LANEMARK COAL COMPANY
The Lanemark Coal Company was formed in 1865 by the three partners John Hunter of Burnfoot, Dalmellington, James Paton, a business man from Ayr and Robert Brown, who at that time was managing a local pit on the lands of South Boig.
The company required to build houses for the miners and their families build houses and these were erected initially at Connel Park near the junction of the New Cumnock – Dalmellington road and the Boig Road, essentially the back-road to Old Cumnock. A house was also required for company director Robert Brown and a wooded knoll, now known locally as “Geordie’s Wood”, on the east side of the Boig Road was selected as a suitable site. The house was named Ardnith, a name which does not seem to appear in the parish until this time, and presumably takes it name from the River Nith which the Boig Road crosses a half-mile or so to north-west.
Other residences for company officials and tradesman would later populate the Boig Road, namely follow Woodend Cottage and house Connelwood and Fernbank, albeit less grand than Ardnith.
Robert Brown, Ardnith House
Robert Brown (b.1816) and his wife Agnes Mathieson (b.1823) were both born in Airdrie, Lanarkshire where Robert initially followed in his father’s footsteps and worked as a weaver. However, it was not him and he served his time as a mineral borer with his uncle. Soon after the birth of their first child of nine, Robert junior, the family moved to Ayrshire and for forty years he would be a major influence in developing the mineral resources of the county. Prior to the family settling in the parish of New Cumnock he worked the Craigie Colliery at Ayr for some ten years.
Robert Brown managed the business of the Lanemark Coal Company for twenty-two years until his death in March 1886 at Ardnith House. His obituary, extracts of which are given below, recognises his business achievements as well as his personal contribution to the community.
“Mr Brown managed the business of the Company with ability from its start overcoming at the first and for years obstacles which would have baffled most men, till now it remains one of the richest fields of gas coal in the kingdom. He was a man of no ordinary character. Mr. Brown was possessed of a shrewd reflective mind, was fond of repartee, and had a kindly heart. He often sacrificed his own personal convenience for the good of others. In his own neighbourhood it was remarked before he passed away, no man would be missed more. Only a few weeks ago he assisted in his own kindly unassuming way to get up gatherings of the children of the Band of Hope and Sabbath Schools. One of the children of these on hearing of his death was heard to say – ‘We will not have any now to be so kind to us‘. He at all times sought to inculcate among the people habits of thrift and temperance, seeking also their spiritual as well as their social and moral wellbeing. It is not very many years since he was presented with a beautiful illuminated address by his workmen, testifying to the good feeling that existed between them. But he was not idle otherwise.
His works took up the most of his thoughts, and he died in harness so to speak. Suffering from an attack of apoplexy a few weeks ago, and from which he never rallied, he slept peacefully away. He had a sturdy independence and little pride.
He claimed to be a descendant of John Brown of Priesthill; and once it is in the recollection of the writer he visited personally and caused the decaying headstone of one of the martyr’s grave to be removed and repaired. Esteemed as much for his social and kindly qualities as for his intelligence, his integrity,and worth, he has passed away at the age of seventy-two, regretted deeply by all who knew him.”
Robert Brown was laid to rest in Cumnock New Cemetery.
Robert Brown Junior
One year later his eldest son Robert died at the young age of 45 years. He worked as a coal master with Lanemark Coal Company and lived for a time at Woodend Cottage. He married Jane Anderson, daughter of the Reverend George Anderson, minister of the New Cumnock Free Church on the castlehill. The couple moved to Auchingee Cottage, Pathhead where they raised five children and later stayed at Bridgeville, Pathbrae where he passed away. His widow Jane with three of her daughters set up home at Ladeside House in the Castle and tragically in January 1890, she was found drowned in the Mill Lade that runs behind the house. She was laid to rest in the Auld Kirkyard, New Cumnock alongside her husband Robert.
Thomas Mathieson Brown, Ardnith House
Thomas Mathieson Brown replaced his late father Robert on the Board of Directors of the Lanemark Coal Company, as General Manager . He moved into Ardnith House to live with his widowed mother and Henry a younger brother. The house would also be home to vagrants at time that would find work at the Lanemark pits. In December 1892 his mother Agnes passed away aged 70 years. The following year 34 year-old Thomas married 31 year-old Isabella Proudfoot at St. Enoch Station Hotel, Glasgow. Bella was the daughter of the late John Proudfoot, farmer at Lanemark and the late Elizabeth Howatson Lennox , who was born at the neighbouring farm of Farden, whose family would later farm at nearby Whitehill.
Thomas had suffered from epilepsy for most of his life which would take its toll at times on both his work and social life. The following newspaper clipping from January 1894 reports his absence ‘through indisposition’ from the Bank Free Chutch YMCA annual social. His wife did attend and her brother Mr Proufoot, Lanemark farm. Also in attendance was Mr and Mrs Hyslop, Bank House – William Hyslop the Laird of Bank, managing director of the New Bank Coal Company.
In 1895 the Lanemark Coal Company began to sink Rigfoot pit a venture that would take nearly 5 years and put a great strain on the Company’s resources. Thomas Mathieson depite his health issues was a driving force in convincing the Board not to abandon the project. When completed the Rigfoot shaft was 214 fathoms in depth – the deepest in Scotland at that time.
Things it appeared were on the up the Lanemark Coal Company but things would take a turn for the worse a few years later with faults, water and lack of capital. At this time Thomas M. Brown stood down from active management of the company as his health broke down. His health would come into sharp focus and of national interest as Thomas Mathieson Brown gained notoriety as the central character in what became known as “The Cumnock Poisoning Case”
“The Cumnock Poisoning Case”
It began in Woodside Cottage, Glaisnock Street, Cumnock in November 1906 at the home of 78 year William Lennox who had retired from farming at Whitehill, New Cumnock some years beforehand. Thomas Mathieson’s wife Bella was a niece of William Lennox, an older brother of her mother, and had previously helped nurse her uncle through a period of ill-health. Following the death of his wife, Grace Dickie, another neice Grace Dickie McKerrow moved into Woodside Cottage as housekeeper, while 14 year-old domestic servant Bessie Thorburn from Skares Row made up the household.
On the 19th November a parcel arrived at the cottage addressed to William Lennox. It contained a tin box with iced shortbread inside and a card carrying the message “with happy greetings from an old friend”. Four days later on the evening 23rd November, Mrs Bain a near neighbour from Viewfield Cottage was visiting, reason enough for bringing out the iced shortbread. However all four present, William Lennox, Grace McKerrow , Elizabeth Thorburn and their visitor the widow Bain found the shortbread to be bitter in taste and all were soon suffering in pain. Young Elizabeth was sent to fetch Dr. Robertson but despite his best efforts he could do little to prevent Grace McKerrow from dying in agony some hour and half after eating the iced shortbread. Recognising the symptoms of poisoning Dr Robertson sent for two other doctors including Dr James McQueen as well as notifying the police. The three other victims thankfully survived.
Dr. McQueen later carried out the post-mortem on Grace McKerrow which pointed to strychnine poisoning. Samples of the shortbread were sent to Edinburgh for analysis by Dr Harvey Littlejohn, who that year had succeeded his father in the Chair of Forensic Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, which showed the icing to contain 41% strychnine. Following further inquiries Thomas Mathieson Brown was arrested on the 28th November 1906.