1. Under the clouds
I left home in Fife and went to live in Glasgow when I was eighteen. When I think of it now, the distance seems laughably small – forty miles, little more than an hour in the train – but the contrast between a village on the east coast and a city, Scotland’s largest, on the west coast was sharp and exciting. I had a bedsit in a dark street of better-class tenements, with a Polish delicatessen, a dance hall and a cinema just round the corner. Glasgow seemed an infinite place, never to be known completely no matter how many suburban bus terminals you reached or exploratory walks you made. It was 1963. The last trams had run the year before, but the city was still much its old self – smoke-blackened, run-down, Victorian, majestic, tipsy on beer and whisky on a Saturday night, hushed on a Sunday. More than a million people lived there then; forty years later, that figure had almost halved.
In the first months I went home with my washing on Fridays and returned with clean clothes early on Mondays. Certain features of the journey became familiar – a working colliery or two, the extravagant facade of a psychiatric hospital half hidden by trees – but none was as mysterious as the stretch of waste ground that could be glimpsed from the carriage window just before the train reached the Glasgow terminus. It was a peculiar, alopecic landscape of hummocks and gullies, with patches of grass growing on what looked like white earth, and rarely a soul to be seen. Then in quick succession came the blackness of a tunnel, the slowing scrape of train wheels and your release into a thriving, peopled scene of shops and buses, a world away from the bit of the moon the train had trundled through only moments before.
Incongruously, prompted by the sight of Lady Anne Glenconner on Britain’s most popular chat show, I remembered this long-ago scenery last autumn. Glenconner appeared on The Graham Norton Show to promote her book about her three decades as Princess Margaret’s lady-in-waiting, its publication timed to coincide with the launch of the third season of Netflix’s royal family drama, The Crown, in which Helena Bonham Carter plays the princess and Olivia Colman is her sister, the queen. The two actors shared the chat show’s sofa with the author, who had helped Bonham Carter with her role by providing some details of the princess’s behaviour. Nothing more than twenty minutes of mild gossip seemed in prospect: Glenconner was, after all, the 87-year-old daughter of an earl, the widow of a baron, a maid of honour at the queen’s coronation in 1953 and a trusted courtier. But she was sensational. The audience erupted in wave after wave of laughter at her frank revelations of aristocratic tantrums and sexual misbehaviour. Helped by several more television appearances, her book became a bestseller. She gave one-woman shows in theatres and signed a contract with her publishers for two crime novels, the first to be called Murder on Mustique. Disclosures about the private life of royalty have been making money for British publishers since the Second World War, if not longer, and yet this book spilled few royal beans in its portrayal of Princess Margaret as a troubled and misunderstood but essentially kind woman – ‘the best friend I ever had’, Glenconner said – rather than the little monster of hauteur and vanity that anecdotes suggested. Instead, the book’s gargoyles, the characters who cause a shudder and a gasp, are Lady Anne’s husband, Colin Tennant, the 3rd Baron Glenconner, and one or two of his relations.
As a Coke (pronounced Cook), Lady Anne came from a grander family than he did – Cokes had been earls of Leicester since the eighteenth century, when the first earl, Thomas Coke, built what is generally reckoned to be the finest Palladian house in England on his 27,000-acre estate at Holkham in Norfolk. The Glenconners were upstarts by comparison. Their title, a barony, had been created in the twentieth century. Six generations previously, when Coke returned from the grand tour to set about creating his magnificent house, the Tennants were scraping a living as subsistence farmers in Ayrshire. Wealth had put their male descendants through the usual finishing schools for English gentlemen. Colin, typically, got his education at Eton and Oxford; was commissioned as an officer in the Irish Guards; and inherited a fine London house and a Scottish estate as well as a job in the family’s merchant bank. Even so, Lady Anne’s father, the fifth earl, considered him a mountebank. When members of the royal family joined a shooting party at Holkham, he was made to walk with the beaters.
Old money’s distaste for new money was only partly to blame for his in-laws’ hostility. Tennant was also known to be a libertine – a Mayfair brothel-goer who on his honeymoon took his wife to a seedy Paris hotel to watch another couple having sex (‘two really disgusting people . . . squelching about, and I didn’t really know what to do so I sat back in my chair and closed my eyes’ was how she described the episode on Norton’s show). Princess Margaret, who knew him before his marriage, described him to his bride’s mother as a ‘fairly decadent fellow’, but decadence was only half the story. He was extravagant, capricious and wilful, and given to extraordinary tantrums, seizure-like in their sudden arrival and ferocity, which alarmed anyone unlucky enough to witness them. His temper brought an opera to a halt in Verona’s amphitheatre and enraged the crowd in a Delhi bazaar. Setting out with his wife and Princess Margaret on a transatlantic flight, and refused an upgrade so that he could join them in first class, he lay down in the foetal position in the aisle of economy and wailed and screamed until security arrived and dragged him from the plane. (British Airways then banned him for life.) And his wilfulness could be expensive: he bought the Caribbean island of Mustique without setting foot on it and bought and sold homes in London at a perplexing, unprofitable rate.
There was evidence of a family trait, a genetic disposition to exhibitionism, narcissism and the most tremendous sulks. One of his Tennant uncles, Uncle Stephen, who as a Bright Young Thing could count Siegfried Sassoon and Cecil Beaton among his passionate admirers, got bored with the world and spent most of his last thirty years lying powdered, lipsticked and perfumed in bed at his large country house in Wiltshire. Late one summer, lying in another bed at the family seat in Scotland, he complained that the heather he could see from his window was ‘such a vulgar shade of purple’ – whereupon, according to Anne Glenconner, his nephew Colin arranged for the hillside to be strewn with thousands of paper flowers to turn purple into a pleasant shade of blue.
