In memory of Janet Coats – 90th Anniversary of Scotland’s oldest Literary Prize

It’s not every day that you get a chance to claim a bit of Scottish literary history!  This Friday – 21 August – marks the 90th anniversary of the presentation of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize which was set up by my cousin, Janet Tait Black neé Coats.  The awards – one for biography and the other for fiction – have a glittering history (the recipients include no less than four Nobel prize-winners). As always, they will be judged by the Professor of English at Edinburgh University – on this occasion, Edinburgh’s first female Regius Professor Laura Marcus – and the presentation ceremony takes place at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

I’ve tried to work out my exact relationship to Janet but my genealogy skills are not up to the task: all I know is that her father, Thomas Coats (1809-1883), was my great-great-great uncle.  So if anyone can shed any light on what to call that sort of cousin-ship (exactly how many times removed!?), I’d be delighted to hear from them!

James Coats (d. 1833) and Catherine Mitchell had ten sons, including James and Peter Coats, who founded J&P Coats in Paisley in 1830.  Sir Peter Coats was my great-great-great grandfather – his line marches down through the generations, first his son George Coats, then Ernest Coats, and finally Ian Coats, my mother’s father.

Thomas Coats (Janet’s father) was the fourth of the ten sons.  He trained as a textile engineer and was also an active Baptist. He joined the family firm in 1832 or after his father’s death, and together with his brother Peter, the managing partner, they oversaw its massive expansion over the next fifty years.  On 13 October 1840 he married Margaret Glen and, like most Victorian families, they had a vast family, six sons and five daughters -  the last surviving child was Margaret, who died unmarried in 1946.  Like his other brothers, Thomas Coats was a generous philanthropist and his most substantial gift to the community of Paisley was the Thomas Coats Memorial Church, which was funded by his family in 1894.

Janet Coats was born on 15 February 1844, probably at Maxwellton in Renfrewshire, since Ferguslie House,  also in Renfrewshire, was not purchased by her father until 1872.

Janet married James Tait Black in 1884.  This was very late for the time as she was already 40; indeed, she and James had no children.   However, their marriage doesn’t seem to have lacked romance and there is undoubtedly a story waiting to be told behind their meeting and subsequent engagement: Janet’s younger brother, the dashing George Coats (1849-1918), who became the first Baron Glentanar, had married Margaret Lothian Black on 23 December 1880.  Margaret was James Tait Black’s daughter from his first marriage to the daughter of Mr Maurice Lothian – not sure of her name, but her father was “widely known and respected in Edinburgh’s legal and ecclesiastical circles”. However, the first wife had died leaving James a wealthy and well-connected widower.  Janet Coats was a spinster and she must have been delighted to find herself being courted by this civilised and educated 58-year-old who “was an accomplished musician, had acquired considerable proficiency as a painter in water-colours and as an amateur in all branches of photography, and was a zealous and judicious book-collector”. It must have seemed a perfect match – with more genealogical puzzles (viz Janet’s step-daughter was also her sister-in-law, making the Glentanar children her grandchildren and nephews and nieces!)

James Tait Black remained active in his father Adam’s publishing firm, A&C Black, until as late as 1899 and died in November 1911.  There is a lengthy obituary in The Times which describes his involvement in the publishing world of the time:

As a publisher Mr. Black is worthy of mention as having been an early and successful leader in a movement which has since reached great dimensions, the sixpenny reprints of the Waverley Novels, which had a great success, having been largely due to his sagacity and enterprise. His most noteworthy achievement was the production of the ninth edition of the “Encyclopædia Britannica,” which was begun about 1870 and reached its completion in 1888, In the literary as well as in the commercial aspects of this work he took a warm interest throughout, alike during the editorship of Professor Baynes and during that of Professor Robertson Smith. That latter in 188o put on record a cordial tribute to the ability and liberality which the publishers had shown, not only taking “the warmest interest in the literary work, but also giving the editors the manifold assistance which can be derived from a practical knowledge of affairs.”

