In the early years of the 19th Century - probably in 1805 - Wellwood Maxwell, second son of Wellwood Maxwell of Barncleuch, went from Dumfries to Liverpool to join the merchant firm of Maury Latham & Co. The firm’s co-founder, James Maury, had in 1790 been appointed by George Washington as America’s first consul in Liverpool; and the firm was engaged in the American trade, especially in cotton. Shortly afterwards Alexander, Maxwell of Barncleuch’s third son, also joined the same firm,
The two brothers’ apprenticeship did not last long, however, and it seems that about 1808 they left to form their own partnership in a merchant house under the name of W. & A. Maxwell, backed by loan capital of1,000 each provided by their father.
The growth of Liverpool trade during the 18th century had been extraordinary; and after 1790, when James Maury was appointed consul, the city’s trade with America increased hugely in volume. After the brief setback of the war with America of 1812, it made even greater progress. Between 1810 and 1850, annual imports of raw cotton into the port increased from 40,000 tons to almost 360,000 tons; imports of American wheat from 8,000 to nearly 75,000 tons; and of flour, from 900 tons to 103,000 tons. Already at the start of the 19th Century, 40% of the world’s trade was passing through Liverpool. There had never been a better time to embark on a career as a merchant there.
Little is known of the early years of the Maxwell firm. Though the War of 1812 was a disaster for Liverpool in general and for merchants specialising in trade with America in particular, the Maxwell’s share of trade may have been boosted by their connection with their Hyslop brothers- in-law in Jamaica (Mary Maxwell had married Maxwell Hyslop, merchant in Kingston, in 1810). From this connection, some correspondence survives. In 1811 the Liverpool firm was apparently exporting cargoes of butter, soap, earthenware, hams and cheese to Jamaica; and receiving in return cargoes of rum, logwood, coffee, cocoa, pimento, indigo, ginger and cotton. In November 1812 the Hyslops were writing to the Maxwells about the prospects of trade with the emergent independent states of South America, and this theme developed in the next few years as the Hyslops became involved with Simon Bolivar and the independence movements, to which they provided both finance and armaments. Initially it appears that the Hyslops’ business was in part underwritten by the Maxwells, but by 1818 their commercial relations with the Liverpool firm had begun to cool; and the Hyslops became involved with Simon Bolivar and the independence movements, to which they provided both finance and armaments. Initially it appears that the Hyslops’ business was in part underwritten by the Maxwells, but by 1818 their commercial relations with the Liverpool firm had begun to cool; and in 1820-21 there were disagreements over terms of credit.
In 1811 the youngest of Barncleuch’s five sons, George Maxwell, had joined the firm as an apprentice; and in 1820 he became a third partner, again with a starting loan of £1,000 from his father. The firm now became W. A. & G. Maxwell. It seems that Alexander Maxwell became the firm’s travelling partner, spending a considerable portion of his time in the United States and Canada, promoting the firm’s interests in these countries. There is some evidence that in the 1820’s the firm had expanded its activities into merchant banking, acting as an acceptance house to provide export finance for other firms of commission agents (while continuing, of course, to trade on its own account.)
About 1830, the firm appears to have entered the West African palm-oil trade, in partnership with a firm of insurance brokers, W. Rotherham & Co.; and the Maxwells’ accounts of voyages in this trade, to Bonny and Old Calabar, are to be found in the Sydney Jones Library at the University of Liverpool. The costs and risks of these voyages were great, but the profits could be large. On one voyage, by the ship Boddingtons, in 1835-6, the profit on an initial investment of £4,000 was around £9,000; and its next two voyages, in 1837-8 and 1838-9, were equally successful. By 1840, W. A. & G. Maxwell were ranked amongst the ten largest palm-oil firms, and in 1845 in the top half- dozen. Their ships still appear in the Customs records as late as 1850, but had ceased to do so by 1855, by which time a major restructuring of the palm-oil trade had taken place - the move in shipping from sail to steam, and the arrival of regular steamship services, meant that cargo space on steamers could be hired relatively cheaply; and while the sailing fleets of the older firms became redundant, there was an influx of new traders.
On 22 April 1833, Maxwell Hyslop, son of the Jamaican merchant of the same name, joined the Maxwell firm as an apprentice, becoming a partner about 1840 and later, when it became a limited company, a director.
