Tuesday 6 December 2011

A. T. Stewart, Millionaire, 1801-1876.



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Extracts from a Sketch of His Life by Hugh M'Call.

In the last quarter of the eighteenth century John Turney, a very intelligent farmer, resided on the Hertford estate, at a part of Lissue near the Maze. It was usual at that time for men who had capital to spare to do a little in the manufacture of linen as well as to attend to the business of the field. As one of the descendants of the Huguenot exiles that settled in the town and about the neighbourhood of Lisburn one hundred years before, Mr. Turney inherited much of the spirit of industry and peaceful disposition of his forefathers, and, like them, had great taste for the beautiful, whether in nature or art; his garden was quite a model in floriculture, and, what was not usual in country houses, he had in his parlour two or three oil paintings of a style which was rare as the works were valuable.

One of his neighbours, Thomas Lamb, of Pear Tree Hill, greatly admired the pictures, but laughed heartily at the estimate their owner placed on them. Mr. Lamb, a sturdy Quaker, and Elias Hughes, another member of the same sect, who resided in that locality, were also engaged in the making of coarse linens.

John Turney's family consisted of his wife and a daughter named Margaret, and very happy was his household; but during the troublous times of Ninety-Eight the former, who was a delicate and rather nervous woman, had been much shocked by some local occurrence, and became very ill.

After lingering some weeks, she passed away into the Unseen Land.

There lived at that time near the Red Hill, and not far from Mr. Turney's place, Thomas Stewart, and his wife Martha, a very industrious and very quiet people. Their family consisted of five sons and three daughters.

The head of the house had been brought up on a farm situate near the Rock Chapel, but several years before he had taken some land at Red Hill, in Lissue.

The second son, Alexander, a steady-going and very energetic young man, commenced life as an agriculturist on a twenty-acre farm on the Hertford estate.

In the list of Margaret Turney's admirers young Alexander Stewart had a high place, but her father could not think of his daughter giving her hand to a small farmer who had only commenced to make his way in the world.

More than twelve months had gone by since the second marriage of her father had made the previous happy home a scene of unpleasant and divided feeling.

At length she left her father's house and got privately married to Mr. Stewart, immediately after which the young husband took her home to the farm cottage at Red Hill, a picturesque part of the Hertford estate, situate about two miles from Lisburn.

Birth and Early Life.

The young couple lived very happily together. Stewart was a good-natured, industrious fellow, and worked hard at the farm. Among the saddest years of Ireland's eventful history was that of 1801, the time of dearth, disease, and privation; the previous harvest was a failure, and every article of food had gone up to famine price. Extra exertion was necessary to keep farmers afloat, and in his anxiety to get finished some outdoor work the farmer over-heated himself, and eventually fell into consumption, which carried him off in some few months. Not many weeks had elapsed after the death of Alexander Stewart when the young wife, still in her teens, was confined of a son; and in that cottage which still stands (in 1881) on the farm of Mr. James N. Richardson, of Lissue, the future merchant prince of Broadway first saw the light, and in due time received the baptismal name of Alexander Turney, in honour of his father and grandfather.

As soon as she was able to leave the cottage her father had her and the infant removed to his own place. A purchaser soon turned up for the little farm, the stock and furniture were disposed of to good advantage, and the proceeds set apart for the young widow and her son.

Some time afterwards David Bell, a farmer, began to pay court to the widow, and in April, 1803, got married to her. The father of the bride, for a second time, was still more annoyed at that affair than he had been on the previous occasion. Bell sold his farm and stock and prepared to embark for America. He himself, as well as his wife, was anxious to take the child, then eighteen months old, along with them, but Mr. Turney would not permit that arrangement, and took it home.

Having received a good education himself, Mr. Turney determined that his grandson should enjoy the full advantages of modern acquirements, and at the proper time become a minister of the Church of England. There was then in the Causeway End a teacher of children famed for instructing them in the rudiments of spelling, reading, and writing; and all that course was to be taught juveniles without the use of the rod. That model school-master's name was William Christie, and if he lived in these days, when, in some schools, flogging is still a sort of pastime with the principals, he would deserve canonisation. MAny of the people of Causeway End -- John Hodgen, George Briggs, John Anderson, and others -- recollected the thoughtful-looking lad passing along the road that led from his grandfather's house to the village seminary, conning over his Manson's Spelling-Book as he went on his way. In due time the lad was sent to the Lisburn English and Mercantile Academy, then conducted by Mr. Benjamin Neely, one of the ablest of teachers, as well as one of the most efficient flagellators that ever flourished a ratan. Many of that gentleman's pupils rose in after days to places of high distinction in the world. Thomas Spence, the famous writing-master, was one of his early scholars; James W. Hogg, afterwards known as chairman of the East India Board, and member for Honiton, a great favourite of Sir Robert Peel, who conferred on him the honour of a baronetcy, Brigadier-General Nicholson, one of the leading heroes of the Punjaub; Serjeant Armstrong, celebrated as a chief of the Irish Bar; and several other men mark, were also taught at the Lisburn Academy.

This most popular classical seminary in the rural districts of that part of Antrim County was then presided over by the Rev. Skeffington Thompson, LL.D., of Magheragal, and on the first day of February, 1815, Alexander T. Stewart was entered there as a student. Early in the following month John Turney took ill, and it was evident his day of life was coming to a close. Thomas Lamb, his valued neighbour, visited him very frequently, and, with the never-failing attention to worldly affairs that forms the leading characteristic of Quakerism, advised his friend to settle his affairs, and in doing so not to forget his daughter, Margaret Bell, and her children.

He died on the 16th of April, 1815.

After the old man's death Mr. Lamb brought Alexander T. Stewart to reside in his house, where he became thoroughly at home, the two sons, John and Joshua, looking on the orphan boy as, if possible, something more than a brother.

Stewart had now quite given up any idea of going on for the clerical profession, and in order to fit him for business Mr. Lamb advised that, instead of emigrating to New Tork, as he proposed to do, he should go to Belfast and learn something of shopkeeping. The good old Quaker arranged with a grocer in that town that the well-educated lad should become his apprentice, and in course of a few weeks he commenced his duties there. But neither the place nor the business suited the taste of A. T. Stewart. During the short time he was at the grocery business he spent the time from each Saturday evening till Monday at the house of Mr. Matthew Morrow, whose daughters conducted a ladies' school in Chichester Street, and where he met with the utmost kindness. But before the end of April he told the grocer that he did not like the business; and, having begged his guardian's permission to carry out the project of going to America, Mr. Lamb did not stand in the way, and thus all was amicably arranged.

America, 1818.

His guardian handed him fifty pounds out of the fortune then awaiting his coming of age. With that capital, in May, 1818, he left Belfast, in a ship bound for New York, and six weeks afterwards he found himself in the city on the Hudson.

After considerable difficulty he found his mother's residence. His half-brother, James Bell, had, some weeks before, ran off from home, and gone to sea, and the family then consisted of his half-sister Mary, his mother, and stepfather. Determined not to remain a burden on the family, he sought employment as an assistant teacher, and was engaged at four hundred dollars a-year -- a sum barely equal to pay his board and maintain him in respectable clothing. Having found himself fully equal to the duties of the school, several additions were made to his salary during the next two years, and in 1820 he found himself master of an annual income of six hundred dollars.

A course of communication was maintained between him and his guardian all that time, and in December, 1822, he received a long letter from the honest Quaker, stating that the property left him having been realised, the proceeds were lodged in a Belfast bank. Mr. Lamb also advised his ward that the money arising from the sale of the meadow and two fields, together with small cottage and garden (£140), was lent at 5 per cent. interest to a linen draper, and the seven pounds arising from that investment were paid quarterly to Mrs. Turney, his step-grandmother.

Early in the following your A. T. Stewart left New York for Liverpool, and when he reached that port in May, lost no time in taking his passage in the next steamer for Belfast, where he arrived in due course, and from thence made his way to Lisburn. The first person he called on was Fanny Fox, a Quaker lady, then engaged, in the haberdashery and millinery business. Miss Fox pressed him to remain all night, and next morning, on speaking to that lady respecting his business in Ireland, he requested her to introduce him to a lawyer, which she did by taking him to the office of Mr. Dillon. Having had some legal advice from that solicitor, the young man set off on foot -- a distance of about four miles -- for Pear Tree Hill, the residence of Mr. Thomas Lamb, his grandfather's executor, where he was received with the utmost attention, and in the course of the day all the accounts of Mr. Turney's estate, from April, 1815, were laid before him, with the several amounts received and the sums paid, and the vouchers in each case. Various estimates have been made respecting the sums paid over to A. T. Stewart; nothing definite, however, is known on the subject, but it must have amounted to several hundred, or perhaps one thousand, pounds.

