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Miller, Patrickfree

(1731–1815)
  • Michael S. Moss

Patrick Miller (1731–1815)

attrib. Sir George Chalmers, c. 1770

Miller, Patrick (1731–1815), banker and inventor, was born at Glasgow, the third son of William Miller of Glenlee, and his wife, Janet Hamilton. He was a younger brother of Sir Thomas Miller, the lord president of the court of session. Although he was to claim that he began life 'without a sixpence', he and his brothers attended the University of Glasgow where he matriculated at the age of twelve in 1743. None of the brothers graduated; but that was not unusual at the time. During the mid-eighteenth century the Scottish economy was growing, and Patrick Miller seems to have decided to go into trade. His family was well connected with the Glasgow merchant community. They were related to the Yuilles (Zuille) of Darleith, partners of the Murdochs in the American trades. In 1753 his brother, Thomas, married the daughter of John Murdoch, a tobacco merchant, and one of the founders in 1750 of the Glasgow Arms Bank. Like other Scottish merchants, the Yuilles had shipping interests in Liverpool. Patrick Miller went to sea himself, and reputedly visited ports in Europe and North America. His experience of the dangers of piracy stimulated an interest in naval guns and gunnery. He gave up seafaring to become a merchant and a banker, possibly learning financial skills with the Glasgow Arms Bank.

By November 1760 Miller was in partnership with William Ramsay of Barnton, merchants and bankers, in Edinburgh. The partners had a substantial interest in the British Linen Company, which they used to finance their merchant adventures in finished textiles. In 1761 Miller built at Leith a ship, the Wolfe, named after General Wolfe, to trade with Quebec. On her first voyage—with a cargo of striped lawns, hollands, and thread lace valued at £536—she was taken by a French privateer. When she was discovered also to be carrying supplies for the British army her crew were taken prisoner, and the goods, for which Miller received a salvage value of only £19, returned to Orkney. The Linen Company was precarious as its notes were redeemable in cash on demand, or at six months plus interest. Consequently there were frequent runs on its resources, sparked in part by the Bank of Scotland, which collected notes, and presented them for payment in large parcels. Ramsay and Miller seem to have been behind the efforts to put the Linen Company's house in order and turn it round, after the 1765 Bank Act, into a fully-fledged bank.

Miller was elected in 1767 to the court of the Bank of Scotland, as part of an effort to reform the management. Over the next three years he was instrumental in making many improvements, particularly the introduction of note exchange, whereby the bank agreed to accept notes of its competitors, and negotiating guarantees to support the note issue from London private banks with Scottish connections. He also actively promoted the development of a branch network. As a result of these changes the bank was well equipped to weather the storm of the banking crisis, which brought down Douglas and Heron's Ayr Bank in 1772. In his efforts to reconstruct the bank, Miller found ready support from Henry Dundas, who was elected a director in 1768. In the early 1770s, with Miller's backing, Dundas began to build up a powerful political base in Scotland, entering parliament in 1774 and becoming lord advocate in 1775.

Part of Dundas's strategy to gain a stranglehold of Scottish patronage and politics was to win control of the banking system. An opportunity to extend his influence came in 1776, when the banking firm of Mansfield and Ramsay, of which Miller was a partner, built up with considerable discretion a large stake in the Royal Bank of Scotland, whose governor was Sir Lawrence Dundas. The market in shares, usually dull, became active. There is some disagreement about Miller's role in the subsequent events. Some claim he acted directly as Dundas's agent, others state that he was only a reluctant ally. Whatever the truth, he was the go-between who persuaded Ramsay to sell all his shares in December 1776 to a consortium controlled by Henry Dundas and Henry Scott, third duke of Buccleuch, both directors of the Bank of Scotland. As a result Lawrence Dundas was overthrown, and Buccleuch replaced him as governor.