You need money to behave like that. Where did the money come from? A good part of the explanation lay in the Glasgow wastelands that I saw from the train. But if you were to look beyond that, to something primordial that predated human ingenuity, then the answer might be a climatic fact, something that nature had unfairly ordained, which is the shortage of direct sunlight in western Scotland. Day after day, the Atlantic weather system sweeps in grey, moist blankets of cloud; a week can go by when the pavements never dry completely and the stratus rarely lifts from the hill. It can be no coincidence that it was in Glasgow that a Glasgow man, Charles Macintosh, invented the raincoat. In 1963, as autumn turned to winter, the street outside my digs would glisten wet under the street lamps a little earlier each day, while living rooms across the way had their lights switched on by four o’clock.
2. Improbable heights
In Glasgow at that time, what the name Tennant mainly evoked was a memory of height. ‘Tennant’s Stalk’ had been demolished in the early 1920s, but books of city history recalled it as a marvel, a chimney that at 455 feet and 6 inches tall stood higher than any other man-made structure in the world when it was completed in 1842 (except two of the pyramids at Giza and the spire of Strasbourg Cathedral). The German travel writer Johann Georg Kohl was overwhelmed by its size when he reached Glasgow in the year of its completion. ‘A truly wonderful erection,’ Kohl wrote, which ‘rose over the city and its fog like the minster spire over Strasbourg or that of St Stephen’s over Vienna.’ Before he saw the city’s usual attractions – its medieval cathedral and fifteenth-century university – he went straight to Tennant’s chemical factory to check the chimney’s officially stated height, which seemed to him ‘improbable’. In fact, the height was only half the marvel. At the factory, Kohl discovered a labyrinth of underground vents that led from the factory’s various departments and grew larger as they joined together, just as tributaries swell a river, until they were finally united at the chimney’s base, where the draught drew their collected smoke and smells up the stalk to drift high above the Glasgow streets. Hot air is less dense than cold air and therefore rises above it: all chimneys operate on that principle. But the taller the chimney is, the greater the volume of hot air inside it will be, and the fiercer the draught or upward current. The stalk’s great height gave it unprecedented drawing power. Workmen at Tennant’s told Kohl that when they were sent to repair the flues and vents, they had to make sure that the doors that stood between the vents and the larger channels were tight shut before they started work. Otherwise, they found they required ‘all their strength to prevent themselves being drawn in’, to be sucked tumbling towards the chimney’s base.
Kohl was captivated. He wondered if a similar system could be applied to whole cities, so that ‘the smoke of all the houses . . . might then be conveyed, by subterranean channels, to a gigantic chimney in the neighbourhood, and there carried off.’ The chimneys themselves might be designed as ‘graceful and ornamental architectural monuments’ rather than utilitarian smoke-expellers. It was a visionary moment of which little came. No matter how high they rose, factory chimneys rarely raised the human spirit, and Tennant’s Stalk never outgrew its humble role as the exhaust of smoke and fumes from what, when the chimney was built, was said to be the largest chemical works in Europe, perhaps the world.
Most of this was the achievement of Charles Tennant, an Ayrshire farmer’s son, though luck and loot as well as energy and intellectual curiosity had played a part. His father, John Tennant, had been lucky as a young man to know a servant girl, Elizabeth Maguire, who worked on his father’s farm at Alloway. Maguire had been lucky to have a childless uncle, James Macrae, the son of an Ayr washerwoman, who rose through the East India Company to become president (governor) of the Madras Presidency. Macrae had been lucky – the standard luck of the British ruler-cum-trader in eighteenth-century India – and he came home with a fortune that was typically opaque in its origins. An extensive inquiry by the East India Company cleared him of corruption, though, in the words of the Dictionary of National Biography, ‘the relationships between all the proponents were extremely complicated, involving as they did relationships between Britons acting on their own and on the company’s behalf, Britons transacting with Indian merchants on both accounts, and Indian merchants dealing among themselves.’ Returned to Ayr after his long absence, he bought several estates and settled dowries on his nieces. When he died, Elizabeth Maguire inherited his estate at Ochiltree and £45,000 in diamonds, which made her attractive to the 13th Earl of Glencairn. As the Countess Glencairn, she needed a new estate manager or factor and found him in her childhood friend John Tennant, who in 1769 moved with his wife and children to their new home, Glenconner farm, where, as well as managing the estate, he leased 139 acres of farmland for his own use.
Tennant believed that literacy was the key to progress. Before he moved to Glenconner, he and a neighbouring farmer, William Burnes, sent their children to a progressive little school where they read Milton and Dryden; one of Burnes’s children, the poet Robert Burns, became a family friend. But literacy introduced rural families to more profitable ways of making a living as well as to poetry. Tennant became an agricultural improver, enclosing and draining land, and planting it with potatoes and turnips to supplement the oats that were Scotland’s traditional crop. Two sources of income, farming as well as factoring, meant he could afford to prolong his sons’ education into their teens, widening their horizons from the prospect of a life spent labouring in the family fields. One became an evangelist in India; another joined the Royal Navy; others migrated to Ireland and Cape Town. Charles Tennant, his sixth child (he had sixteen in all), left home aged fifteen to start his apprenticeship as a handloom weaver in the village of Kilbarchan, near the textile-manufacturing town of Paisley.
