Isabella Elder (née Ure, 1827-1905)
‘A synonym for open-handed though discreet philanthropy”
Background: Isabella Elder was born in Hutchinson, Glasgow, in 1827 as the fourth and last child, and only surviving daughter, of Alexander Ure (1788-1830), writer/solicitor, and his wife, Mary. In 1857, Isabella married John Elder (1824-69), a master engineer famous for his design of the compound engine – which enabled ships to travel further on less coal, opening up trade throughout the world – and for conceiving the modern integrated shipbuilding yard.
While John Elder created one of the world’s leading shipyards of its time, he died in 1869, leaving his wife to become the sole owner of the John Elder & Co shipyard in Govan, Glasgow. For the next nine months, Isabella maintained the yard’s success until it was taken over by a new partnership including her brother, John Francis Ure, the shipbuilder William Pearce and the engineer John Lennox Kincaid Jamieson. This became known as the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company and gained a global reputation for its naval warships, passenger liners and luxurious steamers. Today, the yard is part of shipbuilding and naval support joint venture company BVT Surface Fleet.
A wealthy widow, Isabella spent the rest of her life residing at 6 Claremont Terrace, in the West End of Glasgow, supporting health and education in Govan as well as higher education more broadly, most notably in connection with the University of Glasgow and Queen Margaret’s College. She died in November 1905 and is buried in the Elder family tomb in the Glasgow Necropolis.
Philanthropy: According to an obituary notice in the Glasgow Herald from Monday 20th November 1905, the death of Isabella Elder meant that the West of Scotland had lost ‘one of its most distinguished and philanthropic ladies.’ While her name was considered as being synonymous for ‘open-handed though discreet philanthropy’ with her making numerous private donations of which the public was kept ignorant, her public donations were estimated to account for around £200,000 in 1905 (approximately £15.5 million in 2017 value). Of these, quite a few stand out.
In Govan, Mrs Elder purchased land for the creation of Elder Park, named in honour of her husband and father-in-law in 1883. She also paid for an annual firework display to be held in the park each year until her death. In 1885, she set up a School for Domestic Economy supporting young women to cook, and perform household tasks on a limited budget. Furthermore, she built and financed the Elder Free Library, opened in 1903 by Andrew Carnegie, liberally endowing it and requiring that it be open on Sundays. Nursing was another cause that Mrs Elder supported by funding the training of district nurses to instruct women in health and hygiene, and through the founding of Elder Cottage Hospital in 1903.
The University of Glasgow and the West of Scotland Technical College (now the University of Strathclyde) particularly benefited from Mrs Elder’s generosity. Her gifts to education spanned endowed chairs, bursaries to students wishing to study engineering and supporting higher education for women, through the purchase and funding of Queen Margaret College – the first college in Scotland to offer higher education to women. By her will, which left more than £125,000 (approximately £9.8 million in 2017 value) to charitable purposes, she established in memory of her father-in-law the David Elder lectures in Glasgow and the West of Scotland Technical College (later the University of Strathclyde), and set up, in memory of her husband and brother, the Ure Elder Fund for Indigent Widows of Govan and Glasgow.
Mrs Elder’s contributions were recognised in the University of Glasgow’s award of an honorary LLD in 1901. Recognition of her philanthropic endeavours can be found in and around Govan and Glasgow’s West End in the form of a statute in Elder Park, paid for by public subscription, on the gates of the University of Glasgow to commemorate the fifth centenary of the University, and in a stained-glass window in the University’s Bute Hall. Her legacy continues today through the Ure Elder Fund that aims to prevent poverty through the revised terms of the fund following the dissolution of the Ure Elder Fund Order Confirmation Act 1906 in 2009.
Relevance for understanding philanthropy: As ‘a remarkable woman, possessing unusual ability combined with a strong head, a strong will and a most tender and sympathetic heart’ (Macleod 1907), Mrs Elder’s activities provide useful insights into philanthropy practice. Her commitment to higher education of women extended beyond gifts of funds and property. An example of engaged philanthropy, she liaised closely with the University of Glasgow and Queen Margaret’s College to ensure that education standards provided to women were of equal standing to those provided to men and at one point, refusing to donate further funds to the Principal of the University of Glasgow in 1899 until standards of lecturing were equal for men and women.
References and Sources consulted:
Ewan, E.L., Innes, S., Reynolds, S., and Pipes, R. (2006) Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women. Edinburgh University PressNational Records of Scotland (2018) Isabella Elder (1827-1905) Champion of women’s education
Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History (2018) John Elder and Co. Shipbuilders of Govan.
Macleod, D. (1907) Glasgow Herald. 20 and 23 November 1907
McAlpine, C.J., (2004) Elder [nee Ure], Isabella. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
McAlpine, C.J. (1997) The Lady of Claremont Terrace: Isabella Elder – Pioneer and Philanthropist. Argyll Publishing
The Friends of Glasgow Necropolis (ND) Mrs Elder – Pioneer
Unknown (1912) The statue of Mrs. John Elder, Govan: a record of the movement for and the unveiling of the statue together with some account of the Elder free library, the Elder Cottage Hospital, and the Cottage Nurses’ Training Home, and an obituary notice of Mrs. Elder” Printed for private circulation by John Cossar, Govan
Elder Cottage Hospital: http://www.caingram.info/Scotland/Govan-bygone/elder-hospital.jpg
Will of Isabella Elder: https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/files//images/hall-of-fame/elder-isabella-1905-will-detail.jpg
Portrait of Isabella Elder: https://www.universitystory.gla.ac.uk/images/UGSP00029_m.jpg
Drawing on findings from our How Philanthropy shapes Scotland project, our monthly Scottish Philanthropy Snippet explores the spectrum of people, places and practices that have contributed to the history of philanthropy in Scotland.