No Connection With Any Hawkers

Peter Williamson, the son of George Williamson and Jane McMillan, was born in Dundee in the early 1830s and christened at the newly built Saint Andrews Roman Catholic Church on 18 March 18361.

Little is known about Peter’s early years or about his parents beyond the christening entry. We can surmise that George Williamson, as a farming servant, was probably hired for a period of six months to a year at a time. Typically, these hiring arrangements were made at feeing markets held locally and much, if not all, of his income would have been ‘in kind’ rather than wages. The Williamson family would most likely have lived in a cottage provided by George’s employer. Because of the transient nature of George’s employment, the family likely moved frequently. We do know that by 1849, when Peter’s mother died, the family was living in Aberdeen.

Peter had an older sister, Jane, with whom he was close. She married John Brebner, a hawker, in 1849, shortly after the death of their mother 2.

A proud and resourceful man, Peter Williamson made his living as a hawker, buying and selling goods in Aberdeen and throughout the coastal towns of Seatown, Cullen, Portsoy and Buckie. His children, for the most part, became hawkers, or married people in the hawking trade, unsurprisingly since the family’s known associates were also hawkers. Peter liked to call himself a China Dealer or Stoneware dealer, however he also bought and sold horses as well frequently reselling fisherman’s nets, sails and the contents of wrecked boats. He was unable to read or write and so kept track of his finances in his head, sometimes to his detriment. His business underwent frequent changes of fortune: he claimed bankruptcy one year and in the next year, was able to buy several properties.

In his fifties, Peter Williamson opened a permanent shop on Main Street in Buckie, selling china, crystal and stoneware imported from England, France and Germany. When advertising the shop and his wares, he would frequently mention that the shop had no connection with hawkers, no doubt trying to distance himself from the profession. When asked, he would give his occupation as a china merchant, although his known business dealings suggested otherwise. When he died in his eighties, his obituary described him as a merchant: Mr. Williamson came to Buckie many years ago, where he built up a large business as a merchant. He was well known at markets in Aberdeenshire and Banffshire, and enjoyed the respect and esteem of many patrons.

This is Peter Williamson’s story.

Peter Williamson and Jane Shearer

On 18 April 1851, Peter married Jane Shearer, the daughter of Sargeant Major Charles Shearer. 3 At the time of Peter’s marriage, he gave his occupation as a hawker. Their daughter, Jane, was born on 14 November 1853 and christened at St Mary’s with St Peter’s in Aberdeen on 19 March 1854 4

In 1856, Peter and Jane had their first son in Seatown, about 60 miles north-west of Aberdeen in Banffshire. They named the baby John Brebner Williamson, presumably in honour of his uncle John who had died in 1854.

Map showing Aberdeen and Buckie.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’ Map Images Website

Two years later, when baby Catherine was born in 1858, they were once again living down in Aberdeen. In 1860, a son Peter was born. In 1861, they were still living in Aberdeen, lodging with a farmer by the name of David Watt who farmed 50 acres.

Seatown, Cullen

By 1862, when their son Thomas was born, Peter and Jane were living in Cullen, Banffshire in Seatown, an area in town bordered on the false beach between the mouth of the Cullen Burn and the harbour. Another son, George, was born there as well in 1864. Peter was earning his living as a hawker and rag collector.

On 10 April 1866 in Seatown, Cullen, Peter Williamson, his wife Jane and their daughter Jane who was 13-years-old, were brought before the Justice of the Peace, charged with having conducted themselves in a riotous and disorderly manner. The trio, along with fellow hawkers Mary Drew, William Munro, Jane Munro, George Munro, and Alexander Munro were accused of cursing, swearing and challenging each other to fight.

The entire group pled not guilty, however after hearing much evidence, Jane Williamson senior was fined £1 10 shillings or 15 days in prison. Her daughter Jane was fined £1 5 shillings or 15 days in prison. Several of the others were also fined, although charges against Peter Williamson were dismissed due to insufficient evidence.

The fines imposed were paid on the spot with all parties trying to pay first. Jane Williamson senior remarked, “This is little to our income.”

The journalist covering the story for the Banffshire Journal and General Advertiser remarked that the rag trade would seem to be more profitable than he had imagined. He further opined that a few days imprisonment would have more effect in such cases.

Portsoy

Shortly after this incident, the Williamsons left Cullen and moved about 6 miles east to Portsoy. The Portsoy Railway Station had opened in 1859 and by 1866, the Banff, Portsoy and Strathisla Railway connected the small fishing town to the mainline of the Great North of Scotland Railway with service to Aberdeen.

Peter took out a loan from the Union Bank to open a stoneware shop. Their family continued to grow. A daughter, Charlotte, was born in 1873, followed by their tenth and final child, another daughter, Margaret, in 1875.