This was propitious. The Scottish textile industry was beginning to grow at an exciting rate, thanks to fresh capital investment, increasing imports of cheap cotton fibre from India and the Caribbean, and new manufacturing techniques. Output of cotton and linen fabrics soared, and would have soared more but for a bottleneck further down the production line: bleaching. Textiles need to be bleached; as well as whitening the cloth, bleaching cleans it and prepares it for dyeing. The traditional method had changed very little since the age of the toga and its cycle could take up a whole summer. Cloth was steeped in a weak alkaline solution (sometimes urine and water) for several days, and then washed and spread out in the open air for several weeks; the process was repeated half a dozen times before a last steeping, this time in sour milk, after which the cloth would be washed clean again and spread out to dry for a final time.
The spreading out, known as ‘crofting’, took up space as well as time, occupying large stretches of ground that might have been used more profitably. And the Scottish sun could never be relied on: bleaching by sunlight was one thing on the banks of the Nile, the Ganges and the Euphrates, or even the Tiber or the Seine, but quite another on the Clyde, which often has less than half the annual sunshine of seaside resorts only 400 miles away in southern England. ‘It is a pity that a country so charming as Scotland should not be favoured with a finer climate,’ wrote the travel writer Kohl on his upriver journey to see Tennant’s Stalk, unaware of the distant connection between the climate and the chimney.
3. As infernal as any earthly place
In Anne Glenconner’s memoir the word bleach is mentioned only once. In the context of her father’s resolute snobbery, she writes that while the Coke fortune could be traced to the fifteenth century and sprang from law and land, ‘the Tennant family had made its – albeit vast – fortune through the invention of bleach in the Industrial Revolution’. The ‘albeit vast’ is instructive; the wonder being that such a simple product, used in modern households mainly as a disinfectant, could make a family as rich, if not far richer, than three or four centuries of landowning. But the invention of bleach changed everything. Textiles employed more people in Britain than any other manufacturing industry throughout the nineeenth century, and in some years accounted for two thirds of British exports in an era when Britain dominated world trade. A chemical mixture that shortened the bleaching process from months to hours played an essential role in Britain’s industrial growth.
After his weaving apprenticeship was over, Charles Tennant began to show signs of commercial and social ambition. He took on a further apprenticeship, this time as a bleacher, and he and a business partner bought a few Paisley bleachfields cheaply. Marriage followed to the daughter of a part owner of an alum factory – alum was an important ingredient in cotton dye. Socially as well as professionally, he had secured his position among the up-and-coming of Scotland’s new industrial class. Another partner in his father-in-law’s factory was the chemist Charles Macintosh, the raincoat inventor, and he and Tennant became friends and fellow experimenters, members of a small scientific community that had Glasgow University at its centre, and the steam technologist James Watt and the chemist and physicist Joseph Black as its distinguished mentors. By the late eighteenth century, scientists in Sweden and France were experimenting with chlorine as a whitening agent, but its harmful effects on the human body made its industrial use too dangerous to be practical. Then the French chemist Claude Louis Berthollet discovered that the chlorine solution could be made less noxious by adding an alkali. Learning of this, perhaps from James Watt after a visit to Paris, Tennant and Macintosh opened a small factory that produced bleach on the Berthollet principle, passing chlorine gas through an alkaline solution of slaked lime and water. It wasn’t a success: the liquid mixture was unstable and cumbersome to transport. Within a year, the two partners had devised an alternative by changing the state of the mixture from liquid to solid. Passing chlorine gas over slaked lime that was damp enough to absorb it, and then drying the lime and crushing it into powder, they made what Tennant called ‘bleaching salt’.
A patent was granted in 1799 and within a few years bleaching salt had become an indispensable part of cotton and linen manufacture. A new factory was needed. Tennant chose a two-and-a-half-acre site by the canal in St Rollox, a northern district of Glasgow. Barges brought fuel from the Lanarkshire coalfield and took away bleaching powder to wherever it was wanted. Over the next forty years, the factory grew to forty times its original size and diversified into other chemical processes, making the soda needed for soap production and the vitriol (sulphuric acid) that increasingly went into the manufacture of so many things, including bleach, dyestuffs and fertiliser; so that by the time Charles Tennant died in 1838, St Rollox looked like an industrial San Gimignano. Prints made to commemorate the opening of the first railway to reach Glasgow, which Tennant promoted and helped to finance, show trains of flag-flying carriages steaming neatly to and from a cluster of smoking towers on the horizon. In the foreground, two gentlewomen with a picnic basket sit in a field where sheep graze further off. Close to, a beautiful tree in full leaf represents nature pure and undamaged.
Of course the reality was different: as early as the 1820s the St Rollox factory was prompting bitter complaints from those unlucky enough to live near it. A pall of yellow smoke hung over the factory day and night. ‘The smell of the works is at all times very offensive when the wind is north and makes her sick and inclined to vomit,’ a complainant’s lawyer told an inquiry in 1822. ‘Whenever the wind is in the north it pours down upon her. She considers this wholly arises from the manufacture of vitriol – and if Mr Tennant would give that up, she would let him carry on the other thing as he pleased.’ Another resident described the damage done to the vegetable crops in local gardens and hedge plantings: ‘During the present season several thousand of seedling beeches along with six thousand seedling thorns have been entirely destroyed.’ Twenty years later, a cartoon ironically captioned with the words ‘St Rollox . . . a Clear Day’ showed nothing but a roiling sea of black ink. Tennant’s Stalk was built as the solution, but people were quick to doubt its efficacy: winds certainly drove its fumes further away, but on still days the pollution stayed as local as before.
