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William Glass

Founder of the Remotest Community in the World. Born Kelso 1786 died Tristan da Cunha 1853

William Glass is an enigma.

Born William Glasgow in Kelso on 11th May 1786 to David Glasgow and Janet Hood, he changed his name to William Glass when he enlisted in the army as a gun-driver with the Royal Artillery.

Glass, before enlisting, had worked as a servant to the Duke of Roxburghe and was skilled in horsemanship. In South Africa with the British Forces, he was an officer´s servant and had reached the rank of corporal of artillery.

Five officers and 36 soldiers, sent from South Africa, took possession of the island of Tristan da Cunha on 28th November 1816. The garrison had been sent by the British Government because they were worried that the island might be used for an attempt by the French to rescue Napoleon from St. Helena where he was in exile. The troops were withdrawn in 1817, as the threat had passed, but Corporal William Glass from Kelso in Scotland, with his South African wife, Maria Magdalena Leenders, and two children, asked to stay. Napoleon died on St Helena on 5 May 1821.

With Glass, there remained on the Island two stonemason companions: John W. Nankiwell & Samuel Burnell, both of Plymouth, England. They began a most remarkable project which they called 'The Firm', underpinned by a signed voluntary agreement of communal living including : equal shares of stock and stores; equally divided profit; equal shares in paying for purchases; no one superior over another. This agreement was signed on 7th November 1817.

On November 19 1817 the "Eurydice" sailed from Tristan, but the commander of the ship presented Glass with a bull, a cow, and few sheep, which in time became an extensive flock and herd. The stonemasons did not stay long but examples of their work can still be seen on the island houses.

In November 1820 William Glass was persuaded by Capt. Todridge, an old friend of his from Plymouth, England, to trust his boy of five and his girl of less than four years old to him. He had reached Tristan in a sealing vessel and took them home with him to England for the purpose of giving them a sound education which was unattainable on Tristan. In 1826 sailor Thomas Swain, from Hastings in Sussex arrived and brought the number of bachelors up to five. These were nearly all men who had fought under Nelson or guarded Napoleon at St. Helena. Swain was reported to be the very sailor who caught the dying Admiral in his arms as he fell mortally wounded on the deck of "Victory". He lived to be a centenarian, and was buried in the island cemetery, where the inscription on his grave still remains as follows:

Born at Hastings, England.
Died on 26th April, 1862.
Aged 102 years.

Only William Glass had a wife and family, so Simon Amm, captain of the "Duke of Gloucester", a regular visitor to Tristan, was commissioned (allegedly for a sack of potatoes per woman) to try to persuade suitable partners from the island of St Helena to try their luck with the lonely men. Amazingly, Amm returned in 1827with five volunteers, and it is reported that Thomas Swain (who had vowed to take the first woman to step ashore), duly took Sarah Jacobs for his wife. By 1832 Tristan had a population of 34 with 6 couples and 22 children! In 1836 a Dutchman, Peter Groen, who anglicised his name to Green, joined them. In 1837 and 1849 Thomas Rogers and Andrew Hagan, both American whalermen, also settled on Tristan. In 1852, there were ten families with 85 people on Tristan, and Captain Denham, the captain of the "Herald" noted tersely in his journal that "the Swains with 15 children, are no less determined antiMalthusians than the Glasses" (who had 16). By 1856 there were 96 inhabitants.

Glass ruled over the little community from 1817 to 1853 in patriarchal fashion. William Glass set up the rules for the people living on Tristan da Cunha. They are still the basis of the Tristan da Cunha society of today. The council decides how to spend the communal money earned from the crayfish exports, and ensures that a member of the family with the lowest income gets the next job to come up. Everybody works for the common good. Everybody helps each other. Everything is shared; there is no private property.

William Glass died of cancer in 1853 at the age of 66 and his death was the catalyst for an exodus of 25 family members to join relatives in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1856. The next year a further 45 people left for South Africa with Rev Taylor, many settling in Riversdale, South Cape Province.

After they left, there were only four families, totalling 28 people in the world's most isolated community. Peter Green took over from William Glass as the unofficial spokesman, (but never regarded as leader) of the island's people.

William Glass was a deeply religious man, and had a good education, coupled with administrative gifts of no mean order. He was chosen headman, and in the course of a long life governed the growing community with vigour and justice. He regularly held religious service, reading morning and evening prayer daily, and adding one of Dr. Hugh Blair's sermons on Sundays. Of these discourses he remarked, "They are very good, but no one can understand them much," and pleaded for something simpler. The islanders still keep much of the patriarchal way of life instituted by William Glass, who used to assemble all his family in the house on Christmas Day, his own birthday, and other high occasions. Rev. W. F. Taylor, the missionary at the time, was one of the company the year before the old man's death in 1853, and on that occasion thirty-four persons, all his descendants or connections by marriage, sat down to dinner. Glass had the remarkable family of sixteen—eight boys and eight girls. Like Swain, he is buried in the island cemetery. His monument, subscribed for and sent by his sons in America, is a handsome piece of marble. The inscription is rather an interesting one:

Born at Kelso, Scotland,
the Founder of the Settlement of Tristan da Cunha
in which he resided 37 years, and fell asleep in Jesus
November 24, 1853, aged 67 years.

Asleep in Jesus, far from thee
Thy kindred and their graves may be
But thine is still a blessed sleep
From which none ever wakes to weep.

Glass should be considered as the real founder of the settlement of Tristan da Cunha. All land is still communally owned and stock numbers controlled to conserve grass and avoid some families getting richer than others. No outsiders can buy land on Tristan.

He established a settlement based on equality, a policy that still stands today.

We are however left with the question – what made a man who was obviously a committed Christian and a kind and considerate human being change his name when still a teenager? Did something happen that he wanted to hide? Will we ever know? Probably not, but it does nothing to lessen the legacy he left in Tristan da Cunha.

(An article "An Opaque Glass" by Audrey Mitchell appeared in the magazine of the Borders Family History Society Issue 60 of March 2006, which gives further, more detailed information about William Glass.)

Kelso Scotland, Scottish Borders UK