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The History of Glasgow
Volume 3 - Chapter XXXVI - Provost Patrick Colquhoun and the First Chamber of Commerce


IN the great debacle of the tobacco trade of Glasgow which followed the revolt of the American colonies there was one man of original ideas who saw the advantages which could hardly fail to accrue from the formation of a parliament of business men devoting its attention to the commercial and industrial interests of Glasgow and the West of Scotland. Owing, perhaps, to the fact that the latter part of his life was spent in London, Patrick Colquhoun has hardly received the honour his services deserved in Glasgow itself. In his ideas and plans he was no doubt ahead of his time, but there can be no question that both the city and the country at large have profited very solidly from the conceptions of his clear and able mind.

A scion of the ancient and honourable family of Luss, Colquhoun was born at Dunbarton in the year of the last Jacobite rising, 1745. At the grammar school there, where he was educated, his father had been a schoolfellow of Tobias Smollett, the novelist. An orphan, at the age of sixteen the lad was sent to Virginia to seek his fortune, and so well did he make use of his opportunities that five years later he was able to return to Glasgow and begin business on his own account. Perhaps there was a sufficiently romantic reason for his early return to Scotland, since, in the same year, though no more than twenty-one, he married a cousin, a daughter of James Colquhoun, Provost of Dunbarton. He prospered greatly in

business, and in 1777, along with Messrs. Cookson of Newcastle, established at Verreville, near the Broomielaw, the first crystal factory in Scotland. [Mitchell, Old Glasgow Essays, p. 381.] By that time he was taking a notable part in public affairs, and in 1778 he was one of the twelve chief subscribers of funds for raising the Glasgow regiment for suppressing the rebellion in America. Three years later, in 1781, he was one of the chief promoters of that interesting enterprise, the Tontine exchange and assembly rooms, and in the following year he was chosen Lord Provost of the city. [Burgh Records, 8th Oct., 1881 and on.] About the same time he purchased part of the estate of Woodcroft on the Kelvin, named his possession Kelvingrove, and built the fine mansion which stood there till 1912, and for many years housed the civic museum now transferred to the neighbouring Art Galleries. Provost Colquhoun's estate to-day forms the greater part of the beautiful Kelvingrove Park.

The achievement by which Colquhoun must be chiefly remembered in Glasgow, however, was the founding of the Chamber of Commerce. The subscription list of that institution contains the names of all the notable citizens of that time in Glasgow, Paisley, Port-Glasgow, and Greenock. Colquhoun signs twice, for himself personally, and "as provost for the town of Glasgow." [Curiosities of Citizenship, p. 161.] As Chairman at the first meeting of the Chamber in the Town Hall, on 1st January, 1783, he submitted a draft of the proposed constitution, and there can be little doubt that he was himself the originator of the whole scheme. The articles of the constitution outline the purposes of the association. These were—to consider plans and systems for the protection and improvement of the trade and manufactures of the country, especially those interesting to the members; to formulate rules for the guidance of foreign traders; to discuss memorials presented by members on matters of trade or manufacture; to support members in negotiating business with the Board of Trustees, the King's Ministers, or Parliament; to procure redress of grievances suffered by any trade or manufacture carried on by members; to consider all matters affecting the Corn Laws; to take cognizance of everything connected with commerce, to point out new sources of prosperity, to oppose Parliamentary action injurious to Scottish trade and manufacture, to maintain friendly relations with the Convention of Royal Burghs and the Board of Trustees for Fisheries and Manufactures, in order to secure the ear of those authorities. [Curiosities of Citizenship, p. 170.]

The Glasgow Chamber of Commerce thus founded was the first to be established in the kingdom. It was not till December, 1785, nearly three years later, that Edinburgh followed the example of the western city, and founded its own Chamber. But from the first the institution brought into existence by the foresight of Patrick Colquhoun has continued to exert a most useful influence in guiding and modifying public action and opinion in matters regarding the business interests of the community. Its membership, comprising always the leaders of the city's commerce and industry, has always commanded attention and respect, and in many a commercial crisis its considered, sane opinions have proved of the greatest value. [The Curiosities of Glasgow Citizenship, to which so many references have been made in these pages, was published in 1881 by George Stewart, as a memorial volume on the occasion of the approaching centenary of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce and Manufactures, of which he was librarian.] There can be no doubt that, in the words of its early secretary, Dugald Bannatyne, "the usefulness of the Chamber has been greatly increased by its steadily and undeviatingly confining its attention to questions of a commercial nature, excluding the consideration of other matters, which, however important or interesting, would by their introduction have led to dissension and have ultimately prevented it from fulfilling its original and peculiar object—of representing the matured opinions of this large and enlightened community on commercial subjects." [Ibid. p. 171.]

