Alexander Cowan

1775 - 1859

Paper-maker and philanthropist. Cowan was born at Valleyfield (Penicuik), the son of Charles Cowan (1735 - 1805), who bought Valleyfield Mill. The young Cowan was educated at the University of Edinburgh and joined his father's business, extending it and improving the paper-making process. Between 1811 and 1814, Valleyfield was taken over by the Government to accommodate French prisoners and Cowan moved his family to St. John's Street in Edinburgh's Old Town, although continued to manufacture paper at his other mills.

By 1821, Cowan had introduced a paper-making machine at Valleyfield, only the second in Scotland. His empire grew to include a shop and office in Edinburgh, a London office and a network of agents overseas.

His products were of the highest quality, providing for stationery and paper for banknotes and books. He was a friend and business associate of the publisher Archibald Constable (1774 - 1827).

Cowan was a cousin and friend of Rev. Dr. Thomas Chalmers (1780 - 1847), a leader of the Free Church. His Christian principles ensured he became a noted philanthropist, erecting the French Prisoners' Monument to commemorate the prisoners who died at Valleyfield. He also set up a free library in Penicuik, improved the town's water supply and worked to relieve poverty in Edinburgh's Old Town. He left money to build the Cowan Institute in Penicuik, a project eventually executed by his son, Sir John Cowan (1814 - 1900), who was a Lord Provost of Edinburgh. Another son was the politician James Cowan (1816-95).

He lies buried in Grange Cemetery, alongside his second wife.

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