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The History of Glasgow
Volume 3 - Chapter XXIX - A Typical Glasgow Family


THE change of mind towards a more liberal view of life and more generous habit of living which became obvious in the city after the middle of the eighteenth century was a result not only of the tide of wealth which came flowing there from overseas, and the close communication with continental countries brought about by the tobacco trade, but of the closer relations with London which had gradually grown up since the Union. Already Glasgow business men were finding their way to the south, and establishing themselves in leading positions in the English capital.

Outstanding among these pioneers was a member of a family whose story strikingly illustrates the rising fortunes of that time. The Oswalds were of Orcadian descent, having migrated from Kirkwall to Wick, where their representative was a bailie in the seventeenth century. The bailie had two sons—James Oswald, Episcopal minister of Watten in Caithness, and George, Presbyterian minister of Dunnet in the same county. Each of these ministers, again, had two sons. The sons of the Episcopal minister, Richard and Alexander Oswald, came to Glasgow in time to profit by the development of the tobacco trade. They evidently also carried on a large business as wine merchants, for they appear frequently in the city records in receipt of payments for wine supplied for Communion in the city churches, as well as for gifts to "the town's friends" and " treating of nobility." [Burgh Records, 6th June, 1746. The " nobility " were treated to " claret wine " at 26s. sterling per dozen. On an occasion like the celebration of the King's birthnight, in October 1738, when the Town Councillors and their friends managed to put away seventeen and a half dozen "claret wine" and one dozen white wine, they were content with a less expensive vintage. Richard Oswald's charge was £18 18s. sterling for the consignment.] Richard was the more active of the brothers, and very soon took a leading part in industries outside the partnership. In 1741 he was a partner in the rope factory at Port-Glasgow which undertook, for certain concessions, to perform such public services as the repair of the quay and the dredging of the harbour [Ibid. 30th June, 1741, ]; and three years later, having become a partner in the bottle-work at the Broomielaw, he proceeded to put new energy into the business and extend the size of the factory. [Ibid. 17th Jan. 1744.] The brothers were suspected of Jacobite leanings, on account of their Episcopal connection, and, probably for that reason, Richard was employed as one of the six commissioners to treat with Hay, Prince Charles Edward's emissary, regarding the demands made upon the city in 1745. Alexander was one of the "sea adventurers" mentioned by McUre in his History in 1736, and his adventures were not confined entirely to the matters of peaceful trade.

The brothers soon became men of means. To accommodate their stocks, as well as for a town residence, in 1742, they built in the Stockwellgate, where the railway crosses now, a large four-storey tenement and offices, with a courtyard surrounded by brew-house, stabling, vaults, sheds, and stores to hold seven hundred hogsheads of tobacco. In 1750 they took a leading part in promoting the erection of the English Episcopal church which still stands near the western entrance to Glasgow Green. Then in 1751, following the fashion of their time, they acquired the estate of Scotstoun, to the west of Partick, from the creditors of John Walkinshaw of Barrowfield, and eight years later the adjoining lands of Balshagray, which had been the property of the unfortunate Walter Gibson in the previous century. [Crawford's Renfrewshire, p. 347.] It was no doubt for their own convenience of access that they undertook to build a bridge over the Hay Burn there, towards the expense of which the Town Council agreed to contribute £5. [Burgh Records, 26th July, 1752.]

The two brothers died at Scotstoun—Alexander in 1763 and Richard in 1766. For some years they had retired from active business life and devoted themselves to acts of friendship, generosity, and hospitality. [Glasgow Journal, 27th June, 1763; 14th Aug. 1766.]

