Springfield House

By Christopher Bretz


Springfield was home to our branch of Neilson family throughout much of the 19th century. It is a sizable acreage located in Galloway between the towns of Castle Douglas and Crossmichael. It is first known to be found on a map from 1797 when it belonged to a James Campbell, Esq.

The house is also briefly mentioned in The Book of Robert Burns, 1889, as the home of Isabella Campbell, a daughter of James. It is not yet known when exactly the lands were first designated Springfield, but there are intriguing records of the house called by that name in the Campbell family back to at least the early 18th century.

The nearby town of Castle Douglas was founded in 1792 by a wealthy descendant of the Douglas family, William Douglas, who made his money in the 'American Trade' and created this planned town on the shores of Carlingwark Loch. Before his efforts the townsite was little more than a collection of houses.

An account of the town's 19th century growth can be found in A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland, 1848, by Samuel Lewis.

The rapid increase of the present town, and its former manufacturing importance, arose from the introduction of the cotton manufacture, by its proprietor, Sir William Douglas. This source of employment, for a time, continued, and added greatly to its population; but the subsequent introduction of the power-loom, rendered it impracticable to carry on the works with advantage, in a locality destitute of an adequate supply either of coal or of water, and the manufacture was consequently abandoned. 

The town derives it's name from the nearby Threave Castle, the region's most notable landmark. The castle dates from the 1370s when it was the old baronial seat of the Douglas family. Later it was annexed by the Crown and used at various times for garrisoning troops. During the 1680s the castle was besieged by the Covenanters for 13 weeks, after which it was partially dismantled. The castle is located just over 1 kilometre from Springfield house on an island in the river Dee.

Springfield's lands were bought by Nathaniel Neilson Esq. (1760-1834) around the year 1808 from James Campbell for £3000 (about $3.5 million) after he returned from making his fortune in Jamaica. From various records, he was also clearly familiar with William Douglas' family as two had dealings in the community for many years, and was a respected member of the community. Nathaniel is listed on several documents as a land proprietor, and his will shows he also loaned money to numerous people.

Nathaniel had been gone from Scotland for over 20 years (from ages 25-47) and had returned a moderately wealthy man for his efforts. After settling in, it is known Nathaniel had a relationship with his house servant, producing a child (which died), but then settled down to have a family and establish himself in the community. (Though it does raise the question of how many children he might have produced while in Jamaica.) He married Barbara Agnew (1791-1864) of Wigtown (31 years his junior) in 1812 and immediately started having children.

Nathaniel and Barbara had 11 children here between 1813 and 1831, starting with his son William Cunningham. At least one child is known to have died as an infant, son George Agnew, in 1820. It's possible that with George's death, Nathaniel had the family tomb at Buittle church erected (see below).

As the family grew, the 1820s-30s would have been a busy time around the estate, with 10 children plus servants. There were 4 boys and 6 girls, many born within a year of each other. While Barbara was still only in her thirties, Nathaniel would have been quite old to be caring for them directly.

To the right is a modern view of Springfield gate from Google Street View.

Eldest son William Cunningham studied to become a physician and would probably go off occasionally to the University of St. Andrews between 1827-1833 (age 14-20) for testing. Most of St. Andrew's actual study of that era was conducted at home and only rarely required a presence at the school. He graduated in 1833. From around that time there is a letter from a very old and weak Nathaniel to his half-brother John in Canada inquiring as to job prospects for his son William in the New World.

Nathaniel died at Springfield house in 1834 (age 74) of old age. Most of his children were less than 12 years of age at the time. In his will he bequeathed assets worth as much as £9000 ($11.25 million), mostly to wife Barbara, and his eldest William.

