John Galt (1779 – 1839) Irvine-born novelist who founded the town of Guelph in Canada.
John Galt was born on the 2nd of May 1779, to sea captain John Galt and his wife Jean Thomson. The profession of sea captain was considered to be a fairly lucrative one as many traded for themselves and made quite a comfortable living. The family lived in the top left flat, which is now the site of the Halifax Bank of Scotland.
Galt suffered bouts of ill health during his early childhood, resulting in his education being rather sporadic with spells of home tutoring and attending the local school, where one of his fellow schoolmates was the naval architect and shipbuilder Henry Eckford. Galt’s school was Irvine’s first school, Irvine Grammar School, which was built in the 1570s and is now demolished.
Galt’s father’s profession expanded the young John’s geographic horizons but it was the hours spent, whilst off school, listening to the stories and reminiscences of the old women who lived behind his grandmother’s house that awakened in him his literary imagination and influenced his career.
He loved his childhood in Irvine and never forgot it even saying “no man ever had a happier childhood than me.”
At the age of ten, the Galt family moved to Greenock, thus closing the Irvine chapter of Galt’s life. But what he saw and experienced during his short time in Irvine would remain with Galt.
A mercantile career was expected of Galt, and at the age of 16 he began work at the Greenock custom house, but left soon after to start a clerkship at the local firm of James Miller and Company. He was to remain there for 8 years.
By 1804, then aged 25, Galt had distinguished himself through his business effort and his involvement with Greenock library. He had had some poems published in the Greenock Advertiser and the Scots Magazine.
In 1804 Galt moved to London in a bid to try and further his career. Over the next two years he was involved in two unsuccessful business ventures, followed by an attempt at a career in law, but that also ended in failure.
Galt then decided to take a tour of the Mediterranean, and in 1809 he met the great English poet, Lord Byron, who was to become the subject of Galt’s biography “The Life of Byron” in 1830.
In 1811 he returned from his travels and the following year he published his account of his travels and the places he had visited: “voyages and travels in the years 1809, 1810 and 1811”.
In 1813, at the age of 34, Galt married Elizabeth Tilloch, the daughter of his literary patron, Alexander Tilloch.
In 1813 Galt had the idea of writing a novel based on the observations of a parish minister.
Once published, Galt’s novels flew off the press.
“the Ayrshire Legates” were serialised in 1820-21
1821 – “The Steamboat”, “The Annals of the Parish”
1822 “Sir Andrew Wylie” , “The Gathering of the West”, “The Provost” “The Entail”
1823 “Ringan Gilhaize”
Despite his success, Galt still had his business aspirations and 1824 saw him campaigning on behalf of the Canadian colony, which had always interested him. He received the freedom of the town of Irvine in 1825 by the Town Council.
There is an entry in the Town Council’s Minute Book for 16 September 1825: “Baillie Fullarton mentioned that the requisite committee of the Magistrates and Council had last week conferred the Freedom of the Burgh upon John Galt Esquire now of the City of London he having made oath de fideli and paid the Stamp Duty, of which the meeting approved”.
One year later, in 1826, he left Britain for Canada.
From 1827 – 1829 Galt was heavily instrumental in the development of the territories of the Canadian colony. Here he founded the towns of Guelph and Goderich. The community of Guelph have ‘John Galt Day’ on the first Monday in August every year.
Unfortunately, he became embroiled in colonial bureaucracy and, in 1829 under charges of debt, he returned to Britain where he was put in prison.
Through his works, Galt intended to instruct as well as to entertain. Novels like “Annals of the Parish”, “The Entail”, “The Provost” and “the Member” are studies of religion, politics and law in Scotland during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They were concerned with then changes that were taking place within local communities.
He returned to Greenock 1834 where he died 5 years later aged 60. He is buried in Greenock Old Cemetery. There is a plaque at the Bank of Scotland in the High Street that marks his birth and one of the galleries in the Townhouse is named after him.
The last verse of his poem “Irvine Water” describes how he was a “happy-hearted boy” in his “native burgh.”