History of Greenbank

Uncovering the History of Greenbank

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When a query arises about local history, the answer can usually be found by digging through old books.

What can we do if the history has never been written?


The Story of Greenbank

Greenbank is one of many eighteenth century merchant estates which are scattered around Mearns Parish. Back in the 1980s virtually nothing was known about Greenbank, beyond a single line: “The house was built in the 1760s by a Glasgow merchant named Robert Allason.” In October 1988 a commitment was made by the writer and Tom Welsh to investigate the history of Greenbank. Four years later, it was published as ‘Robert Allason & Greenbank’. *


The Beginning of the Quest for Information

Jeely  Pieces

Contact was made with a local group existing at the time who had an interest in Greenbank. Their interest came from local tales and they did not to look into the ‘facts and figures’ surrounding the history of Greenbank. A favourite tale was of how local children gingerly approached the servants’ entrance at Greenbank and were given ‘Jeely Pieces’ on the doorstep by the housekeeper, creating a cosy, benevolent image of Greenbank.

Although not wishing to dent the dreams of others, our quest for information went beyond the ‘Jeely Pieces’ of popular Mearns legend and led to a very different story.

The Detective Trail

Rather than retelling the story, we look here at how the darker, hidden history of Greenbank was uncovered. It is hoped that this may inspire others to pursue their own personal detective trail, in Mearns and beyond.

At the time, neither of the authors was a professional historian and both had ‘real’ careers in other disciplines. Tom Welsh lived in England, and much of the brainstorming was contained in more than 100 letters, which were written back and forth over several years. More than two decades later, these letters are a historical resource in themselves, providing a ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ detective story in Mearns.

The Greenbank detective trail can be summarised by picking out a succession of the key stages or breakthroughs.

The ‘Usual Sources’

Initial research in the Mitchell Library found that Robert Allason was baptised in Glasgow High Kirk (Cathedral) in 1721. This bare fact led to an important family lead, that his father was a master baker in Gorbals.


Although there are a number of ‘usual sources’ which are common to family history research, each detective trail soon leads down its own unique road. Following the trade lead, the records of the Glasgow Incorporation of Bakers were found to contain the original signatures of Robert Allason.


These records provided the first tangible link to the Greenbank founder. After serving an apprenticeship as a baker, Robert moved down the Clyde to Port Glasgow, where he set up business, serving the shipping trade.

One of the best sources in the detective trail was old Glasgow Newspapers. A painstaking search over several decades uncovered numerous adverts for Robert’s ships, his purchase of property in Port Glasgow, and finally descriptions of Greenbank House and estate.


The Port Glasgow Customs Records in the National Archives in Edinburgh documented dozens of Robert’s voyages to the Caribbean and North America. Robert dabbled in numerous goods, but particularly sugar and tobacco, elevating him to the status of a modest Glasgow ‘Tobacco Lord’.

The Landscapes of Port Glasgow and Mearns

No detailed maps survive which are early enough to show Robert’s Port Glasgow property empire. However it was possible to build up a map of the Port from a jigsaw of hundreds of Glasgow Deeds.

A record of a court case, dated 1769, was found in a private Edinburgh Library. This described not only the early development of Greenbank Estate, but also the breakup of the old ‘commonty’ or ‘muir’ of the pre-existing local fermtoun of Flender(s). In the record, numerous local Mearns folk described the pre-improvement landscape, including: “Margaret Wylie, widow of the deceased Robert Pollok, now residing in Kirkhill, was born in Flender and has lived in Flender… and her father and brother sold lands bounded with the high road from Mearns Kirk to Cathcart, bounded by an old earthen dyke…”.

New evidence continued to turn up, sometimes by the most unlikely means. During a train journey from Wemyss Bay, an old graveyard was spotted in the heart of Port Glasgow. A return visit provided the most personal moment in the whole detective trail, the location of Robert Allason’s grave. Although the stone simply carries his name, and no other inscription or date, the Kirk Session Records in Edinburgh confirmed Robert’s ownership of the lair.