To be outside the works was bad; to be inside them almost insufferable. In 1847, a civil engineer, George Dodd, described Tennant’s as ‘infernal in appearance as we can well imagine any earthly place to be’, with its ‘heaps of sulphur, lime, coal and refuse . . . the intense heat of the scores of furnaces . . . the smoke and thick vapours which dim the air . . . the swarthy and heated appearance of the men . . . and the various acids which worry the eyes, and tickle the nose and choke the throat’. But the Tennant family’s confidence in the enterprise never weakened. They knew their products were essential to Scotland’s prosperity; in evidence to the 1822 inquiry, two mill owners said it would be a ‘national calamity’ if the St Rollox factory were to close even for a few weeks. And so it went on flaming, smoking and fuming on Glasgow’s northern heights. In the 1870s, a Glasgow health inspector could still remark that ‘a sparrow didn’t dare fly over the works’ for fear of losing its life.
But dangerous and nauseous as the fumes might be, they were eventually dissipated in the atmosphere. Soda ash, which the factory began to make in 1816, brought a far more permanent problem. An essential chemical in the glass, textile, soap and paper industries, St Rollox pioneered its manufacture by the Leblanc process, the invention of Nicolas Leblanc, physician to the Duke of Orleans. The process used expensive ingredients – rock salt, limestone, sulphuric acid and coal – and it was tremendously wasteful: every ton of soda made in the factory produced two tons of hazardous waste, high in sulphur content, liable to give off hydrogen sulphide (the gas that smells like rotten eggs) and sometimes to catch fire of its own accord. Eighty tons of it came out of the vats every day, to be dumped on the open ground west of the factory, where it eventually covered a hundred acres and in places reached down eighty feet. It became a hideous grey wasteland: a dystopian park with a dismal water feature, the Pinkston Bog, where seeping groundwater mixed with the alkali, to be drawn off by pumps and course down various sewers and streams to add to the Clyde’s pollution.
This was the blighted land I saw from the train, and it need never have grown so large.
In 1872, the company rejected a cheaper, less wasteful and cleaner method of making soda that had been devised by the Belgian chemist and industrialist Ernest Solvay. Nobody understood so at the time, but the rejection of the Solvay process was a blunder that marked the beginning of the Tennants’ long – and at first barely perceptible – industrial decline, a downward line on the graph that more or less matched Britain’s performance over the same period as it was overtaken as the world’s pre-eminent industrial power by the USA and Germany. The Leblanc method couldn’t compete on price, and by the 1890s most of the world’s soda ash came out of plants using Solvay’s alternative, which in Britain had been licensed to Tennant’s rivals, Ludwig Mond and John Brunner. The Tennants decided to stick with what they knew rather than risk capital investment in new technology. It was a conservative decision and, like many other aspects of the Tennant story, it exemplified what a century later was to become a conventional explanation of British industrial failure.
What British industrialists lacked was sticking power: in an English culture that viewed industry as an unpleasant intrusion into the rural idyll, they were too easily seduced by transformational ideas of themselves as landed aristocrats and country gentlemen. Show them a peerage, a steam yacht, a foxhound pack, a trout stream, a grouse moor or a golf course, and they went off hallooing in pursuit. A pattern emerged. The early generations made the fortune, the middle generations consolidated it, the later generations spent it: hard work, followed by the intelligent investment of profits, followed by freewheeling pleasure and decay. One or two members of the Tennant family began to understand themselves in this way. Broken Blood, a fine study of the family dynasty by a junior member, Simon Blow, has lives-gone-wrong as its theme, and the same melancholy preoccupation haunts Emma Tennant’s final book, Waiting for Princess Margaret, in which she resents her half-brother Colin Tennant for his narcissism and because, when their father died, he quickly expelled her from rooms she kept in the family home in a dispute over their father’s legacy.
4. The scene at Basil’s
I met Colin Tennant in 1979 on Mustique, where I went to try and write an overambitious piece in which the leftist movements that were then growing in the Caribbean would be seen through the prism of the wealthy Europeans and North Americans who spent their spare time on Tennant’s island. I remember that he wore a wide-brimmed straw hat and what India knows as kurtha-pajama, a long white shirt over loose white cotton trousers, and that we talked in a kind of Moghul kiosk that he’d erected near his house on the beach. He was tremendously affable, talking knowledgeably about the island (by now he was only a minority shareholder in the company that owned it) and inviting me to see the Caribbean plantation islands ‘as the Middle East of the eighteenth century’, with sugar rather than oil as the energy source that the world wanted. There was more talk about oil – its high price, combined with the low price for Caribbean exports such as bananas and bauxite, had lowered living standards on several islands, with social unrest as a consequence. Tennant was unflappable at the prospect of a new order. ‘When a stranger walks into the room,’ he said, as though the world were a London club, ‘you don’t turn your back on him or shout rape. You go up and shake him by the hand.’
