A biography of the Aberdeen silversmith, John Ewen, written in 1840:
John Ewen, Jeweller, was one of those very few individuals who, from indefatigable industry, raised himself from the humblest walks of life, not only to ease and comfort, but to comparative affluence. He did more: while he was improving his circumstances by every laudable and honourable means, he at the same time did not neglect to cultivate his mind by application and study; and, being gifted by nature with talents far above mediocrity, although he had reached manhood before he saw the necessity of acquiring knowledge to qualify himself for the enjoyment of good society, yet he attained a degree of eminence in polite literature which fitted him to take a station among the distinguished men of his day, such as the celebrated Dr. Beattie, author of the " Minstrel," Professors Copland of Marischal, Ogilvie of King's College, and many others of equal rank with whom he was on terms of the best confidence and friendship. Added to his industry and talents, Mr. E. had yet other qualifications essentially necessary to enable a man to make a figure in society; he was a man of polished manners–so free, easy, and polite, and so gentlemanly, that it was quite a treat to see how easy he could comport himself when the Duke of Gordon and the Marquis of Huntly, both of whom he had the honour to rank among his numerous and highly respectable circle of acquaintances, or anyother nobleman or gentleman stepped into his shop. As has been already stated, Mr. Ewen was of very humble birth, but of what occupation his father was, we have never accurately ascertained. It has been repeatedly asserted that he was a wandering tinker; be that as it may, there are some individuals yet living who recollect the subject of our inquiry in the capacity of travelling merchant, or packman, going about the country selling buckles, sleeve-buttons, pen-knives, &c. How long he was occupied in this humble calling, we are unable to speak positively; but we have understood that he began to study the Latin language at the age of thirty, about which time, it is natural to suppose, that he entered into settled business. Our first personal recollections of Mr. Ewen are about fifty years ago, when the public mind in this city and neighbourhood was a good deal excited about borough reform. Soon after that, however, the French revolution broke out, and plunged the country into such a state of preparation for warfare, from one end to the other, that all manner of social improvement was lost sight of for many years after, unless, indeed, things for which there was such a necessity as they could not be done without. Among these was a police-bill for this city, in which Mr. Ewen took so active a part, that he has justly been entitled the father of it, like Lord Brougham, or rather Henry Brougham, with the London University. He carried it on his shoulders through all its stages, in opposition to the magistrates; and, after watching its progress, along with John Jamieson, citizen and shipowner, who was his coadjutor on that occasion, together with the able assistance of Mr. Perry of the Morning Chronicle, he at length brought his vessel safely into port, to the great joy of all the liberal citizens.
Mr. Ewen, as a matter of course, was returned by his fellow-citizens a Commissioner of the Police Board, and, if we recollect right, retained his seat at the Board during the remainder of his life, and uniformly devoted a large portion of his time to improve the city, and to add greatly to the comfort of its inhabitants.
Although the time that Mr. Ewen devoted to the public in the management of the affairs of the police, was more than could reasonably be required from any private citizen, yet he had always time to spare to take a part in promoting public and private charity, and his purse was always open to relieve cases of necessity, and his persuasive eloquence ready to induce others to imitate so good an example.
The subject of our biography, although so worthy of imitation by his fellow citizens in his public character, was also possessed of social qualities of a very endearing nature. His inoffensive wit and playful raillery, always guided with sterling good sense, made him a valuable acquisition in the private circle, as well as a leader in public amusements. On several occasions, Mr. E. showed a good deal of tact in the histrionic art, by getting up plays for public charities, in which several of the students from both colleges, as well as other gentlemen citizens, were his coadjutors.
On one of these occasions he spoke a prologue, in his own individual character as a shop tradesman, the introductory lines of which were–
"Once more, ladies and gentlemen,
John Ewen see before you."
These lines were the means of turning the laugh against "our very good friend" on many occasions, and for many years after, from the following circumstance:–Mr. Ewen, from his superabundant politeness, used sometimes to perambulate the streets at night, with a small lantern in his hand for the purpose of escorting ladies home from evening parties. On one of these occasions (it was before the introduction of his Police Bill) in coming up to a party with whom there was a gentleman, from the bad pavement of the street, or the no pavement at all, he slipped his foot and fell down before them; and before he had time to recover himself, the gentleman pronounced the first stanza of the prologue, " Once more, ladies, John Ewen see before you."
Mr. E. was considered a man of excellent taste in literature, and occasionally evinced it by the publication of articles in the public prints, touching borough reform; and although he did not live to see that great and desirable measure accomplished, there was no individual in our community who had the object more at heart, and very few, indeed, if any, could have contributed more powerfully to bring that measure about, than Mr. E. did, which, from his long life, his steady zeal in the cause, his knowledge of the subject, and his tact and talents, enabled him to do. Although the tide of party politics did not then flow so high as it unfortunately does now, even to the separation of, and breaking up family friendships, Mr. E. felt a laudable interest in watching the motions of the State, and sometimes contributed an article to the Morning Chronicle, the then proprietor and editor, Mr. James Perry, being his acquaintance and personal friend. Mr. Perry used sometimes to submit Mr. E.'s articles to Charles Fox, who entertained so high an opinion of them as to declare that he knew not a better political writer in the north. Mr. E. likewise had a good taste in the arts, and long before his death, he had made a tolerably good collection of pictures.
Previous to his death, Mr. Ewen was some time confined to his room, and during that period, with the assistance of his friend, the late David Hutcheon, advocate, he prepared and executed a settlement of his affairs, bequeathing the bulk of his property, amounting to about Â£16,000, for the endowment of an hospital for the maintenance and education of the sons of working tradesmen, similar to the valuable institution in this city, known by the name of Robert Gordon's Hospital. This settlement, however, was disputed at law by an only daughter, who succeeded in ultimately reducing it in the House of Lords, after it had been litigated for some years in the Court of Session in Edinburgh, and the Chancery Courts in London.
