James Carfrae Alston, 1835-1913


Alston 001 Alston portrait
© CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections

Our donor, James Carfrae Alston, son of Thomas Scott Alston and Jessie Seaton Alston was born on 18th August 1835 in Glasgow. His father was a “Cloth Merchant”[1]. James Carfrae Alston  was married to Bertine Amelia Wood and they both lived at  18 Oakfield Terrace , Glasgow[2] for a few years and  then moved to 9 Lorraine Gardens, Partick, Glasgow,where  his wife died in 1908 [3].

In 1909, he gifted to the Kelvingrove Gallery his art collection. Some of the paintings with their titles and the artists’ names are shown below within the text. The letter, offering his collection of paintings to the Corporation of Glasgow, which was sent from his club to the Lord Provost of the day by Mr Alston, is reproduced below:

Western Club


7th July 1909.

Dear Ld. Provost,

I beg to offer for your acceptance, as the official head of my native city, the gift of small collection of pictures and of one bronze, to be the property of the Corp. of Glasgow and to be placed in their galleries.

The pictures are characteristic of the thirteen artists represented, and I may venture to say are of good quality.

It will be gratification to me should they be the means of affording pleasure to many as they to myself.

I am,

Yours faithfully,

J. Carfrae Alston.

Our donor, James, did not follow his father’s footsteps as a cloth merchant but decided to be a tobacco merchant. From the Valuation Roll [4], it is seen that he established his premises in 27, James Watt Street, Glasgow. From a very early age our donor showed a deep interest in civic affairs. So much so that, when he was a young man, he was one of ten men, who started the Scottish Volunteer Movement in Glasgow on 2nd May, 1859 [5,6]. He served with the group for 20 years and he left with the title of Major.

The well-known Boys Brigade, which was first formed by Mr W.A. Smith in 1883, had a lot in common with the Volunteer Movement. Therefore, it was not surprising that, in 1885 the Executive of the Boys Brigade appointed Mr. J. Carfrae Alston as Brigade President and Mr. W. A. Smith as Brigade Secretary as Mr Smith had declined to be the president and preferred to be the secretary.

Another important activity in our donor’s life was to continue with the good work of his grandfather, John Alston, at the blind Asylum. His grandfather did a great deal of work by helping to improve the system of reading for the blind by the means of raised Roman characters which later gained wide acceptance before the ascendancy of Braille. John Alston maintained that ‘blind children can be trained to do almost anything’ [7]. Boys who attended the asylum were aged 10 to 16 and, in addition to attending classes, they made nets for wall-trees and sewed sacks, while girls were educated along gendered lines and assisted in household work and knitted silk purses, stockings and caps [8].


(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Fish Wives by the Sea by B. J. Bloomers © CSG GIC Glasgow Museums Collection. (www.artuk.org)

At the National Archives [9], they hold two copies of what is thought to be the first ‘tactile’ map of Great Britain and Ireland made for the use of blind people.  Produced at the Glasgow Asylum for the Blind in 1839, the maps are made of thick paper with the lines and other details embossed so that they can be ‘seen’ by the reader’s fingertips. Although Braille had already been invented, it did not come into common use in the United Kingdom until later in the nineteenth century, so the text is written with raised versions of ordinary letters.

The National Archives hold these two maps because John Alston, the Asylum’s director, sent them to London to draw the government’s attention to the work done by his organisation and to the difficulty and expense of producing books and similar materials for blind people. One copy is marked for the attention of Lord John Russell [10], Secretary of State for the Home Department, and the other for Fox Maule [11], the Under-Secretary. However, Treasury records [12] reveal that Mr Alston’s appeal to the government was successful. The Glasgow Asylum was awarded a grant of £400 towards printing bibles in raised type.

Our Donor continued the family’s interest in the needs of the blind and was one of the managers of the Blind Asylum. Furthermore, he was a director of the Glasgow Training Home for Nurses and of Glasgow Day Nurseries Association.  He was also a member of the Juvenile Delinquency Board. On his business side, he was head of the firm of Alston Brothers of Tobacco Bonded Stores in James Watt Street, Glasgow.  These stores were sold in 1903.

Apart from being a very active man in civic affairs, he was also interested in cultural affairs. He travelled widely with his wife, Bertine Amelia, to Europe, Egypt and India. He was an art collector and specialised in The Hague School, Whistler and the Glasgow Boys. He was a member of the Royal Glasgow Institute of Art and he often generously lent from his art collection to many exhibitions, including the 1901 Glasgow Exhibition.  One of his collection Whistler’s “The Shell”, which was among his loan to the exhibition was considered to be sensuous. This particular work by Whistler was bought in 1892 from the Glaswegian art dealer Alexander Reid. More reference to “The Shell” may be found in [13].


Fairy Lilian by D. Y. Cameron RSA
Fairy Lilian by D Y Cameron RSA © CSG GIC Glasgow Museums Collection. (www.artuk.org)

Our donor, James Carfrae Alston, died on 20th November 1913, at Dowanhill, Glasgow [14]. The following obituary note appeared in the Glasgow Herald of 21st November 1913:

Obituary   21st November 1913 Glasgow Herald.

Alston- at 9 Lorraine Gardens Dowanhill, Glasgow on 20th November 1913 James C. Alston aged 78 eldest son of Thomas  C. Alston- Funeral on Saturday 22nd November from Westbourne  Church,  Funeral service at 2.pm.

Officers who served in the 1st Lanarkshire Rifles volunteer corp., Officers of the Boys Brigade and those associated with Mr Alston in other departments of public work are invited to be present at the service.

No uniforms will be worn. Personnel who wish to attend, personal friends who desire to be present at the interment at the Western Necropolis will send their names to Messrs Wylie and Lockhead, 96 Union Street.  Carriages from St. Georges Church till 3.30p.m.  No followers by special request.


[1] James Carfrae Alston’s Death Certificate,


[2] 1881 Scotland’s Census (ibid.).

[3] Death Certificate of Mrs Amelia Carfrae Alston, 1908 (ibid.)

[4] Valuation Roll for the City and Royal Burgh of Glasgow for the year 1895-1896 (ibid.)

[5] Scotland’s Volunteer Movement 1859:

London Gazette NOVEMBER 1, 1870. 4691:


[6] Records of the Scottish Volunteer Force 1859-1908:


[7] Iain Hutchison, Department of History, University of Strathclyde, https://www.celcis.org/files/5514/3878/4774/early_institutional_provision.pdf

[8] Alston, J. “Statements of the education, employments, and international arrangements, adopted at the Asylum for the Blind”, (1842, 1895 reprint), pub. Glasgow. London: Sampson. Low, Marston.

[9] The National Archives.


[10] Lord John Russell


[11] Fox Maule


[12] The National Archives, op.cit.

[13] J.M. Whistler The Shell


[14] Death Certificate, op.cit.