Beth Squires from whisky brokers and consultants, Mark Littler, takes us through the history of Bessie Williamson, the woman behind Laphroaig distillery.
Laphroaig distillery on the south coast of Islay is a rugged and tranquil place with a long and fascinating history.
Its modern success is the work of many employees over the years, who have helped to garner Laphroaig’s cult following.
One of the most notable people to work at Laphroaig is Bessie Williamson, who played an indispensable role in shaping the distillery into what it is today while at the same time blazing a trail for future women in the industry.
Bessie Williamson’s Early Life
Born Elizabeth Leitch Williamson in 1910, Bessie lived with her parents Agnes and John in Glasgow.
Her father, John Williamson, sadly died in France in the last year of World War I, leaving Bessie’s mother a widow.
As a young adult, Bessie attended the University of Glasgow where she hoped to train as a teacher.
She was not academic in the traditional sense, and it took her five years to complete a three year course, between 1927 and 1932.
Following her graduation, Bessie needed to find work. As such, her uncle William Paton gave her a job working as a clerical assistant for a restaurant company.
Bessie hoped to put herself through teacher training college using the funds from this job. She soon added clerical and secretarial skills to her repertoire.
The Move To Islay
In 1933, Bessie and her best friend Margaret Prentice found summer jobs as shorthand typists at the Laphroaig distillery on Islay.
Bessie was excited to visit the island. In fact, once she arrived on Islay she would call it her home for the rest of her life.
Bessie never returned to teaching training, and happily settled into island life.
At the time Laphroaig was owned and directed by Ian Hunter, the owner of D Johnston & Co, which he purchased in 1927.
Though Hunter had a reputation as a bit of a grouch, he seemed to have a soft spot for Bessie, and soon enough she had been given the responsibility of managing the office at Laphroaig.
Hunter and Williamson had a strong friendship, and Bessie became one of Ian Hunter’s most trusted confidants.
As such, when he suffered a stroke and became wheelchair bound in 1938, it seemed only fit that Bessie was trusted to take over distributions to the USA.
The US market was an important one to tap; following the end of prohibition and The Great Depression, the USA had something of a hankering for Scotch whisky.
Laphroaig In World War II
When the Second World War broke out in 1939 it presented a challenge to many Scotch whisky distilleries including Laphroaig.
The distillery ceased production in 1940 in order to help with the war effort.
Laphroaig was an RAF base, an ammunition store, and even housed the First Company of Royal Engineers following the battle of Dunkirk.
Despite the horrible situation presented by the war, Laphroaig’s sales continued to increase thanks to a great appetite for whisky amongst British soldiers.
As such, the economic stability of Laphroaig was not called into question. Laphroaig recommenced production in 1945.
Bessie Takes Control
Upon the reopening of Laphroaig in 1945 Bessie Williamson was given control of the distillery by Ian Hunter.
D. Johnston & Co. became a limited company in 1950 and Bessie was appointed as company secretary.
Four years later, Ian Hunter passed away following a 46 year career at Laphroaig. He left control of the distillery, Ardenistiel House, and the island of Texa to his favourite employee: Bessie.
It was also stipulated in his will that £5,000 was to be invested in the distillery business.
Bessie would oversee business affairs and Tom Anderson, a long-standing brewer at Laphroaig, would oversee day-to-day whisky production.
The Age of Bessie
Bessie took control of Laphroaig at a turning point for the whisky industry.
The 1960s saw a huge boost in the popularity of blended whisky.
The Scotch Whisky Association were fascinated by the prosperity of Laphroaig under the management of a woman, and so they invited her on a North American tour to promote the interests of Scotch whisky overseas.
It was on this trip that Bessie met her husband, Canadian radio star Wishart Campbell who, ironically, had family ties to Islay. They married in 1961.
Following Bessie’s return, a documentary crew came to create a film about life on Islay in the 1960s.
The island’s rich distilling history and economy were featured in this film, along with Bessie herself.
Referring to the popularity of Laphroaig she said: ‘We can’t supply the demand that we have for our whisky.’
At the time, Islay was exporting £8 million worth of untaxed whisky to the mainland every year for blending and bottling. This is equivalent to over £210 million in 2023.
The documentary team were equally astounded by the fact that the managing director of Laphroaig was a woman.
Throughout history, whisky has typically been a male dominated industry and it remains so to this day.
However, thanks to people like Bessie, women now have much more of a place in the industry.
The narrator of the 1960s documentary notes this by saying: ‘W]hisky is no longer a drink for men only, but you would expect its production to be an entirely male preserve.
‘Mrs. Campbell proves you wrong.’
Bessie’s Community Advocacy
Not only was Bessie Williamson a beloved figure in the whisky industry, she was also treasured by the locals on Islay thanks to her community advocacy and care for the people of the island.
Her charitable efforts included organising a variety of events for the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute in order to raise money for local causes.
She chaired the Kildalton branch of the institute and offered up the community hall at the distillery for meetings.
In 1963, she was awarded the Order of St. John for her charitable work.
In the late 1960s Bessie began to understand that Laphroaig, in order to continue growing and prospering, would need major upgrades.
Such upgrades would not be possible without a good amount of investment in the distillery.
So, in 1962, Bessie sold a third of Laphroaig to a company named Seager Evans & Co. which was a distiller and blending company founded in London in 1805.
In 1967, Seager Evans bought out the whole of Laphroaig.
Bessie Williamson continued to serve as managing director until her retirement in 1972.
The same year the number of stills at Laphroaig was increased to seven – a sign of the innovation and modernisation yet to come.
Thank You Bessie
In a male dominated industry Bessie Williams was a legendary figure who showed the world that a woman could (and should) run a Scotch whisky distillery.
Under her stewardship Laphroaig blossomed to become a global brand, and Bessie’s early advocacy for single malts helped establish a market for Laphroaig long before single malt whisky became the norm.
Laphroaig is now an Islay institution and produces more whisky than the other famous distilleries on the island such as Bowmore and Ardbeg.
In 2019 Laphroaig paid tribute to Bessie with the release of the Laphroaig 25 Year Old The Bessie Williamson Story.
The distillery stands proud because of Bessie’s efforts and tenacity, which proved that whisky is not just ‘a man’s world’.
Mark Littler is an independent whisky broker, market analyst and consultant with over a decade of experience in the industry. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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