It has been stated that Mr. Stewart had received from his guardian the full amount of money arising from the proceeds of property left him by his grandfather; but on getting the cash into his hands he found some difficulty in arriving at any definite conclusion as to how it should be invested. The bustle and prosperity he had seen in the everyday commerce of New York had stirred in his mind a desire for business; he therefore consulted a Belfast friend on the subject, and in doing so frankly acknowledged his ignorance of mercantile affairs. That friend told him that with his educational attainments and aptitude for learning he would soon master the details of trade. "It was most erroneous," he added, "to suppose that because a young man was a classical scholar he would not succeed when engaged at the matter-of-fact details of life as they existed behind the counter."

Acting on that shrewd counsel, the student made his first purchase from a manufacturer in Rosemary Street in that town, comprising a large lot of fancy goads, high-class muslins, insertions, tambours, and some flouncings. These articles were all of a quality which the embryo merchant was assured had rarely before been seen in any American city. He had also bought from the eminent firm of James N. Richardson & Co., of Lisburn, a parcel of the finest linens and some specialities in French cambric. Having thus invested the greater part of his capital in first-class goods, he once again sailed for New York, and arrived safe in July, 1823. There was then to be let the store afterwards known as "283, Broadway," situate between Murray and Warren Streets. The locality was central, and although the store was a mere wooden structure, twenty feet square, and the rent 37S dollars a-year, he entered as tenant, made some improvements, and in that tiny spot, with his Belfast and Lisburn purchases, and a job lot of laces, silk gloves, and general hosiery, the man who in after years became the financial counsellor of Presidents and the wonder of Wall Street commenced his marvellous career.

Marriage in 1825.

In 1825 Mr. Stewart married Miss Cornelia Clinch, daughter of a very wealthy ship chandler of New York. The young lady had received a very good education, but in the course of that sowing of intellectual seed the duty of industry had not been forgotten, and immediately after having taken upon herself the responsibilities of a wife she set about aiding in the transactions of the store, as it was on her own exertions much of the future success depended. It has been said that, on the delivery of the goods which her husband was in the habit of purchasing at the auction sales, she would refinish parcels of gloves and also the lots of ing in the transactions of the store, as if it just from the hands of the manufacturer. [sic]

The concern 283 [sic] had ceased to accommodate the customers and and contain the stock, and during the three years previous to the autumn of 1832 A. T. Stewart had made two removals, in each case to larger places of business. No 257, Broadway, was an extensive store, situate between Murray and Warren Streets, and this had been fitted up with great care and taste, the young merchant's classical education having given him a love of the decorative that was seen even in his selection of fancy fabrics. Nine years' successful commerce had made him a person of civic celebrity and a wonder to the plodding speculators of Wall Street.

In the spring of 1847 the premises of A. T. Stewart & Co. were found totally inadequate to meet the growing extension of their business. Washington Hall, a famous commercial hotel and its mercantile club, were then in the market, and at a cost of sixty thousand dollars the site was purchased by Mr. Stewart. The area of that building ground comprised two acres, and after clearing away the buildings that stood over it the erection of the world-renowned Marble Palace was commenced.

Famine, 1847.

Ireland in 1847 was undergoing one of those periodical seasons of sadness which seem coincident with her history. Two millions of her people were in the very whirlpool of destitution, dearth, and disease, and towards the relief fund which had been got up the Broadway merchant sent to the Irish Committee, then sitting in Dublin, a contribution of ten thousand dollars, and a cargo of food to the Lisburn Committee value for £5,000.

A. T. Stewart had then been in the dry goods trade for more than one quarter of a century, and his power of arranging the daily duties of an entire army of rank and file assistants showed how well the algebraic and mathematical lessons he had been taught by Mr. Benjamin Neely must have been acted upon in course of his commercial life.

The marble palace had become more than ever the resort of the fashionable and the gay of high life, when A. T. Stewart saw that it was time for him to make another move in the upward direction. He accordingly, in 1860, purchased the fee-simple of more than two acres of ground situate between Ninth and Tenth Streets and Fourth Avenue. There he commenced the erection which, when finished, stood, from the level of the street to the top cornice, eighty-eight feet in height, and was the largest store ever erected in any part of the world. It consisted of eight floors, six above and two below the ground, thus making an area of eighteen acres in all.