He showed me the sights. They included the wreck of a French liner, which had been stranded offshore for years and now broke up the waves like a reef; Basil’s Beach Bar, a small platform that stuck, pier-like, into the sea; and, from a respectful distance, a view of one or two of the pseudo-classical villas that had been designed by the celebrated English stage designer Oliver Messel. Eventually we reached the group of huts known to a few islanders as ‘Tennant’s Tenements’, which housed the domestic servants who served the villas. Most were temporary migrants from St Vincent, the closest of the larger islands, and their huts were the equivalent of tied cottages: if they lost their jobs, they lost their homes, too, and went back to St Vincent. The huts had nowhere indoors for their occupants to wash. Tennant said they were waiting for showers to be installed – ‘But these people are much better off here than they would be in St Vincent,’ he said, trying to complicate and soften the simple moralism of an outsider.
That night I went to Basil’s Beach Bar. This had taken some negotiation, because Princess Margaret was to be there, too; she was leaving the island the next day, and after the farewell supper party at her villa, Les Jolies Eaux, she wanted to have a more intimate drink with one or two friends. If I went, Tennant said, I mustn’t approach her or speak to her.
‘You promise?’ Tennant had asked, and I did. But it was difficult. Basil’s consisted of a small bar on the landward side and a dance floor that projected over the water. The bar stools nearest the entrance were taken by two men who were part of the princess’s protection team. Her private secretary, Lord Napier, sat on the next stool towards the sea, beyond which there were a few empty stools and then ones occupied by the princess and her lover, the landscape gardener Roddy Llewellyn. I took a stool between the courtier Napier and Her Royal Highness, closer to him than to her. I asked him if he were by any chance a descendant of the Edinburgh man who invented logarithms ( John Napier of Merchiston, 1550–1617, whom we learned about at school), and he smiled and said something like, ‘I think I might be.’ In fact, as John Napier’s son was the 1st Lord Napier and he was the 14th Lord Napier, his connection to logarithms was reasonably direct. But if I’d known more about the Napiers, and asked if he was related to the Napier who had stood in as a temporary Viceroy of India (the 10th Lord) or the Napier who first proposed that the British seize Hong Kong (the 9th Lord), the answer would probably have been just as diffident and final.
The conversation stalled. I looked around in time to see the princess stub out a cigarette, rise from her stool and walk towards the lavatory in the bar’s dark backyard, accompanied by a detective who lit her way with a large torch. When she returned, she and Roddy danced alone at the end of the little pier. She was wearing a kaftan; no legs were visible. Roddy wheeled her around like a much-loved piece of furniture, as though she had castors rather than feet. Aware of my sad – and, no doubt to her, irritating – position as a dumb voyeur, I walked back through the darkness to the hotel.
‘He is an immensely charming man and Mustique is a testament to his charm . . . the island is a triumph of publicity rather than nature,’ I wrote in the piece, blind to the fact that the person most dazzled by this charm – most in love with the power of it – was Tennant himself.
Vanity was a family trait, with Colin’s Uncle Stephen as perhaps its most extreme example. In his family memoir, Simon Blow remembered how he would sit in Stephen’s bedroom and listen to him reminisce. ‘I think there’s no doubt that I do have great beauty,’ was a typical statement. ‘Have you ever noticed the shape of my nose? If I lie like this you can see the nostrils . . . lovely, aren’t they?’ V.S. Naipaul lived for a time in a bungalow on Stephen Tennant’s Wiltshire estate, and in his memoir-novel The Enigma of Arrival writes that his landlord’s apparent shyness ‘wasn’t so much a wish not to be seen as a wish to be applauded on sight, to be recognized on sight as someone stupendous and of interest . . .’ Colin’s paternal grandmother, Pamela Wyndham, had the same need to be noticed, leaving the dinner table to stand and face the wall if she thought other guests were ignoring her. Her granddaughter, Simon Blow’s mother, was no different. Blow remembered how, ‘after a children’s party [or a wedding] where other mothers were present, we would always be asked, “Who was the most beautiful woman in the room?” . . . The answer, of course, we knew: “You, Mummy.” ’
5. How to become a baron
During the reign of the second Charles Tennant, the first Charles’s grandson, the family began to leach its Presbyterian genes. The second Charles came to be known among his friends and family as ‘the Bart’ after the baronetcy Gladstone awarded him. In the Tennant story, the Bart is the Sun King, the imaginative investor and share speculator, art collector, country house builder, London society host, Liberal politician and party funder, and, not least, ever-virile patriarch: the father of sixteen children (four of whom died in infancy), the first born in 1850 and the last in 1904, when he was aged eighty and six-years married to his second wife. The Bart made a separate fortune in railway shares when he was still in his twenties; he founded a steel company, invested in Indian goldfields, exploited the world’s largest deposits of pyrites in Spain; and by the time of his death in 1906 could count himself the sixth richest man in Europe.
Under him, the family distanced itself from the primary source of its wealth: London and not Glasgow became the family home, and the London office replaced the Glasgow office when it came to the biggest decisions. His sons went to Eton rather than the modest Scottish schools that he and his forebears had attended.
Increasingly, Scotland took on an idealised role as the dynasty’s birthplace and, more practically, as a country to return to in summer. Not to Glasgow, but to the great mansion called Glen that the Bart had built in the Scottish Borders, a fantasy of turrets, towers and crow-step gables that emerged among bare hills like a lovely mistake, a chateau in the wrong landscape. It had fifty rooms and a hundred servants, and the estate around it eventually grew to 10,000 acres – an area occupied by grouse moors, sheep pasture, a boating pond, a fishing loch, avenues of mighty North American trees, a school, a post office and handsome villas and cottages for the farmers, labourers, shepherds and gamekeepers who worked the Tennant land.
