William Todd Lithgow

A shipyard owner: William Todd Lithgow

·            These documents are about the career of one of the most famous Clyde shipbuilders, William Todd Lithgow.



William Todd Lithgow was the first of the three generations of his family to be prominent shipyard owners. Family firms were common, though not universal, on the Clyde. Denny's, Scott's, and Stephens were other prominent examples.


William Lithgow's father was a salesman for the cotton firm who owned the New Lanark mills. He was born in Port Glasgow in 1853, and educated at Greenock Academy. When he left school, he became an apprentice draughtsman with a shipbuilding firm in Greenock. His father died in 1871 and left him some money. In 1874 he went into partnership with Joseph Russell, 41 and Anderson Rodger 31. Both of his partners were shipbuilders - Russell had been in business on his own and had worked in other yards. Russell put most money into the new firm and so it was known as Russell and Co.


Until the late 1890s, Russell and Co mainly built sailing ships which were still the most economic for bulk cargoes. The firm grew very quickly and survived several periods of trade depression when shipbuilders building the same kind of ship were going out of business.


This success was due to three factors: the design of the ships built; the efficient organisation of the shipyards; and astute business methods. All three partners remained in the business until 1891 and all three were experienced shipbuilders. There is no evidence of how technical and managerial responsibilities were shared between them. There is however, strong evidence that Lithgow took a lead in finance and marketing. He made wide use of the common practice of shipbuilders buying a share in the ships they were building. This was very useful because it allowed ship owners to place orders which they would otherwise have been unable to afford. Sometimes he did this on the firm's account but he also did it on his own account. Lithgow was married in 1879 to the daughter of a prominent Greenock businessman who was also a shipowner.


In 1891 William Lithgow bought out his partners and continued in sole charge of the firm until he took in his two sons as partners in 1907, the year before he died.

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Total estate in Scotland of

James Lithgow:                                  £2052 3s 6d


It is my desire that my two sons, Robert McNiest Lithgow, and William Todd Lithgow share and share alike in all that may be left. . .


The will of James Lithgow, 1871

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1874 In the autumn I was introduced by Mr Richard Hagart of Port Glasgow to Anderson Rodger and Wm.T. Lithgow of Port Glasgow, and after some talk we bought the machinery and stock and a ship in frame in the yard lately occupied by McFadyen & Co., in the Bay, Port Glasgow, and began 30 Nov. with a capital of £7000, J.R. £5000, A.R. and W.T.L. £1000 each. W.B. Allan cashier, Malc. Pollock carpenter, J. Ewing joiner, and Jas. Logan fitter.
The diary of Joseph Russell


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·           William Lithgow s advice to his son James

'You will be well enough off,' he said, 'to live like a country gentleman if you want to; or you may go to a university and take up a profession. In either case you will not ask later to come into my shipyards. That business is for men who know their trade thoroughly. If you wish to join it you will serve an apprenticeship as I did, and devote your life to it, putting more into it than you take out.'


J.M. Reid, James Lithgow: A Biography, 1964

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June 7 1908 Death of Lithgow ... When he began in business,... he was very clever, sharp, light-hearted but strong-willed and soon took the lead in making contracts. From the first, keen for financial success.

[He was] a singularly good businessman, allocating his time well, not spending unnecessary time on details but keeping a firm grasp on all. Not seeing lions in the way as I do. Going into a thing without great thought, but finding a way through. Not slow to do a strong thing when occasion required but kindly and pleasant in business with most people.


The diary of Joseph Russell.


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A prominent Clyde shipbuilder has passed away in the person of Mr William Todd Lithgow, sole partner .of the Port-Glasgow firm of Messrs Russell and Co. The news of his death which occurred at an early hour yesterday morning at his residence, Drums, Langbank, will occasion genuine sorrow in many Clydeside circles, especially in the community of Port-Glasgow, where his life work was centred. Attacked by illness last year, Mr Lithgow was laid aside from active duty. Hopes were entertained that with a period of rest, combined with the best medical advice, he would ultimately pull through, but these, unfortunately, have not been realised, and to-day the shipbuilding industry is the poorer for the loss of one of its leaders, and Port-Glasgow for the loss of a worthy son and highly respected citizen.


The deceased gentleman has had a notable and most successful career. By his business aptitude and tireless energy he raised himself to the proud position of being the head of a firm which has made itself famous the world over. A Port-Glasgow boy Mr Lithgow became an apprentice in the drawing office of Messrs John Reid & Co, where he acquired an excellent training which equipped him for his future career. He afterwards became associated with Mr Joseph Russell and Mr Anderson Rodger in the business of Messrs Russell & Co, which was then conducted in the Bay Street yard. About six years later they acquired by lease the Port-Glasgow Graving Dock. Owing to the rapid growth of the business and the great demand for sailing ships, the firm took over the yard in Main Street, Greenock, formerly owned by Mr J.E. Scott, shipbuilder. and later they acquired the Kingston yard. At the beginning this establishment had only a building capacity of three or four ordinary berths. To-day, thanks to the enterprise of the firm and to Mr Lithgow, it boasts thirteen berths, each capable of building a steamer of 12,000 tons.


In the early '90s the firm was dissolved, Mr Russell retiring from practical connection with shipbuilding. Mr Rodger took over the East-end yard in Port­Glasgow, the Greenock establishment was given up, while Mr Lithgow remained sole partner at Kingston. The firm enjoyed a run of phenomenal prosperity, for many years heading the list of Clyde shipbuilders for the largest yearly output, and one year they earned the high distinction of topping the world's record.


While the deceased was a man who was much absorbed in the direction of his extensive shipbuilding business, he was by no means oblivious to claims of a public and social nature. That he took a warm interest in the welfare of his native town was shown in a marked degree a few years ago, when he made a munificent gift to the Town Council to improve one of the congested areas in the burgh. The question of town improvements strongly appealed to him, and it was in February, 1902, he wrote to Provost McMaster intimating his gift of £10,000 and also expressing the desire to take over the ground in the Bay Area at the valuator's figure which was stated at £18,500. In other ways he was very open handed, and many charities will miss his unostentatious help. Along with his wife he took a lively interest in the welfare of Clune Park U.F. Church and a few years ago materially assisted in the congregation building enterprise. He gifted an organ and stained glass window to Langbank U.F. Church, of which he was a member and his interest in Shore Street Mission. Port-Glasgow, was evinced in his liberal givings and his assistance in providing a Bible-woman for the town. His relations with his workmen were always of a friendly character, and the practical interest he displayed in the promotion of ambulance work was highly appreciated in the yard.


Mr Lithgow who was about fifty-four years of age was married to a daughter of the late Mr Henry Birkmyre, of the Gourock Ropework Company. He is survived by his wife and a grown-up family, and only a few months ago his two sons were assumed as partners in the firm.


The Greenock Telegraph, 8 June 1908


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·            This is the list of William Lithgow s wealth made when he died.





Shares in 85 various companies




Cash in the house




Current accounts at Port Glasgow and Lochgilphead




Amounts due by various creditors




Household furniture and other effects at Drums and





Stock of horses, cattle agricultural implements etc.

at Ormsary




Stock of horses, cattle, agricultural implements etc.

at Drums




Shares in ships




Interest in the firm of Russell & Co.




Rents dues on various properties




Total value of estate                                               1,020,925




The will of William Todd Lithgow