About the time of the commencement of the war between the Southern and Northern States of America Mr. Stewart purchased immense quantities of military stores, and when demand for such goods rose with the requirements, sales were made at very large profits, and yet, as it was afterwards proved, the purchases made by Government at A. T. Stewart's were on much better terms than any that had been bought from other holders.

Some of A. T. Stewart's biographers have written of him as if he had been a man whose only enjoyment was the accumulation of riches. Nothing could be further from broad fact than such statements. It is true that to casual observers he may have seemed cold and frigid, and that in the management of his great business he exacted scrupulous attention to details on the part of his army of assistants, but in connection with that stern love of discipline and a determination to have the line of conduct he marked out strictly adhered to, he had a heart brimful of benevolence, and a disposition which ever prompted him to distribute with no sparing hand a portion of his wealth in doing good to his less fortunate brethren.

The munificent contribution which Mr. Stewart sent to the Lisburn Relief Committee has been mentioned. He also chartered the ship Mary Edson to take over on her return voyage a number of the cotton weavers to New York. When those emigrants reached that city the Broadway merchant had temporary homes prepared for them, and until they got into employment all were supported at his expense.

Death, 1876.

He delighted to gather around him the most distinguished man of the city, and on the third Sunday in March, 1876, had his usual dinner party. On the occasion alluded to the party was intended to consist of sixteen gentlemen, including the host himself, but three of the invited guests were unable to attend, and, to Mr. Stewart's momentary annoyance, thirteen sat down to table. A very pleasant evenins was spent, however, for he was quite a different man in his own house from the plodding merchant of Broadway. Next day he felt very ill, and did not go to business. An internal disease which had first appeared three years before set in with increased severity. The family physician, Dr. Marcey, was in close attendance, and he rallied a little under that gentleman's care, but on Thursday, the 6th of April, he had caught fresh cold and became considerably worse. On the morning of the 10th he was quite unconscious, and before the close of that day the millionaire storekeeper, whose name had been a household word to every place of note in the world of commerce, had passed away to the Land of Spirits.

President Grant offered to appoint Mr. Stewart to the very important office of Secretary of the United States Treasury, but various obstacles intervened, and the matter fell through.

He died childless.

One of A. T. Stewart's peculiarities was that of being religiously reticent on the subject of his boyhood. He occasionally referred to John Turney, his maternal grandfather; but of Thomas Stewart and Martha, his paternal grandfather and grandmother, or of his four uncles and three aunts, he was never heard to speak. A friend once wrote him in favour of one of his relatives, then in poor circumstances, but he never replied to that letter. More than thirty years ago Tom Stewart, then the only surviving son of his grandfather, had got past the age of labour, and was badly off in Lisburn. On having been appealed to on the subject by Mr. Jon Owden, of the arm of J. N. Richardson & Co., A. T. Stewart sent the applicant means to pay his uncle ten shillings a week which sum was continued till the old man's death.

That disposition to ignore the existence of his relations in that country was evinced in his last will; and most remarkable is the fact that the world-renowned merchant, who is said to have died worth fifty millions of dollars, and whose benevolence towards the outside world was munificent, did not leave a solitary cent to those blood relations who, seeing that he died without issue, had direct claims on his testamentary action.

This neglect of his relations was one weak point in the character of one of the most wonderful of the world's commercialists. And yet he loved with national fervour the land of his birth, and in her times of need administered with liberal hand to Ireland's necessities. He has gone to his final resting-place, and, taking him for all in all, more than one generation will have passed before the world sees another A. T. Stewart.

Chamber's Biographical Dictionary, 1897.

Alexander Turney Stewart, 1803-1876, millionaire, born at Lisburn, near Belfast; emigrated to New York in 1823, where two years later he opened his first dry-goods store. His charities were numerous, yet at his death he left some £8,000,000. His body was stolen in 1878, and restored to his widow three years after on payment of £4,000 through a lawyer.

(Next Week: Betty, the Young Roscius.)

(This article was originally published in the Lisburn Standard on 7 December 1917 as part of a series which ran in that paper each week through 1917 and into 1918. The text along with other extracts can be found on my website Eddies Extracts.)

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