John Stirling (1820-1907)

John Stirling

Written by Tim Cockerill

Occupations: Industrialist and Landowner

Background and early life

John Stirling was born on 26 June 1820, the only surviving son of the Rt. Revd. John Stirling DD (Glasgow), (1776- 1846) , Minister of Craigie, Ayrshire, Scotland 1806-1846 and Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1833, who married in 1806 Mary,(1783-1862), daughter of the Revd. William McQuhae DD, Minister of St Quivox, Ayrshire. His paternal grandfather was James Stirling of Dunblane, Stirlingshire, a builder/architect, who was the son of William Stirling, a Dunblane merchant. This is as far back as the ancestry of this branch of the Stirling family has been traced.The family was first granted arms by the Lyon Office in 1929, in the person of Sir John Stirling (1893-1975) KT, grandson of the above-named John Stirling.   

Young John's early life has not come down to us but he clearly came from a religious background on both sides of the family and was no doubt given a sound education. He then received a business training in a Scottish bank.

Business career

In 1837 his eldest sister Mary Laurie Stirling (1808-1867) married Thomas Ainsworth (1804-1881), of The Flosh, Cleator, near Whitehaven, Cumberland, a member of an prominent local family, and young John joined his brother-in-law at their flax mill at Cleator. The Cleator Linen Thread Mills were erected in 1800 by Henry Birley and other members of his family but by 1830 were suffering heavy losses and sold out to Thomas Ainsworth in 1837. John Stirling, who was only seventeen in 1837, presumably joined the enterprise within the next few years and by 1847 there were three hundred employees. Stirling was soon taken into partnership and the firm became variously known as Messrs Ainsworth and Stirling, Ainsworth, Stirling and Cuppage, with Henry and John Cuppage as partners until 1853 and finally as Ainsworth and Sons, after Stirling departed to fend for himself.

Not content with their thriving flax business, which was not only the oldest flax spinning mill in the country, but also the largest and  being the centre of the industry in England at that time, Thomas Ainsworth and John Stirling decided to branch out further. In 1841 they joined forces with a group of local iron ore owners and built the Cleator Moor Iron Ore Works, which opened in 1847 and soon had five hundred employees.

In 1858 John Stirling again branched out, this time apparently on his own initiative, and started borings at Todholes in Cleator and had almost given up when he found a magnificent irregular deposit of haematite only a few feet from the surface. In 1862 perhaps his greatest triumph was the opening of his Montreal mine in Cleator Moor, which uniquely was both a coal and iron ore mine combined. This mine consisted of ten working pits with sinkings of between ten to one hundred fathoms, with an output of about 3,000 tons per week. In the decade 1870-1880 the Montreal mine produced almost 2.3 million tons. It seems never to have reached this figure again and finally closed down in 1918. By the 1870 John Stirling left Cumberland to reside in Scotland and never returned, although retaining overall control of his business interests.  On the occasion of his golden wedding in 1903 the inhabitants of Cleator Moor raised an imposing granite memorial fountain surmounted by a bronze stork to him and his wife, erected by Walker Bros of Cockermouth, a firm established in 1870, and inscribed ' as a token of high esteem....... their love for the people of the district has been made manifest by their many acts of large hearted kindness'. The subscription list numbered over sixty, including members of  the Stirling and Lindow families, and £200 was raised.

