William McEwan was born in Alloa on the 16th July 1827. His father was a local ship-owner with shares in four vessels. Educated at Alloa Academy he left in 1843 to work for the Alloa Coal Company. He moved to Glasgow in 1845 working as a clerk for £30 p.a. in a firm of merchants. Seeking to improve himself he attended lectures at the University, and used the Mechanics Library and the Commercial Reading Club.
In 1847 he moved to Honley near Huddersfield, where he continued his self-education. A founder member of the Honley Reading Society he also attended the Mechanics Institution. He began to make charitable donations and surprisingly supported the Temperance Movement.
In 1851 he joined the Heriot brewery which was owned by his uncle. Five years later he established his own brewery at Fountainbridge where the world-famous ‘McEwan’s Export’ and ‘McEwan’s India Pale Ale’ were developed. By 1889 his business was worth £100,000.
From 1886-1900 he was MP for Edinburgh Central. The Freedom of the City of Edinburgh was conferred on him and he was made a burgess and guild brother. In 1907, having refused a peerage, he was made a Privy Councillor. Before his death he funded the McEwan Hall and donated a Frans Hals and a Rembrandt to the National Galleries of Scotland.
McEwan was also one of Edinburgh Libraries’ notable benefactors donating “The Frasers of Philorth” by Alexander Fraser, published in 1879 and the “Memorials of the Earls of Haddington” by William Fraser, published in 1889.
William McEwan died in London on the 12 May 1913, aged eighty-five.
Browse more brewing memorabilia in our Heineken exhibition. The breweries covered in this exhibition include William McEwan’s; Robert and WilliamYounger’s; T & J Bernard’s; William Murray’s; and J & J Morison. Once, these breweries were sited all over Edinburgh at Abbeyhill; Canongate; Craigmillar; Fountainbridge and Leith.
Read all the articles in this series of ‘The people who helped shape Edinburgh Libraries’: