From Jamaica to Coylton: the story of Alexander Waters, with a Great War postscript

On 3rd September 1894, a large crowd assembled at Coylton churchyard to pay their last respects at the burial of a highly-regarded member of the local community. He was Alexander Waters, whose obituary appeared in that week’s issue of the Ayr Advertiser. He was described as being tall and erect with a somewhat military bearing, ‘a genial, kindly man of singularly gentlemanly manners and address’. He was also described as a ‘man of colour’, which at that time meant a person with both African and European ancestry.

Low Coylton from a postcard of around 1910. Behind the house and trees on the left is the old churchyard where Alexander Waters was buried.

Alexander had been born around 1830 in St Mary’s parish, Jamaica, on the Pemberton Valley sugar plantation. It was part-owned by the Hamiltons of Sundrum, a branch of the extended Hamilton family which was heavily involved in sugar and slavery on the island, and also possessed the Rozelle and Belleisle estates near Ayr. Alexander’s death certificate would name his parents as John Waters, ‘farm overseer’ and Lydia Ann Thomas Waters, maiden surname Jenkins. At the time of his birth, the sugar fields were still worked by slave labour. Slavery in the British West Indies was abolished by an Act of 1833 which came into effect in the next year, although slaves over the age of six had to work for their masters as ‘apprentices’ for several years more – there were 255 slaves at Pemberton Valley at the time of abolition.

A hand-coloured photograph of Sundrum Castle on a postcard of around 1910.

Colonel Alexander West Hamilton, having spent many years on the island, looked after the affairs of the family property on Jamaica on behalf of his brother John Hamilton of Sundrum. According to the obituary of Alexander Waters, Colonel Hamilton agreed with his parents that he would be brought to Scotland to be educated and taught a trade. He was then to return to Jamaica to work at Pemberton Valley. There is no indication of the circumstances which led to these arrangements, but they must have been in place by the time of Colonel Hamilton’s death in 1837. Having arrived in Scotland, Alexander boarded in Ayr and is said to have attended Newton Academy. This school, charging low fees and providing only elementary education despite its grand name, opened in Green Street in 1847. Alexander appears in the March 1851 Census, apprenticed to stone mason Thomas Gibson and lodging with Thomas and his family at Gateside Cottage just outside Joppa village (now part of Coylton), near to Sundrum.

The 1856 Ordnance Survey map shows the cottage of Woodhead, the home of Alexander Waters, near Sundrum Castle.

On 2nd July 1858 Alexander married Elizabeth Monteith, a dairymaid on a local farm who was originally from New Cumnock parish. The original plan that he would return to Jamaica was abandoned, but he faithfully fulfilled his obligation to work for the Hamilton family. Having completed his training as a mason, he settled down with Elizabeth at the cottage of Woodhead on the Sundrum estate, and carried out building work on the estate. Alexander’s obituary would record that at Woodhead he cultivated and sometimes smoked ‘tobacco’, grown from seeds sent from Jamaica by his relatives. The couple raised a family of three sons and four daughters. Another son died in 1864 aged only two, and Alexander erected a stone over his grave in Coylton churchyard. This was presumably where Alexander himself was laid to rest in 1894, although no further inscription was ever added to the stone.

The inscription on the stone erected in 1864 by Alexander Waters over the grave of his two-year old son, also Alexander, in Coylton churchyard. Alexander, a stone mason, probably carved it himself.

Alexander’s eldest son John became a coal miner, and was living at Low Coylton, the oldest part of the village with the churchyard, when the First World War began. His family would pay a terrible price during the course of the conflict. One of his sons, John, was working in Lanarkshire and joined up there. Having been promoted to sergeant in the 3rd Field Squadron, Royal Engineers, John died of wounds at Ypres, Belgium on 5th February 1915 and is buried in a military cemetery there. Two of his brothers, George and Robert and their nephew Alexander all volunteered to join the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at Ayr recruiting office. George, a lance corporal in the regiment’s 10th Battalion, was killed on 12th October 1916 in the final stages of the Battle of the Somme and is buried in Warlencourt Military Cemetery. Robert fell victim to shellfire on 23rd November 1917 as the 1st/8th Battalion of the Argylls advanced during the Battle of Cambrai. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the memorial there.

Private Robert Waters, 1st/8th (Territorial) Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, grandson of Alexander Waters from Jamaica, killed on 23rd November 1917 at the Battle of Cambrai.

Alexander Waters served in the 10th Battalion of the Argylls along with his uncle George. For the heroism he displayed on 12th October 1917, during the terrible Battle of Passchendaele, he was awarded the Military Medal – the first Coylton man to be honoured with a decoration during the war. He survived the conflict.

Alexander Waters, 10th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was awarded the Military Medal for his valiant conduct on 12th October 1917 during the Battle of Passchendaele.

The unveiling ceremony for the Coylton Parish War Memorial at Hillhead, Coylton, took place on Sunday 19th December 1920. Among the 32 men of Coylton district commemorated on the memorial were the three Waters brothers, George, John and Robert, grandsons of Alexander Waters from Jamaica.  There was another family in the parish which had suffered an even greater loss. The 21 names of the war dead from Rankinston district included four Sloan brothers, Donald (a noted footballer), Robert, Thomas and William. The two mothers were invited to jointly perform the unveiling of the memorial. Mrs Sloan was unable to attend, and her son John took her place, carrying out the unveiling along with Mrs Waters. (Another brother of the four who fell was Alexander ‘Sanny’ Sloan, campaigner for miners’ rights and conditions and MP for South Ayrshire 1939-1945.)

Coylton War Memorial, on which three Waters brothers and four Sloan brothers who all fell in the Great War are commemorated.

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