Family life

John Stirling married on 14 September 1852 Marion (1829-1907), daughter of John Hartley (1800-1845) of Moresby House (later the Howgate Hotel), Moresby, near Whitehaven, a partner in the Whitehaven Haematite Company Ltd. She was a granddaughter of Milham Hartley q.v. In the same year the young couple began their married life at Park House, Bigrigg, near Cleator, where they produced their first six children. In about 1862 they moved to Bridekirk House, Bridekirk, north-west of Cockermouth, where four further children were born, although in total only eight of their children survived to adulthood. The eldest son William (1859-1914) married a Mackintosh of Daviot and left issue, two of his daughters married Scottish baronets( Munro of Foulis and Laurie of Maxwelton), whilst his third son James (1872-1933) married in 1895 Ann Mary , daughter of John Harris (1827-1863) JP, DL of Greyshouthen, Cumberland, an extensive colliery owner and his third daughter Mary Laurie (d.1950), married her first cousin Gilfrid William Hartley the younger (1852- 1941 ) JP of Moresby, North Berwick and The Rookery, Scotby, Carlisle. John Stirling played an active part in Cumbrian life quite apart from his large business interests, was a JP on the Whitehaven bench and was a keen supporter of both the Cumberland Foxhounds and the Whitehaven Harriers and was a substantial local benefactor. As a well-known exponent of the sport of curling, both in Cumberland but more particularly in Scotland he constructed purpose-built ponds on his estate at great expense, formed a local club and became one of the most successful and experienced curlers in his native land, as well as being an enthusiastic stalker, shooting man and salmon fisherman.  

Cumbrian benefactions

John Stirling’s adult life can be divided into two parts. The first was from his arrival in Cumberland in about 1840 until he left the area for good by 1870. Having made his fortune he bought estates in Scotland and built himself the imposing Fairburn House in their midst. He and Thomas Ainsworth (1804-1881) as business partners and brothers-in-law represented the most important family in the Cleator area. Stirling himself was not slow to contribute in cash and kind to the welfare and comfort of their many hundreds of employees, most prominently by building an Infirmary at Cleator Moor.The Infirmary was a probably a staging post to the Whitehaven and West Cumberland Infirmary and subsequently the convalescent home for injured miners. 

John Stirling was the largest contributor to the new Anglican church of St John the Evangelist at Cleator Moor, the population of which had risen to 5,000 by 1868.Previously there had been no Anglican church, services being held in a licensed schoolroom lent by Stirling, who headed the list of subscribers with a donation of £1,000, Lord Leconfield, the major local landowner, donating £500. The church cost a total of £6,000 and Stirling topped up his donation with a further £500 to make the books balance. He also presented the church with a massive carved oak pulpit and reading desk, paid for the whole of the stone carving in the church and, in his children's name, assisted the Sunday school children in providing a font on marble pillars. In 1877 he paid £200 towards the cost of a new vicarage, Lord Leconfield providing £100. Even in 1900, long after he had left the district he subscribed £500 towards the church's restoration, his fellow mine-owners Messrs Ainsworth and Lindow providing a further £1,500. However, when a new Wesleyan chapel had been built in 1844, Stirling’s business was in its infancy and he was not amongst the subscribers.Later, in 1853, when E.W.Pugin's Roman Catholic Church was erected at Cleator at a cost of £6.000, to accommodate 800 people, many of them Irish immigrants working in the mines, he was not on the subscription list either.This latter omission appears to reflect his religious affiliation, as a son of the manse

Nevertheless, John Stirling's municipal gifts to Cleator Moor were impressive. In 1865 he erected at his own expence the Montreal Schools at a cost of £8.000 thus providing accommodation for 150 children. In 1875 these were enlarged with a further donation of £2,000 by him. He also built The Conservative Club,the Masonic Hall, named the Stirling Lodge, the Library, all in Cleator Moor, and, in 1881, the Bowling Green in Cleator. In 1882, after he had left the district, his influence and wealth were still evident in the erection of the Market Square, which was also the brainchild of his fellow mine-owners,the Lindow family of Ehan Hall,Cleator and Irton Hall, Irton. 