In 1846, Wellwood and Alexander Maxwell retired from the firm, having made their personal fortunes. George Maxwell wrote
My dear Brothers,
A dissolution of our business connection having taken place, I think it would ill become me, as continuing the concern, not to express my feelings on the occasion and to avail
of the opportunity of assuring you that the confidence you have reposed in me during a period of thirty-five years as your apprentice (in 1811) and partner, shall never be
misplaced. Your individual interests left shall continue to receive my best care, and it shall be my study, in my connexion with Maxwell Hyslop, so to conduct the concern as to maintain the high character and reputation through which it has flourished and in
which you have left it.
The fortunes of Wellwood and Maxwell were largely invested in railway shares - Wellwood Maxwell had been in at the start of the railway boom when the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the first passenger line, was first projected in 1824. The two brothers, both bachelors, lived out the rest of their lives as country gentlemen at The Grove, Wellwood’s small estate near Dumfries. Though they no longer played a direct part in the management of the firm, they maintained an interest and were kept informed of progress; and from time to time provided substantial amounts of loan capital.
The firm now continued as a partnership between George Maxwell and Maxwell Hyslop - George with a five-eighths share, Maxwell with three-eighths. In January 1858 George Maxwell took ill, and Maxwell Hyslop wrote to his uncles at The Grove, describing “a sharpish inflammatory attack of the right lung to reduce which he has had 14 leeches on”. On 2 February, however, he died at his home in Liverpool.
William Maxwell, fourth son of Barncleuch, had many years before gone to Bordeaux, and with the usual £1,000 loan established himself as a merchant there. Now his second son, William, born about 1832 in Bordeaux, was invited to join the Liverpool firm, with a one-fifth share; and in mid-April 1858 the articles of partnership were signed. At the same time, Wellwood and Alexander at The Grove wrote to offer injections of capital of c.£10,000 to £15,000 each; and this offer was accepted by Maxwell Hyslop at 5% interest.
At this point, the firm remained as general merchants, and an inventory of stock in 1858 includes cotton, tobacco, flour, wheat, beef, wool and lard; a cheese consignment is mentioned in a letter of April 1858. During the rest of the 19th century the focus of the firm’s activities altered until by 1900 it dealt very largely in tobacco. On 11 July 1900, a new firm, Maxwell’s Tobacco Importing Co., was registered to acquire portions of the business of W. A. & G. Maxwell, and to carry on the business of tobacco merchants.
In 1860, Maxwell Hyslop had married Phoebe Lyon, and on inheriting the estates of his uncles Wellwood and Alexander in 1867 he assumed the surname of Maxwell; by 1878 he and Phoebe had six sons and two daughters. The eldest son, Maxwell Hyslop Maxwell, joined the firm about 1883 and became a director when it became a limited company. In 1905 Robert A. Hough, a well-known figure in the tobacco trade, joined the firm and became a director in 1922. The third son, Alexander, became a barrister; but his first son, Alexander Hyslop Maxwell, joined the firm in 1919 and became a director in 1927. The sixth son, Lyon, became a civil engineer; but his second son, Lyon Hyslop Maxwell, joined the firm in 1924. The sixth son, Walter Hyslop Maxwell, joined the firm in 1913.
In 1930 Alexander Hyslop Maxwell, junior, joined the board of J. M. Macmillan, London. The company was renamed Macmillan, Maxwell & Co. Ltd., with J. M. Macmillan as chairman and Alexander Hyslop Maxwell as managing director; and the firm of W. A. & G. Maxwell ceased operating. Lyon Hyslop Maxwell, junior, became a director of Macmillan, Maxwell in 1934, and went to Rhodesia as managing director of African Tobaccos Ltd., their Rhodesian subsidiary. He retired in 1971. His son, Richard Lyon Maxwell, joined the Tobacco Export Corporation of Africa (Pvt.) Ltd. in 1960, and left the tobacco industry in 1981.
In 1946 Alexander Hyslop Maxwell, junior, became chairman of Macmillan, Maxwell & Co.Ltd., and remained so until his death in 1972. During World War II he was Tobacco Controller for the Board of Trade, and later chairman of the Tobacco Advisory Committee. He was knighted for his services and later received the KCMG. His son, Hamish Maxwell, became chief executive officer of Philip Morris in 1981, and retired in 1991.