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The History of Glasgow
Volume 3 - Chapter XVIII - Colonel William Macdowall and the West India Trade


CAMPBELL of Shawfield never returned to his famous mansion at the West Port. There might have been another malt-tax riot, and he might not have had timely warning on a second occasion. While he faded out of the picture, so far as the intimate life of Glasgow was concerned, and was known only as an insistent creditor demanding his pound of flesh, his place was taken by a personage of very different sort.

Colonel William Macdowall was a cadet of an ancient family, the Macdowalls of Garthland in Galloway. He and a fellow-officer, Major James Milliken, while quartered in the island of St. Kitts, in the West Indies, had wooed and won two heiresses of the island, owners of great sugar estates, the Widow Tovie, whose maiden name had been Mary Stephen, and her daughter Mary. Returning to Scotland, Colonel Macdowall in 1727 bought the fine Renfrewshire estate of Castle Semple, for centuries the home of the Barons Sempill, and six years later Major Milliken bought the neighbouring estate of Johnston, to which he gave his own name of Milliken, its name to-day. In the same year Macdowall acquired from Daniel Campbell the great Shawfield Mansion in the Trongate of Glasgow, and with his fellow-officer of previous years settled to business in the city.

It has almost been forgotten that the sugar trade of Glasgow was at least as old as the tobacco trade. According to Cromwell's commissioner, Tucker, writing in 1651, certain Glasgow merchants had ventured their ships as far as Barbadoes, Britain's oldest sugar colony, but had met with such losses through having to return late in the year that they had ceased to make the attempt. The sugar refiners of Glasgow—there were ultimately at least four "sugar houses," or refineries, in the city—were forced to depend for their supplies of the raw material upon Bristol, at that time the chief sugar port of Europe.
By the arrival of the sugar heiresses and their husbands from St. Kitts all this was changed. The ships with their sugar cargoes came into Port-Glasgow, and Glasgow itself became the market for their sugar and rum. Thus the Glasgow "sugar houses" got their supplies direct from the sugar estates, and thus was founded in reality the great West India trade of the city. [Brown, History of Glasgow, ii. 332.]

The story of the great business founded by the two exoflicers forms one of the most brilliant and tragic romances of Glasgow trade. The two founded the West India house of James Milliken & Co., out of which, in alliance with the Houstons of Jordanhill and the Raes of Little Govan, grew the great West India business of Alexander Houston & Co. For three-quarters of a century the firm carried on an immense trade, owning ships and sugar estates on a vast scale, and when the crash came, in 1795, it was the greatest failure Glasgow had ever seen. [Curiosities of Glasgow Citizenship, p. 223.] That, however, was in the time of the grandsons of Colonel Macdowall.

Meanwhile, till his death in 1748, the Colonel continued to inhabit the finest residence in Glasgow, and, with his fine presence, was probably the most notable figure in town. Owner of a noble mansion in the country and a rich estate in the West Indies, with ships on the seas and cargoes of sugar and rum constantly coming home, he had also the social prestige of his army rank and his long family descent, and must have held the regard of everyone as he stepped, with his tall gold-headed cane, along the causeway. Moreover, his coming had opened up new prospects of wealth for the city.

Of his partner, Major Milliken, less has been said. He had, perhaps happily, no son to succeed him, so his fortune escaped disaster when the crash came. His daughter and heiress married General William Napier, a lineal descendant of the inventor of logarithms, and became the ancestress of the baronet house of Milliken Napier, which has given several distinguished soldiers to the service of the crown.

Meanwhile, in the third decade of the century, in which Colonel Macdowall and Major Milliken came to the city, Glasgow saw the introduction and development of more than one industry. John Gibson, in his History of Glasgow, notes that the spirit of manufacture was raised in the city between the years 1725 and 1750, and attributes it to the needs of the commerce with America. From about that time, at any rate, many new industries dated their origin.

There had formerly, for example, been a "pighouse," or pottery, outside the Gallowgate port, for supplying the citizens with earthenware. For some reason it had become derelict, when William Marshall in 1722 obtained permission to build "a little house" on the same spot, and proceed again with the making of "pigs, potts, and other earthen vessell." Evidently the enterprise succeeded, for the "Pighouse" remained one of the noted features of the city for many a day. [Burgh Records, 8th May, 1722.]

A kindred enterprise, the making of green glass bottles, was started in 1730, and its factory, the "Bottlehouse lum," on the spot where the Customhouse now stands, appears in many early prints of the city. [Cleland, Annals, p. 371.]

Again, the manufacture of cotton and linen handkerchiefs was evidently an established business, affording employment to a considerable number of persons, when it was threatened with disaster by the action of certain of the manufacturers. These individuals sought to increase their profits by substituting "logwood or false colours" for the more expensive indigo dye, and by making the handkerchiefs "shorter in length than they are in breadth." To save the credit and prosperity of the industry the city fathers stepped in, and ordered that the handkerchiefs must be woven square and of certain standard sizes, and that no logwood or false colours must be used in the dyeing, under pain of fine and imprisonment. [Burgh Records, 11th March, 1726.]

