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The History of Glasgow
Volume 3 - Chapter XXVI - The First Glasgow Strikes, Trade Unions, Fire Brigade, and Theatres


THE tide of prosperity which was rising in Glasgow as the middle of the eighteenth century drew near was accompanied by a number of domestic happenings of more or less significance.

A movement which may be regarded as the first strike of workmen in the history of the city took place among the journeymen wrights and masons. Past memory of man these workmen had begun their labours at six in the morning, and continued till eight at night in the workshop or seven at housework. They now demanded that they should work for an hour less in the evening without deduction of wage, and several of them had already stopped work until these terms should be agreed to. To this the deacons and masters of the trades concerned replied by ordaining that no freeman should hire a journeyman except upon the time-honoured terms, under a penalty of ten merks for each infringement; also that no freeman should hire another man's servant until he was cleared and quit of his former master. The demand, they considered, was "an imposition, not only on the freemen of the craft, but upon the lieges, and a species of oppression." On this ground the matter was placed before the Magistrates and Town Council, who duly "interponed" their authority, and the first Glasgow strike was at an end. [Burgh Records, 19th March, 1746.]

The trades already incorporated, like the masons and wrights, might be regarded as associations rather of employers than of workmen, but the workmen also presently began to form societies. The first trades union formed upon the modern model in Glasgow was that of the "porters or workmen," who applied to the Magistrates and Council in 1748 for authority to enforce the rules of a society they proposed to set up. The first purpose of the society was the support of decayed members and their widows. They asked power to levy money for this purpose; and, to ensure that they would serve their employers honestly and faithfully, they further asked that no one should be allowed to be employed until he was a member of the society and had given caution for his honesty and good faith. Here again the Town Council "interponed" its authority, and the society of porters and workmen started its career. Each porter was provided with a badge, and unauthorised persons acting as porters were subject to a penalty of five shillings sterling. [Ibid. 2nd April, 1748.] The example was immediately followed by the horse setters or hirers of the city. In this case the rates for hiring horses were included in the constitution of the society. For a horse ridden single within six miles the hire was one shilling sterling, or if ridden double eighteen pence. For any distance up to a hundred miles the hire was twopence halfpenny per mile. If the horse were ridden thirty miles from Glasgow it could be kept six days, and if for less distances shorter periods. The hire of a chaise was tenpence per mile. In this case also authority was given to enforce the rules, and the society was duly set up, with oversman, collector, and other necessary officials. [Ibid. 13th May, 1748.]

A much more delicate matter to settle was the claim made by the University and its professors for exemption from rates, taxes, and all public burdens, not only of the college itself, but of all their houses and lands within and without the city. In its earliest struggling days the University had been granted a privilege of this sort by the Crown, but at that time its only property was the building in which its work of teaching was carried on and the regents and students lived. The enlarged demand now made was carried first to the Court of Session, but afterwards by mutual agreement was submitted to the arbitration of George Sinclair and Thomas Millar, advocates. After considering all the documents and hearing all the evidence, these gentlemen decided that while the college buildings themselves and their immediate precincts, including the houses of the professors and others, should be exempt from taxation, other properties within and without the city, owned by the college and its professors, must bear the same public burdens as the properties of other people. [Burgh Records, 14th Aug., 17th Nov. 1746.] This decision put an end to the possibility of any great extension of an iniperium in imp erio which had more than once threatened serious trouble between town and gown. As matters stood, the exemption allowed to the buildings of the college afforded important and appropriate relief when, as in the following year, a tax was imposed by Parliament on windows and lights. [Ibid. 16th April, 1747. So serious a burden was the window tax regarded by the clergy of Scotland that they subscribed £400 and sent Jupiter Carlyle to London as a special envoy to secure the exemption of the Scottish manses.—Autobiography of Rev. Alexander Carlyle, p. 496.]

