Apr 072018
 

Our members are participating in the A-Z Blogging Challenge for 2018 with the theme People of My Place. Today's entry is from Susan Donaldson.

"This remarkable man and grand old Borderer" was an accolade given to Thomas Gray of Earlston, Berwickshire on his death in 1884. He was known in his day variously as "Gingham Tam", "Tam of Earlston", "Earlstoun Tommy", and "A Modern Thomas of Ercildoune" - a reference to the village's old name and its links with the 13th prophet and poet Thomas the Rhymer.

Why "Gingham Tam"?
In the 19th century, Earlston was known for its production of gingham fabric, largely made by weavers working at their home-based looms. Thomas Gray was such a one.

Thomas Gray of Earlston with his fiddle

Who was Thomas Gray?
The first record offering a clue as to his background was an entry in the 1881 census. This listed a Thomas Gray, a gingham manufacturer, born in Earlston, unmarried, and living on his own at Kilnknowe Head, Earlston, aged 85, so born c.1796. His death certificate on www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk plus newspaper articles gave a picture of his life and character.

The certificate confirmed that Thomas Gray died on 5th January 1884 at Salt Green, Eyemouth, following a fall; aged 88, son of Thomas Gray weaver and Margaret Runciman; the informant his nephew William Brown of Earlston.

"The Berwickshire News" - 8th January 1884 reported:
"Mr Gray, was well known in the Borders. He was a gingham manufacturer and travelled about from place to place selling his manufactures. He was very fond of books and curiosities and possessed a fine library and collections of rare and antique things. He was also a skilled musician and rarely travelled without his fiddle."

"The Kelso Chronicle obituary of 1st February 1884 gave the fullest account:
"With the passing away of his life, this "ancient man" and finely curious character, another link past and present is severed; ........... The family of which he was the last survivor had some note in their day, as manufacturers, in a small way, of ginghams; and Thomas's chosen part was to traverse the country distributing these wares. His beat at one time was quite an extensive one embracing customers in the three Lothians as well as the counties on both sides of the Borders.........His well known antique figure with a pack behind and the fiddle slung in front, was a familiar object in our streets....and his appearance never failed to excite interest."

Earlier census returns confirmed Thomas's itinerant lifestyle as a frequent visitor to Haddingtonshire [now East Lothian]. He is described in every case as a manufacturer of Earlston. "Rutherfurd's 1866 Southern Counties Register & Directory", and Slater's Directory of 1882 both listed under Earlston Thomas Gray, gingham manufacturer.

1894 advertisement for the sale of Thomas Gray's booksFollowing Thomas's death, advertisements in the local press in February 1894 announced the sale of his books and antiquities.

Fourteen years later, in "The Border Magazine" of 1898, Robert Anderson of Edinburgh wrote a tribute to Thomas Gray:
"He went on his regular rounds with his pack and his fiddle to dispose of his ginghams, the quality of which was proverbial........Many a lady of high degree did not think it beneath her to purchase a dress piece from the old worthy and to get in return a blessing and tune on his fiddle.

With only the early education which the parish school of that day afforded, he managed by diligent application to cultivate his intellect to such an extent that he became known in his own neighbourhood and far remote for his learning and intimate knowledge of of the leaders in literature. He possessed upwards of 2000 books. .......His capacious pockets used to hold at least two or three favourite volumes, on which he might be seen poring over while resting by the way."

Today Thomas Gray is barely remembered in local histories, but an Earlston street name sign reminds us of the village's past, in which Thomas Gray made his distinctive mark.

Gingham Row road sign Earlston

Gingham samples from Earlston

Two surviving examples of Earlston Ginghams, in the Auld Earlston Group's Collection

  One Response to “G is for Gingham Tam of Earlston Berwickshire”

  1. Hello fellow A-to-Zer! I like this Gingham Tam fellow. I like to think of him, pockets bulging with books, making his way along a road with his wares. Also, he has an impressive beard. Thanks so much for telling me about this interesting character!
    Melanie Atherton Allen

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