The mid-eighteenth century saw Glasgow rise to dominate the British tobacco trade. Most of the tobacco imported from North America was re-exported to continental Europe, particularly France. Many of the Glasgow ‘tobacco lords’ who made fortunes from this trade were also involved in sugar refining and banking. The merchants of nearby Ayr tried to take as large a share of this economic boom as their resources and tidal harbour would allow, and tobacco warehouses sprang up along the quayside to accommodate the cargoes brought back from Virginia and Maryland.
The Hunter family rose to become Ayr‘s foremost tobacco merchants. In March 1755 the twenty seven-year old James Hunter was enrolled as a burgess of the town and a member of the merchants’ guild. It was probably around this time that he took over most of the work of running the family business from his father (also James) who had been provost of Ayr 1736-38 and 1740-42. James junior was married to Sarah the daughter of Patrick Ballantine, another of the town’s tobacco traders.
James’s youngest brother John Hunter went out to Fairfax County, Virginia in the early 1760’s, no doubt to take charge of the American end of the business. (West-of-Scotland firms operated storehouses in up-country Virginia which provided goods to the planters on credit, on condition that they sold their tobacco crops to the factor in charge.) In 1767 John married Jane Broadwater, the daughter of a prominent local planter. He stayed on after the American Revolution at his own plantation of Ayr Hill. (The community which grew up there became the present-day town of Vienna, Virginia.)
During the 1760s, as tobacco prices fell, the Scottish trade in that commodity passed more and more into the hands of a few major Glasgow companies. They were able to run cost-efficient operations with large ships using the deep-water harbours at Greenock and Port Glasgow. Smaller firms increasingly struggled to make a profit, and importation of tobacco at Ayr ceased around the end of the decade. This probably accounts for a new venture being launched in the town.
On January 23 1772, the magistrates and council of the Burgh of Ayr considered a petition, submitted to them by James Hunter and his brother Robert, which contained the following proposal:
‘That whereas the demand for sugar, both raw and refined, was very considerable from this town and the neighbouring county connected with it, and large sums of money were yearly remitted to Glasgow, Greenock, London, Bristol and Liverpool for these articles; the petitioners were humbly of opinion that it would be of much public and private benefit that raw sugars were imported here from the Colonies, and a sugar house erected in this place for refining them’.
Agreement was soon reached on the acquisition by James and Robert Hunter & Co. of a piece of ground near the harbour mouth, and a towering seven-storey refinery building was erected there. Multi-storey construction meant that the sugar, having initially been hoisted to the top storey in its raw state, could drain down through a filtering system from each level to the one below during the various stages of the refinement process.
The baptismal register for Ayr parish records the birth in April 1773 of Charlotte, daughter of Christopher Kleine, sugar maker, and his wife Margaret ‘Frog’. (In British refineries, the skilled supervisors were predominantly German.) Later, the births are recorded of three children (Agnes 1775, John 1777 and Margaret 1779) to Jacob ‘Clencoff/Clenecoff’ (Klinkhoff?), sugar baker, and his wife Mary Lawson. Christopher and Jacob would have supervised a number of partially-skilled or unskilled labourers. In January 1777 Samuel Wilson, ‘clerk at the sugar house’ became a burgess of Ayr.
Harvested sugar cane in the British West Indies was crushed in rollers, and the juice was boiled to produce inedible raw sugar containing molasses. In this form it was exported in barrels. At the refinery, the raw sugar went through a process of being repeatedly boiled in a succession of pans. Additives, particularly bullocks’ blood, brought impurities to the surface to be skimmed off. The heat and fumes made for unpleasant working conditions. When the sugar reached an acceptable level of refinement, it was formed into loafs, ready for sale.
While the sugar house was taking shape in June 1772, mismanagement and a recession combined to bring down the Ayr Bank of Douglas, Heron & Co.. This celebrated bank had played an important part in financing agricultural improvement and industrial development in the west of Scotland. James Hunter was the bank’s cashier, but escaped being caught up in its collapse. In 1773 he stepped into the gap left in local banking facilities by founding his own bank in Ayr, Hunters & Co.. It was managed more prudently than its predecessor, and developed into a successful enterprise. James’s partners included his brother Robert and his son-in-law William Wood, who was the cashier. James Hunter died in 1776, and his place as managing director of Hunter’s Bank was taken by his wife’s cousin, Ayr merchant John Ballantine (future provost of the town, and friend and patron of Robert Burns). The partners in the banking business were also closely associated with the sugar refinery during its existence.
A further member of the 1773 bank partnership was a cousin of James − William Hunter of Mainholm and Brownhill. William’s brother, another James (a prominent Edinburgh banker and future lord provost of that city who took the name Hunter Blair following his marriage) also had an interest. This branch of the Hunters and their Ayrshire business partners the Hamiltons of Boutreehill and Rozelle and the Fergussons of Kilkerran all possessed Jamaican sugar plantations (as well as being involved in the North American tobacco trade), and this Jamaican connection was probably a factor in the decision to establish a refinery in Ayr.
A 1774-1780 register of shipping activity in Ayr harbour has survived, and this records the arrival in October 1774 of the 160-ton brig Friendship of Ayr (built in the town during the previous year), from Antigua via Port Glasgow with a cargo of sugar and rum. There was no further direct importation from the Colonies, however, supplies of raw sugar for the refinery being shipped down from Greenock and Port Glasgow. Refined loaf sugar (presumably the surplus after local demand had been met) along with the by-product of molasses (from which rum could be distilled) was carried out by small vessels, mostly back to Greenock or Glasgow. The shipping out of coal, mainly to Ireland, had now become Ayr harbour’s principal activity.
The refinery does not appear to have continued in operation much beyond 1780. Competition from the Glasgow and Greenock refineries and the disruption of sugar exports from the West Indies during the American War of Independence are likely factors in its demise. In the 1791 description of Ayr’s industrial activity in the (Old) Statistical Account of Scotland, it was remarked that: ‘A large sugar house, built within these last twenty years, did not continue long employed, and lies waste and useless, as it has done for several years past.’ Around that time, Hugh Hamilton of Pinmore and Belleisle was looking at the possibility of acquiring the building and adapting it for use as a cotton mill (a report sent to him reveals that it originally had seven storeys) but nothing came of this.
Following the outbreak of war with Revolutionary France, the government decided to establish a military base in Ayr, and the sugar house was purchased in 1794 and converted into soldiers’ accommodation. Other buildings were added to Ayr Barracks during the nineteenth century, but the former refinery remained in use until what had become the Churchill Barracks closed in the mid-1960s. It was finally demolished in 1967. The Citadel Leisure Centre now occupies the site.