A further development of the linen manufacture took place when William and Andrew Gray proceeded to establish a cambric factory and a bleaching field in the outskirts of the city. In their application to the Town Council for the feu-right of an additional piece of outfield on the Provan estate they mentioned that for several years they had been desirous of improving the manufacture of linen, had been at great expense in travelling through various parts of Europe to obtain "the art and mysterie of whytening linen cloath," and had purchased "all the materials, machines, and instruments necessary thereto." The business thus started was the beginning of the great bleaching and printing industry which has been one of the staple enterprises of Glasgow and its neighbourhood from that day till this, and out of which at a later period grew the vast chemical manufactures of the city. [Ibid. 30th Nov. 1727. The art of flax-spinning and cambric-making was considered so important that the commissioners and trustees for improving fisheries and manufactures in Scotland gave an annual grant of £30 sterling for the teaching of it, and a special girls' school for the purpose was established in Glasgow, with the widow of the minister of Cardross as its mistress. (Ibid. 21st Oct. 1728; 18th March, 1729.)]

Also, in the year in which Colonel Macdowall settled in the city, and perhaps in consequence of that event, a new sugar-house, or refinery, Glasgow's fourth, was established in King Street. The value of land in the heart of the city at that time may be judged from the fact that for the site, at the corner of King Street and Prince's Street, the proprietors of the sugar-house paid the town's treasurer £iioo Scots. As the ground measured just 1100 square ells, the price was exactly £1 Scots, or 1s. 8d. sterling, per square ell. [Burgh Records, 10th March, 1727.]

Four years afterwards appeared the first sign of the great iron industry upon which so much of the prosperity of modern Glasgow was to be built. So far the city had imported all its iron ware, first through Leith, and later directly from overseas. The first sign of a mighty coming change was the petition of "William Telfer, hammerman, craving a piece of the Skinners' Green for iron founding and making of pots." [Ibid. 13th May, 1731.] In the following year, according to Gibson, ironmongery began to be made for export by several gentlemen, who took the name of the Smithfield Company.

Another industry introduced at that time had something of the element of romance in its inception. The making of incle, or linen tape, was begun in the city in 1732. Till that time the Dutch, who had machines capable of turning out many hundreds of yards per day, were almost solely in possession of the industry. Mr. Hervey, however, a Glasgow merchant, paid a visit to Haarlem, and at considerable risk managed to smuggle two of the incle looms out of the country. He also brought over one of the Dutch workmen, and set up a successful factory which gave the name of Incle Street to the thoroughfare afterwards renamed Montrose Street in honour of the city's ducal family which had its "lodging" in the Drygate. [Gibson's History of Glasgow, p. 241; Cleland's Annals, p. 375. A similar proceeding was followed by the sister-in-law of Fletcher of Saltoun in introducing the Dutch method of making pot barley to Scotland.]

On the other hand, curiously enough, the "soaperie," or soap factory, which had been established in Candleriggs in 1685 by Sir George Maxwell and his partners, in connection with their famous Whale-fishing Company, appears to have been finding itself in difficulties. As its payment of feu-duty had fallen into arrears, the town's collectors poinded sixty-six firkins of its soap. Thereupon the partners appealed to the Town Council, pleaded their great losses, and asked for terms. The city fathers duly considered the matter, and, no doubt anxious to preserve a useful industry in the city, informed the soap-makers that if they would pay £60 sterling within two months, the sum would be accepted as payment, not only of the feu-duties then in arrears, but of all future feu-duties as well. As the four partners were all substantial persons the sixty pounds were paid, the soaperie was freed from feu-duty, and the sixty-six firkins were duly returned to the factory. The industry was carried on till 1777, when the factory was burned. [Ibid. 10th March, 18th May, 1727; Cleland's Annals, p. 367.]

While these developments were going on, and additional foundations were being laid for the building of the future greatness of Glasgow, the life of the city was not without its sadder and darker side. From the Correction House, which had been established in the interest of public morals, there were shipments of women to the plantations in Virginia. The sum paid to merchants for the transportation of these unfortunates was no more than £1 sterling per head, so the merchants must have made their account with the sums obtainable from the planters, and the women were virtually sold into slavery for a longer or shorter period of years. [Burgh Records, 21st Sept. 1727; 5th May, 1729.]

