John Turnbull (1743-1798?) and Helen Anderson (1754-1828)

Our Great Great Great Great Great Grandparents

John Turnbull was born in Glasgow on 9 March 1743, the son of John Turnbull and Margaret Menzies.  Helen Anderson was probably born in Glasgow, and was baptised there on 25 June 1754. She was the third child and daughter of John Anderson and Janet Brown.
John and Helen married in 1774 and had four children:

  1. Janet (b.1775) – she was born on 12 September 1775 in Lanarkshire, probably Glasgow, and married William Henderson there on 11 August 1805. They had six children: Helen (1807-1808), Helen (b. 1812), James (b.1816), Catherine (b.1818), John and William.
  2. James Alexander (c.1780-1817) – he was born in Glasgow and became a doctor. He married Catherine Grant on 7 March 1803 and they had four children: Catherine (b.1804), Helen (b.1806), Margaret (b.1808) and John (b.1810). He died of a fever at Glasgow on 28 April 1817.
  3. Archibald (our ancestor - 1784-1857)
  4. John (b.1786) – he was born on 7 February 1786 in Glasgow, and married Mary Arrott there on 1 July 1803. They had five children: Henry (b.1804), Palvera (b.1806), George (b.1814), William Duncan (1816-1816) and John (1817-1876). John’s occupation was variously a carpenter, a soldier in the Scots Greys (1803) and a sugar baker (1814). He died before 1840.

The Glasgow of John Turnbull and Helen Anderson was a city that had in recent times experienced a massive trade-based growth. At the time of the union of England and Scotland in 1707 it had only 13,000 inhabitants, but by the 1780s this had risen to 40,000, and by 1830 to 200,000.1 Its trade centred on importing raw materials, sugar and tobacco from the colonies and re-exporting them to England and Europe. This in turn provided the stimulus for the growth manufacturing industries, as John Gibson noted in 1777:

The commerce to America having hitherto proved successful, the advantages that would result, from introducing manufactures in different articles for this, and other markets, were easily foreseen by the inhabitants; the making of linens of various kinds, of threads, of saddles, or shoes, and of iron-mongery ware, was attended to; and the benefits which the inhabitants have derived from them have been very great.2


In 1745, when John Turnbull was two years of age, Glasgow was threatened by the last serious Jacobite rebellion, that of Prince Charles Edward Stuart which ended the next year at Culloden. With prosperity based on colonial trade (although other factors also came into play) it is not surprising that Glasgow opposed the rebellion, providing two battalions of troops for government service. Factions among the rebels wished to punish Glasgow for its allegiance to King George II rebels but the intervention of  Donald Cameron, who threatened to withdraw the Cameron clan from the rebellion if this happened, is credited with saving the city. Nevertheless, Glasgow was obliged to meet demands for money and goods from the rebels, and along with the cost of raising and maintaining the two battalions, this cost the community £14,000, £10,000 of which was recovered by a grant from Parliament in 1749.

Glasgow soon regained its prosperity. John Gibson writing in 1777 noted the transition from a frugal and dour character of the city prior to 1750 to a more materialistic and vibrant Glasgow by the time he was writing. Changes in buildings and furnishings, and how people lived, dressed and sought entertainment, were noted by Gibson.  The city expanded to the west, with new buildings, roads and canals being constructed and the river Clyde bridged and made navigable right up to Glasgow itself.

Gibson noted a 3% mortality rate in Glasgow in 1775, which he considered to be a sign of the healthiness of the city. Even so, 56% of deaths were of children under 5. While the causes of death noted by Gibson need to be treated with caution (11 are said to have died of “Sore throat”), smallpox accounted for 27% of deaths, old age 14%, consumption 12%, and “Bowel-hive” 8%.

For entertainment the people of Glasgow were said to enjoy in winter “…dancing and card-assembles, per vices, or week about, concerts of music, and sometimes the players from Edinburgh”. In summer the rich retired to their country houses, but Gibson makes no mention of the other inhabitants. Sporting pursuits included golf, skating and curling in winter, bowls, nine-pins and quoits in summer.

Gibson says that Glasgow’s streets were clean and well-paved. Houses were almost exclusively made of stone, and few exceeded four floors in height. Gibson proudly states that “Mr pennant pronounces Glasgow to be the best built second rate city he has ever seen”. Obviously the term second rate did not have the same negative connotations it has today.

John’s occupation was stocking maker.3  Whether John worked in a cottage industry environment or had a more extensive stocking making business is unknown. The stockings he made were probably of cotton imported to Glasgow from the Americas, and if this is the case he may have found times hard at the time of the American Revolution and its aftermath.

Stockings were produced on a stocking frame, a mechanical knitting machine. Operating the stocking frame required physical strength and so was usually operated by a man. The flat unshaped material produced by the stocking frame was often seamed and fashioned into stockings by the women of the family, so Helen Anderson and her daughter Janet Turnbull (if she survived infancy) may also have been occupied in this industry.
Gibson has this to say about stocking making in Glasgow:

Stockings, thread; the weaving of this article on frames was begun in 1740; this branch [of manufacture] is increasing very fast, and might certainly be carried to a much greater extent. Quantity made, 16,000 dozens of pairs, at 30s. per dozen upon an average.4

Weaving in all its forms was one of the fourteen incorporate trades in Glasgow. John Turnbull would have paid an amount of £2 to the trade upon serving his apprenticeship and a further 1s. fee per annum.

John Turnbull died probably in the last years of the 1790s in Glasgow. His widow Helen then married George Henry Vonberg in Glasgow on 14 February 1799. After her marriage to VonBerg they continued to reside in Glasgow where George died in 1825. There were no children of her second marriage, and Vonberg left his considerable estate to Helen and her children.5 His estate comprised some six flats and shops in a row of tenement buildings in John Street Glasgow. These buildings could not be sold until after the death of his widow Helen Anderson, which occurred on October 3, 1828 at the age of 75. The names Helen Anderson and George Henry VonBerg continue as Christian names constantly in many of the branches of the family tree to the present time.

Helen died at Glasgow on 3 October 1828, three years after Vonberg died.


1 Kellett, John R. (1967), pp. 7 & 10.

2 Gibson, John. (1777), p. 112. Much of what follows is also taken from this source.

3 Listed in John Tait's Directory for the City of Glasgow ... also for the towns of Paisley, Greenock, Port-Glasgow and Kilmarnock, 1783, TAIT, John. Glasgow.

4 Gibson, John. (1777), p. 246.

5 Author unknown, Genealogical History of the descendants of John Turnbull and Helen Anderson 1784-1982, p. 19.


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