Meanwhile their cousins, the two sons of the Presbyterian minister of Dunnet, had also migrated south. Of these two, Richard was to be the most successful of the family, and to play an important part in the great events of his time. The cause of his moving south was slight enough. He was an applicant for the mastership of the parish school in Thurso, the salary attached being £100 Scots (£8 6s. 8d. sterling). His application was unsuccessful and he took the disappointment so much to heart that he left the town, and never returned to it. [Town and parish of Thurso, 1798.] According to Jupiter Carlyle he got his first capital, several thousand pounds, from his share in a rich prize captured by a privateer, the fitting out of which was one of the "sea adventures" of his Glasgow cousins. He also came into control of means by marriage with the heiress of great estates in America and the West Indies. In 1745 he was one of those who applied to the Town Council for ground on the New Green, east of the mouth of the Molendinar, for the building of a woollen factory, an encroachment which excited so much popular disfavour that it was abandoned.

Whether or not that rebuff was the reason, Richard Oswald presently betook himself to London. There he seems to have attained a position of outstanding influence in quite a short space of time. The records of the Town Council in 1756 dilate upon "the many eminent services" done by him for the city, and in particular on his useful assistance in securing the passage through Parliament of the Bill for the erection of a lighthouse on the Little Cumbrae. For these services the city fathers presented him with a piece of plate with the Glasgow arms engraved on it—at a cost of £78 12s. 9d. sterling. [Burgh Records, 16th June, 1756; 17th Jan. 1758. ]

The country was then at war with France and Spain in Europe and in Canada, and Oswald secured the appointment of Commissary of Provisions and Stores for the camp on Burham Downs, consisting of 25,000 men. [Glasgow Journal, 19th April, 1756.] This appointment led to others equally lucrative, and finally to his attaining the position of Chief Commissary of Supplies to the British army under the Duke of Brunswick. Out of those transactions, by the time peace was concluded in 1763, he had amassed an immense fortune.

Oswald was still, however, to serve his country in an even more notable way. In 1783 the nation had seen the futility of carrying on any longer the war with our colonies in America which had declared their independence, and the opinion found expression in the House of Commons. The Government did not, however, wish to appear openly in the attitude of suing for peace. In the dilemma the Ministry employed Oswald, who had been introduced to Shelburne by Adam Smith, to open negotiations privately. His business connections with America no doubt gave him special facilities for this approach. Accordingly he proceeded to Paris, where he met the commissioners of the United States, and succeeded in arranging with them the desired treaty of peace. [Glasgow Journal, 18th Nov. 1784. Senex, Old Glasgow, p. 30. The Old Country Houses of the Old Glasgow Gentry, p. 227.]

Meanwhile, at the time when Richard Oswald was accumulating a great fortune in London, a serious financial disaster had struck the West of Scotland. After a run of reckless finance and inflated credits, the Ayr Bank had closed its doors. [The chief shareholders of the Ayr Bank were the Dukes of BuccIeuch and Queensberry and Mr. Douglas of Douglas, and it traded under the name of Douglas, Heron & Co. Its object was to encourage agriculture and manufactures, and it issued a large amount of paper money for this purpose. But in 1772, following the failure of some of its correspondents in London, the Bank of England refused to cash its notes, and it was forced to stop payment.] Its bankruptcy involved the ruin of a large number of the landed proprietors of Ayrshire, who were shareholders. In consequence of the disaster many considerable estates in the county were offered for sale. Availing himself of the opportunity Oswald made large purchases of lands. He was said to have invested over half a million sterling in this way, and to have had a rent-roll of £20,000. Among other possessions he acquired the estate of Auchencruive, near Ayr, which he made his chief residence. There he died in 1784—just a year after his crowning achievement, the negotiation of the treaty of peace with America. [Glasgow Journal, 11th Nov. 1784.]

Oswald's widow, after her husband's death, removed to London, where she died. When her coffin was being carried northwards to be placed beside that of her husband at Auchencruive, the cortege had a curious encounter with Robert Burns. The poet described the circumstances in a letter to his friend Dr. Moore. After a wet day's riding he had taken up his quarters in the inn at Sanquhar. The January night was tempestuous—with icy snow and drift—and he had just settled down for a comfortable evening before the fire, when the funeral cortege of the great lady arrived. To accommodate the newcomers Burns had to turn out again in the wet, saddle his steed, and ride twelve miles further, to the next inn at New Cumnock. He was greatly enraged by the occurrence, which he took to be an invasion of the rights of the poor, honest man by the unfair prerogatives of wealth. He accordingly threw off one of his bitterest effusions. His "Ode, sacred to the memory of Mrs. Oswald of Auchencruive," is full of furious abuse, and indeed altogether unworthy of the poet. As his biographer says, "The ode illustrates Burns's habit of judging persons and things by any casual effect they might exercise on his feelings at a time when he was inclined to composition."

