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Tuesday, 2 July 2019

The Whale Sisters - 19th century businesswomen : 52 Ancestors

"Independence" is the theme of this week's "52 Ancestors" challenge.  I have some female ancestors who were independent-minded, but whose lives were circumscribed by their domestic situation - but  I have already written about them in this year's challenge.

So I turned to my local history and tthe Whale sisters of Earlston in the Scottish Borders, who in the first half of the 19th century were two  women, known both nationally and internationally for their business success. 

 In 1814, the Whale sisters, Christian and Marion,  inherited the Earlston Rhymer's Mill business, manufacturing woven gingham,  from their father Thomas Whale.     They showed great enterprising spirit at a time  when few women headed  businesses.  

Two surviving examples of the woven Earlston Gingham 
 in the collection of Auld Earlston.
A carved inscription on the old mill building,  
with  the names C & M Whale still clearly visible.

The 1851 Census identified Christian  Whale as a 64 year old "manufacturer of gingham and cotton, employing 60 workers, mainly weavers and winders of cotton"

Contemporary press reports (accessed on FindMyPast) indicate how widespread was the reputation of Earlston Ginghams. 

Sister Marion was described as travelling the countr,  selling "to Edinburgh, along the Northumberland coast and even to London, which was very inaccessible in those days."    

In the 1840's "The Morning Post" in London carried regular advertisements for the cloth.  The Scotch Tartan Warehouse in Regent Street promised:  

"The Paris Fashions for the Present Season .........[with] Marion Whale's real Earlston  Ginghams".  (23rd October 1843).  

Queen Victoria's tour of Scotland led to a demand for all things Scottish,  as the advertisement of 23rd September 1844 below highlights, with a reference to:

"Her Majesty's Tour of Scotland  and approval of the different manufacturers. especially of Plaids, has caused them to be the  fashionable article of dress for the approaching seasonStock includes "the celebrated Marion Whale's Earlston Ginghams (this establishment being exclusive for the sale of  that article). "

 An advertisement in London's "Morning Post":  23rd September 1844. 
With a reference to "the celebrated Marion Whale's Earlston Ginghams." 

Christian Whale died  in 1862 aged 77, with fulsome obituaries appearing in the local press. 

"The Berwickshire News" noted, rather patronizingly,  that Christian  was a "woman of masculine understanding and highest business capacity......She will be long remembered in these parts as a woman of Ability and Enterprise." 

"The Kelso Chronicle" of 24th January 1862 wrote that  "Miss Whale, well known throughout the  greater part of this country, departed this life after a tedious illness........Miss Whale was a person of most active habits and of a shrewd and vigorous understanding;  qualities which account in great measure for her extraordinary success in life". 

 "The Southern Reporter" of 30th January 1862  giving a lengthy  obituary,  referred to her:
 "Stern but invariably kind disposition ....her business habits, her untiring perseverance, her successful career..... At one time the firm employed little short of 100 weavers, who in turn required no inconsiderable number of female winders. ......Miss Whale attending herself to the most minute particulars as well as transactions   of greater magnitude;   she allowed no object, however trifling,  to pass without her inspection and approval;  her presence was everywhere, now superintending the warping, now the finishing, now giving direction for the packing bales of goods for the London and American markets;  behind the counter supplying a single dress to a customer;  all her multitudinous duties being done with characteristic energy and promptitude.  The funeral took place on Monday and a very large attendance of townspeople and a number from  the surrounding district turned out  to testify their respect for her memory."
Southern Reporter 30th January 1862

Two years later almost to the day,  sister Marion died on 24th January 1864 aged 71.  The business was dissolved, and in February 1864, local newspapers carried front page advertisements on "Valuable Property in Earlston for Sale...Belonging to  the late Misses Christian and Marion Whale".  The mill was sold to the textile firm of Wilson & Sons, and the house property was sold to Mr Smail, agent of the Commercial Bank  for the sum of £700."  The hose was later to open as Earlston's first bank. 

The two Whale sisters were ahead of their time and made an enormous contribution to Earlston economic life.  They were beacons in  mid Victorian Britain when few women showed such independent, enterprising spirit to head successful businesses.   

But it is worth noting one important factor that was lacking in their public lives - as women they did not have the vote and could not have their say in the running of their country,

  Today a street name sign in Earlston reminds us of the village's past.


In 2018 processions were held  in the four UK capital cities of London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff, to mark the centenary of women first gaining the vote.  

Participants were asked to carry banners reflecting women in their community.  In Earlston two members of Earlston's Women's Institute joined the march  and immediately thought of the Whale sisters as the inspiration for their  banner,  reflecting their lives with green and violet gingham on a white background and the shape of the thistle emphasising their Scottish identity.   The title "Earlston Gingham Girls seemed a natural title. 

Christian and Marion Whale are still remembered  today  for their business skills, and their success as "independent" women both in mind and action. 

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  1. What a great article memorializing the Whale sisters. I'm so glad that that banner also harked back to them. The people of Earlston were fortunate to have had them lead the industry of Gingham weaving!

  2. This reminds me of my grandmother's sister—a very enterprising and accomplished creator of wedding gowns. But my aunt made her way through the business world 60 years after the Whale sisters died.

  3. What remarkable women! I am sure that “masculine understanding” was necessary for their success in a man’s world.

  4. Wow, what a great story. I love the sign of gingham row.

  5. What a wonderful story. I love the stories that have such strong women in them.

  6. What fascinating women! I too, latched onto the "masculine understanding". Interesting choice of words that were used. Very well-written post, Sue!

  7. "Masculine understanding" indeed! This was well before studies found that women are better at multitasking, which these sisters appear to have excelled at. Love the WI banner at the end!

  8. I was pleased to bring the story of the Whale sisters to a wider readership and thank you all for your positive comments. They were indeed remarkable women ahead of their time.


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