A Victorian sugar baron and Spurgeon…

We went to the James Duncan exhibition at Benmore Gardens today.

Quite a story- which captures the character of Victorian industrial expansion, philanthropy, sponsorship of the arts and the importance of religion.

Duncan was born in Greenock, to a father wealthy from selling books, but who died young. His son was a bit of a clever lad, who did very well in his studies- particularly chemistry. As a young adult in early Victorian Britain, he had a choice of industries to apply his science within, and chose the sugar industry- one of the engines of prosperity for the West of Scotland. Perhaps even one of the reasons my house was built back in 1840.

After working for various companies, whilst on a wee trip down Loch Long, Duncan came up with a new way of refining sugar- slow boiling it to produce less waste and a higher quality product. He set up partnerships, factories first in Greenock, then in London- and made a vast fortune.

But for this Christian tycoon, born into an age of philanthropy, with such wealth came responsibility. Or perhaps guilt. Duncan began to sponsor all sorts of philanthropic schemes- sewer works, slum improvements, hospitals, libraries, churches (interestingly, despite his Free Church background, he supported both Protestant and Catholic church plants. He was reputed to be giving away 20% of his £100,000 annual income.

Around 1870, he bought Benmore Estate, and set about making huge improvements to the landscape. He built the biggest glass houses in the whole of the country, planted millions of trees, and opened his land for vistitors.

He also began to collect art. He was the first Scottish collector to buy impressionist paintings, and pretty soon, he needed more space to display his collection. He built a massive display hall next to his house at Benmore, and opened it to the public too.

He lost his fortune as the sugar market was transformed by the lifting of trade barriers, and opening the British Empire to cheap imports. He vanished into relative obscurity, forgotten within his own lifetime.

The place of my small sleepy town at the heart of the Empire is a surprise.  The morality tale of the rise of huge wealth at the expense of poor people half way across the world, whilst opening up a philanthropic urge to use this wealth responsibly at least in part for the poor people of this country, is also one that seems archetypal of the Victorian age.

There is another interesting footnote to this story. Duncan was a close friend of Charles Haddon Spurgeon- hero of the current Evangelical right wing, super-preacher and Pastor of the Christian world’s first mega church, the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

Spurgeon took holidays at Benmore each year, and regularly preached to thousands of people on the grass of the formal gardens- people who flocked to hear his particular brand of muscular, Bible-first theology.

Both Spurgeon and Duncan were men of their age- forged out of the fires of the enlightenment during a time when everything seemed certain and the world was ripe for improvement. God may or may not have been an Englishman, but he certainly showed favour on the righteous and industrious men of the British Empire. Or so it seemed.

The legacy that these men left is far from insignificant. But from our perspective, it is nuanced and shadowed, like a finely carved marble statue, gathering layers of grime and bird droppings, belonging to another age.