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The History of Glasgow
Volume 3 - Chapter XXXVII - Glasgow in 1783


THE readiness with which over two hundred well-known merchants and manufacturers signed the document which led to the setting up of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce in 1783 is not difficult to understand. For more than twenty years, since the accession of George III. and the retirement of the elder Pitt, these men of business had seen their interests sacrificed in the doctrinaire schemes of party politics. In particular, during the last seven years, they had seen the territory won in America by Britain's military prowess, and the prosperous trade built up by its business enterprise, thrown away and destroyed by the incompetence and stupidity of politicians. It was time, the projectors of the chamber felt, that a new body should be formed to attend specially to the interests of commerce, and to bring the momentum of united influence to bear in quarters in which the mere appeal of individuals might be disregarded. Among institutions which already existed, the Convention of Royal Burghs was too wide in its scope to perform the particular services required, and the Board of Trustees for Fisheries and Manufactures was handicapped by the fact that it was itself under Government control. The Chamber of Commerce had a character and practical purpose of its own; very wisely it kept strictly to that purpose, and as a result, from that day till the present it has furnished valuable service and proved a powerful influence in protecting and furthering the interests of Glasgow's industry and trade. If proof of this were needed it might be found in the fact that Chambers of Commerce now exist in every town of consequence in the United Kingdom.

Notwithstanding the convulsion of the American war, Glasgow was at that time unabated in courage, and full of new enterprise. Its great enterprise, of course, was the deepening of the river, but this was already bringing its reward. In 1774, the river tolls and dues were let for as much as £1300. [Burgh Records, 19th July.] As a result of the improved navigation, and the increasing ability of vessels to sail up the river to the Broomielaw the Town Council felt less need for controlling the affairs of Port-Glasgow. Accordingly it entrusted the inhabitants of that place with the appointment of a bailie and a town council of their own. [Ibid. 6th Sept., 1774; 2nd Oct., 1781. The running of Port-Glasgow was, in fact, becoming a rather expensive luxury for the parent city. By 1786 the dry dock there had cost the Town Council £12,041 6s. 4d., and the annual revenue from it was no more than £98, while the harbour had cost £4242 17s. 1d. and its yearly revenue was only £30. The Town Council resolved to sell the dry dock and other Port-Glasgow properties in 1793. The dock, however, was not disposed of till fifteen years later.—(Burgh Records, 27th July, 1786; 28th Jan., 1793; 6th Dec., 1804; 13th Feb., 1807; 20th Oct., 1808.)] Although as late as 1780 the Glasgow newspapers contained advertisements of summer quarters to let in the Rottenrow, and the Deanside or Meadow well, now under the pavement at 88 George Street, was a rural spot, [Macgeorge, Old Glasgow, p. 145.] the city was extending rapidly. In 1777, the revenue had increased to £6000, and the population which in that year was 43,000  [Gibson, History, pp. 124, 129.] had grown by 1783 to 44,000. [Curiosities of Citizenship, p. 139.] In that year a bill was promoted in parliament to extend the city's royalty over the lands of Ramshorn and Meadowflat recently acquired from Hutchesons' Hospitals To afford more easy access to the congregations worshipping in the Cathedral or High Church the first lowering of the steep ascent at the upper part of High Street—the Wyndhead or Bell o' the Brae, famous for the traditional encounter of Sir William Wallace with the English garrison of the Bishop's castle—was effected in 1772, [Ibid. 19th Aug., 1772. A further levelling of the Bell o' the Brae was carried out eleven years later (Ibid. 23rd July, 1783).] and in 1779, it was found necessary to provide for the growing population in the Jamaica Street region by building a new church on the site of the ancient chapel of St. Theneu—St. Enoch's Church in St. Enoch's Square. [10th Oct., 1779. When St. Enoch's Church was finished the Town Council applied "to have all the churches in the city, not properly erected, put upon the legal establishment." Previously these churches, except the High Church and the Barony Church, had been parish churches only by presumption of the Town Council.—Ibid, 27th Dec., 1781.] It is true that in 1780 the Town Council found it advisable to give up the project of the Monkland Canal, as a means of bringing an ample and cheap supply of coal to the city [Ibid. 28th June, 1780. See supra, p. 282.]; but in the following year it gave facilities, in the way of a low ground rent, to the enterprise of certain public-spirited citizens for the erection of the new exchange and assembly rooms famous for a hundred years as "the Tontine." [Ibid. 19th Oct., 1781: "The Tontine Building," by C. D. Donald, in Regality Club Papers, ii. 75. The "Tontine Society" acquired the shops below and the ground behind the new Town Hall and Assembly Room, with the Assembly Room itself, for an annual ground rent of L180. Additional pieces of ground were afterwards from time to time secured, and the Society built on them a coffee room, with a tavern and hotel, offices for brokers, and a sample room. Ultimately the Society was granted a seal of cause by the Town Council.—Burgh Records, 24th Sept., 1781; 5th July, 1784; 19 June, 1792. The new Tontine Hotel and Coffee-room were opened on 13th May, 1784, with the most splendid ball that had ever been given in Glasgow. The guests included the Lords of Justiciary then in the city, with most of the Glasgow aristocracy, and the nobility and gentry of the neighbouring counties. —Senex, Old Glasgow, p. 303.] Business was still a leisurely affair. From the small post-office, twelve feet square, in Gibson's Wynd, now Princes Street, letters were delivered through a hole in the wall in the neighbouring close, and packets posted in Glasgow on Saturday did not reach London till the morning of the following Thursday. [Glasgow Past and Present, ii. 104. Glasgow Mercury, 13th Nov., 1782. It was only in 1781 that the Town Council took steps to have a direct post from London, via Carlisle and Moff at, to arrive in Glasgow as early as the post arrived in Edinburgh, and to have six posts from London weekly, as Carlisle and Dumfries already had. By this means Glasgow would receive its letters from London on the afternoon of the fourth day.—Burgh Records, a8th Sept., 1781; 2nd April, 1782.] At the same time the stage coach which set out from the Black Bull Inn for Edinburgh on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, took a whole day to reach that place. [MacGeorge, Old Glasgow, p. 276.] It was not till 7th July, 1788, that the first stage coach direct from London, with its four sweating horses, drew up at the gateway of the Saracen's Head Inn. [Strang, Glasgow and its Clubs, p. 162. The journey could then be done in sixty hours. Twenty-five years earlier the monthly coach from London to Edinburgh took eighteen days to the journey.] Nevertheless it is significant that in 1783, the year in which the Chamber of Commerce was established, the first Glasgow directory, Tait's, was published. Like McUre's History, of half a century's earlier date, that little volume is one of the prizes of the book collector to-day. Also, in the same year a newspaper was started which was destined to outlive all its Glasgow contemporaries. The Glasgow Journal started in 1741, of whose pusillanimous first editor mention has already been made, was still doing well. Of later date were the short-lived Glasgow Courant of 1747, with the Chronicle of 1766, and the Mercury of 1775, when in 1783 John Mennons, an Edinburgh printer, migrating to Glasgow, started The Glasgow Advertiser. In i8oi the paper changed its name to The Glasgow Herald, under which title it thrives as a leader of thought and mirror of the interests of the West of Scotland at the present time. [Michael Graham, The Early Glasgow Press. Macgeorge, p. 285. Mackinnon, Social and Industrial History of Scotland, p. 202.]

