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date: 21 September 2019

Teacher, Williamfree

(1810/11–1876)
  • Ronald B. Weir

Teacher, William (1810/11–1876), wine and spirit merchant, was probably born in Paisley, the son of a sailor called Teacher and his wife, Margaret Frame. William's father was lost at sea before his first birthday, and his mother worked in a cotton mill at Bridge of Weir, near Paisley. After a cursory education of probably no more than six months in the parish school, Teacher started work in the mill at the age of seven as a ‘piecer’. At eleven, he was apprenticed to a tailor, Robert Barr, who inculcated a spirit of self-improvement in his pupil. After his apprenticeship he returned to mill work but got into trouble because of involvement with the radical reform movement, and he subsequently went to work for a Mrs MacDonald, who ran a grocer's shop in Anderston, a fast developing industrial district of Glasgow. Teacher suggested Mrs MacDonald take out a licence for the sale of spirits. The reform of the Scottish excise in 1823 had reduced spirit duty and this, together with the growing industrial population, offered a buoyant market for whisky retailers. Teacher's former trade was renowned for its ‘drinking usages’ and heavy whisky consumption; this may also have influenced his choice of business.

Teacher married his employer's daughter, Agnes MacDonald, on 2 June 1834 and ultimately took over the running of the business. In 1836 he opened a second ‘dram’ shop at 50 Cheapside, Glasgow, and over the next twenty-five years increased his licensed premises to eighteen. Multiple retailing was a new development in the whisky trade and at the time of his death Teacher was probably its largest multiple retailer. Nicknamed ‘Old Thorough’, he managed the shops in a unique style: excessive drinking was discouraged, ‘treating’ (the purchase of drinks for friends) was prohibited, and smoking was banned (a ban not lifted by his descendants until 1926). This style has been attributed to his strict Victorian principles but it may also have been a reaction to the temperance movement and to the fact that the town council acquired, and utilized, local police powers to curb an excess of licensed premises well before other Scottish cities. Keeping respectable premises reduced the likelihood of losing one's licence.

The shops, which were 'the apple of his eye' (Bergius, 14), required a varied stock and this prompted Teacher's move into wholesaling in 1851 at 347 Argyle Street, Glasgow. Expansion required new headquarters in 1864 and the firm moved to 17 St Enoch Square where it remained until 1873 when the site was taken over for the building of St Enoch Station. A new building covering 14, 16, and 18 St Enoch Square was commissioned at a cost of £8000 and remained the headquarters until 1991.

Teacher and his wife had eleven children. The eldest, a son, died of scarlet fever at seventeen. Two other sons died in infancy. This left William junior (1836–1880) and Adam (1839–1898) as the first and second in seniority. They developed the business on the foundations laid by the ‘dram’ shops, opening branches in Manchester (1866) and London (1876), registering the blend Highland Cream (1884), and building a malt distillery, Ardmore (1898).

Teacher was a member and treasurer of the Unitarian church, a minority religion in presbyterian Scotland. Members tended to be freethinkers who stood out against the mainstream. He supported Chartism and later movements for toleration and freedom. He entertained people of note in the world of letters, including Harriet Martineau, Henry and Millicent Fawcett, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Teacher was a director of the Glasgow Trade Society and a commissioner for income tax. He died from haematemesis on 27 December 1876 at the family home, Rowmore, Row, Gareloch, Dunbartonshire.

Sources

  • G. E. Cousins, A family of spirit: William Teacher and his descendants, 1830–1875 (1975)
  • W. M. Bergius, Reminiscences, 1893–1938 [n.d., 1939]
  • E. Chisnall, The spirit of Glasgow: the story of Teacher's whisky (1995)
  • H. C. Craig, The Scotch whisky industry record (1994)
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • William Teacher & Sons, 2 Glasgow Road, Dumbarton

Likenesses

  • photographs, William Teacher & Sons, Dumbarton

Wealth at Death

£98,343 14s. 4d.: confirmation, 28 Feb 1877, CCI