While Richard Oswald was making his mark in the great world, his brother, the second son of the minister of Dunnet, was attaining distinction in a different field. The Rev. James Oswald succeeded his father in that most northern parish of Scotland. He, however, married a daughter of David Smythe of Methven, and was presented to the church of that parish by his father-in-law. The presentation did not have the approval of the parishioners, and on one pretext and another the presbytery deferred Oswald's induction for two years. The General Assembly then took up the matter, called the presbytery to its bar to be reprimanded for disobedience, and appointed a commission to induct the new minister. The induction duly took place on 12th December, 1750, but the parishioners left the church and set up a congregation of Antiburghers. [Scots Magazine, 1750, PP. 549, 590.]

The Rev. James Oswald nevertheless did well, and became a doctor of divinity and Moderator of the General Assembly, while his two sons proceeded to Glasgow and carried on the prosperous family business. George, the elder of the two, inherited the estates of Scotstoun and Balshagray from his father's cousins, the original Richard and Alexander Oswald, who were both bachelors. He married his cousin Margaret Smythe, daughter of the laird of Methven, [Glasgow Journal, 26th Jan. 1764.] and he bought, as a town house, the original mansion built by Alexander Speirs on the west side of Virginia Street. He was one of the partners in the famous Ship Bank, and in recognition of his public services and cultured taste he was elected Rector of Glasgow University in 1797. [Old Country Houses of the Old Glasgow Gentry, p. 235.] His brother, Alexander Oswald, acquired the country estate of Shieldhall, below Govan on the Clyde, and among his many speculations purchased from the Town Council the remaining parts of the Old Green. [Curiosities of Glasgow Citizenship, p. 196. Senex, Old Glasgow, p. 28. Burgh Records, 12th and 26th Feb. 1802.]

When Richard Oswald of Auchencruive died in 1784, he left his great estates in Ayrshire—one of the finest possessions in the West of Scotland—to his nephew, George Oswald of Scotstoun, but by arrangement they were transferred to the latter's son, Richard Alexander Oswald, who opened another chapter in the family history by becoming Member of Parliament for the county. It was his wife, Louisa or Lucy Johnstone, on whom Burns, perhaps by way of amends for his diatribe on previous members of the family, composed his verses, "O wat ye wha's in yon town?" and wrote in ecstatic praise to his friend William Syme. The lady died of consumption at Lisbon two years after the death of Burns himself. Her husband did not marry again, and, as they had no children, the great estates passed to his cousin James, eldest son of Alexander Oswald of Shieldhall.

The great inheritance came to James Oswald just in time. Among various enterprises he had devoted himself to developing the property in the Old Green which had been acquired by his father. He opened a new access to it by Maxwell Street, and on the line of the spinning sheds of the old rope-work he formed East Howard Street, which he named in honour of the philanthropist, John Howard. It was the time, however, of the rise of the great cotton industry, and Oswald, having ventured on a speculation in cotton on a great scale, lost all his means. It was after this disaster that he inherited Auchencruive and the other Ayrshire estates. [Senex, Old Glasgow, p. 30.] In the period of serious distress which followed the Napoleonic wars, the time of Radical riots and Chartist demonstrations, he devoted himself to politics. He took a keen interest in the movement for Reform, and presided at the great meeting in favour of that movement which was held on Glasgow Green. Following the success of the movement in 1832, he represented Glasgow in the first Reform Parliament and in four others, and after his death in 1853 his friends and admirers erected a statue to his memory, which was first set up at Charing Cross and now stands in George Square.


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