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

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It’s not every day that you get a chance to claim a bit of Scottish literary history!  This Friday – 21 August 2009 – 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, I’d be delighted to hear from them!

Thanks, for letting me know – first cousin three times removed is the answer!

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 cotton-spinning firm in Paisley, in 1832 or after his father’s death, and together with his brother Peter, the managing partner, they oversaw its enormous expansion over the next fifty years.  On 13 October 1840 he married Margaret Glen and, like most Victorians, they had a large 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 philanthropist and he is commemorated in the Thomas Coats Memorial Church, Paisley, which was funded by his family in 1894. His daughter Janet would follow in his steps, and in the wake of other members of the Coats family, becoming one of the most important Scottish female philanthropists of her time.

Janet Coats was born on 15 February 1844, probably at number 80 Maxwelton Road, Paisley, Renfrewshire, and by 1851 the family were certainly living in Ferguslie House,  also in Paisley. Janet married James Tait Black in 1884, when she was 40. There is undoubtedly a story waiting to be told concerning their meeting and subsequent engagement. James Tait Black had already been married to Charlotte Lothian, daughter of Mr Maurice Lothian who was “widely known and respected in Edinburgh’s legal and ecclesiastical circles”. Charlotte died in 1861 leaving James with two young children, Adam and Margaret. A third, a daughter Lucy, died of smallpox. It was many years later that Janet Coats, still a spinster, found herself being courted by this wealthy and well-connected widower. James was then 58 and a partner in the renowned publishing house, A&C Black. He was also “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”.

In all likelihood, the couple met through Janet’s younger brother, the dashing George Coats (1849-1918), who became the first Baron Glentanar in 1916. On 23 December 1880 George Coats married Margaret Lothian Black, James Tait Black’s daughter from his first marriage.  Janet’s new sister-in-law may have introduced Janet to her father, leading to more genealogical puzzles: Margaret would become Janet’s step-daughter as well as her sister-in-law, making the Glentanar children her step-grandchildren and nephews and nieces! Janet herself had no children.

James Tait Black remained active in the publishing firm set up by his father, A&C Black. After his first wife’s death, there followed twenty-three years of intense publishing activities. He continued to play an important role in the company after marrying Janet in 1884: indeed the company moved to London in 1889. Most memorably, James was instrumental in the decision to go ahead with the renowned ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, also known as the “scholar’s edition”, before A&C Black sold the title to the Americans in 1901.

James Tait Black 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.”

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

While Janet’s husband was alive, they commuted between Edinburgh, London and Ayrshire. James Tait Black also owned Underscar Manor, outside Keswick, in Cumbria.  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 in 1856 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.

In 1917 when Janet drew up her will, she wished to commemorate her husband’s lifetime love of books, as a collector, reader and publisher. This was war-time Britain and reading, and indeed writing, must have seemed to her a particularly precious and auspicious endeavour, one that she had the courage and vision to uphold. Her will gave detailed instructions for a bequest 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”.

Janet died, aged 74, at Underscar, Keswick, on 15 November 1918, just four days after the Armistice ended fighting on the Western front. The first James Tait Memorial prizes were awarded in 1920 for books published in 1919.

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.

2009 update:  I’m glad to see that Edinburgh University now includes information about Janet Coats on the prizes website.

2018 update: A short entry on Janet Coats (s.v. Janet Tait Black) is in The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, (eds) Elizabeth Ewan, Jane Rendall, Sian Reynolds, and Rose Pipes, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh University Press, 2018), pp. 426-27.

An article was published in The Herald on 10 November 2018 to commemorate the centenary of her death.

2019 update: This year marks the centenary of the James Tait Black Prize and a series of events are being planned which I will include links to as they appear.

29 March 2019 – Talk on Janet Coats (12.10-1pm), 50 George Square, Project Room. Blog post contributed by Isabella Pacheco for Centre for the History of the Book

17th August 2019 – Presentation of the first Janet Coats Black prize for the best short story submitted by a postgraduate student at University of Edinburgh.

16 Replies to “In memory of Janet Coats – 90th Anniversary of Scotland’s oldest Literary Prize”

  1. 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. 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

    1. 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!

    2. 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.



      1. 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 of 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

    3. 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

      1. Dear Noel Williams,

        I am an assistant producer on a UK Channel 4 history documentary about the Second World War. I am trying to track down information about David Elias Williams (grandson of Beatrice Nicol and David Elias Williams) who married Doris Charlotte Tucker in 1927. David and Doris lived in Bellevue Hill, Sydney in the 1940s and 1950s. I am researching the life of a British Naval Officer who stayed with them when on shore leave during World War II. I believe you may be a distant relation of theirs? I would be grateful if you could share any information you know about them please?

        I can be contacted via email on I look forward to hearing from you.

        Many thanks,

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. Hi Lucy (and other long lost relatives),
    I am also part of the Black-Coats thread, so to speak, although I haven’t looked for the link yet. I traced the Black side of the family back to Lismore (crofters, cattle dealers, 1770s-1841), Bute (baker, 1841-1902) and beyond (ministers in Paisley, Edinburgh and Montclair NJ). I have constructed a family tree at (follow the links from photos to family tree). You will find familiar names: Hugh, Archibald, James, Margaret, Isobel. I have received new information but unfortunately I have forgotten how to update the webpage.
    Stuart Black

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