William Bews: Merchant of Kirkwall

Shops and trade were booming in the town of Kirkwall in the 19thC. It was a time when those who were able to grasp the opportunities of the blossoming economy of town shops, through hard work and perseverance, were able to build up a business from nothing.

Such a man was William Bews.

Born in Egilsay in 1821 to a seafaring father, whose own life was one of adventure, William Bews had to leave his schooling early on the death of his father in order to support his family. He went into partnership with his cousin and they set up their shop T&W Bews. This was to last only a year and William went his own way – never to look back.

Like most of the merchants of Kirkwall he was also a United Presbyterian and the church was central to his life.

William Bews’ grocers shop was in Albert Street. There is a photo of it here: Orkney Image Library dated 1900. As well as groceries he sold newspapers and journals.

At his shop at 12 Albert Street, William Bews jnr sold a huge variety of products

12 Albert Street is quite difficult to find today because it was located between 10 and 14 now occupied by Ortak and The Orcadian respectively. So where is no 12? It is still there under the archway that separates those two buildings. It is still 12 Albert Street but a gate now fastens over the passageway which, until recently, was a popular short cut for many in the town, leading down from Queen Street.

12 Albert Street is now under development, Neil Stevenson having been granted permission to divide it into 2 flats, but in its hey day it must have been quite a magnificent and imposing building. And a hive of activity because William Bews was for a time a very successful merchant.

12 Albert Street, you can just glimpse the building where William Bews had his home and shop

12 Albert Street was also the family home for William Bews snr living there with his wife, Mary, their many children and grandchildren.

As was the case in the 19thC life expectancy was not good and William was predeceased by some of his children, grandchildren and his wife. He himself lived to 1907 aged 87 years. A life when he had witnessed so many changes in the Kirkwall he knew. Its economic ups and downs.

Indeed Adverts placed in the local newspaper The Orkney Herald in 1892 by Wm Bews jnr. may indicate that his once thriving business was struggling. It also gives you an idea of the variety of goods on sale.

The Orkney Herald December 21st 1892

William Bews jnr took over the ironmongery business once owned by James M MacBeath in 1885 paying him £382 for the existing stock. By 1893, however the business was bankrupt. He had tried hard to keep it going by travelling around the county selling his wares and leaving an assistant in charge of the shop.

William Bews snr gave an interview to The Dundee Advertiser in 1898 about the changes he had witnessed over the decades: the arrival of the first steam ship to Orkney; the other Kirkwall merchants; and the growth of trade in the town. I’d like to thank Ian Clayton who alerted me to that article via SibFolk.

Sketch of William Bews from The Dundee Advertiser of 17th August 1898

William Bews and John Tait (John Tait: Merchant of Kirkwall) who I have previously written about were men of their time and place. Part of the growing confidence brought about through education, their devotion to their Church (United Presbyterian) and their ability to take the opportunities of the moment to build up successful businesses.

More articles will be following about the 19thC merchants of Orkney as I follow their trails, trying to find where their shops and businesses were.

William Bews is buried in the graveyard of St Magnus Cathedral. On his tombstone it states:

Erected by WILLIAM & MARY BEWS in memory of their son JOHN who died in Glasgow 28th Sept 1872 aged 20 years and ALFRED who died 27 Aug 1879 aged 15 years. Also THOMAS who died 22nd Feb 1881 aged 30 years and also their granddaughter ALEXANDRA who died 6th March 1879 aged 7 months. Also their son JAMES ANDERSON BEWS died 10th May 1900 aged 39 years. Also the above MARY MITCHELL or BEWS died 11th May 1897 aged 75 years & WILLIAM BEWS died 18th July 1907 aged 86 years.

If you have the time check out his tombstone and try and visit where his business and family home once was: 12 Albert Street. Let’s not forget some of the people who built the Kirkwall we know today.

Fiona Grahame

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3 replies »

  1. A sensitive and illuminating article. I look forward to hearing more about the merchants of Orkney. As a stay close to home traveller, such journeys are a delight. Thanks, and get well, Fiona.

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