FamHist Blog

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Cosmo, Cuthbert and Cudbear

My 5th great granduncle, Cosmo Gordon was born in 1748 in Clashdow, Morayshire, Scotland.  A descendant of the Gordon, Stewart, Grant, MacWilliam and O’Laggan families / clans in northern Scotland, Cosmo was the oldest son in the family.  As such, much was expected of him.

A Gordon Arms Living in the Gordon Castle and surrounding properties presented opportunities for education that weren’t enjoyed by all of the residents in the area.  Eventually, his education and desire to succeed in life were rewarded with wealth and notoriety.

Cosmo met beautiful young lass named Magdalen Gordon and fell in love.  I haven’t been able to trace Magdalen’s lineage beyond her father yet, but have little doubt that they were related to some extent.

Two of Magdalen’s brothers were entrepreneurs by nature, a trait that matched Cosmo’s own inclination.

George Gordon was a coppersmith from Banffshire and his brother Dr. Cuthbert Gordon was a dye merchant from Leith.

One day, while mending a copper boiler in a dye house in London, George noticed the orchil (reds) dye being used was similar to the dye used in his native highland home.

The sight sparked an idea in George’s mind.  Talking it over with his brother, Cuthbert, who had training as a doctor and chemist, the pair knew the red and purple dyes used at home were made from lichen that grew on rocks and old wood ruins.

After some experimentation, the pair discovered a secret formula to extract a permanent, non-fading dye from the lichen.

Telling their brother-in-law, Cosmo, about their discovery, the trio decided to go into business with Cosmo providing the financial expertise and many of the contacts in the marketing world.

The dye became famous because unlike other dyes on the market, it didn’t fade in the light.  The trio patented their process in 1758 under British patent no. 727 and named it “Cudbear”.  The name was unique because it was named after Cuthbert.

An entry on Wikipedia details the extraction process:

“The lichen is first boiled in a solution of ammonium carbonate. The mixture is then cooled and ammonia is added and the mixture is kept damp for 3-4 weeks. Then the lichen is dried and ground to powder. The manufacture details were carefully protected, with a ten-feet high wall being built around the manufacturing facility, and staff consisting of Highlanders sworn to secrecy. The lichen consumption soon reached 250 tons per year and import from Norway and Sweden had to be arranged.”

Eventually, Cosmo became a Deputy King’s Waiter of the Customs of the Port of  London.  In that position, he found huge errors in accounting and theft in the tobacco warehouses.  Presenting his evidence and recommendations to Prime Minister, William Pitt, on January 6, 1786.  He was subsequently appointed Comptrolling Surveyor of the Warehouse in London.

London Custom HouseCosmo’s recommendations were introduced into a new law to stop this type of theft and accounting manipulation resulting in huge increases in tax revenues to the governments coffers.

Passage of the new law was not easy because so many well connected people had benefited from the graft.  Mr. Pitt instructed Cosmo to be in attendance to all discussions of the law in the House of Lords to explain the proposal, illuminate the graft and address the opposing statements and efforts by the Lords who opposed the law.  After a long and arduous period of time, Mr. Pitt was satisfied that Cosmo had represented the proposal so well that he pushed for approval.  The law was subsequently passed in the Act of the 29th George III cap. 69.

Cosmo was promoted to Principal Surveyor of the Tobacco Warehouse, at the desire of the Commissioners of the Customs.  He traveled throughout England and Scotland arranging import agreements, procedures and documentation for several years thereafter.  As he had expected, graft and mismanagement was rampant throughout the the import activities in every port.

The Commissioners of Customs moved on his recommendations and much of the corruption was stopped.  Of course, not everyone in government, or even among the Commissioners were happy with these actions.  They had benefitted from them and thus, Cosmo accrued numerous well-placed enemies in government.

Eventually, the acrimony in their hearts moved them to action.  Cosmo was forced out of his prestigious position in London to a lesser assignment in Liverpool where he lived the rest of his life.

Magdalen Gordon died on 24 Oct 1796 in London.

Cosmo eventually remarried. On 12 Jan 1808, he and Mrs. Sarah Butler were joined as husband and wife.

Cosmo and Magdalen had two children:

Thomas Gordon of whom it was said that he “seemed to possess rather more than common abilities, and never was sent to any school except to learn French, having acquired all the knowledge he had under his father.  Indeed he was almost self-taught, for he used to say that what one had heard and seen and could not teach himself to do, it was not worth being taught.  He prided himself in his penmanship and accuracy in accounts, and at the time of his death he kept as elegant a set of mercantile books as any in London.”  He died October 1798, in his 19th year.

Robert Henry Butler Gordon, who was third mate in the Albion East Indiaman and died the preceding year at Bencoolan, on his voyage to China, in the 24th year of his age.

With his death, his branch of the Gordon family surname ended although the Gordon name was carried in the names of many generations of the descendants of his only sister, Elizabeth Gordon, who married Major James Logie.

