By David Armstrong
How a fascination with a portrait of a âwoman in blackâ in a Moscow hotel led to uncovering the stirring story of how a few Scots and English families living in Moscow led a dramatic, and very British revolution in the Russian textile industry.
I had been in the habit of spending my frequent Moscow week long visits at the Marco Polo Presnya Hotel for over a year when I started to take a closer interest in a ladyâs portrait which hangs in the hotel lobby and in a number of the guest rooms. I experienced the increasingly strong sensation that this lady had a story to tell. The hotelâs guest handbook identified her as a Scottish widow, Jane McGill, as a result of whose generosity the original building had been constructed as a residence for British governesses before the Revolution. After my initial enquiries about the picture at the hotel reception failed to bear fruit, I was particularly keen as a Scot to try to find out more about this mystery benefactress, and about the early history of the building, which still bears a frieze above the entrance with the words âSt Andrewâs Houseâ, and the crests of Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales.
My research into the painting disappointingly revealed that the charming subject was in fact a copy of an original painting of a 19th century French countess, and for a while I began to despair, but after being invited to attend a music concert there, I turned my attention to St Andrewâs Church in Voznesensky Pereulok, where the trail began to warm up, as it became clear that this was the undoubted hub of the pre-revolution British community. After nearly six months following up various sources in Moscow and the UK, with the support and encouragement of the British Chaplain, Clive Fairclough, the picture gradually took shape of how Janeâs husband Robert McGill (they were married in Edinburgh in 1862, Janeâs maiden name was Hastie) and his business associate, a German entrepreneur named Ludwig Knoop, became pioneers in bringing the advanced Lancashire cotton manufacturing technology to Russia, first working with Savva Morozov at his Nikolsk mill in Orekhovo-Zuyevo, which led to them effectively becoming the exclusive intermediaries for Russia – planning, constructing, equipping and even funding over 200 mills both in the Moscow area and across the country, eventually accounting for over a third of the entire Russian factory workforce by the turn of the century, and helping Russia become the worldâs 4th cotton textile manufacturer all within 4 decades.
As my own great grandfather had been a prominent 20th century cotton wholesaler in Glasgow, these discoveries whetted my appetite to dig deeper. It turned out that the McGill family also came from Glasgow, with a background in spinning and weaving. Robertâs father and uncle had moved to Moscow in the 1840âs as mill managers, when Sir Robert Peelâs government repealed the punitive export controls on British cotton manufacturing technology. Robert himself was sent to Lancashire as a young man to learn about the latest technology with De Jersey of Manchester and Platts of Oldham, the leading manufacturer of cotton technology, and this is where he met German entrepreneur Ludwig Knoop, who had spotted the opportunity, and made his first foray into the Russia textile market at the early age of 19. They became partners, and when Knoop moved back from Moscow to Germany in 1860, Robert took his place as the face of British cotton mill technology.
In contrast , Janeâs family originally came from the Scottish Border country, in the small town of Yetholm, Roxburghshire. Her uncle was a well-known preacher in the Free Church of Scotland.
However the Hastie family had a long association with Russia (Jane and her 8 siblings were all born in Moscow and baptized at the British Chapel in Voznesenskaya) which stretched back to the 18th Century, when William Hastie (Vasily Geste in Russian) had risen to become a leading national urban planner under Catherine the Great, and her fatherâs family were also coachmakers in India and Russia. After the wedding Robert and Jane set up house in Spiridonovka in Moscow, taking as Russian names Roman Romanovich and Evgenia Ivanovna MakGill.
Lancashire was the powerhouse of the cotton industry in Britain, with famous names like Arkwright, Hargreaves, Kay and Cartwright developing the cotton manufacturing technology which facilitated the Industrial Revolution. Platts of Oldham were the leading suppliers of manufacturing equipment, and during the course of the 19th Century, Russia rapidly became their largest export market. Savva Morozov (grandson of the founder of Nikolsk) himself came to study in Manchester in the 1880s after completing his course at Cambridge. A few Lancashire families, like the Charnocks (who introduced football to their Russian workforce to reduce alcoholism) and the Hodsons, joined the McGills in migrating to Russia in the mid 19th Century. All became prominent members of the St Andrews Church community in Moscow, along with Messrs Muir & Merrilees (Scots who built the prestigious department store later to become TsUM), and the Smiths, also from Glasgow) of the Presnya boiler works.
After Robertâs death in 1893, his widow Jane began to make a series of generous gifts to the British church, community and the wider Moscow community. In 1894, a new residence for the Chaplain was opened which she dedicated to Robert, who had been very active in church life âhe was the principal donor of funds to construct the present church opened in 1885. In 1902, she funded an almshouse for widows and orphans at 6 Gospitalnaya Ulitsa, and in 1904, St Andrews House itself in Spiridonevsky Pereulok (now Marco Polo hotel), built by the British architect William Walcott, who was also engaged as architect for the Metropol Hotel at this time.
There was great demand for rooms at St Andrewâs right up to the time of the 1917 Revolution, after which the building was seized by the Bolsheviks.
Jane stayed on the house in Ulitsa Spiridonovka right up to the revolution, with her brother Charles and sister Rachel taking up residence in the neighbouring house on one side, and Savva Morozovâs imposing gothic mansion being constructed during 1894-8 after Robertâs death on her other side. The latter mansion is said to have provided the inspiration for Margaritaâs house in Bulgakovâs Master and Margarita.
Both Jane and Charles tragically perished in the aftermath of the revolution, when their houses were requisitioned and they were evicted in the middle of the particularly harsh winter of 1919. However Janeâs younger sister Rachel managed to get on the last train out of Moscow to St. Petersburg and Finland, and I stumbled on the passenger manifest for a small British steamer called the âTagusâ which carried her and the last of the âRefugees from Moscowâ to safety in Southampton in 1920.
I recently discovered an early photograph taken in 1908 of the original St Andrewâs House in the London Metropolitan Archives, and in a unique ceremony at the Marco Polo on June 13, a framed copy was presented by the Chaplain Clive Fairclough to the hotelâs general director, following a short service, celebration and exhibition about the McGill story.
David Armstrong is a business development director with Guidewire Software, based in Moscow and London.