Born in Kilwinning in 1814, John McGavin trained for service in the Church, but, never having had good health, abandoned his studies. About 1832, he started work for George Gardner, grain merchant in Glasgow, which led to him forming a partnership with his brother-in-law in the new firm of Harvie and McGavin.
In 1846, he became active in speaking out in favour of the Temperance movement, becoming chairman of the Scottish Temperance League. He was a keen patron of the arts and provided substantial funding when the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts moved to new premises in 1880. He had developed a keen interest in the expansion of the railways, and became something of an authority. He served on several railway committees, and at the time of his death, was chairman of the Forth and Clyde Junction Company. At that time he was also a director of the Chamber of Commerce.
John McGavin died suddenly whilst walking along the banks of the Garnock on the evening of 12 July 1881. As well as his will leavening legacies for religious and charitable purposes, £7,000 was allocated for the formation of a public park in Kilwinning. This park was formally gifted to the town on 20th September, 1884.
On his death, he was described as "modest and unaspiring, gentle and generous during his life, munificent in the bequests which he made in anticipation of his death, the benign influence of such a man cannot be estimated, and it will never be known".
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