24 July 2009 - Posted by | Genealogy | , ,


  1. Hi came across your blog when searching for “Cuthbert Gordon” on google I wondered if you have seen the two letters from George Gordon to Rev. Alexander McPherson in Maryland about the dye? In case you haven’t I will include one here transcribed: County Land Record Book G#3, 1756-1761; Page 462. Letters and Articles.
    To the Revd Mr. John McPherson, Rector of the Parish of William [and] Mary, Potomack River, Maryland.

    Dr Cousin – It gives me much pleasure to understand by my father &c that our uncle and family are well with that of your own settlement – Cuthbert [Gordon?] and I were next to find ourselves so much blamed by you for our silence, which proceeded from no other cause than the depending state we were in these 3 years past. I think if my money secu[r]es me one Jurriq wrote you from London acquainting of my intention of going for Antigua, but in the interim I luckily (tho as yet I may say unluckily) was employed by the Company, I tarried Put for 8 the Copperworks of an eminent Archal maker in town; during my stay there I made some observations upon the different ingredients & manner of those making that valuable dye, which secret is known to nary 4 in Britain, the main part of the ingredients particularly the Archal wood, came from the Canary & Cape Dezierd Islands, commonly selling in Britain at the rate of £ 130 sterling per ton. Having considered the nature of the wood, i reflected that in the Hylands of Scotland, there were woods, much of the same nature, and I went down and made Archal to compare with the experiments I intended to make. Upon my arrival, I found my brother making ready after recovering his health, to go to Georgia. After diverse experiments for nearly a year, we at last made a composition 25% exceeding that brought over from the Canaries or Cape Deciecd. What next occurred to us was to employ, the next year, in gathering and compounding what we could in order to dispose of to the makers at Londn reasonably exporting an equal price with their best wood. We set out early in the Spring for London, hoping to go home next season with money to enable us to manufacture it. Our disappointment I report to the bearer – about the middle of Aug we set out for Scotland, leaving our goods unsold, as we were satisfied with the goodness of our commodity, we applied the Commissioners for encouraging manufactures in Scotland for a premium. The quality of our Archal, to the judgment of the Abdn [Aberdeen) dyers, exceeded greatly any they ever had from London or elsewhere. Until lately, we were in good hopes of at least 100 £ sterling premium to enable us against the 1st summer to begin the work, but then were unfortunate enough to be let understood by our friend, Mr. Hamilton Gordon, Advocate at Ednr [Edinborough] who applied the Commissioners and Trustees in our behalf, that the funds for encouraging manufactures were withdrawn, which circumstances determined the bearer go for America at a time when his father’s condition would admit, give him no more to help him than 20 £ sterling & friends who have to spare regarding both him & I as whimsical fellows not worthy to be credited with 6 pence – in what manner he’ll get over God knows or what appearance he’ll make when it pleases the almighty he reaches you in the situation, at this rate, he must be in I cannot foresee, but necessity has no law, As for further particulars, I refer you to the bearer- Had we £ 100 to carry on this affair, nay the half, I would not fear at a 12 months end to triple the money; I conclude wishing you all health and happiness. Signed Apr 26, 1757 your most affectionate cousin George Gordon.

    Comment by Nicole | 18 August 2012 | Reply

  2. Also here is a business arrangment they entered: This indenture of copartnership, entered into and agreed upon, this Nov 16, 1757 between George Gordon, son to Thomas Gordon of Fodderletter in the Shire of Banff in Great Britain, and Cuthbert Gordon, his brother Germain [german], now in Maryland, and George Gordon of Prince Georges County in Maryland, and the Revd Mr. John McPherson, rector of William Mary Parish in CC, witnesses that, for 300 £ sterling procured in credit on the Bank at Edenburgh, by means of Mr. Alexander J: Alexander and Company, merchants of that City, and immediately advanced by sd George Gordon of Prince Georges County & John McPherson of CC, in manner following: sd George and Cuthbert Gordon of Banff Shire hereby admit them, each, into an 8th share partnership of an Archil work now in agitation between them, and to be erected at Lieth or some other such convenient place in North Britain, with a proportional profit, if they bear their proportional part of the expense. If either of the parties dies, no claim of survivorship shall operate to the detriment of his or their concerns, but that the same circumstance of partnership shall remain in favor of the decd’s nearest relations. If another partner sells out or gives up his part, that part may be sold or assigned after the other partners are appraised and that they have the preference & refusal. Signed – Cuthbt Gordon for self and brother Geo. Gordon, Geo Gordon, John MacPherson. Wit – Nathaniel Slider, John Littleford.

    My relation is through Rev. John McPherson. George is the younger George’s and Cuthbert’s Uncle brother to their father Thomas Gordon.

    Comment by Nicole | 18 August 2012 | Reply

  3. George the brother married Christian MacPherson. And Thomas married Isabella MacPherson.

    Comment by Nicole | 18 August 2012 | Reply

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