The final judgment, I well remember, was pronounced by Lord Windford, better known as Justice Best of the Common Pleas. I was in the House at the time, and can remember the very language used by the learned lord on the occasion, which was anything but complimentary to the deceased. I recollect having remarked at the time to a friend how very erroneous the opinion was that the learned judge had formed of Mr. Ewen's character and motives, and I added that I knew no man living who could have answered to the observations made on the occasion than the worthy individual himself, who could and would have done it in a style of mild but dignified rebuke, after which he could have said with great propriety, "Have not I a right to do what I like with my own?'* The judgment pronounced on Mr. E.'s will took place soon after the Earl of Eldon retired from public life. Had his great talents, calm and discriminating judgment, been brought to bear on the whole case, the decision might have turned otherways.
In making his will, Mr. Ewen's sagacity foresaw what afterwards turned out to be the case. His daughter's husband, who had deserted her many years, soon after returned from America to this country, and took possession of the greater part of the property, although he never cohabited with his wife, and studiously avoided having any intercourse with an only son, the fruits of their marriage.
It had been often rumoured about, by envious individuals, and asserted that Mr. Ewen, with all his pretensions to honour and integrity, and his high bearing as a tradesman, as they termed it, had more than once, nay, repeatedly, compounded with his creditors. The writer of this article was many years acquainted with him, and who was an ardent admirer of his character, was at great pains to ascertain the truth or falsehood of these assertions, and had the satisfaction to find out that they were altogether without foundation. In the first place, he was on the most intimate terms of confidence and friendship with a house in London, with which Mr. E. had been dealing during a period of many years, from the time he had commenced business; and on the question being put to the principal in that concern, (Mr. T., watchmaker), he, in the most unequivocal manner, stated at once, that he, Mr. Ewen, never did pay, or sought to pay, them with less than twenty shillings per pound. Further, this gentleman, Mr. T., was in the habit of coming here on business for many years, and I recollect of his having stated to me that there was a balance of Â£45 that had stood against Mr. E. in their books for a period of years, and that it had never been included in his payments, which were made always regularly by remittances. This omission at length was brought on the carpet, in order that it might be settled somehow. Mr. E. insisted on its having been duly paid, as he could show by his books. This, however, could only be considered presumptive evidence; and Mr. Ewen was fortunate in obtaining, in his banker's hands, the very draft that had been remitted on the occasion in question. The writer of this was a witness to the transaction, and acted as a mutual friend on the occasion, and could not but admire the good feeling and gentlemanly conduct exhibited on either side, in an affair that run so great a risk of being involved in a long and expensive litigation. In the second place, he made inquiry of the late Thomas Turreff, who was many years his shopman, who also bore testimony to the same effect, besides which, he explained the cause that gave rise to the invidious report, by stating that he remembered, on one occasion, of Mr. E. having experienced some difficulties in his business, and at that time he wrote to his creditors requiring an extent of credit, which was readily granted, and the promise on Mr. E.'s part was most honourably fulfilled. Walter Thorn, the historian of Aberdeen, named him, Mr. Ewen, the key to our good city for half a century. His political creed was of the true Whig school; and although he never disguised his opinions when there was occasion to bring them forth, yet they were always so free from asperity, and at the same time supported by sound and reasonable argument, that they never gave offence; and it is somewhat remarkable that in this extensive county there was scarcely a family connected with the landed or mercantile interest who did not number him among its friends, were they either Whig, Tory, or Radical.
This is a rapid sketch of an individual and fellowcitizen, drawn up by one who, from his opportunities and limited endowments, is but ill-qualified for the task; however, should it have the effect of drawing the attention of any gentleman to the subject, whose better acquaintance with the character and capabilities of doing it justice, his object will thereby be obtained. He can only say, in summing up the whole, that Mr. Ewen's chief characteristic was consummate good sense, an endowment, according to an eminent author, the parent and guide of every accomplishment.
Source: The Aberdeen Worthies: or, Sketches of Characters Resident in Aberdeen During the End of the Last and Beginning of the Present Century - William Bannerman - 1840
Obituary of John Ewen who died on the 21st October 1821:
John Ewen, Esq.
At Aberdeen, on the 21st Oct. in the 80th year of his age, John Ewen, Esq. who may truly be said to have been a most useful member of society, and one of the most respectable public characters of that place for more than half a century. His exertions in favour of charitable institutions, and for every individual case of distress that came under his notice, were zealous and unremitting; his conduct as connected with public affairs was strictly disinterested; while his great information on subjects of general interest merited, upon all occasions, the respectful attention of the community. Strangers visiting Aberdeen, who very frequently had introductions to Mr. Ewen, will long recollect his assiduous and polite attention. But his memory deserves farther notice than this short article, announcing his death, can convey. Ample materials will doubtless be found among his correspondence. Though not a native of Aberdeen, he was long regarded as one of her most eminent citizens, and his name will be found associated with every thing there that is benevolent, philanthropic, or public-spirited. The death of such a man occasions a blank in society not to be easily filled up. With the exception of various sums left to the public charities of the city, he bequeathed the bulk of his property (perhaps Â£15,000 to Â£16,000) to the Magistrates and Clergy of Montrose, for the purpose of founding an Hospital, similar to Gordon's Hospital at Aberdeen, for the maintenance and education of Boys.
Source: The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal - 1822
John Ewen was also noted as holding the rank of Captain in the Royal Aberdeen Volunteers.