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William Todd Lithgow

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William Todd Lithgow (1854–1908) of Russell and Co

Lithgow was a Scottish ship-designer who became sole owner of an extremely successful shipbuilding company. For much of the 20th century its name was Lithgows, as it was developed further by William's sons James Lithgow (1883–1952) and Henry Lithgow (1886–1948), and then by his grandson William Lithgow (born 1934). By 1950 it was the largest private shipbuilding company in the world.

1854 Born at Port Glasgow, William Todd Lithgow was the second son of James Lithgow (d. 1870), a cotton yarn merchant, and his wife, Margaret MacNicol (d. 1861). His father had moved from Glasgow to Greenock before setting up in Port Glasgow in 1856.

William Lithgow became a premium apprentice with the old-established Port Glasgow shipbuilder John Reid and Co and he was trained as a ship's draughtsman just at the time when the River Clyde was emerging as the main seat of iron and steam shipbuilding in Britain.

1871 Lithgow's parents both died before he was seventeen. His father had sold cotton yarn and left Lithgow with £1,000 to invest in shipbuilding.

In 1874 he went into partnership with Joseph Russell (c1834-1917), an experienced shipbuilder who was the major investor in their firm Russell and Co. Anderson Rodger (c1843-1909) was the third partner. The core of their business was building large iron sailing ships intended for long-haul, slow cargo transport. Lithgow was chief draughtsman-designer and his work was crucial to their strategy of standardising hull shapes and components, thus increasing efficiency and profitability.

As the company expanded into new shipyards including their future base, the Kingston Yard, Lithgow became more and more prosperous.

Russell and Co's best-known ship today, the Falls of Clyde, was one of their earlier vessels, built in 1878 as part of a series named after Scottish waterfalls for the Falls Line. A four-masted "British medium clipper", solidly built with "iron Z-bar frames and double riveted iron plate", it was highly rated by the insurers, Lloyd's of London. Its maiden voyage was to Karachi, and many more of its early voyages were between different parts of the British Empire. The Falls Line also had Russell and Co build ships named after the waterfalls at Bruar, Afton, Foyers, Earn, Garry, Halladale and, lastly, the Falls of Ettrick which was launched in 1894.

In 1879 he married Agnes Birkmyre, from a prominent local family of rope-manufacturers and shipbuilders, and in 1883 they moved from Port Glasgow to a grander family home, Drums, a few miles further up the Clyde at Langbank. James was born that year, and Henry in 1886.

Sales were helped by Russell and Co's policy of taking on a proportion of the owners' investment in their ships, and they were also the first British company to build ships on spec. After building 34 ships totalling over 70,000 tons in one year, Lithgow and his partners won the 1890 Blue Ribband award for maximum output.

The 1880s were a busy and successful decade for Russell and Co, there were tensions between Lithgow and Rodger which led to the partnership dissolving. Lithgow kept the original company name and the Kingston Yard. Russell, who had a high opinion of his younger colleague, offered support but Lithgow was now sole owner of the business.

In 1891 the Kingston Yard saw the launch of one of the first five-masted ships in the world, the Maria Rickmers, and in 1901 Lithgow built what was the "largest four-masted vessel afloat" at the time. This was an oil carrier ordered by the Anglo-American Oil Company: the Brilliant.

The 1890s saw a shift away from their first generation of sailing ships towards tramp steamers, and the last rigged vessel was launched in 1894. The firm continued to grow and prosper, and Lithgow consolidated the family's position in the later years of his life by investing in stocks and transferring money to his sons.

1901 James joined as apprentice

1902 Lithgow bought an estate at Ormsary in Knapdale, Argyll

1905 Henry started his apprenticeship in 1905.

1907 William Lithgow suffered a serious health crisis in 1907, which brought Joseph Russell out of retirement to help the next generation of Lithgows with the business which still bore Russell's name.

Lithgow died in 1908, having turned his initial £1,000 into more than £2 million. Publication of his will led to the title of "millionaire shipbuilder", with newspaper comment on the "huge" size of his "interest in the firm of Messrs Russell & Company".


Obituary 1908 [1]

. . . senior partner of the shipbuilding firm of Russell and Co . . . served his apprenticeship as draughtsman with the firm of John Reid and Co . . . [more]


Notes

In 1918 Russell and Co was incorporated as Lithgows

The city of Dundee has an online collection of photographs of four- and three-masted ships built by Russell and Co. and photographed in Dundee docks in the late 19th century.

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