Robert Gardner (1801 - 1876) & Helen Alexander (1801 - 1880)

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At the start of the eighteenth century most Scottish roads were little more than mud tracks which wheeled vehicles often found impassable in winter. After the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion, however, the English government began a programme of road building under General Wade, so that armies could move around more easily; but these were in the Highlands: roads in the Lowlands remained much as before with major routes consisting of just a causeway of gravel down the centre of the track. It mean that, even for a city as large as Glasgow, the only way to transport goods to other places was by sea. Towards the end of the century, though, two great Scottish road engineers, Telford and McAdam, designed roads that would form the basis of a network which spread across the country. Between 1780 and 1800 a large number of turnpikes was built using private money and, while the restrictions imposed by landowners meant that the roads often took hilly and unsuitable routes, communication between the Lowland towns was greatly improved. Roads require builders, and one such 'road surface man' was James Gardner who lived in or near the town of Lanark.[1] One of the major turnpikes being built at this time was the one running south from Glasgow through Strathaven, so would only have been a few miles west of where James lived, but he probably worked on roads closer to home. The new design required the road builders to break the rocks into very small pieces, but all road building - old or new style - would have made James' job as a labourer physically demanding.

James married Margaret Lockie in 1802 and Robert was born very soon after this. [2] At the reading of his banns James was described as being from Carnwath, a small village on the southern edge of the Pentland Hills, about five miles to the east of Lanark, but Margaret was from Lanark, and that was where they married and had Robert. One of Carnwath's few buildings of note was the Wee Bush Inn where Robert Burns spent the night when travelling along the turnpike from his home town of Ayr to Edinburgh. As Burns died in 1796, he might not have visited when James lived in the village, but James may well have worked on the turnpike. Lanark, however, was an important market town, which, apart from its greater opportunities, had important visitors of its own. On 20 Aug. 1804, shortly after James and Margaret had made it their home, Samuel Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and his sister Dorothy, came to the town and described it as showing "a sort of French face, and would have done so more, had it not been for the true British tinge of coal-smoke; the doors and windows dirty, the shops dull, the women too seemed to be very dirty in their dress. The place itself is not ugly; the houses are of grey stone, the streets are not very narrow, and the market place decent." [3]

For the first twenty years of their marriage Lanark was being watched by men of influence across the world. A mile south of the centre, a huge mill had been built at New Lanark. Originally built in 1785, and powered by the river Clyde, the mill was part of about two thousand people's lives, including over five hundred children, often as young as five years old, who had been brought in from the poorest areas of Edinburgh and Glasgow. In 1799 a young Welshman who had already been running mills in Manchester, married Caroline Dale, the daughter of the owner of the New Lanark mill, and set about changing the way the mill ran. Child labour was banned and child care centres were set up; workers were no longer required to buy their food and other goods at inflated prices from the mill shops; and some of the savings were passed on to the workers themselves. Owen had been influenced by men such as Jeremy Bentham (although Owen's increasingly socialist approach caused problems with Bentham) and New Lanark achieved national importance. By 1818 Owen had set up education centres for his workers whose lives, by the standard of the day, were almost idyllic. Visitors from across the globe included statesmen and royalty, such as Nicholas, the future tsar of Russia, and the good behaviour of his workers and their families was renowned.

As James did not work at the mill, he may well have been unaffected by what went on, but he and Margaret must have been aware of what was happening. In fact we can't actually be sure that the Garders remained in Lanark as we have no sightings of them at all until the baptism of Robert's first child in Carnwath in 1824. However, we can be sure that the Alexander family were growing up a few miles further north, in a village called Carstairs. Walter Alexander was a tailor and had married Agnes Cuthbertson in 1796 before having at least eleven children there over the next twenty years. Helen, born in 1801, was one of the eldest.


  1. The only evidence we have for James' occupation is his son's death certificate, so it may not be true - particularly in 1802 when Robert was born.
  2. Neither Robert's nor any other baptisms have been found for children of James and Margaret. Apart from the first reading of their banns, no other evidence has been found for their lives after 1802. Robert gives Lanark as his birthplace in 1861/71, but he gives 'Rown' in 1851. I have not been able to find out where Rown is.
  3. Recollections of a tour made in Scotland in 1803 by Dorothy Wordsworth