Glen turned out to be the dynasty’s most enduring feature, the scene of its greatest social achievements, the place most associated with the Tennant name. I went to stay at Glen in the winter, which is a month or two ago as I write. The estate describes itself as a ‘farm and residential community’, but the big house has an apartment converted from the old kitchen quarters that can be rented by the week, and it was there I stayed with my wife and two friends.
The weather was bitterly cold and blustery, with sunshine and blue sky switching suddenly to squalls of sleet and snow. The hills were white – sometimes the gardens, too – and the burn at our front door ran noisily with meltwater, like a constant ripple of applause. Water had always been a notable feature of the place. Luxury had once been, too: one of Sir Charles’s granddaughters remembered how money ‘seemed to flow in (and out) of Glen as easily as the brown burns flowed down the hillside’. At dinner, Sir Charles liked to boast every pineapple on the table had cost him five pounds to grow. But to judge by the way our central heating was rationed, expenses were watched more carefully now.
Still, ours was a handsome apartment, expensively adapted from its original use as a larder and decorated with not-too-valuable heirlooms, including a wooden box, seven feet long by nine inches wide and fastened with leather straps, which lay propped against the wall. A small metal plate engraved in copperplate indicated that it had been the property of Edward Tennant, 31 Lennox Gardens, London; an old luggage label – st pancras – suggested it had travelled to Glen in the days when expresses from London ran directly to towns in the Scottish Borders. It was the box he must have used to carry his fishing rods – a heavy box that would have needed manhandling by station porters in and out of luggage vans and a servant to carry it up the two miles of track that led from the house to the fishing loch that had been made by damming the streams at the head of the glen. It was named after him – Loch Eddy – and one morning we walked there, stopping to shelter from snow squalls on the way, to find a dark little lake surrounded by silver birches and evergreens.
A wide-eaved boathouse sat neatly on the shore, with a bench where a fisherman could face the water and smoke a pipe. The sun came out and gave the scene an Alpine touch. It was good to sit here for a moment and consider the little loch that, his children apart, was almost certainly Edward Tennant’s greatest creation. Unlike his father, Sir Charles, the Bart, he had a poor head for business – and yet he’d risen further up the slopes of the titled classes to become a baron, a genuine peer of the realm with a seat in the House of Lords, rather than a baronet, an ambiguous ranking that put his father somewhere above a knight but still a commoner. What had caused his elevation? The explanation was a politician’s need for money. When, in 1894, Eddy’s youngest sister, Margot, became the second wife of Herbert Henry Asquith, then Home Secretary in the Liberal government, Sir Charles endowed her with an income of £5,000 a year (roughly half a million in today’s money) and gave the couple a grand house on the borders of Mayfair. But his wife’s dowry wasn’t enough for Asquith, who had no great private income of his own, so Sir Charles supplemented it with regular lump sums, a habit that Eddy continued after his father’s death, just as he went on paying off Margot’s frequent debts at the bridge table. When Asquith became prime minister, his financial needs grew. Every year Eddy sent him a cheque. Sometimes Asquith was importunate. ‘I find that with illnesses, operations and constant journeyings etc., this has been a very expensive year,’ he wrote to Eddy in 1913, shyly continuing: ‘I should therefore be greatly obliged if you could anticipate now what you are kindly in the habit of giving me in the spring.’
By this time, Eddy already has his reward. Asquith raised him to the peerage in 1911, when he became the 1st Baron Glenconner (of The Glen in the County of Peebles), honouring the Ayrshire farmstead where his family’s good fortune had begun.
Perhaps Eddy sat in this same seat after a morning’s fishing and thought of that farmstead, imagining how it might look – nothing suggests he ever went there. There it lay over the hills, thirty miles and three watersheds away across the Southern Uplands: a whitewashed building as simple and picturesque as Robert Burns’s cottage; proving, like the poet’s birthplace, honoured as a national shrine almost from the moment the poet died, that genius could have the humblest origins.
6. In memoriam
What remains of the Tennants? Other British industrialists of their era are remembered for their philanthropy: Carnegie, Leverhulme, Rowntree, Cadbury. Restrict the names to Scottish textiles alone, and you have the Coats family, the Paisley thread makers, and the Cairds, the Jute kings of Dundee. Even quite modest family enterprises managed to fund a decorative fountain, a public park, a drinking trough for horses. But so far as I could tell, sitting in the cold kitchen at Glen and reading their family history, the Tennants had done none of these.
Before we left Glen, we went to look at the family’s memorials in the graveyard of Traquair Kirk, which stands on the edge of the estate. Snow covered the ground, making identification difficult, but at last we found the family plot. There was nothing grand about it, no statuary, nothing that suggested bombast or vanity. It looked uncared for. Eddy’s little headstone was broken in half and we needed to scrape moss from Sir Charles’s flat tablet before his name could be made out. More scraping revealed a legend on the low boundary wall separating the Tennants from the parish’s poorer dead: until the day break and shadows flee away.
