Quarrier was born in Greenock in 1829 and his father, also William Quarrier was a ship’s carpenter who died of cholera in Quebec when his son was three years old.
Mother and son moved to Glasgow which was a city growing wealthy through its industry, but life in the slums was hard. Mrs Quarrier took in sewing to make ends meet while her son began work when he was six, putting the heads on pins and then as an apprentice shoemaker at the age of seven. He later recalled:
Thirty five years ago, when a boy of about eight years of age, I stood in the High Street of Glasgow, barefooted, bareheaded, cold and hungry, having tasted no food for a day and a half.
And as I gazed at each passer-by, wondering why they did not help such as I, a thought passed through my mind that I would not do such as they, when I would get the means to help others.
He was to get that opportunity as he prospered. At the age of seventeen, Quarrier went to work for one Mrs Hunter as a shoemaker and through hard work he built up the business until it had three shops in the city. He also became a committed Christian, attending the Blackfriars Baptist Church, and married his employer’s daughter, Isabella.
Travelling home one cold November night, Quarrier came across a matchseller who was crying because his meagre goods had been stolen. He took pity on the boy and gave him some money, but it brought back memories of his own childhood and he decided that something should be done about it.
When he visited London, he had seen the shoe blacks, young boys who earned a living by polishing shoes. Quarrier wrote to the Glasgow Herald proposing something similar and, as a result, a meeting was arranged and some thirty boys turned up who were to become Glasgow’s first self-help Shoeblack Brigade.
The shoeblacks were followed by the News Brigade and Parcels Brigade which provided regular employment for the young and Quarrier began to dispose of his business interests so that he could dedicate more of time and money in helping the poor.
Other Quarrier schemes included a Widows Help Society, a Street Boys Lodging House or Night Refuge, and a mission for abandoned women, thieves and discharged criminals. And in April 1876, he bought forty acres of land at Kilmacolm, Renfrewshire, which became the Orphan Homes of Scotland, opening in September 1878.
By the 1890s ‘Quarrier’s Village’, as it became known, was home to 34 cottages, a school, a church and a fire station. The village was home to up to 1,500 children at any one time, each cottage housing up to thirty children under the care of a ‘father and mother’ where they were taught self-reliance and were well educated in the village school.
Quarrier helped orphaned children start new lives overseas as part of the British child relocation programme, sending more than 7,000 young people to Canada where they were employed as farm labourers.
Quarrier died in October 1903, but the work he began continues and today the Quarriers charity provides a wide range of social care, and all down to a man who knew what it was like to be cold and hungry.