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James Gaff (1765-1837) and Helen Henderson (1774-1833)

Why James, Duke of Hamilton and Brandon, should leave land to John Gaff, flesher (butcher) of Polmont is far from clear; but one can assume that it was for more than the provision of some good beef. John Gaff may have been wealthy before the duke’s gift – there are certainly other Gaff fleshers leaving wills during the 1720s – but from at least 1719 he was a portioner (landowner) and, as a result, an influential member of the community. Until 1724 Polmont had been part of the parish of Falkirk, but in 1730 John Gaff was one of those, including a representative of the ‘Dutches of Hamilton’, who sat down at Reddoch farm for the first formal meeting of the parish board. Over the next few years they ensured that a new church was built and a minister appointed, along with a ‘weel-qualified schoolmaster’. Given that each of those men served the parish for over fifty years, the board appeared to have chosen well.


In 1741 ‘Gaff’s Fold’ and other land near Falkirk passed first to James Gaff; then to his son, John; and finally to his son James, the great-grandson of the flesher who had been given it by the Duke of Hamilton. Despite being comparatively wealthy, this last James married the daughter of a porter from Edinburgh.<ref> This is not definite but, of the few Helen Hendersons born at about the right time and place, this is the only one where her parents (James and Jean) fit her children's names under the Scottish naming system. In addition, whilst almost all her children named her as Helen Henderson on their death certificates, one named her as Helen Brown. Brown was '''her''' mother's maiden name which might explain the mistake. One other possible minor connection is that both Helen's sister and daughter (both Elizabeths) married someone called Mason from St Cuthbert's, Edinburgh</ref> Her family appeared to have stayed in Edinburgh, so perhaps James' business interests had taken him to the capital. (Note 1)  By 1790, when James married Helen Henderson, he was making his money by building houses rather than selling meat, and was probably the 18th century equivalent of a property developer. Although described as a builder on documents, James was more financier and Clerk of Works, than bricklayer. He would have been commissioned to build houses, and then employed the masons, joiners and labourers to carry out the work. Most of the building would have relied on his understanding of building design and principles, rather than detailed architectural drawings.

James Hamilton (1703-43).jpg

James, the 5th Duke of Hamilton (1703-43).


By the middle of the 18th century Polmont, although having a population of about a thousand, was little more than a collection of cottages on the southern slope of the escarpment which slopes down to the Forth. In 1746 soldiers had prepared for the second battle of Falkirk in Polmont (with the locals very much not on Bonnie Prince Charlie's side) but, otherwise, it remained outside national events. At that time, apart from the church, there were a few thatched cottages, several shoemakers, two mills, the usual mixture of a blacksmith, carpenter, and a school. As farming methods improved, the prosperity of the area increased, and the establishment of the Carron Works just North of Falkirk in 1749 meant that industry and mining spread rapidly outwards. Wages were still very low, with labourers only receiving 6d (2.5p) a day, and skilled stonemasons and carpenters just over twice that, but the community was growing.

With no bridges across the Forth, all the traffic between Edinburgh and the South had to travel along the road that ran just below Polmont, and the villages that sprang up along the road, were starting to merge into one.  A national survey in 1791, just after James and Helen had married, showed that 1400 people now lived in Polmont. There were still very few houses near the church, but fifty families lived on the turnpike road, and the rest were spread across the parish. The church remained a powerful influence in the community, being the major employer in the area, and making all the important decisions and appointments, from the schoolmaster to the gravediggers. Certainly they were concerned for the local poor, increasing the rates in 1775 to help them, but their records show no discussion of interest in the wider issues.

Falkirk: two miles to the East of where the Gaffs lived

By now the Gaffs were living in Redding, a mile to the East of Polmont, and were doing some farming as well as building. (Note 2) It was essentially a mining village whose claim to fame was the Wallace Stone, from where William Wallace was supposed to have watched the first battle of Falkirk. 1798 was the 500th anniversary of the battle, so colliers started an annual march from colliery to colliery, in honour of the local hero, which ended at the stone, where they re-affirmed their own freedom from the slavery that used to exist in mining until 1775. As well as the declarations of loyalty to Scotland and to Wallace they reaffirmed their own freedom from serfdom. In 1810 the ancient stone was replaced by a ten foot high stone pillar underlining the new importance of the place in the lives of the people. Although mining was growing quickly, the Gaffs were not directly involved. A large number of James’ relatives had connections with the building trade and Gaff carpenters, builders, wrights, master joiners, and so on, fill the early records, with skills that were needed for the increasing industry. James' and Helen's children were no different: within fifteen years they had had eight, seven of whom were boys destined to join the same professions, although a reference in 1827 to a John Gaff ,horse dealer of Redding, suggests that the family had not lost all their connections with the meat trade. Whatever their professions, they all seem to have spent their lives in the area: although large numbers of young men went off to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, none of James' sons appear to have done so.


Polmont church which John Gaff helped to build

In 1822 the opening of the Union Canal brought Polmont further into the industrial network, and so even more demand on the services of the Gaff family's skills. A third of the parish now worked in the mines, although the other big Scottish industry - cotton - played no part in the parish. Life for the average worker remained very hard, with poor sanitation and diet, coupled with damp and overcrowding housing, leading to diseases such as typhus and consumption being common; and in 1832, two cases of cholera appeared in the village. There were also problems in the church, for so long the bedrock of the community: nearly three hundred churches across the country had broken away from the mother church, and in Polmont two hundred of the congregation left to form a new church in nearby Brighton. Those running the church in Polmont were not fazed though, deciding that the old church had outlived its useful life, and needed to be replaced by a newer and larger building. Originally built to house 600 people, Polmont's population was now over 3000 with two-thirds of those wanting to worship there. As James and Helen were nearing the end of their lives, they now witnessed the planning of a new church, with its impressive double towers, to replace the church that James' grandfather had helped establish.


Their eldest son, John, appears to have died when young, as it is James, the second son, who later becomes a portioner. His business skills, later to be shown in 1851, when he sold some of the Gaff land to the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway Company for a new line, would presumably have been clear in his parents' lifetimes, so they would have died in the knowledge that the family wealth was in safe hands.


1. An online tree suggests that Helen's mother was related to the Haig family who made their money through whiskey, so perhaps Helen was also fairly well off

2. This is based solely on the fact that two of James' daughters described James as a farmer on their death certificate

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