Another institution whose suggestions at that time had far-reaching effects was the Fire Insurance Society. The lesson of disastrous conflagrations, to which the houses of that day were especially liable, had not been lost upon the citizens, and the plan of subscribing to an association which should undertake the risks of loss had already found favour. [See supra, Chap. XVIII and Burgh Records, 12th Apr. 1726. The society was erected into a legal incorporation by the Magistrates and Town Council in 1758.—Burgh Records, 17th Jan.] The next step was for that association to take measures to reduce the risk as far as possible. For many years ladders and water buckets had been provided by the Town Council, and latterly even three "fire machines" for pumping the water had been procured. But in an emergency it was apt to be found that the buckets and ladders had been used for other purposes, or were out of repair, and that there was no expert at hand to attend the working of the "fire machines." The Fire Insurance Society now suggested the formation of a regular fire brigade. A certain Robert Craig was to be appointed fire-master, and for his trouble was to be exempted from all trade stent or taxation, as well as watching, warding, and quartering of soldiers, and to be paid five pounds sterling yearly. Twenty-four able men, instructed by him, were to be in readiness to turn out at fires, and were to practise the playing off of the machines four times a year. They were to have strong leather caps with the Glasgow arms pained in front to distinguish them when on duty, and were to be paid five shillings yearly, with further "reasonable gratification" for their trouble on the occasion of fires. Further, the servants in the tanneries, sugar houses, and other works, who had received burgess tickets gratis, were to be warned yearly by the magistrates to repair instantly upon alarm of fire, to carry the fire machines to the scene of action and assist in extinguishing the conflagration. The Fire Insurance Society backed its proposals with an offer to pay half of the cost, and the Town Council promptly agreed to the arrangement. From that date Glasgow has enjoyed the services of a more or less regular fire brigade. [Burgh Records, 7th May, 1747.] Even with the best appliances then available, however, little could be done to extinguish a really serious conflagration, and on 3rd June, two years later, a large part of the village of Gorbals, with its thatched roofs and narrow main street, was destroyed. [Ibid. 28th June, 1749. At that fire Major Wolfe, afterwards the victor at Quebec, is said to have taken part with a small party of soldiers in fighting the flames.—Old Ludgings of Glasgow, p. 61.]

At the same time the benevolent and philanthropic spirit which has always been characteristic of Glasgow life remained in evidence. In 1747 Robert McNair, a merchant weaver, placed before the magistrates proposals for the erection of an institution like the modern industrial school or reformatory. He proposed to erect a building of two storeys and attics on the south side of Trongate, with accommodation in the attics for a hundred spinners, on the upper floor for weavers, warpers, winders, and confectioners, and on the ground floor for hecklers, lint buffers, clay searchers, and bakers, with kitchen and eating apartments. He proposed to appoint a manager and be at the entire expense of the establishment, in which he would receive all delinquents, boys and girls, committed to him by the magistrates, train them to useful employments, and furnish them with bed, board, and clothing. He demanded no more than the benefit of their work till they gave proof of their ability to earn their own bread and prove industrious citizens, and the establishment was to be under the supervision of the magistrates. The proposal was duly approved by the Town Council, who recommended the magistrates to deliver youthful delinquents to McNair "in so far as authorized by law." [Burgh Records, 1st Oct. 1747.] It is to be regretted that information is not available regarding the success or otherwise of McNair's enlightened enterprise.

But while attention was being paid to the material interests of the citizens in these various ways, the increase of prosperity was bringing about the development of taste for the arts and the lighter side of life. In 1750 the Town Council added to its gallery of royal portraits a painting of its good friend the Duke of Argyll, after whom Argyle Street was presently to be named. For that painting the city paid £42 to Allan Ramsay, son of the Edinburgh poet and bookseller. [Ibid. 1st May, 1750.] Forty guineas was evidently the recognised price for a portrait by a first-class artist in Scotland at that time. It was the fee paid to Sir Henry

Raeburn by Gordon of Aikenhead for his own picture later in the century.

The art of the theatre also began to emerge from its long period of opprobrium. In the Scotland of pre-Reformation times the performance of plays had been a popular entertainment. Among outstanding examples was Sir David Lyndsay's "Satire of the Three Estates," performed before King James V. at Linlithgow in January, 1539/40, and occupying no less than nine hours in representation. But John Knox and his fellow disciplinarians had throttled all such carnal amusements with a determined hand, [See a number of curious extracts from the Book of the Universal Kirk (Maitland Club) quoted by Strang in Glasgow and its Clubs, p. 309.] and though James VI. invited the players of Shakespeare's company to Edinburgh, and they made their way as far as Aberdeen, it was only by his special patronage that they were allowed to perform. Dramatic art, like most other arts, was under a cloud in Scotland for more than a hundred years. The country was not without actors, but they were regarded, in Glasgow at any rate, as vagabonds and sons of Belial. In 1670 the magistrates interdicted "strolling stage-players from running through the streets and from performing plays in private houses, which they called `The Wisdom of Solomon.'" [CIeland's Annals, ii. 189.] It was probably an act of great daring by which the masters of the Grammar School of Glasgow, in 1720, allowed the performance of something in the nature of drama by the scholars. The view of the Town Council on the subject was shown by a notice of it in the Burgh Records. The minute runs, "The Magistrates and Town Council, considering that the allowing of public balls, shows, comedies, and other plays or diversions, where acted in houses belonging to the town, and particularly in the Grammar School house, has occasioned great disturbance in the city, do therefore strictly prohibit and discharge the allowing of public balls, shows, comedies, and other plays, and diversions, to be acted or done, within any of the town's houses, and particularly within the Grammar School, excepting such plays as are acted by the boys of the school, and have relation to their learning, and to be acted by none else but themselves, and none others to be present thereat but the masters and scholars of the school, and remit to the magistrates to see that this act be not contravened." [Burgh Records, 10th Jan. 1721.]