As mentioned above, highlights of A&C Black’s publishing history include the purchase of the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1827, the copyright of Scott’s Waverley novels in 1851, and in 1896 the already eminent biographical collection Who’s Who (which Adam Black, James’ son by his first marriage, is said to have won on a coin toss!!).

While Janet’s husband was alive, they may have commuted between Edinburgh, London (where a office was opened in 1889) and Ayrshire, but James Tait Black is also said to have owned Underscar Manor, outside Keswick, in Cumbria, where they may have spent holidays.  The following extract from the Listed Building register for Underscar (although the manor was delisted in 2000 and is now a hotel) highlights the delights of the scenery and the spectacular site:

The land on which the building stands, together with other parcels of land , was purchased by William Oxley in1856 for £1340. The house was completed in 1863. The house was sited within extensive grounds, set with specimen trees, and with a walled garden to the east, and enjoys unrivalled views of Derwentwater. William Oxley died in 1861.
An extensive and prominent villa in the Italianate style, spectacularly sited and recently carefully refurbished, the style and siting of which aptly characterises the flavour of the mid-late C19 developments around the Cumbrian Lakes by industrialists and entrepreneurs.

After James’s death, Janet clearly wanted to commemorate his lifetime love of books, as a collector, reader and publisher, and she left a bequest in her will of  £11,000 “to be used for two prizes of whatever income the fund should produce after paying expenses, including a fee of  £50 to the judge”. Writing in 1935, Bessie Graham could still claim that these prizes were “the most valuable in Great Britain”.

I’ll be going to the presentation on Friday evening and I hope that the standard continues to live up to my great-great-great-cousin’s hopes, and that it proves a truly fitting memorial for her husband, a great Victorian bibliophile.


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About Lucy Byatt

I'm a translator, from Italian into English. I also teach Italian Renaissance history and write.
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14 Responses to In memory of Janet Coats – 90th Anniversary of Scotland’s oldest Literary Prize

  1. Lucy Coats says:

    Fab and fascinating–knew the prize, but never knew there was a family connection. Shall investigate her relationship to me–since we are 1st cousins once removed, it’ll be easy to tell where she fits! Or will it?

  2. Alyson Timmings Nee Coats says:

    Dear Lucy.
    I am a long lost relative of yours!! I originate from the Coats’ of Paisley. I was recently in Dunedin, NZ visiting my Great Grandfather (Arthur James Coats ) and my Grandfather (James Arthur Coats). I sat and contemplated my heritage. The Coats side of my family is very small here in New Zealand, despite my ? Great great Grandfather being amoung the Early settlers who came to New Zealand from The UK. The scottish ships came into Dunedin harbour in the Soutn Island, so that city has strong Scottish ties.
    4 years ago I was in Glascow with my husband and 2 of my children. I had the opportunity to visit Paisley on a wet miserablr Sunday. I had no idea what I would find and was amazed to stand before a huge baptist Church. It was well before church time but a kind man answered my knock and was more than happy to show me around.. It was a wonderful feeling.
    I brought a brochure about the church back home to show my father (Leonard James Coats) I think he was very moved.
    The strong family name of James still dominates our family. although my brothers and I have rather “let the side down”
    One brother (James) is married with no children and I had 4 girls followed by a boy and failed to include James or Arthur in his mname. Something I very much regret.
    Sorry to ramble, but I would love to be able to work out where our family fits in exactly. I have always known that I am related to the actual Paisley Coats and was years agop given a little box of cotton samples which I have stored away.
    Love to hear from you
    Aly

    • lucy says:

      Great to hear from you, Aly! Sorry this has taken so long but I’ve been tied up with too much to do at work and haven’t been following the blog. It’s really exciting when lost lost relatives turn up and it would be fun to work out how we’re related!

    • Bonita Trenwith says:

      For some information regarding the Coats family in Dunedin, please email

      auscontracting@bigpond.com

    • Elaine Calderwood says:

      Hi I have just read your coats family connection and thought you might like to know that my husband’s great uncle married Margaret McFadyen Guthrie whose mother was Jessie Coats and because of this I am researching the whole of the coats family. I have records going back to the 1600 but I need to bring the tree more up to date to find out where Margaret and Jessie fit into the main Coats Family.

