6 Cathcart Hill

DAVID MUIRHEAD & family  

resident 6, Cathcart-hill c.1881 – 1900

Of uncertain parentage, David Muirhead was born in about 1830 in the Govan district of Glasgow. A highly skilled civil and marine engineer, Mr. Muirhead and his London-born wife, Maria Jane Clithero and their children moved into 6, Cathcart-hill  in 1881 . In the April census later that year the children Minnie, David and Maud’s place of birth is given as Shanghai and it to China’s pre-eminent city that we must journey if we are to establish further details of Mr. Muirhead’s impressive engineering achievements.

Though we are unable to establish any details regarding  David Muirhead’s career before his arrival in China, an 1857 baptism and burial of an infant child, Emma Jane, in Singapore, would suggest that he was already engaged professionally in the Orient. Arriving in 1858 he set up ‘Muirhead’s Engine Works’ in Shanghai’s Pootung  district offering repair services to the innumerable steam vessels entering the port. Several years later, in 1864, he had completed construction of an enormous dry dock for the Pootung Dock Company the dimensions of which gave it a “pre-eminence over every other similar construction in the East” (The Press newspaper, Canterbury, N.Z., 23 Sept. 1864). 

In 1869, and undoubtedly a source of great pride to Mr Muirhead, his engineering works were putting the final finishing touches to the first steamship to be entirely constructed from scratch in China. The London and China Telegraph‘s Shanghai correspondent reported the following:       ’A small iron steamer, 55 feet long with 12 feet beam and estimated draught of 3 1/2 feet at the stern, and 2 feet at the bow, is rapidly approaching completion at Muirhead’s foundry. Her engines are 16-horse power, with tubular boilers working up to 100 lbs. Her propeller is 4-bladed, with a diameter of 3 feet and pitch of  9 feet 6 inches. When completed she will be the first steamer constructed in China altogether out of the raw material. But this is not her only peculiarity; her crank shaft and fittings, including excentrics, have been entirely forged out of solid iron – a feat I am told never before successfully attempted in the East.’

Having built up Muirhead’s Engine Works  such that it had become “the most complete establishment of its kind in China or Japan” the business was floated in 1872 and fittingly renamed as ‘The Shanghai and Pootung Foundry and Engineering Company’, with newly appointed directors representing  four substantial interested parties. Retaining a sizable interest on the company, Mr Muirhead would stay on as the works manager. Originally occupying a single column in the March and April editions of The London & China Telegraph,  the advertisement shown below allows us to more fully appreciate the extent of Mr Muirhead’s Shanghai operation. The declared capital amounted to some 100,000 Taels. The tael was the then Chinese unit of weight and currency which rather confusingly varied considerably depending on the region. In the context of currency and international trade, however,  it was the Shanghai tael that set the benchmark. Equating to 1.3 troy ounces of silver, its value was linked to the price of silver on the London and New York markets. At the time of the flotation silver was trading at  approximately 60d. per oz.. Though difficult  to accurately convert prices past to prices present we thus believe the flotation would equate to many millions of  pounds in today’s money.  Click on the image to enlarge.

S & P snip

In 1874 David and Maria Jane Muirheads’ fourteen year residency in China came to an end returning to Britain with their five children (then aged from 4 up to 15 years of age). The Muirheads had moved into Cathcart-hill in 1881 and the family were to remain there for the next twenty years or so. Mr Muirhead died at No. 6 in 1898 and Mrs Muirhead in 1900. In Mr Muirhead’s obituary in the North China Herald (featured below) we are given a little insight into the sad circumstances of  his departure from Shanghai and the high esteem in which he was held by all who knew him.

1898.03.07 Obituary for David Muirhead. North China Herald

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