrated with her family to Australia. During my sojourn with the Australian Forces in the great war, I visited Irvine, but was unsuccessful in eliciting any information regarding any living relatives of my mother.”

In their reply,
the ‘Irvine Herald’
reported that they were passing Mr Gilroy’s letter to Irvine Burns Club. Also that the publication of his letter had led to finding a relative, James Clark, of Muir Drive, who possessed the Templeton family Bible, and had led to a visit by Miss Maggie Fulton (aged 80), who remembered his family and had photographs of them. Correspondence had then suddenly ceased.

In 1945/46, the reason became clear - Mr Gilroy’s return to the Australian Forces for a second war. After the war, his brother Archie visited and was shown round by the secretary (Robert Stewart) and an ex-President (ex-Provost P S Clark).

The following letter then followed:

B: Letter to ‘Irvine Herald’ from Mr F C Gilroy, printed 16 Aug., 1946:

A considerable amount of water has flowed beneath the proverbial bridge since I last wrote to you . . yes, I’ve now passed through two wars . . I write to express my appreciation for the manner in which [my brother Archie] was received and the hospitality you so kindly extended to him. He is quite eulogistic in his description of his reception, and being able to view some of the manuscripts of ‘Our Bard’.

Now I promised you in 1939 to forward some very interesting relics of Burns and Templeton, and with the advent of peace and a little world sanity I feel the time is nearly opportune to do so. I had a discussion with my wife tonight and we have decided to take a trip home as soon as accommodation is available, and to present to Irvine Burns Club all the Templeton relics we possess. Here are Burns stockings, whisky glass, certain book entries and quite a few of Templeton’s own possessions.

You see, our two children, who are grown up now, are Australians, and consequently are more or less out of touch with Scotch sentiment and may not appreciate the value of these articles when we are gone and, who knows, either they or their progeny may subsequently cast them aside as so much sentimental junk.

We are both wrapped up in Burns and his sentiments which are so close to the hearts of Scottish exiles. His songs carry us back through the vales of our dear Ayrshire, and many times in moments of leisure carry back to me a vision of her rugged coast, and the scenes of my childhood spent among her fertile slopes are kept evergreen although so long, long ago now.

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Note 1: That spot on the High Street has other literary associations. In the adjacent building (the Wheatsheaf Inn to the left) Robert Bruce Mantell, the most famous of American Shakespearean actors, was born. Opposite was the office of the 'Irvine Herald', where Alexander McMillan served his apprenticeship to the printing trade, and in the house above that Edgar Allan Poe lived with the Allan family.

Note 2: The London bookseller James Lackington, in 1791, marvelled at the recent growth of the reading public, conjecturing that "more than four times the number of books are sold now than were sold twenty years since.”

We know (Strawhorn, p.93) that William Templeton supplied the English classes at the Kirkgate school with a wide range of volumes, suitable for the various ages of pupil: 'Penny books' for the youngest, also small picture books and copies of 'Three Hundred Animals', 'Psalm Books', 'Song Books', 'Watt's Catechism', Bunyan's 'Pilgrim's Progress', Milton, Pope, Thomson, Gray, Young, 'Tragedies', Goldsmith's 'Essays', Defoe's 'Robinson Crusoe', Swift's 'Gulliver's Travels', copies of 'William Wallace', Allan Ramsay's 'Gentle Shepherd', and a copy of Fergusson's 'Poems'.

Note 3: These four words do not appear in the Glenriddell manuscript used in the 'Collected Letters', but are in the original letter, held in the British Library and printed in Currie's 1805 edition and other later editions.