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Issue 28 - Top of the class

Whisky Magazine Issue 28
January 2003


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Top of the class

Tom Bruce-Gardyne examines the life and times of the determined, self-made whisky pioneer William Teacher

Of all the founding fathers of the Scotch whisky industry, there is something endearingly down-to-earth about William Teacher. In a photograph taken shortly before his death in 1876, he stands square-on to the camera, wrapped in a thick Astrakhan coat and hat, his eyes peeking out above a magnificent beard with a look of ferocious determination. In contrast to that strutting dandy, Johnnie Walker, with his cheeky grin and flapping tails, there was absolutely nothing frivolous about William Teacher.

His story is a classic tale of rags to riches – the self-made man who seized his chance with both hands and never let go. With his father ‘lost at sea', William joined his mother at a spinning mill near Glasgow aged seven, after just six months at the village school. A few years later, he became an apprentice to a local tailor, whose wife read to him while he stitched in the workroom. Though it proved to be a brief respite and he was soon back at the cotton mill, it gave him a glimpse of a better life.

Back on the shop floor, in a demonstration over pay and conditions, William discovered how brutal the bosses could be when they ordered the two ringleaders to be strung up. William escaped with a warning as he was under 18. The incident left a deep impression, and though he became one of the bosses himself rather than a hot-headed radical, he was a lifelong utilitarian and a man of cast-iron principles.

His chance came when a Mrs McDonald needed a man to help in her grocery s...

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