Mr Turnbull discovers how to dye wool blue

Robert Smail’s Printing Works houses nearly 150 years worth of printed matter reflecting the industrial geography of the town and surrounding area.  Smail’s printed stationary, letter heads, labels, calenders (to name just a few) for businesses and cultural events.  The St Ronan’s Standard (and Effective Advertiser), the local newspaper printed by the jobbing press, March 4th 1914 includes a report of a speech by Sir Henry Ballantyne, owner of Caerlee Mill, Innerleithen.  In the article Ballantyne refers to an employee (Mr Turnbull) and his contribution to the discovery of how to dye wool indigo. Ballantyne quotes part of  an inscription on the headstone of Mr Turnbull in Kirklands Cemetery, His faults were few and accidental.   I was intrigued by this man who discovered how to dye wool blue, what did he use?  How did he discover it?  What was the impact for the mill industry?

Discussions with volunteers & staff at Robert Smail’s lead me to investigate further Mr Turnbull’s contribution to the Mill Industry.

caerlee Mills Bonus Social

Researching on line, I came across Frieda Oxenham, an award winning textile and mixed media artist , based in the Scottish Borders. As part of The Artist’s Way class Frieda Oxenham found herself in October 2011 on  an Artist’s Away Day in Innerleithen. It was in Kirklands cemetery that she came across Thomas Turnbull’s head stone, integrated seamlessly into the cemetery wall.

Here lyes Thomas Turnbull late dyer in Innerleithen factory who left the world on 8th January 1803 in the 72nd year of his age. He was a man of much ingenuity unrivalled in his art and had the merit of being the first in Scotland who taught the use of woad in dying blue. In social life his faults were few and accidental, his virtues many and habitual. The dyers in Gala and Innerleithen factory inscribe this stone to his memory in gratitude for the many benefits derived from his skill.

New Kirklands Cemetary 2The inscription text was located by Frieda Oxenham on a CD of Monumental Inscriptions.  July 2010, Borders Family History Society  had published a new Monumental Inscritpions volume on CD for Innerleithen.  The CD costs £12 and is sold  at Smail’s Printing Works

Further research lead me to  Chambers Edinburgh Journa1834 referencing Mr Turnbull’s contribution.  He “was the first person in Scotland who succeeded in dying blue from woad. He was a native of Hawick, and for considerable time carried on business as a dyer and waulker in Eskdale-Muir, and latterly conducted the dyeing department in Innerleithen cloth factory. He died in 1803, and in gratitude for the benefits derived from his skill, the dyers of Galashiels and Innerleithen erected a monument over his grace ib the churchyard of the latter place.”

Indigo v Woad

Indigo imports into Europe probably started in the early 1500’s when Portuguese, Dutch and British traders started to trade with India.  European growers had the monopoly at this time growing woad to produce blue.  There was intense lobbying by these growers to protect their market against the ‘foreign’ import.  Woad making process involves taking the fresh leaves, grinding them into a pulp, rolling them into balls the size of large apples and then leaving them to dry.   Indigo was know as the ‘devils dye’ in parts of Germany in 1600’s. In England, Indigo was officially banned until 1660 as a poison (it isnt!). Indigo however was imported and used illegally by dyers.  As recently as the 1930’s woad was used with indigo to dye police uniforms.