There were fourteen of them in all, from five generations: Sir Charles and his children Eddy and Laura, Eddy’s son Christopher and Christopher’s son Colin and Colin’s son Charles. Uncle Stephen, for whom heather was too purple, lay elsewhere – in Wiltshire – but at home in London I discovered that he had a kind of memorial – it was described as ‘a shrine’ – in the East End borough of Hackney, which despite its gentrification isn’t the kind of place anyone would expect to find Tennants of his generation. One afternoon I walked along the canal to its location, the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, which lay in the basement of a dark wine bar on Mare Street. A £3 entrance fee – perhaps a senior’s discount – allowed me to step down a twisting iron staircase into two rooms that brimmed with a Victorian showman’s idea of oddity. Display cases held preserved penises, shrunken heads, Regency cartoons of plump fornicators, two-headed kittens, a hairball from a cow’s stomach, models of human viscera, fish skeletons, repellent insects and faeces that had allegedly come from celebrities. A bottle labelled ‘Russell Crowe’s urine’ stood in one display case. Another held items allegedly found in a bedroom of a Sri Lankan club after one, other or all of the Rolling Stones had vacated it: condoms that had turned hard and yellow and an empty packet of Viagra.
A display of Stephen Tennant memorabilia – a reliquary – occupied an ill-lit corner. There were a few framed pictures of him, a photocopy of a review of Philip Hoare’s biography headlined ‘The Man Who Stayed in Bed’ and several of his overripe drawings, including a cover for the novel he never wrote, Lascar, subtitled in this version A Story of the Maritime Boulevard, showing lusty young mariners stripped to the waist. That was all.
‘An idle, silly queen,’ wrote Paul Theroux, ‘[he] was upper class and rich, so people laughed at his jokes and called him marvellous.’ It seems a reasonable verdict. But to be remembered in this squalid basement? Whose memory deserves such a fate?
In my first autumn in Glasgow fifty-seven years ago I met David, who is now my oldest friend. Both of us studied in the evening in the reading room of a grand civic institution, the Mitchell Library (the ninteenth-century bequest of a Mitchell who owned a tobacco business), and when the bell rang for closing time at nine we were among a group that went to a cheap restaurant nearby that sold beer so long as some food – a mutton pie and chips, say – was part of the order. David lived then in a tenement in Cowcaddens, a part of the city that was said to be among the most densely populated districts in Europe. (Glasgow’s technological boasts in the ninteenth century – tallest, largest, fastest – had been replaced in the twentieth century by record-breaking social statistics – densest, poorest, sickest – that turned fame into infamy.) It wasn’t far from my bedsit, but the ten-minute walk crossed a social boundary. Whereas I paid thirty-five shillings a week for a room in a four-room flat that had a bathroom and kitchen, David shared what Glasgow knew as a room-and-kitchen with his widowed mother and grandmother, who slept together in ‘the room’, while he had a recess bed in the kitchen. A lavatory just outside the flat’s door was shared with their neighbours. Heat came from the kitchen’s coal fire. The flat had no bath and no running hot water: the kitchen sink was the only place to wash. More ambitious washing, of clothes as well as flesh, required a walk to the municipal baths and laundry, a walk that David, his mother and grandmother regularly made, conveying the weekly wash in a bogey, a little cart on a four-wheel pram chassis. His mother had lived there all her life – until the 1940s with her two brothers and her father as well as her mother: her parents slept in ‘the room’ and her brothers in the kitchen, while she made do with a windowless cupboard.
Writing this, what strikes me is how unremarkable David’s living arrangements seemed at the time. Until the 1960s, when the tenement clearances began in earnest, the room-and-kitchen and the smaller, one-roomed ‘single-end’ flat had characterised Glasgow’s housing stock. If his father had survived tuberculosis, David might not have lived in one; but it struck few people, least of all David, that it was extraordinary that he did. Glasgow’s population multiplied ten times between 1800 and 1900, from 77,000 to 762,000 people, and didn’t stop growing until it reached a peak of around 1.1 million in the 1930s. In the first decades of the last century, between 60 and 70 per cent of Glaswegians lived in dwellings comprising only one or two rooms. Tenements that were three, four and five floors high – each floor with four apartments and, at best, only basic sanitation – could charge low rents to low-wage earners: they were a way of piling people high and selling them cheap. Out of their doors and clattering down their gaslit stairs every morning came the thousands of men and women on their way to the factories that had made Glasgow’s reputation: iron forges, locomotive workshops, cotton mills, shipyards and chemical works.
In the 1950s, respectable children in such places spent their free time – the hours they weren’t asleep or at school or helping to trundle the bogey towards the baths – in much the same way as respectable working-class children did elsewhere in Scotland. They read books and comics, belonged to Wolf Cub packs or the Boys’ Brigade, listened to radio comedies, went reluctantly to church. There were also those small adventures known as ‘expeditions’ in which one or two friends, or even a small gang, would roam across the city, unaccompanied by adults, to find dangerous pleasures in unpromising locales. In this way, David found the alkali wastes that the Tennant factory had left behind, joining other children there to toboggan down the grey slopes on a piece of cardboard that he’d brought along for the purpose. He would reappear at his tenement door as dusty as a sack of flour. He remembered how angry his mother would be. ‘Just look at the state of you!’ she’d say, begging him never to go there, wherever it was, ever again.
That would have been in the early 1950s, a lifetime ago. After university, David began his long career teaching history in the state schools of city districts and nearby towns, each with their own story of industrial decline. Former pupils speak of him as a fine teacher – inspirational, amusing, vivid in his accounts of unpromising subjects such as the Franco-Prussian War. And, somehow, we never lost touch. So it was that on a damp and windy afternoon last winter we walked together towards the site of his childhood adventures on the wasteland, uncertain of what remained.
