John Thomson (1741 -1818), saddler in the Saltmarket

 When Glasgow merchant George Robb – the man I believe to have been my 4th  great uncle – married Penelope Thomson in 1805, he was marrying into a family with deep roots in the city’s merchant community, and extensive ties to its lucrative trade with the colonies of the New World. We know very little about George Robb himself, and what I’ve been able to discover I’ll share in a future post, but thanks to their wills and their involvement in a number of legal disputes (they seem to have been a particularly litigious family) we know a good deal more about the Thomsons.

Saltmarket, Glasgow

George Robb’s wife Penelope Thomson was born, if later census records are to be believed, in about 1777, probably in Glasgow. She was one of at least six children born to John Thomson and his first wife, Penelope McLachlan. John Thomson, described variously in the records as a saddler and as a merchant, was born in about 1741.  Jones’ Directory of Glasgow for 1787 mentions John Thomson, a saddler, selling saddlery and harness, on ‘East Side Saltmarket, a Little Below the Well’. The Saltmarket is a continuation of the High Street, running south from the Glasgow Cross towards the River Clyde.  Although John Thomson had his business premises here, close to the heart of the Merchant City, at some point he seems to have purchased a house in the western suburb of Hillhead.

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Map of Glasgow in 1804 (via

John Thomson married Penelope McLachlan in Glasgow on 19th  May 1765, in what the parish records describe as an ‘irregular marriage’. This may have had something to do with the impending arrival of their first child, Marion, who was born on 30th May, just eleven days after her parents’ wedding.

I haven’t been able to discover much about Penelope’s origins, though there were a number of Glasgow merchants with the surname McLachlan, including some trading with the American and Caribbean colonies. The name McLachlan would also feature in the 1819 will of John and Penelope’s son Colin Thomson, which names Colin McLachlan, described as a merchant in Glasgow, as its executor and principal beneficiary. Interestingly, another of the beneficiaries of the will was Rev. Archibald Wilson of Cardross, and we can deduce from the document that he was the husband of Colin McLachlan’s sister Margaret, and that they had two children, Colin and Jean. This is of interest because it was Rev. Wilson who would officiate at the wedding of Penelope Robb née Thomson to her second husband, John Young, in 1813.

In addition to Marion, John and Penelope Thomson had at least five other children together: Thomas, born in 1766; Colin in 1768; James in 1770; John in 1772; and Penelope in 1777. There was also a daughter named Margaret, but I’m unsure whether she was the product of John Thomson’s first or second marriage.

Penelope Thomson née McLachlan died in 1781, and on 23rd July 1783 John Thomson married Elizabeth Robb, daughter of bookseller John Robb and his wife Elizabeth Fairbairn. A list of Scottish booksellers mentions a James Robb, bookbinder, bookseller and stationer in Glasgow between 1748 and 1767, and specifically in ‘Salt Mercat’ (Saltmarket) from 1768 – 1773.  Two John Robbs are mentioned in the details below this heading, though I’m not sure of their relationship to James. Another listing has John Robb, ‘eldest son to deceased bookbinder John Robb’ in the ‘fourth shop below the Old Vennel East side of High Street’ in 1796 and in University Buildings from 1799 – 1800. Perhaps the latter was the same John Robb who launched the Glasgow Chronicle in 1775 (booksellers often doubled as publishers in the eighteenth century).

When I first discovered that John Thomson’s second wife was a Robb, it made me doubt – temporarily – my theory that the George Robb who married John’s daughter Penelope was the Aberdeenshire-born brother of my 3rd great grandfather Charles Robb. Given the Thomson’s family’s tendency to marry their cousins, wasn’t it just as likely that George was a relative of Elizabeth’s, and therefore a member of the Glasgow bookselling Robb family? However, I’ve yet to find any evidence of a connection between George and this branch of the Robb family,  and their shared surname may simply be a coincidence.


Ramshorn Cemetery, Glasgow (via

John and Elizabeth Thomson had at least three children together: Elizabeth, born in 1784; Henry in 1785; and Archibald in 1791.  John Thomson died on 11th April 1818 at Morton Bank near Glasgow, the cause of death being given as old age’. He was seventy-seven.  John died intestate but his effects were valued at £265 12s 2d. On 16th April he was buried, like other members of the Thomson family, in ‘John Thomson’s lair’ in the Ramshorn kirkyard on Ingram Street, in the heart of the Merchant City.

The inventory of his property published on John Thomson’s death makes no mention of any overseas property or investments, and I’ve yet to find any evidence to suggest he was involved in trade with the colonies of the Caribbean or the New World.  However, a number of his children certainly were, as will become apparent in the next post.

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