Miller's position as a leading banker in Edinburgh did not deter him from maintaining his interest in artillery. He claimed later that he was responsible for the development of the carronade gun manufactured by Carron & Co. There are considerable doubts about the veracity of this claim; but he was involved with his Yuille relations in fitting out the privateer Spitfire, a ship of 200 tons, with sixteen light 18-pounder carronades, in November 1778, to operate out of Liverpool. It was almost certainly Miller's influence as banker to Carron that secured the guns for the vessel. As this was the first sale of the new gun, Charles Gascoigne of the company warned Yuille to 'prevent any person whatsoever from taking a pattern, model, drawing or dimensions …' (Campbell, 90–91). The Spitfire quickly demonstrated the effectiveness of the carronade in action; there was concern when she was subsequently captured by the French. Orders flooded into the Carron Company for the new gun. Miller's interest appears to have been in the development of a much heavier gun. During 1781 he took a half share in an experimental 100-pound carronade that was tested in August at Greenbrae, in Dumfriesshire, in the presence of General Robert Melville. In the following year Miller was invoiced by Carron for a 132-pound weapon. Professor R. H. Campbell, the historian of the Carron Company, concluded 'Miller undoubtedly had an interest, but probably that of a wealthy amateur willing to encourage the work, but with little independent contribution to make to it' (Campbell, 102). The real credit belonged to Charles Gascoigne and Melville.

By 1785 Patrick Miller was a rich man, buying the Dalswinton estate, not far from Dumfries. He immediately embarked on a massive programme of improvements, draining the land on the banks of the River Nith and preventing seasonal flooding by re-directing its course. He is reputed to have introduced iron ploughs, bone meal, the cultivation of the swede, and the threshing mill into the county. He also planted extensive woodlands. In 1788 the old castle of the Comyns was demolished, and a handsome new classical house was constructed over the next fourteen years. He became an admirer and patron of the poet Robert Burns in 1786, making an anonymous donation of 10 guineas. In January of the following year he approached him with the offer of a tenancy at Dalswinton. Privately Burns was suspicious, commenting in a letter to John Ballantine that Miller was 'no judge of land', and that the offer might be 'an advantageous bargain that may ruin me' (Roy, 1.82–4). However, he happily wrote to Miller thanking him for his 'beneficence' (Roy, 1.86–7). On 3 March 1788 Burns commented to Robert Ainslie that Ellisland was a 'bargain' (Roy, 1.250–51); but told Miller on the same day that the 'lands are so exhausted that to enter to the full rent would throw me under a disheartening load of debt' (Roy, 1.249–50). He eventually accepted the tenancy of Ellisland in the summer of 1788. In the event Burns found farming harder work than he had bargained for and within a year he had doubts about the wisdom of his decision and in 1791 negotiated for the termination of the lease. This was made possible by the sale of the farm to a neighbouring landowner, John Morin of Loggin, suggesting that at this time Miller was financially overstretched. Relations between Miller and Burns deteriorated; but improved subsequently.

If Dalswinton was not enough to engage his interests, Miller had become deeply engaged with the possibility of the mechanical propulsion of boats. With the help of James Taylor, tutor to his sons, Miller experimented in the summer of 1786 on the Forth with hand-cranked paddles mounted in a double-hulled (catamaran) shallow-draught vessel. In the summer of the following year he built a larger catamaran—some 60 feet long—to conduct more rigorous trials. This was followed by another vessel reputed to have cost £3000; an enormous sum for the period. He later used three hulls (a trimaran), and worked the paddles using capstans mounted on the deck. At first Taylor assumed these trials to be as much for amusement as for serious scientific research until in the following spring he discovered Miller had laid a wager with the crew of the Leith Custom House wherry. Four men including Taylor manned the paddles, which he 'found very severe exercise' (Woodcroft, 32–3). Taylor later claimed that he suggested to Miller that a steam engine might be more effective than muscle power, and introduced him to William Symington, who had just developed his own rotary engine. Miller, however, almost certainly knew Symington already as the Carron Company had supplied him with his machinery, and were impressed with his work at the Wanlockhead mines in Lanarkshire. However the contact was made, Symington came to see for himself, and agreed to design suitable engines. The results of these early investigations were published in the summer of 1787, when the possibility of steam propulsion was mentioned in print for the first time.