In 1878, Peter’s oldest daughter Jane married John Grant Mathieson, the reputed father of her illegitimate son Peter, at the parish church in Portsoy after banns. John’s usual residence at the time of their marriage was the Coast Guard station in Cookney but by 1881, he had joined the family business and was working as a China Merchant in Cullen.

Bankruptcy

The family fortunes had taken a turn for the worse by 1879, and Peter Williamson was examined for bankruptcy. On 17 December 1879, Peter appeared before Sheriff Scot Moncrieff in bankruptcy court. He told the court:

I am 44 years of age, and am married. I have ten of a family. About twelve years ago, I commenced business in Portsoy as a stoneware merchant with a capital of £20 of my own and £20 which I got from the Union Bank at Portsoy. I have repaid said loan. My family during the time I have been in Portsoy hawked the country with stoneware, and collected rags. I was also a horse-dealer in Portsoy ever since I began the Stoneware business. I can neither read nor write. I had no books, and carried on my business by the aid of my memory. My stoneware business was carried on by the houses with whom I dealt giving me goods on credit, and until about eighteen months ago, I was always able to meet my liabilities as they came due. The state of my affairs has just been read over to me, and, so far as I can recollect, it is correct. My horse-dealing business has been a losing concern for the last two or three years, and particularly so within the last twelve months. I cannot give any particular account of these losses. I have handed to my trustee all my receipts and other papers, and these receipts will show the amount paid by me since 1st January last equal to the difference between the amount of my liabilities and the value of the stock now in my shop. I am under no cautionary obligation for anyone. My household expenditure and the expense of carrying on my business, I estimate at about £156 per annum.

Peter Williamson – Aberdeen Press and Journal – Thursday 18 December 1879

The statutory oath was then administered. The state of affairs showed that Peter’s assets, after deducting £19 10s of preferable claims, amounted to £195 10s, and that his liabilities were £167 10s 11d, leaving a deficiency of £272 0s 11d.

On 26 January 1880, Peter Williamson received a discharge as a bankrupt, and was no longer responsible for the debts he had incurred.

In February 1883, John Mathieson, Peter’s son-in-law, now also working as a China Merchant, also declared bankruptcy, unable to pay his debts. His premises, his horse and cart, and all of his stock were auctioned to repay his creditors. The advertisement appeared in the local newspaper.

Opening for a Stoneware Merchant. There will Exposed tor Sale, by Public Roup, at the Seatown, Cullen, on 17th February current, at Twelve o’clock Noon, the Tenant’s right to that HOUSE in the Seatown of Cullen, presently occupied by Mr John Mathieson, Stoneware Merchant and Hawker there; also. Horse, Cart, and Harness, together with the whole Stock-in-Trade, Household Furniture, and other Effects. For particulars, apply either to Messrs Graham, Merchants at Banff or Buckle, or Alexander Sim, Solicitor, Cullen, in whose hands are the Articles of Roup. Cullen, 12th Feb. 1883.

Banffshire Journal – Tuesday 13 February 1883

In an interesting twist, Mathieson’s dwelling-house, shop, and stock-in-trade were purchased by his father-in-law, Peter Williamson, hawker, Portsoy, for £127 and he rented the premises back to John so he could continue in business as a China Merchant.

The following year, Peter Williamson also bought the Lamb House in Nether Buckie from Alex Lamb, mason, in a private bargain. He paid £152.

British Newspaper Archive

By 1885, Peter had opened a Stoneware shop at 11 Main Street in Buckie. After renovating it, Peter took out a series of advertisements in the Banffshire Advertiser to promote his China, crystal and stoneware, some of which were imported from France and Germany.

Most likely in an attempt to distance himself from his previous occupation as a hawker and to establish himself as a respected merchant, below each advertisement appeared a note:

This Establishment has no connection with any Hawkers whomsoever.

Banffshire Advertiser, Thursday, 2 July 1885

Although in business as a Stoneware merchant, in November of 1887, Peter Williamson bid on the cargo of the wreck of the ketch Melloria at auction which included coals and fireclay water pipes. He paid £31. While he did not want to be recognized as a hawker, he couldn’t resist a good bargain and would advertise in the newspaper that he had “stock of large quantities of old nets and boat sails suitable for Agriculturists, Estate Managers or Gardeners for Wrappings, Coverings, etc.

In 1888, Peter’s daughter, Mary Ann married Thomas Cowie Drew, a stoneware merchant from Cullen. Their first child, a daughter Charlotte Jane, was born that same year and died at 2 weeks of age from bronchitis.