Nathaniel Neilson’s will, dated 26 June 1833 and confirmed on 22 January 1836 lists bank accounts, loans due and ‘household furniture, watch and body clothes’ and ‘stock, croft and implements of husbandry’ stated to be worth in total around £806. The total value of assets and estate were estimated by Nathaniel’s half-brother, William ‘the Postmaster’ Neilson at “about £9,000”. In attendance at the reading of the will as witnesses and beneficiaries were the widow Barbara, Alexander Ross, schoolteacher at Bridge-of-Dee and son-in-law, and James Liddendale, writer (solicitor) of Castle Douglas to whom young David Neilson was apprenticed. Also in attendance were William Neilson, half-brother and postmaster at Castle Douglas, George Agnew, brother-in-law and sheriff clerk of Wigton, David Hannay of Blairennie and William Cunningham Neilson MD. The latter must travelled hard to have been back in Scotland from his medical service in India by the time the will was confirmed and read.

Daughter Anne was the first child to marry in 1837. She married William Barbour at Crossmichael.

Nathaniel's son David Agnew died on April 1, 1837 at just age 14, of unknown causes. He was apprenticing with a lawyer from Castle Douglas at the time.

By 1838 William Cunningham, now age 25, had joined the Indian Medical Service and began journeying to India on a regular basis.

Daughter Anne died at age 26 in 1841, possibly during childbirth.

In the 1841 census the residents of the house included:

1841 Scotland census

Barbara Agnew, age 49 (widow)
Barbara Rome, age 12 (daughter)
Euphemia Douglas, age 15 (daughter)
Mary, age 20 (daughter)
Agnes, age 17 (daughter)
Georgina, age 13 (daughter)
Andrew, age 10 (son)
Margaret Nay, age 35 (servant)
Margaret Gordon,  age 20 (servant)
Euphemia Douglas, age 55 (widow/independent) [sister of Barbara? clearly important]
Anna Douglas, age 30

Son Nathaniel Agnew possibly died in 1847 near Edinburgh. He was only 28.

To the left is a modern view of the countryside around Springfield (to the right) from Google Streetview.

Daughter Mary Allan was married on the estate on December 22 1847 (age 31) to George Brown, minister of the Church in Castle Douglas, by the Rev. John Macmillan of Kirkcudbright. The following year sister Agnes Hawthorn married Ebenezer Gladstone on July 17, 1848.

There is a record of brother William Cunningham crossing the Suez on April 1, 1847 on his way back to England from India. It is unknown if he came back for the weddings or the funeral, or both.

'A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland', 1848 provides some insight into the nature of life in the region at the time.

The houses [of Castle Douglas] are well built; and there are several villas in the immediate vicinity, which abounds with pleasing scenery. Gas was introduced into the town in February 1844, by a company, and has proved of considerable benefit. A public library is supported by subscription, and contains about 1200 volumes, and there is also a circulating library in the town. The shops are remarkably elegant, and are well stored with various kinds of merchandise; the post-office is one of the most important in the south of Scotland, and has fourteen branch offices under its control, all of which have a daily delivery. A savings' bank was opened in 1841, and has now deposits to the amount of £2022. The market is on Monday, and is abundantly supplied with grain of all kinds, and other agricultural produce; large numbers of black-cattle and sheep, and great quantities of pigs, are constantly exposed to sale.

In 1851 William Cunningham earns the position of Surgeon in the Indian Medical Service

In the 1851 census the residents of the house included:

1851 Scotland census

Barbara Agnew, age 59 (widow)
Barbara Rome, age 22 (daughter)
Euphemia Douglas, age 26 (daughter)
Agness McKee, age 28 (servant)
John Glencross,  age 16 (agricultural labourer)

Eldest son William Cunningham married Florence Brereton around 1852.

Tuberculosis was a large problem in 19th century Scotland. In the 1860s two-fifths of all deaths in Glasgow alone were due to respiratory diseases and tuberculosis. That they were infectious diseases carried by a bacillus was not realized until 1884, and so few precautions were known. The Neilson family suffered it's share of deaths due to the illness. Daughter Barbara Rome died at Springfield on September 5, 1855 of tuberculosis (age 26), and her sister Georgina Agnew died a few years later on December 24, 1858 (age 30). Neither of these sisters had married.