Gravestone of Robert Allason
The gravestone of Robert Allason in Port Glasgow Old Cemetery. Note the modern spelling of his name.


Although the trail was a historical one, much time was spent walking the estate and working out from old papers and maps how the landscape developed. One of the best resources was a detailed 1772 estate plan located in National Trust Archives in Edinburgh. This now hangs in Greenbank House.

Extract from the 1772 Estate Plan
Extract from the 1772 Estate Plan

Relics from the mid-eighteenth century build-up of Greenbank still survive, including date stones in Flenders Farm courtyard and at Housecraigs. A seventeenth century building also survives in the fermtoun.

Deeds and Sasines

Ambitious colonial merchants relied on partnerships for their success, but they also generated enemies. Papers relating to land disputes during the build-up of Greenbank Estate provided some of the best historical sources.

However, the best source for the build-up of Greenbank was land purchases or ‘Sasines’, held in Edinburgh. Before 1780 these are not indexed, and required detailed searching of almost illegible text. The sasines revealed that, despite his Gorbals origins, Robert Allason came from a true Mearns family. His grandfather was a farmer in Rysland and Flenders. The development of Greenbank was the fulfilment of Robert’s dream to return to his grandfather’s lands.

Personal Letters - A Breakthrough

During the final writing-up process, the biggest breakthrough of all occurred. Hundreds of Robert’s original letters were located in Virginia State Library. This provided his personal views and philosophy, in his own handwriting. Copies of the letters were obtained and  transcribed, which rounded off the book.

The letters revealed how Robert built up his business using three of his brothers, Sandy, William and David Allason. Sandy captained his ships and the other two were his agents in Virginia.

Distant sources are not always required and just before publication, a further batch of letters was located much nearer home, in Glasgow City Archives. These were written at Williamwood House (Netherlee), which Robert rented during his final years, following his retiral and bankruptcy which forced the sale of Greenbank in 1782.

The Dark Secret

A long research project is never completely laid to rest by publication. After the book ‘Robert Allason and Greenbank’ appeared, niggling questions persisted, particularly about a hidden chunk of the Allason’s business. This operated via Liverpool, and was dubbed the ‘Guinea Trade’ in Robert’s letters.

More recently, records were revealed of three Atlantic crossings by the Allasons’ ship The Beaufort, captained by Robert’s brother Sandy Allason between 1757 and 1759. These sailed from Liverpool to the Caribbean, via Calabar in West Africa. They were slaving voyages, carrying nearly a thousand African men, women and children, 149 of whom died during the ‘Middle Passage’. These voyages provided only a snapshot of the brothers’ slaving business. William Allason wrote home later from Virginia that his affluent lifestyle had come largely from dealing in slaves.

The outcome shows that history can sometimes be dangerous, and we can never be quite sure where research will lead. Greenbank is a core part of the local community, and in later times, gave its name to local icons, such as Greenbank Church. The truth is that the money to develop Greenbank came not only from the labour of dozens of tenants in Flenders, but equally from the sale, hard labour and death of thousands of enslaved African men, women and children in the Middle Passage and in the Americas.

What this means in Mearns today has still to be explored. The option is open to take on board the truth, or to continue to savour the ‘Jeely Piece’ brand of Scottish History, and  the cosy old fireside tales of benevolent Mearns landowners.

Greenbank House photographed by Thomas Annan in the second half of the 19th Century
Greenbank House photographed by Thomas Annan in the second half of the 19th Century
A description of Greenbank in 1792
A description of Greenbank in 1792

Stuart Nisbet (February 2010)

* ‘Robert Allason & Greenbank’.
Authors: Stuart Nisbet & Tom Welsh
ISBN: 871215 07 2
(Can be purchased from East Renfrewshire Libraries)



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