In 1891, Peter and Jane lived at the shop at 11 Main Street with their daughter Mary Drew and her son Peter Drew. Their youngest son, George, a China Merchant’s assistant, also lived with them.

Death of Peter’s Sister Jane McDonald

On 19 February 1892, Peter’s sister, Jane Williamson McDonald died on Main Street after a long struggle with bronchitis. She was 66 years old. Peter had a memorial stone erected in Saint Peter’s Cemetery in Aberdeen in memory of his mother and his sister Jane.

Another Bankruptcy

In November of 1893, Peter’s son-in-law, John Mathieson once again declared bankruptcy. He told the court that he had been carrying on business in Portsoy as a stoneware merchant but was now living in Buckie employed by his father-in-law Peter Williamson. He said that his household had been visited by typhoid fever from the beginning of June 1892 and that the doctor had been called multiple times. John said that he himself had come down with typhoid fever on 24 February 1893 and that it was about two months before he was able to be out and about again.

He had been unable to sell the milk from his cows because of the fever so he had sold them off at a loss. He told the court that he had purchased more goods on credit during this time because he was sure he could sell them and make payment on them. He had not bought them with the intention of declaring bankruptcy.

After the bankruptcy, John Mathieson moved 30 miles east to Rosehearty to set up business, but was soon back in Cullen plying his trade again.

Peter Williamson Charged with Assault

In October 1895, Peter Williamson was charged with assaulting Alexander Morrison, a merchant from Portgordon. In court, Peter pled not guilty. Morrison testified that he had met Peter on the road and they had travelled together for a while. When Williamson asked Morrison why he had started working as a barber, Morrison had responded that “it was as good as a hawker any way.” Peter Williamson, who had been quite drunk, had knocked him down and struck him, cutting his lip. Peter was found guilty of the assault and was fined with an option to spend 5 days locked up as an alternative. He paid the fine.

Whether drunk or sober, Peter Williamson was quite sensitive about being referred to as a hawker.

Marriage of Charlotte Williamson

Charlotte, married David Campbell Harler of Kent on 25 August 1896. They would go on to have two daughters, Charlotte Jane and Esther Caroline together but soon after Charlotte became pregnant with their second child, David would leave them and go back to England.

Death of Mary Williamson Drew

On 14 October 1896, Peter’s daughter, Mary Williamson Drew died of typhoid fever, her brother John by her side. She left behind 3 young children. The baby, Catherine, would die soon after her mother on January 2, 1897 of bronchitis. Selina Jane, aged 4 years, who they called Lina, would move in with her grandparents, Peter and Jane Williamson, leaving the grieving widower with only 6-year-old Peter to care for.

More Tragedy

On October 30, 1902, Peter’s daughter Catherine Mackay boarded a train on the Great North Railway with her six sons at 7:10 am in Buckie. They were on a journey to see her husband who was in Aberdeen. The train was expected in Aberdeen at 9:55, however not long after the train passed Wardhouse, one of the boys left his mother to run up and down from one end of the carriage to the other. Catherine informed the conductor that her son was missing. A search was made for him in all the compartments, however he wasn’t found. When the train arrived at Insch, Catherine spoke to the Stationmaster who sent a search party along the line to look for the boy. He was found lying on the side of the line. Although living when he was found, he only survived a few minutes.

The 8.40 a.m. train from Keith to Aberdeen was following the Buckie train, and it was stopped and the body taken on board. Catherine boarded the train in Insch and her husband met her in Aberdeen, having been notified of the tragedy.

Peter’s Failing Health

Estranged from her husband, a pregnant Charlotte Harler moved back to Main Street in 1901 with her baby daughter Esther and worked with her father in the stoneware business.

On March 18, 1909, Peter Williamson and Charlotte Harler were both at police court, charged with having bought a dresser from Alfred Morrell and having failed to enter the transaction in the books, in contravention of the act. The pair were admonished and the case was dismissed.

At the beginning of January 1910, Peter Williamson decided he was retiring and his solicitor took out an advertisement in The Scotsman.

Buckie – Banffshire – China Merchant – General Dealer – and Broker’s Business for Sale. For sale, by private bargain, the business presently carried on at 9 and 11 Main Street, and at Bridge End, Buckie by Mr. Peter Williamson. For the past 25 years, Mr. Williamson has carried on a successful business as China Merchant, General Dealer, and Broker. There has also been a good turnover through hired hawkers. Mr. Williamson is retiring owing to failing health. The Heritable Properties, 9-11 and 5-7 Main Street, belonging to Mrs. Harler, with Stabling and Stores attached can be purchased or leased in connection with the business. The Subscriber will give further particulars, and offers should be lodged with him on or before 29 January curt. John L McNaughton, Solicitor, Buckie

The Scotsman – Saturday 08 January 1910

It would appear that either there were no takers or Peter withdrew his listing of the business because when he died five years later, the business was still in the family.

