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William Robertson was born in Paisley, Scotland in 1832 and was educated at the Old Burgh and Blysthwood Testimonial Schools in Renfrew. He left school to work as an office boy at Henderson Brothers, iron founders. By 1851, however, he had established a carrying business bringing coal and pig iron to Renfrew, with an office at Bowling on the Clyde. His first venture as a ship owner was the purchase of the scow or barge, Ellen, in about 1852, which plied on the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Clyde Estuary. This was followed by the lighter, Gem, in 1854, the Ruby in 1855 and the Pearl in 1859. He expanded his fleet rapidly, and by 1914, owned 49 ships. In addition to running his own ships, Robertson also acted as an agent.
Robertson also held a number of public offices. From 1892 to 1917, he was a member, and one time chairman, of the Clyde Navigation Trust. In 1907, he was made an honorary burgess of the Royal Burgh of Renfrew and, in 1900, he was deacon of the Incorporation of Hammermen of Glasgow. He died in March 1919.