Times were changing however. At Edinburgh, in 1725, Allan Ramsay published his pastoral drama, "The Gentle Shepherd," and twelve years later he went so far as to build a theatre in Carrubber's Close. Edinburgh Town Council promptly stopped that enterprise, and nearly ruined the poet; but the venture showed the veering of public taste. In 1728 a company of strolling players, Anthony Aston's, made their way from Edinburgh to Glasgow, and persuaded Bailie Murdoch to grant them permission to perform "The Beggar's Opera" in the Weigh House. They got a good audience on the first night, but afterwards, according to the Rev. Robert Wodrow, they "got not so much as to pay their music." The magistrates were blamed for granting permission, and the magistrates blamed the ministers, who should have interfered in time. "Sabbath after," says Wodrow, "the ministers preached against going to these interludes and plays.... Mr Rob of Kilsyth went through all that was a-going about meeting-houses, plays, errors, and profaneness, and spared none, as I hear." [Wodrow's Analecta. Chambers's Domestic Annals, iii. 550.]

In 1750 a play was staged in the hall in which Daniel Burrell taught dancing under the patronage of the Town Council, on the east side of High Street below the Bell of the Brae, and in 1752 a wooden theatre was fitted up against the wall of the Bishop's Palace. On its stage such actors as Diggs, Love, Stampier, and Mrs. Ward appeared after the end of the season in Edinburgh. Popular opinion, however, still ran strongly against such amusements, and ladies and gentlemen coming to the performances from the lower, more fashionable parts of the town were regularly escorted by a military guard. The climax came in 173 when Whitefield, the evangelist, preaching from a tent in the Cathedral churchyard, took occasion to point to the theatre and denounce it as the Devil's house. No sooner were the words spoken than the mob rushed to the spot and levelled the wooden building with the ground. [Cleland's Annals, ii. 139. Whitefield himself, however, denied this. Tyerman's Life of Whitefield, U. p. 314.] It was probably in connection with this outrage that John Davidson, writer to the signet and the town's law agent, paid the sum of £7 16s. sterling on account, half of the college and half of the town, "in relation to the players that came there and set up a public playhouse last year." [Burgh Records, 21st Jan. 1754.]

Eight years later another attempt was made. One, Jackson, a comedian, and two friends, came to Glasgow and sought the permission of the magistrates for the erection of a regular theatre. Already bitten, however, the city fathers refused to countenance the enterprise, and no one within the royalty could be found to sell a site for the building. At last a piece of ground was secured at the village of Grahamston, where the Central Railway Station now stands; [The village was named after John Graham of Dougalston who feued six acres of land on the west side of St. Enoch's Burn from Colin Campbell of Blythswood about 1709. One of Graham's sub-feuars was Miller of Westerton, in the parish of Bonhill, whose grandson sold a site for the theatre at the then exorbitant price of 5s. per square yard.] a group of Glasgow merchants, including William McDowall of Castle Semple and James Dunlop of Garnkirk, subscribed the cost, and a theatre was erected. But on the opening night, in 1764, when Mrs. Bellamy and other respectable actors were engaged to appear, a disorderly crowd took possession of the theatre, stopped the performance, and set fire to the stage. The whole interior was destroyed, and Mrs. Bellamy and the other performers lost all their wardrobe. [Glasgow Mercury, 11th May, 1780. The ladies of Glasgow presented Mrs. Bellamy with forty silk gowns to replenish her wardrobe.] The theatre itself, after some years of indifferent success, was burnt to the ground in 1780. Jackson then built a small theatre in Dunlop Street, which was opened in 1782. But now the tide of public taste had turned, or the theatre was in a more accessible spot. It before long proved too small for its audiences. A subscription was then set on foot in shares of £25 each, "the most magnificent Provincial Theatre in the Empire" was built in Queen Street at a cost of £18,500, a patent was secured by Act of Parliament, and in 1804 the rather chequered career of modern drama in Glasgow was begun. [Cleland's Annals, ii. 140. It is discouraging to know that the original subscribers to the Queen Street theatre lost all their money, and the theatre, patent, and scenery were in the end sold for £5000, just enough to cover the outstanding debts. For terms of feu, see Burgh Records, 17th Jan. 1803.

A very full account of the early drama in Scotland and of early dramatic ventures in Glasgow will be found in Strang's Glasgow and its Clubs, p. 307.

A facsimile of the signatures of subscribers to the Theatre Royal is given as an appendix to Frazer's Making of Buchanan Street.]


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