The Glasgow and South Western Railway line opened nearby in 1859, and was extended to a few hundred metres from the house in 1861. Barbara Neilson seemingly received or purchased shares in the railroad at this time. Perhaps they were awarded to her in exchange for the land.

In the 1861 census the residents of the house included:

1861 Scotland census

Barbara Agnew, age 69 (widow)
Euphemia Douglas, age 36 (daughter)         
Ignet Kim, age 22 (servant)
John Muir, age 15 (servant)

The census also indicates that in 1861 daughter Agnes Hawthorn was widowed and living in nearby Castle Douglas. Her husband, wine merchant Ebenezer Gladstone, had died in 1854 (age 37) of an unknown cause, and left her to raise their 3 daughters alone. Sister Mary Allan was also living in Castle Douglas and still married to George Brown, now with 3 children of her own. Knowing that grandmother was at Springfield, only a short walk distant, surely the children visited quite often.

William Cunningham died of tuberculosis in Mhow, India on May 1, 1862 (age 49). His death was confirmed by his father-in-law Henry Brereton. His wife Florence would take the children to live in southern England in the years to come, including Somerset and Jersey.

Mother and grandmother Barbara Agnew died at Springfield in 1864, age 72. Her will contained several shares in the Castle Douglas and Dumfries Railroad. 2 common and 2 preferred. Her effects totaled 302 pounds sterling ($275,000). Daughter Euphemia acted as executor. Only she and siblings Agnes Hawthorn, Mary Allan, and Andrew Rome survived their mother.  A number of specific family items were willed to Andrew Rome as the oldest surviving male.

Euphemia is likely to have sold off the estate around 1865, as it was not kept in the family beyond the next few years. It's sale should have fetched a handsome sum to divide between her remaining siblings. It ended what was 57 continuous years of the Neilsons of Springfield. Euphemia was then married a solicitor, moved to Castle Douglas and had 3 children almost immediately. Later on her family moved to Kelton.

After it passed from the Neilsons, a George Imrie and his wife Janet owned Springfield from around 1865 till their own deaths in 1875. According to the book Scotland: Owners of lands and heritages, 1872-1873, the estate's size at this time is recorded as 24 acres, and it provided a gross annual value to Kirkcudbright of £60 10s (about $45,000),

From then on the ownership records are unresearched.

Andrew Rome died at Rosebank Cottage in Castle Douglas in 1895. His will noted his assets still in Australia. Throughout the 1880s he had been in New South Wales, Australia and fell sick upon his return with a heart condition. His sisters and many of their children still lived in the area.

The Springfield Neilsons family grave is located in the nearby Buittle church graveyard, and is where many members of this family are buried. The tomb inscription reads;

In memory of George Agnew Neilson, who died on the 6th of April 1820, aged one month. Also of his father Nathaniel Neilson Esquire, of Springfield, who died 1st of October 1834, aged 74. Twenty-five years of his life he spent in the Island of Jamaica. Also David his son, who died at Springfield, on 1st April 1837, aged 14 years. Also of Nathaniel Agnew, his son, who died on the 21st day of July 1847, aged 29 years. Also Barbara Rome, his daughter who died on the 25th day of Septem'r. 1855, in the 27th year of her age. Also Georgina, his daughter, who died at Springfield, on the 24th of Dec'r. 1858, in her 31st year. Also of his eldest son William C. Neilson, M.D., 20th Regit, N.J., who died at Mjhow, East Indies, 1st May 1862, aged 49 years, Also in memory of Mrs Barbara Agnew, spouse of the above Nathaniel Neilson, who died at Springfield, on the 28th of Feb. 1865, aged 72 years. Also of his youngest son Andrew Rome Agnew Neilson, of Uardry, New South Wales, Australia, who died at Rosebank, Castle Douglas, on the 28th September 1895, aged 65 years. Also Euphemia Douglas Neilson, widow of Richard Hewat, who died at Castle Douglas, on October 16th 1899.