      My husbands cousin who lives in New Zealand (where margaret married into the Calderwood family ) told me that she used to come back to Paisley to visit her cousins Molly Coats who at that time was still living in Paisley and Mr & Mrs H Coats who were also her cousins.

      I visited the Paisley Library about 3 days ago and they have a large archive on the Coats family. I intend going back armed with my laptop so that I can record all the information.

      Somerset House in London (The main archive for all the Birth, Deaths and Marriages in the UK) have compiled The Coats family tree and it is on a large roll which takes ages to read. I intend to go back and document all the coats on this large document. I seen on skipping through it that there is a date of a birth of a female coats member in 1959 so I am keen to get back and find out more about this coats. I was also born in 1959 so it would be great to sit down and chat to a member of the coats family and show them the tree I have compiled so far.

      I would love you to contact me by replying to this message.

      Thanks

      Elaine

      • Bonita Trenwith says:

        Hi,
        I would be interested in emailing you as I come down the Coats family line also. I was born in NZ with my ancestors settling in Dunedin, Bonita

        auscontracting@bigpond.com

      • lucy says:

        Hi Bonita,
        Do get in touch if you’d like to talk about the Coats family.
        best wishes
        Lucy

      • lucy says:

        Dear Elaine,
        I’m so sorry about the terrible delay – I’ve been very tied up with work! I loved reading your news and hearing about your research. My mother and aunt are very interested in the Coats family tree and have quite a lot of information about our particular branch – Ernest and Nora Coats and their children, who included my grandfather Ian Coats. I’m not sure about the person born in 1959 – I have a couple http://textline.wordpress.com/wp-admin/edit-comments.php#comments-formof cousins born around then, so it might be either of them or someone completely different.
        Anyway do let me know if you’d like to talk more about it all.
        all best wishes
        Lucy

    • Noel Williams says:

      Greetings,
      During your research into the Coats family, did you ever come across a daughter of any of the Coats family with the given name of Beatrice, who eventually married a ???? Nichol. No forther info. My family folk lore has it that Beatrice Nicol was a Coates.

      I ask this question as that daughter Beatrice (later Nichol) was my G.G.Grandmother who was married to David Elias Williams at St. Kilda Melbourne Australia in about 1864. She died in 1949 aged 91 and is buried in Boroondate Cemetery in Kew Victoria.

      I know this is a rough shot, but would appreciate any info.

      Noel Williams

  3. Pingback: 2010 James Tait Black Prizes go to AS Byatt and John Carey « A World of Words

  4. Pingback: James Tait Black Prize 2012 | A World of Words

  5. Susan Hatt says:

    Hello all, I have a Coats family mystery for you. I descend from the McMurray family in Aberdeen, but there is a story within my family that we descend from the Coats family. Our ‘not sure how many greats’ grandmother was disinherited for marrying outside of the families expectations. My fathers eldest sister was Nora and I know of the name Eleanor appearing a few times in our family. I studied Textile Chemistry at University so maybe the textile gene is still alive somewhere. Susan Hatt

  6. Marion says:

    I am trying to locate information about a Lorna Coats who married (probably in the 1880s) and died (1895) in Russia, who was – according to familylore – the 2nd daughter of the Coats Cotton Co’s Principal Representative in St Petersburg.. I have not been able to locate a birth for Lorna in the UK ( I don’t think she was born in Russia) and I understand the marriage bore no children. Any help with identifying who her parents were or any other information about her would be very much appreciated.

  7. Matt says:

    Regarding the Coats family, I was told that my great x 2 grandmother Margaret Ellen Gilmore (born 1871 in Dublin) had her fees paid for her when she wanted to train to be a midwife. She knew she was related to the Coats family and they did pay for her. Interested to know where she would fit in to the family tree: her father was a John Gilmore although I don’t know when and where he was born.

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