Death of Peter Williamson

On 27 July 1915, Peter Williamson died of valvular disease of the heart with contributory causes of enlarged prostate and cystitis.

DEATH OF OCTOGENARIAN —The death took place at Buckie on Saturday of Mr. Peter Williamson, china merchant, in his 82nd year. Mr. Williamson came to Buckie many years ago, where he built up a large business as a merchant. He was well known at markets in Aberdeenshire and Banffshire, and enjoyed the respect and esteem of many patrons. He is survived by his wife and a large family. The funeral took place on Tuesday to St Peter’s Cemetery, Aberdeen. Services were conducted in the house at Buckie by the Rev. A. Reaper, Rayne, and the Rev. Wm. Morton, West C.F. Church, Buckie. The committal service at St Peter’s was conducted by time Rev. J. Greenlaw, Parish Church, Buckie.5

Probate

Peter’s estate was granted probate on 6 September 1915 and his estate was valued at £8631 which was a relatively substantial sum at the time. His will was written on 8 January 1903 with codicils dated 14 May 1906, 28 July 1913, 19 February 1914 and 27 July 1914.

His executors were John Anton, bank agent, George McWilliam, coal merchant and William Thomson, fishsaleman. They were charged with paying his debts and funeral expenses, including the cost of a memorial stone.

Peter left the contents of his house on Main Street to his daughter Charlotte Williamson Harler and directed his executors to sell his business. His wife, Jane, was to have use of the income of his estate for her lifetime.

The following legacies were outlined, to be distributed after Jane’s death.

  • To his son John Williamson of Fraserburgh, he left £300
  • To his son Thomas Williamson, hawker Forres, he left £300
  • To his son Alexander Williamson, Buckie, he left £300
  • To his son Peter Williamson, Portgordon, he left £300
  • To his daughter Jane Williamson Mathieson, he left £200
  • To his daughter Charlotte Williamson Harler, he left £600
  • To his daughter Margaret Williamson Gibb, he left £200
  • To his daughter Catherine Williamson Mackay, he left £200
  • To his granddaughter Esther Harler, he left £100 in trust to his daughter.
  • To the two children of his late son George Williamson, he left £50
  • To the widow of his late son George Williamson, now residing in Fraserburgh, he left £50
  • To Lena Drew, daughter of his late daughter Mary Williamson Drew, he left £200

The remainder of his estate was to be divided equally between his surviving children upon his wife’s death.

In his first codicil dated 14 May 1906, he increased the amount given to his granddaughter Esther Harler to £200. He further stated that his four sons should not receive any legacy until 5 years after his death or after the death of his wife if he should predecease her. He also added that should his children pre-decease him, their share should be given to their children, with the exception of the inheritance left to Jane Mathieson whose share was personal to herself only.

He further stated that if his wife should wish to carry on the business after his death, she should be free to do so.

In a codicil dated 28 July 1913, he removed William Thomson as one of his executors.

In a codicil dated 19 February 1914, he cancelled the legacy of £200 to his granddaughter Lena Drew and instead left a legacy of the same amount to the Royal Infirmary and Lunatic Asylum of Aberdeen.

Epilogue

After Peter Williamson’s death, his daughter Charlotte Harler took over the Stoneware business on Main Street.

Peter’s wife Jane died of influenza during the flu epidemic on 15 February 1918 in Buckie at the age of 87.

When Charlotte Harler died in February of 1946, her obituary read: “The death took place at her home on Main Street, Buckpool, of Mrs. Charlotte Harler, who carried on a business as a China Merchant for 40 years in east Church Street, High Street and Main Street. Her father Mr. Williamson was China Merchant and Horse Dealer and formerly had the shop on Main Street.”

  1. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [LDS], “New FamilySearch,” database, Family Search (https://www.familysearch.org/ : downloaded image 28 September 2023), Birth and Christening of Peter Williamson, parents George Williamson and Jane McMillian. ↩︎
  2. John Brebner, shoemaker, Windmill Brae, and Jane Williamson, residing in Short Leanings, Edamston, both in this parish, signified their purpose of marriage by Mr. D Monro Elder and being thrice proclaimed they were married on the 16th April 1849 by the Rev James Foote, Min’r of the Free East Church Aberdeen. ↩︎
  3. Alexander Williamson, birth certificate Births 153/130 (17 November 1869) Scotlands People. ↩︎
  4. Scotland’s People, typescript, Scotland’s People, MP 10 11 115 Aberdeen St Mary’s with St Peter’s. ↩︎
  5. Banffshire Advertiser – Thursday 29 July 1915 ↩︎