John Stirling, although the proprietor of mines at Cleator Moor, was never a Cumbrian landowner, in contrast to the native families of Ainsworth with 500 acres and the Lindows who owned almost 6,000 acres. It is not clear if he even owned a house locally, probably being a tenant. By 1870 he was spending most of his time in Scotland, initially renting Barcaldine House in Argyllshire from 1864 until 1870 and then Castle Leod at Strathpeffer, near Dingwall in Ross and Cromarty. However, in 1876, he took the plunge and bought three nearby estates and amalgamated them into the Fairburn estate near Muir of Ord.These comprised Muirton, 3820 acres, part of the Scatwell estate of 1,500 acres, and part of the Seaforth estate comprising 4615 acres. Between 1877 and 1880 he spent £8,000 in building a substantial mansion-house designed by the architects James Maitland Wardrop (b.1824) and Charles Reid (b. 1822) of Edinburgh, followed by the building of the Home Farm, a stable block, kennels and a gate lodge. Then, in 1883, he added his existing estate by acquiring the Monar estate of a further 21,000 acres, so that his total holding was 30,935 acres.Stirling thus set himself up as a prominent Scottish landowner in Ross and Cromarty and was soon appointed a local JP and DL. He also planted one of the finest collections in the country of exotic Silver Firs, Spruces and Pines around the house and within the policies, including a number which have now grown into 'Champions', the largest trees of their species.

Once the move from Cumberland back to his native Scotland took place by 1870, when John Stirling was in his early fifties, he seems never, or very infrequently, to have visited Cleator Moor, the source of his great wealth, although he continued to own and run his mines through managers and later passing them over to his eldest son Major William Stirling of the Highland Rifle Militia. 

In 1877 he had acquired a London house, 17 Ennismore Gardens, Kensington, in a fashionable square behind the Victoria and Albert Museum. This house was used regularly by the family until it was sold in 1926.

Later years.

John Stirling, through sheer hard work and ability, had built up an enormous fortune from his mining and business interests centred at Cleator Moor and founded a Scottish landed dynasty. After leaving Cumberland in the early 1870s he remained in nominal charge of his mining interests but put most of his energy into running his large estate, pursuing his sporting interests and staying at his London house. He died on 19 August 1907 in his eighty-eighth year and was buried in the family burial-ground on his Fairburn estate. At the time he was praised in the Cumbrian press as a man who shown a great interest in the Cleator Moor people and their welfare, which took many practical forms, and he was also said to have been a model employer, despite the fact that he had left the area for good many years previously. When his son, Major William Stirling, died in Scotland in 1914, having succeeded his father, he was also said to have been well-known in the Cleator Moor district, extremely popular and on the best possible terms with his employees.The Stirling family finally severed their connection with the mines in December 1925, when over 100 men became unemployed.

By his will John Stirling gave his London home to his son William, with provision for his widow to live there for life (but she died a fortnight after her husband), together with his Monar estate in Ross-shire, his estate at Foulton, Ayrshire to his son James and his estate at Holm Hill at Dunblane to his son Alexander so presumably he had already handed over his Fairburn estate to his eldest son William, perhaps in order to avoid death duties. After bequests to his family and relatives he remembered his farm manager, head keeper, butler, coachman and the German governess who had taught his children. Nor were his mine manager, mining engineer and mining clerks (excluding his miners) forgotten and, in addition, he made charitable legacies to six hospitals, including the Whitehaven and West Cumberland Infirmary. When probate of his Will was granted in London on the 30 October 1907 his estate amounted to £917,393, at least £55 m in modern money.

Today John Stirling’s descendants still own and manage the Fairburn estate, although the large mansion –house that he built in the 1880s was sold off in the 1980s and is now Fairburn House Nursing Home.


  • Bulmer, T and Co., History, Topography and Directory of West Cumberland, Preston, 1883, 95, 99
  • Caine, Caesar, Cleator and Cleator Moor, Kendal, 1916, 135,208, 210,274-289,328,345-346, 425-426
  • Dewar, Peter Beauclerk, editor, Burke's Landed Gentry of Great Britain, The Kingdom of Scotland, 19th edition 2001, vol. 1,1276-1277
  • Mannex and Whellan, History, Gazetteer and Directory of Cumberland, Beverley, 1847, 318
  • Marshall, J.D. and Davies-Shiel, Michael, Industrial Archaeology of the Lake Counties, Ilkely, 1977, 208-209 and 235
  • Northern Chronicle and General Advertiser for the North of England, 23 January 1901, on curling.
  • Porter, Frank, Postal Directory of Whitehaven, Workington, Maryport and neighbourhood, London, 1882, 397
  • Whitehaven News 7 January 1926
  • CW2, Lxxvii, 163-175
  • Family information.