A fascinating new collection is about to be unveiled at Newton Stewart Museum featuring artefacts belonging to James Vernon, an inventor and entrepreneur who lived in Newton Stewart from 1876 to 1903.
During the Victorian era there was an explosion of innovation and entrepreneurialism.
In Newton Stewart, Vernon exemplified the new culture. Reasonably late in his life, he patented (both in the UK and US), manufactured and successfully sold various inventions.
All Vernon’s inventions were based on one simple idea: the combination of existing functions or raw material to create a novel item.
His innovations included:
n Improvements in washstand services and bathroom ware, where he nested or combined functions cutting down on the number of items needed on the washstand.
n A new formula for steel (the secret ingredient was seaweed) which he produced at his own steel mills near Larbert. From this he invented a new tool for farriers, which is in the display which contained all the necessary tools in one item. He also combined steel and rubber to make a silent horseshoe.
n Vernon’s “Noiseless Ware” was his most successful invention, produced by Vernon’s patent Glass and China Company Ltd. Vernon created the noiseless ware by combining china, glass or silverware with rubber. He patented a way to put a rubber ring around the base of china or glass items which meant they did not slide around tables in sailing ships and did not break when placed on a hard, marble washstand.
Vernon ran this business from London and could commute from his home, Mount Vernon in Windsor Road, on the “Paddy” steam train more easily than we could today.
Examples of Vernon’s Noiseless Ware are to be found in museums around the world, including the Riverside Museum in Glasgow and the online Future Museum.
Vernon also ran a cabinet-makers’ business with his two brothers. An example of their work is the grandfather clock on display.
Like many Victorian entrepreneurs he saw it as his duty to undertake religious and philanthropic good works. For many years he ran bible classes for the Christian Union, for which he was presented with the bible on display, and he supported the Industrial Home for Girls and the Mechanics Institute (for which he was presented with the silver tea and coffee set on display. James was also a town councillor.
Vernon was the son of Samuel Vernon, a cobbler, who had a very modest dwelling at the corner of Dashwood Square. But, in the space of a generation, James enjoyed a rapid rise in Newton Stewart society. James had one son, William, and four daughters.
William married Annie Simmonds, but his father disapproved of Annie, as she was a humble ladies’ maid. When William and two of his three children died young from TB, James and his wife took the remaining son James (their grandson) from Annie and she was banished back to Bristol, where she came from. Young James was then brought up by the four Vernon aunts.
History almost repeated itself when the wife of this James, Laetitia, died four days after giving birth to their first child , Hazel. Laetitia’s mother, Kitty Taylor, wanted to give the baby a home but she had also been a ladies’ maid. The younger James, like his grandfather, was of the opinion that a maid was not a suitable person to bring up a Vernon.
James wanted to put his daughter into the orphanage in Newton Stewart because his grandfather had been instrumental in funding it. But Kitty did eventually bring up Hazel, who had a happy childhood in Newton Stewart.
While this behaviour may shock us today, such thinking would not have been unusual for people who had acquired status in what was a hierarchical society. Grandson James was injured in World War One but survived and went on to become the treasurer of Wigtownshire County Council in the 1960s.
The collection, which goes on show in March 31, was given to the museum for display by Ann Porter from Stranraer, the great-great-granddaughter of the older James Vernon.
Newton Stewart Museum will be staging a special World War One exhibition in August to coincide with the start of the Great War.
The museum needs volunteers to help. If you are interested in keeping this vital community facility open, contact Roz Wood on 01671 402677 or Jean Fryatt on 01671 401048.
n Galloway’s Great War: pages 22 & 23