Symington agreed to co-operate in Miller's work, and the first trials of a steam-propelled vessel took place on Dalswinton Loch in October 1788, using a small engine made by an Edinburgh brassfounder. The 25 foot long, double-hulled boat—made of tinned iron plate—achieved a speed of 5 miles an hour. Encouraged, Symington took up the project with the Carron Company, who undertook in June 1789 to let him have as much money as he needed. He immediately started making a much larger set of engines, which dominated work at Carron during the autumn. They took much longer to build, and were much more costly than Symington estimated, exasperating Miller. When finally completed they were mounted in a much bigger hull, and trials, in the presence of the partners in the Carron Company, were carried out on the Forth and Clyde Canal on 2 and 3 December 1789. To Miller's annoyance the paddlewheels broke, and Miller, infuriated, and less than satisfied, consulted James Watt, who considered that too much power was being lost in Symington's engines because of friction. Having seen Watt's rotary engine, Miller was convinced and withdrew from further development, describing Symington as 'a vain extravagent fool' (James Taylor Memorial and original correspondence, 1857, p. 5). It may well be that he could no longer afford to fund any more prototypes even with the backing of the Carron Company. He did not entirely lose interest in ship construction, patenting in 1796 a design of a flat-bottomed vessel with a shallow draught and large carrying capacity.

Miller transferred much of his enthusiasm to Dalswinton, and his interest to the Bank of Scotland, where he became deputy governor on Henry Dundas's promotion to governor in 1790. Over the next three years together they virtually controlled the bank. From 1790 to 1796 his eldest son, Captain Patrick Miller, was MP for Dumfries, supporting Dundas, who was then home secretary. Although Patrick Miller served as deputy governor of the bank until his death, as he became older he spent more time in Dumfries, engaged in further estate improvements. He introduced fiorin grass from Ireland, which he described in a pamphlet published in 1810, and was so pleased with the result that he constructed Clonfeckle Tower (rudely nicknamed Miller's Worm by local people) to celebrate the event.

Miller married a Miss Lindsay (d. 1798) and the couple had three sons and two daughters. He entailed the Dalswinton estate to his eldest son, Captain Patrick Miller, on his son's marriage in 1804. Miller died at Dalswinton on 9 December 1815. After his death the terms of the entail were contested in the courts by the other children, reaching the House of Lords in 1818 before being returned for settlement to the court of session four years later. By this time his executors had sold up the Dalswinton estate for £140,000 to meet legal costs and the claims against his estate.

In eighteenth-century Scotland there were many men from gentry families who made fortunes in the rapidly expanding economy following the union of the parliaments and inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment dabbled in the arts and sciences. Most purchased landed property, which they improved in the fashion of the time. Miller stood out, partly because of his close association with Dundas, and, more importantly, because of his connection with two significant innovations: the carronade and the steam boat.

Sources

  • D. D. Napier, David Napier, engineer, 1790–1869: an autobiographical sketch with notes, ed. D. Bell (1912), 90–93 [note by D. Bell entitled ‘Patrick Miller’]
  • R. H. Campbell, Carron Company (1961)
  • S. G. Checkland, Scottish banking: a history, 1695–1973 (1975)
  • A. Cameron, Bank of Scotland, 1695–1995: a very singular institution (1995)
  • Royal Bank of Scotland, Edinburgh
  • J. A. Mackay, R. B.: a biography of Robert Burns (1992)
  • The Engineer (Nov 1893)
  • B. Woodcroft, A sketch of the origins and progress of steam navigation from authentic documents (1848)
  • M. Fry, The Dundas despotism (1992)
  • C. A. Malcolm, The history of the British Linen Bank (privately printed, Edinburgh, 1950)
  • W. Singer, General view of the agriculture, state of the property and improvements in the county of Dumfries (1812), 249–56
  • JHL (1818), Li 5421822, Lv. 465

Archives

  • Library of Birmingham, letters to James Watt jun.

Likenesses

  • G. Chalmers, oils, 1770, NPG [see illus.]
  • plaster medallion, 1789 (after J. Tassie), Scot. NPG
  • F. J. Skill, J. Gilbert, W. Walker and E. Walker, group portrait, pencil and wash (Men of science living in 1807–8), NPG
Journals of the House of Lords