The problem also of providing for the poor of the city in some regular and comprehensive way now forced itself upon the attention of the citizens. For centuries the city had possessed "hospitals," or almshouses, like Blackadder's and Bishop Muirhead's and George Hutcheson's, founded by private individuals, for the shelter of the aged poor, while the I ierchants House and the Trades House looked after their own decayed members in quite efficient fashion. The Town Council also had tried to rid itself of common beggars by banishing them from the city. There was now, however, coming into evidence in the community a growing number of poor for whom no provision was available, individuals who through inefficiency or ill-fortune or ill-doing had become derelict and unable to find a living for themselves. The first suggestion of an organised system to take charge of these people was made by the General Session of the city churches. It suggested to the Town Council the erection of a "workhouse or manufactory" for maintaining and employing the poor. The Town Council consulted the Merchants House and the Trades House, and stated the purpose in somewhat stronger language to be "for employing and entertaining the poor and restraining the scandalous practice of idle begging, and encouraging of virtue and industry." Voluntary contributions were asked for from well-disposed persons, and enough money was obtained from this source for the building of the workhouse. For its maintenance the Town Council guaranteed a yearly sum of £140 sterling, the Merchants House £60, the Trades House £120, and the General Session £250. Directors were appointed to represent each of the four bodies, and the building, known as the Town's Hospital, was duly erected near the eastern end of the Old Green. [Burgh Records, 2nd Dec. 1729; 7th Jan., 28th Feb. 1731; 4th Jan. 1732.]

The building of this "hospital" marked a new departure in public policy with regard to the poor. It committed the citizens definitely to the responsibility of providing for the derelicts of the community, and was the beginning of one of the "social services" which have grown to such enormous proportions at the present day. It is worth noting that the directors were instructed "to inspect not only the poor's work and expense, but also their morals, and see to the education of the young, that they be taught to read, and instructed in the principles of Christianity." The directors appear to have carried out their work faithfully, and the institution to have been a model of its kind, mentioned with high commendation in all descriptions of the city. Writing of it in 1736, McUre says: "The building is of modern fashion, and exceeds that of any kind in Europe, and admired by strangers," who say that "anything of that kind at Rome or Venice comes not up to the magnificence of this building, when it is finished, resembling more a palace than a habitation for necessitous old people and children."

In more instances than one, however, the developments of Glasgow at that time strike a curiously modern note. A distinct break with mediaeval customs was made, for example, when in 1726 the traditional proceedings of the "land meithing day" were given up. From time immemorial, on the first Tuesday of June, this perambulation of the town's marches had taken place, and had afforded an opportunity for popular sport and enjoyment such as is afforded by the riding of the marches in Hawick and other Border towns at the present day. Of late, however, the ceremony had been made the occasion, on the day itself, and the night before, of a number of abuses committed by boys, servants, and others, amounting to a disturbance of the peace, while a number of undesirable customs had crept into the observance. The Town Council therefore ordered that the land meithing should cease, and that the dean of guild and the deacon-convener, with some members of their houses, should go round the marches by themselves some time in May, and make a report to the magistrates on the first Tuesday in June, on the occasion of the roup of the town's tolls and customs. [Ibid. 12th April, 1726.] In this way an ancient occasion of merrymaking, which had survived the severities of the Reformation and the austerities of the Covenant, was brought to an end. The spirit of the proceedings may probably be gathered from the descriptions of similar mediaeval junketings at Falkland and Peebles furnished in King James V's well-known poems, Christ's Kirk on the Green and Peebles to the Play.

Another touch of modernity is shown by a proposal made by certain of the heritors or house-owners of the city. The proposal was for a mutual insurance of houses and tenements against damage by fire. There is said to have been something of the nature of a primitive fire insurance practised among the early Anglo-Saxon guilds; but this suggestion in the year 1726 is the first appearance of the device in the annals of Glasgow. In a spirit of enlightenment the Town Council agreed to support the proposal, and empowered the Provost to sign the compact, and insure the corner house recently built by the Council itself opposite the Tolbooth at the cross. [Burgh Records, 12th April, 1726. See also infra chap. xxvi.]

Again, the growth of a modern regard for town-planning and other amenities was shown by an order that no building should be done within the city boundaries without licence from the Dean of Guild; [Ibid. 21st Oct. 1728.] and a growing appreciation of the needs of public health was evident in the fact that, beginning in 1729, the numerous open draw-wells which supplied the citizens with water, and which had from time immemorial been worked with chain and bucket, were one after another covered in, and provided with hand-pumps. [Ibid. 26th Sept. 1729 et seq.]

But amid these changes the city fathers did not cease to show their shrewd appreciation of the unchanging facts of human nature. Experience had apparently taught them that personal interest was a valuable incentive to efficiency of management, and again and again the conviction was turned to account. To prevent evasion of "thirlage" or payment of certain dues in Port Glasgow, for example, these dues were rouped for a definite payment to a private tacksman, and even the seat rents of the churches were farmed out to a private collector in the same way. These individuals, it may be taken for granted, made sure that dues and rents were promptly and fully paid. [Burgh Records, 11th Dec. 1725; 29th April, 13th May, 1731. This farming out of the thirlage took place, of course, before the farming out of the whole of the city's interest in Port-Glasgow described in Chapter XVII.] The transaction applied to Port-Glasgow the practice which had long been followed in Glasgow itself, of farming out taxes like the bridge toll, the dues of the tron, and the thirlage of the meal mills, and which had apparently been found a satisfactory policy.


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