This child of his initiative, to which the city and the country at large have owed so much, was to exert before long a very decisive influence upon the career of Patrick Colquhoun himself. His business energies were chiefly directed to the development of the cotton and muslin industry. Taking counsel with the cotton merchants of Lancashire, he drew up a memorial on certain difficulties of the trade, which he presented to Pitt in 1788. Following this up with a number of prolonged visits to London, he secured the passing of measures which greatly helped the development of the business. He then visited Flanders and Brabant, and opened up a market there for British muslins. For these valuable services he was formally thanked by the cotton manufacturers of Lancashire and Glasgow. Further, in view of his services, he was appointed by the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce to represent the mercantile interests of Glasgow in London, and, proceeding to the south in 1789, he established agencies in London and Ostend for the sale there of Scottish manufactures.

From that time Colquhoun was identified rather with London than with Glasgow. In 1792, through the influence of Henry Dundas, afterwards Viscount Melville, he was appointed a Justice of the Peace for Middlesex, Surrey, Kent, and Essex, and immediately he set himself to the solution of some of the most urgent social problems of the time. In 1794 he published a pamphlet "Observations and Facts relative to Public-houses" which contained many curious particulars of the London liquor trade, with a number of useful suggestions for its regulation. Next, in the same year came "A Plan for affording Relief to the Poor," who had been forced to pledge their tools during the severe weather and scarcity of that time. This he followed in 1796 with the establishment of a society for carrying out his pamphlet's recommendations. In 1795, when political discontent, inflamed by the revolution in France, and aggravated by the high price of food, was becoming a danger to the state, he took a lead in establishing a soup kitchen in Spitalfieldsthe first institution of the kind in this country. In connection with this enterprise he published "An Account of the Meat and Soup Charity, with Suggestions as to how a Small Income may be made to go far."

Presently he was to distinguish himself in quite a new field. At that time the police system of the Metropolis was still of a somewhat primitive character. It was the time of the old night-watchmen and Bow Street runners who figure in the literature of the period. Sir Robert Peel, with his institution of a disciplined police—the "peelers" and "bobbies" who took their slang names from his own—was yet thirty years ahead, and the prevention and punishment of crime were still more or less problematical. Colquhoun made a thorough examination of the system or want of system in use, and in three months produced his "Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis." This work, with its many interesting discussions of crime, and with its practical recommendations, attracted immediate attention, and contributed substantially to the development of our modern police system. Among the suggestions which show the modem character of the work are recommendations for the appointment of a public prosecutor and for the employment of convicts on reproductive labour. In recognition of its merits, Glasgow University conferred on the author of the work the degree of Doctor of Laws—in this case more appropriately bestowed than in many instances. The treatise had also another immediate result. At the instance of the London merchants and shipowners and the Government, who all lost heavily by the depredations of river plunderers, Colquhoun devised a further plan for the prevention of crime. He framed a scheme for a special river police, which worked successfully and proved of the greatest use in protecting property on the Thames. In particular it earned the gratitude of the Vest Indian planters, and as a result its author was appointed official agent of certain of the West Indian colonies. Later, also, in 1803 the Hanseatic republics of Lubeck, Bremen, and Hamburg appointed him their London Resident and Consul General.

Meanwhile in 1798 the ex-Lord Provost of Glasgow had been appointed a stipendiary magistrate at the Queen Square office in WWestminster, a position which he continued to hold for twenty years. In that position he came still more closely into touch with the problems of the lower strata of the population. Recognizing the importance of education for the safe solution of social problems he carried on in Westminster a school on Dr. Bell's system, and described its working in a pamphlet—"A New and Appropriate System of Education for the Labouring People." Also in two further pamphlets—"The State of Indigence," published in 1799, and "A Treatise on Indigence" in 1806, he propounded several useful suggestions much in advance of their time—a charity organization society, a savings bank, a Board of Education, a system of reproductive work for the unemployed, a uniform national poor rate, and a recorded description of criminals. In his last and most ambitious work, "A Treatise on the Wealth, Power and Resources of the British Empire in every Quarter of the World," published in the year of Waterloo, he predicted the existence of a great surplus population following the close of the war, and recommended as an outlet and relief the idea, new at that time, of emigration to the colonies of the Empire abroad.

Though so long settled in London, Colquhoun did not forget the country of his birth. When he died at Westminster in 1820 he "mortified" Ł200 for the poor of certain parishes in Dunbartonshire. [Irving, T., 123. In 1818, when Colquhoun retired from the magistracy, an account of his career, from the pen of his son-in-law, Dr. Yates, appeared in the "European Magazine." See also Glasgow and its Clubs, p. 211i note.] A monument with an elaborate inscription, in Westminster Abbey, commemorates his many useful and farsighted activities, and thus sums up his character:—"His mind was fertile in conception, kind and benevolent in disposition, bold and persevering in execution."

Patrick Colquhoun has been called the greatest of the lord provosts of Glasgow, and though so much of his life was spent, and so much of his work done in London, there can be no question that his character and career brought honour throughout to this northern city, and his name must remain notable in its records as that of the founder of two of our most famous and useful institutions.


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