Mary McDowall – A Childhood and Dowry Funded by Enslaved Labour

Rebecca Quinton, Research Manager (Art)
an image of a long cream dress with brown spotty patterning on the front.

Robe à la Polonaise, 1780-81

Made when Mary was pregnant with one of her two sons using fabric purchased in the early-1770s

Images © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

15th February 2022

Mary McDowall, sometimes known as Maria, lived a privileged life. She was born on 13 January 1751, the third child and eldest daughter of William McDowall and his wife Elizabeth Graham at Castle Semple, Renfrewshire. The Castle Semple estate had been purchased by her grandfather, Colonel William McDowall (1678–1738), in 1727 with the original buildings demolished and a new Palladian-style country house built in 1735. Mary would have spent her childhood growing up with her eight brothers and three sisters in the luxury of Castle Semple with its fine furnishings, enjoying walks along the banks of Lochwinnoch and visiting family friends in the neighbouring estates, including the Houstons of Johnstone Castle and the Cunninghams of Craigend. However, this gentrified lifestyle that Mary would have enjoyed was the result of her family’s fortunes made in the Caribbean. 

an image of a long cream dress with brown spotty patterning on the front.

Robe à la Polonaise, silk woven circa 1770–75, dress made circa 1780–81

Images © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Col. McDowall first arrived in Nevis, one of the Leeward Islands, in the 1690s. He was initially employed as an overseer on sugar plantations, where during his eleven-year apprenticeship he was in charge of 150 enslaved workers. In 1706 McDowall moved to St Kitts and in 1712 he purchased the Canada Hills Planation and was made Colonel of the St Kitts militia. Seven years later in 1719 he married Mary Tovie, a wealthy heiress from a Bristol family, who herself owned estates on the island. The couple returned to Britain in 1724 and settled in Glasgow in 1727, purchasing Shawfield Mansion in town (later sold to John Glassford in 1760) and Castle Semple as their country estate. McDowall wrote to James Milliken, another plantation owner in St Kitts, in February 1727:  

You will now certainly conclude my head is turned when I tell you that I have bought Lord Semple’s estate with his mansion house, etc. in the shire of Renfrew being one of the best inland estates in Scotland … what you and my friends will think of it I know not, but I can tell you it is extremely liked by all my friends here. 

After Col. McDowall’s death on 27 October 1748, his properties and business interests in Scotland and the Caribbean were inherited by his son, William McDowall (1719–1778), including ‘the whole stock of slaves, cattle and other moveables’. One of McDowall’s plantations was the Hermitage estate on St Vincent, which when he sold it in 1776 was described on page 2 of The London Gazette on 26 November as being 450 acres with ‘about one hundred seasoned slaves, twenty mules, a few horses and horned cattle’. McDowall was also a partner in the major West India firm, Alexander Houstoun & Co. 

This family wealth provided ample means to not only educate McDowall’s sons, but also to provide dowries and purchase items for the trousseau of his daughters, Mary and Anne, who both married shortly after his death in 1778. Anne married Alexander Cunningham of Craigend in April 1779, and Mary married George Houston of Johnstone Castle a few months earlier on 1 February 1779. Several of Mary’s clothes survive in Glasgow Museums’ collection, including gowns that were probably part of her trousseau or made up from lengths of silk that were part of her dowry.  

Rebecca Quinton,
Research Manager (Art)

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