John Urie (b. 1820): An Introduction – Writing Lives

John Urie (b. 1820): An Introduction

John Urie first saw the light of Paisley in 1820. His life and autobiography “Reminiscences of eighty years by John Urie” (published in 1908) recall a dramatic experience. His Reminiscences take us from his childhood years in Paisley and introduction to work in his father’s weaving shop through to his move to Glasgow where he eventually set up his own print shop and photography business. Throughout his book, John always shows his ‘people-person’ character, making him a really interesting and likable person to read about!

John’s early years shape his maturity, independence and curiosity about social movements and the world in general. He is brought up with the cholera riots and the looming threat of resurrectionists, who were digging up graves and stealing bodies. The town feared this but not John. When hearing of an instance occurring in his town, rather than being scared, John rallied up some other “laddies” from the town and viewed the scene of the grave themselves. I think this side of John is essential to his life and is what makes him so interesting. No matter what the dilemma, John will always be brave and curious enough to experience it for himself. We will see later in the book (and my blog) when John recalls his experience with various social movements.

I also love John’s association and support for working class people especially, allowing me to give him the title of ‘people-person’. He is constantly aware of the threats and discrimination towards the working class, noting for instance on page (22), that “the poor died faster” when talking about the failed plan to rid Paisley of Cholera plague. The book has this general theme of unity, not only from John’s perspective but also of Paisley. John recalls his enthusiasm for clubs of which there were many!

He attended an Encyclopaedia Club with his father when he was young where they discussed various related matters such as the Reform Bill, Johnny Russell and Earl Grey who ‘were political leaders at the time’ (29). He describes how it was “ordinary” people who attended these clubs: a blacksmith, barber, and John’s dad who worked a loom. The town was clearly connected and plays a big part in John’s story. These clubs also play a big part in his education. His exposure to as much knowledge and information as possible and his independence in school where he was often required to make his own pens allowed him to adopt this education-based mentality and neglect the perhaps religious one his grandfather had, and many other people would have had at this time.

More of John’s notable life comes through his photography. After all he was the first photographer in Glasgow! It’s this local fame and skill behind a camera and pencil that allowed John to have the aura of local celebrity allowing him to meet a variety of unique people and experiencing quite dramatic stuff! For example, we learn of John’s experience with notorious Scottish murderer, Madeleine Smith and how he actually met her on several occasions in his studio!

The side of John that is curious and brave is the reason I decided to write about him. In the world we live in today, it’s interesting how a lot of John’s experience can be situated in our society and his ideals of not being a bystander can be very eye-opening! I hope my blog can do John’s story justice and spread his life and message as I’m sure he would have wanted.


Urie, J. (1908). Reminiscences of eighty years by John Urie. Paisley: A. Gardner, 1908.

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