Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 163,367 pages of information and 245,906 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

John Polson

From Graces Guide
Published 1901. John Polson.

of Brown and Polson

From ‘Captains of Industry’ by William S. Murphy. Published 1901.


NEAR the foot of the northern slope of Gleniffer Braes, the bonnie braes made beautiful for ever by Tannahill's song, stand the works of Messrs. Brown & Polson. Paisley's smoke and din are not far away, yet the air is clear and quiet around the red mass of the famous corn flour factory. The architect of those works seems to have been influenced by feudal memories, and endeavoured to link together the days of romantic chivalry and the present age of industry. All round the outer walls are high and plain, while to the front the porter's lodge, wide gateway, open courtyard, and towering- entrance give point to the baronial reminiscence. It is only a suggestion, however, and needs but the sight of the gigantic chimney stalk and the sound of whirring wheels to dispel the faint illusion. The buildings are very picturesque, and have a lofty appearance, not at all in keeping with the commonplace operations going on within. Perhaps some of the workers, too, nay regretfully contrast the splendour of their working place with the poverty of their homes. But industrial success brings wealth, and wealth is privileged. Not that those splendid works are out of keeping with the character of the firm. On the contrary, the business of Messrs. Brown & Polson is sound and pleasant in every detail. All the work-rooms are spacious, airy, and well lighted; and the workers experience a care and consideration more detailed and enlightened than is common. For nearly thirty years the firm has practised the principle of giving bonus to labour, a system of profit-sharing between labour and capital advocated by Carlyle, John Ruskin, and some of the most advanced political economists. Each worker receives at the end of the year a share in the year's profit, proportioned to the amount of his or her wages, and the amount is lodged in the savings bank to the worker's credit. The bonus is held as a free gift from the firm, not as a right of the workers, and may be withheld without reason being given; but this derogates in very little from the grace of the concession. Paisley has gained wealth from the corn flour . . . . . . . .

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and the three interests merged into one under the designation of Messrs. Brown & Poison. The names of the partners were Mr. William Brown and Mr. John Brown, his son, Mr. William Poison and Mr. John Poison, jun. Mr. William Brown died in 1851, sincerely beloved and honoured; Mr. William Poison seceded from the firm in 1857, and died some years ago; Mr. John Brown died in 189o, aged eighty- three years, having been a worthy public servant for a long period, and much respected as a praiseworthy gentleman; his two sons, Mr. William Brown and Mr. John Armour Brown, joined the firm in 1861; Mr. William Brown died in 1877; Mr. John Poison, jun., ended his long and useful life on Friday, 10th August, 1900, aged seventy-five years; Mr. John A. Brown still survives, the head of the firm.

The death of Mr. John Poison, jun., removed from the scene of his labours one of the most remarkable industrial leaders in his day. Born on 5th February, 1825, Mr. John Poison was a native of Paisley. His father's position enabled him to give his son a first-rate education, and the latter had the ability to profit by it. He attended Paisley Grammar School and Andersonian College in Glasgow, obtaining high distinction both at school and college. Education with him, however, was but a training for practical life, and lie joined his father in his business. Bringing a trained intellect to bear upon industrial problems, Mr. John Poison was enabled, as has been indicated, to improve and develop the business with which it was his lot to be identified.

About the year 1853, the then young manufacturer had his attention directed to the possibilities of Indian corn as a food. Mr. William Cobbett, whose sterling honesty and common sense probably caught Mr. Poison's attention, for some years made Indian corn his hobby. He wrote pamphlets about it, planted and ate it, made paper out of the husks, and printed a book on the paper; but the great reformer gained few adherents, and maize might never have been regarded as a human food among us at all, had it not been for Mr. John Poison. The Paisley starch manufacturer saw that the objection to maize was to the fatty matter contained in it, and that if he could extract the starchy matter which is the main constituent of Indian corn, the people of this country would gladly accept it as an article of food.

After a long series of experiments, he devised a process for separating the oily and husky constituents of the grain, and named the resulting product "Corn Flour," which is in fact a pure starch. Maize, or Indian corn, is a plant native to North America, and has long been known and used as a food by the aborigines of that country. The plant is the most beautiful of all the cereals; long, gracefully-tapering, dark green leaves, surmounted by bright golden blossoms, deck the maize field in summer; while in the autumn the cars nestle among the yellowing leaves by the side of the long stalks, hung round by tassels of corn silk. The chief constituent of the maize is starch. It is common knowledge that starch is the most important of heat-givers - or force-producers in human food, and is present in potatoes, bran, wheat, peas, haricot beans, oatmeal, rice, and other vegetable products. Having satisfied himself that his treatment of the Indian corn rendered it edible and palatable as well as nutritious, Mr. Poison patented his process in 1854, and sent on to the market the now familiar packets of Corn Flour. That it net with acceptance need hardly be said. The demand for this small product changed the whole aim and destiny of the firm. Messrs. Brown & Poison became Corn Hour manufacturers. The discovery of Corn Flour may have been a happy accident, and its commercial acceptance a matter of luck; but the man who made the discovery had many of the qualities distinctive of the pioneer, explorer, and discoverer.

Is his earlier years, Mr. Poison's devotion to business was incessant; but later in life he felt free to assist other and inure distinctively public interests. Literature, art, music, philosophy, and science were to him objects of high value. Ile published pamphlets, wrote to the press on occasions, encouraged Paisley Fine Art Exhibitions, patronised the Choral Society and other local efforts at promoting musical culture, assisted in the restoration of Paisley Abbey, gave prizes to encourage the study of botany among the young, and in all ways sought to help the development of noble life in his native town. Mr. Poison, as has been said, died on Friday. 10th August, 1900, leaving behind him a record of which his native town has no reason to be ashamed.

He was a man of great practical ability and careful benevolence. Thrifty himself in the midst of wealth, he disliked exceedingly the thriftlessness of the poor. Mr. Polson's thrift, however, had large margins, and rather took the form of requiring honest value for his money than saving. He gave liberally to charities of all kinds, and seriously attempted reform of the treatment meted out to the pauperised poor. Mr. Poison's proposals embodied in his pamphlet— "Affluence, Poverty, and Pauperism " — reveal a healthy individualism, which, though old-fashioned and out of date, certainly afforded ample scope for the practice of the Christian virtues. Being an uncommonly honest and fearless man, Mr. Polson expressed his own personality in his writings. He asked others to do what he did himself, and actually did more than he prescribed.

Mr. John Armour Brown, the present head of Messrs. Brown & Poison, has contributed a vigorous personality to the historical development of the firm. He is a strong, practical man, gifted with keen, sharp sense, disdaining those commercial dodges which are the refuges of weaker men. Mr. Brown's hobby is music. For many years he conducted musical classes for young people, and was for a long period conductor of the Choral Union concerts in Paisley. The education of the young has also been to him a subject of deep concern, especially in respect to the youth whom poverty or evil circumstance has deprived of fair educational opportunity. While a member of Paisley School Board Mr. Brown paid special attention to the evening schools and recreative classes. During recent years Mr. Brown has found the labours of business sufficient to engage all his energies, and probably he serves the public interest of Paisley better by governing efficiently an industry on which the lives of so many citizens depend than by service on any public board or council.

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