In 1883 the government’s Alkali Inspectorate published the first official attempt to determine the St Rollox wasteland’s composition and extent: ‘nearly 100 acres of crude calcium sulphide constituting a vast grey desert, a mass of three million tons in some places 24 metres thick’. In the large chemical factories of Lancashire, which supplied the cotton industry and were old rivals to St Rollox as soda producers, waste of the same kind acquired a name: galligu, a word without any known etymology, perhaps a kind of onomatopoeia coined by the chemical workers who had to dispose of such a viscous, lava-like, rank-smelling mess.
The St Rollox factory closed in the early 1960s. In 1963, a year before its demolition began, an examination of the galligu by analytic chemists established that it dated from the period 1825–95 when the Leblanc process was in full swing, and that time and exposure to oxygen had rendered it a ‘relatively inoffensive’ mixture of calcium sulphate and calcium carbonate, which had an odour of sulphuretted hydrogen (rotten eggs) and hardened when it was dry. As for the Pinkston Bog, it was now better known by the name generations of children had given it: the Stinky Ocean. ‘The liquor in the marsh had an offensive smell,’ the analytic chemists concluded, ‘but the sulphide content was not excessive. The sludge comprised mainly lime compounds, carbonate, sulphate and sulphide, with a quantity of ferrous sulphide which imparted to it a black colour.’
Glasgow shrank throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Landmarks disappeared. One of the railways through the wasteland closed and its track was torn up, leaving an empty cutting that was filled – and the Stinky Ocean with it – with the debris of the tenements that were being demolished elsewhere. Then, in an act of civic utopianism that now looks like self-hatred, Glasgow drove a motorway from east to west close to the central city, obliterating the mainly Victorian townscape that lay in its path. Churches, second-hand bookshops, snooker halls, the old canal, pubs, warehouses: all of them went. David’s tenement, in fact his whole dense district, came down, as if an ants’ nest had been trodden flat.
The galligu, however, remained intact. New estimates put its volume at a million cubic metres. Mostly, it was invisible, obscured by layers of topsoil, but its inherent instability made it difficult to build over, and contaminated groundwater still leaked out. In 2016, the city council decided it would make the site a Transformational Regeneration Area, a TRA, and announced plans to develop it as an inner-city suburb of a thousand homes, with a church, school, shops, cycle paths, new roads and bridges, and several thousand bushes and trees. The project, known as the Sighthill TRA, is said to be the largest of its kind in Britain outside London, with a budget of £250 million funded by local and national governments.
David and I walked there via the necropolis – the city’s steep hill of the dead, where the first Charles Tennant is buried – and then by negotiating motorway slip roads and dank pedestrian underpasses we at last reached the barriers that guarded the former site of Charles Tennant’s great works.
Solving the problem of the galligu – making it safe – has been the work of an environmental consultancy whose technical director, Alan Shepherd, met us at the gate. Essentially, the galligu has been quarantined. First, boreholes established its underground location, and then an encircling trench was dug, 1.6 kilometres long, up to eighteen metres deep and between sixty and ninety centimetres wide. A mixture of concrete and an absorbent clay, bentonite, was poured into the trench and a multiple-layer membrane (clay, textile and plastic) stretched across the land inside the trench’s boundaries, an area that was then covered in clean soil to a depth of 2.5 metres to allow foundations to be built and pipework and power cables to be laid without breaching the membrane and making it less waterproof. As Shepherd talked, I imagined it as something like a one-tier wedding cake, with the galligu as the filling inside the icing, and natural bedrock and glacial clay as the cardboard base. At a cost of around £20 million to £30 million, this underground architecture was designed to keep the galligu dry – to seal it from rainwater and halt flows of groundwater, and so prevent the leaching of contaminants and the smell of rotten eggs.
Shepherd and the site manager, Bill Allen, took David and me on a tour of the development. They were helpful, knowledgeable men, keen to oblige our interest in the past, though very little of that past now remained. Bill showed us the roadside verge where he reckoned Tennant’s Stalk once stood. Elsewhere we found yellow bricks, some loose, others embedded in the ground, which Bill thought looked like the shattered base of a chimney or an oven. As we were driving to another part of the site, David exclaimed that the road had been the route of the number 16 tram – but the road was a rare and untidy remnant from his childhood, still with a residue of small workshops and warehouses that now specialised in car repairs and food stocks for Indian restaurants. Everything else was transfigured, filled in, smoothed, greened, reimagined and refashioned. Granite kerbstones had been imported from China and laid perfectly by a Portuguese artisan and his assistants; saplings lay in bundles waiting to be planted; the new school was nearly finished; meetings in the new church hall had already drawn representatives from the dozen different communities, including asylum seekers, that had made, or would make, Sighthill their home.
The moral arithmetic of the Industrial Revolution is an impossible computation, a never-ending series of sums. Bleaching powder helped the British textile industry to thrive. Thriving, its factories attracted workers from their rural poverty and settled them in slums. Thriving, its cheap products destroyed the livelihoods of Indian handloom weavers and razed the old economy of Bengal. But if it hadn’t thrived, what then? Would the world be more equitable, happier, better clothed, more just?
Judgement of the Tennants – the Tennants in their heyday – is easier. Mustique, Glen and Princess Margaret; trout lochs, Eton and home-grown pineapples: they are all very fine. But there, somewhere under the football pitches, lies the Stinky Ocean.
Artwork © Thomas Sulman, Detail of St Rollox Works from Bird’s Eye View of Glasgow, Illustrated London News, 26 March 1864, Image courtesy of the University of Glasgow Library