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Saturday, 9 November 2013


I am not related to the Reverend Allan Macpherson, only to the Gotch family whose private bank he almost single-handedly brought to collapse. But the vicar got under my skin when I wrote about him here a few months ago. As I looked into his background I uncovered an extraordinary life, which I had the great pleasure of writing up for the parish magazine of Holy Trinity, his former church in Rothwell, Northhamptonshire. Here is that article.

Reverend Allan Macpherson (1788-1864), who served as vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Rothwell from 1835 to 1855, lived a life so colourful that I can’t believe his Northhants parishioners knew the half of it. He hit the headlines in 1858 as The Reverend Speculator, the man who almost single-handedly caused the collapse of the Kettering Bank, and died in Paris penniless and abandoned by his family at the age of 76. The rest of his life was no less dramatic.

Macpherson means “son of the parson” in Scottish Gaelic. A different branch of Macphersons, on the Isle of Skye, had been Scottish ministers for three generations. Allan's branch were the Cluny Macphersons from mainland Scotland. Like many Scots after their hope of an independent nation was crushed at the Battle of Culloden, Allan’s father left Scotland to seek his fortune in the British Empire. He rose to become the Quartermaster General in Bengal.

Allan’s father Lieutenant Colonel Allan Macpherson (1740-1816), quartermaster general in Bengal, painted by John Thomas Seton (from Stephen Foster’s history of the Macphersons, A Private Empire)

For the Quartermaster handling supplies for the East India Company there were plenty of opportunities for augmenting one’s salary. When Allan’s father returned to Britain the year before Allan’s birth it was with the intention of investing his considerable fortune in Scottish estates. But he was unlucky in choosing a business partner who died suddenly with huge debts for which he became responsible. By the time Allan was born, the youngest of three children, the family was ruined.

With no prospects at home, Allan’s father sent him in 1805, aged 16, to learn business on the Guyana plantation of a family friend. He carried a letter of paternal advice which recommended him to “honour God, respect the negro, and avoid loose women,” ideally by taking a slave as a concubine. Allan already had a reputation within the family for being hot-tempered and flighty, and in Guyana he tried his hand at many things without much success – he joined the West Indian Army, he traded horses, he bred beef. By persevering in Guyana he missed the weddings of both his siblings and the death of his father. And from 1816 he fathered two children with Kitty, a slave twelve years his junior, whose freedom he bought before he returned – without them – to Britain in 1820.

James Baillie Fraser (1783-1856), who oversaw the Fraser plantations in Guyana to which Allan was apprenticed

Now, like many younger sons, he studied for the cloth. In 1823 received his first preferment, no doubt through family connections in Scotland, as the domestic chaplain to the Marquis of Tweeddale. He acquired a second living, Berwick St Leonard in Wiltshire, which was in the gift of his sister’s husband. And in 1826 he married Margaret Chalmers, the sister of his brother’s wife, with whom early in 1828 he moved to take up a post as chaplain at Dum Dum in Bengal, presumably as a result of his late father’s role in India. Although there is no record of children, there is a reference to “Allan Macpherson and family.” The Macphersons returned to Britain on leave that summer, but on the long voyage back to Calcutta in November, Margaret died.

Allan overcame his grief through work. He became chaplain at Calcutta’s newly built St James Church (consecrated in November 1829) and in 1833 married Caroline Gibson, with whom the following year he had a daughter Matilda Harriet. When an opportunity to raise the family in England arose, Allan grabbed it; and in 1835 he took up the post of vicar at Holy Trinity, Rothwell.

The early years at Rothwell were without doubt the most stable of Allan Macpherson’s life. At the age of 47 he at last had a family life and a secure income in a comfortable climate. But further personal loss and reckless financial dealings soon came to blight the unlucky Macpherson’s life once more. Read about his final descent IN PART TWO HERE.  I found some details of Allan’s life in Stephen Foster’s tremendous book A Private Empire, a history of five remarkable generations of the Macpherson family of which Allan was very much the product and the black sheep.

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