The newspapers of the day were not without local events of importance to report, and two of these which occurred in 1782, offered serious interruption to the regular life of the city. In that year took place the greatest Clyde flood on record. In the Briggate the water rose till it stood three feet deep at the west end and nine feet deep at the east end. [Until the Iower channel of the river was deepened the lower parts of the city were frequently submerged by serious floods. In 1712 the inhabitants of Briggate and Saltmarket had to be taken off in boats. In 1746 the whole of the Laigh Green was covered. In 1782 provisions were delivered by boat in King Street and Briggate, the river rose twenty feet, and the village of GorbaIs became an island. In 1808 the flood ran like a mill-race, and a young man navigating a boat over Glasgow Green was drowned. In 1816 the CIyde rose seventeen feet, and the Green was again submerged.—Macgeorge, Old Glasgow, p. 238; Senex, Glasgow Past and Present, i. 81, 82; Old Glasgow and its Environs, pp. 60 and 69; Scots Magazine, 14th March, 1782. Supra, p. 318.]

Inconvenient and disagreeable as this occurrence must have been, it was far exceeded in seriousness and results by an event of another sort. This was one of the earliest of the serious clashes between employers and employed which from first to last have been the most regrettable features of industrial life in this country. Attracted by the high wages paid in the cotton spinning and weaving industry, considerable numbers of Highlanders and other country folk had made their way to Glasgow. No great amount of training was needed for the work, and by reason of the abundant supply of labour wages fell. To resist this fall the workers combined, and, on the masters refusing their demands, they struck work. Something like the modern "picketing" was done, for the strikers forced their fellows who had accepted piecework on the masters' terms either to return the cotton or burn it. The trouble reached its climax with a riot in the streets, in which the military were called out to restore order, something like a pitched battle was fought in Duke Street, and several workmen were killed. A number of others were arrested and punished, and the movement collapsed. [Mackinnon, Social and Industrial History, p. 160.] It was in a similar riot three years later that, as already mentioned, Henry Monteith was attacked, and suffered the indignity of having his queue cut off by his assailants. From that time onward, indeed, mobs and riots took place at rather frequent intervals—a result of the new industrialized conditions in the city. Thus in 1787 the magistrates gave to each of the soldiers employed in quelling a recent riot a pair of stockings and a pair of shoes, and in the following year they paid iii 19s. for repairing window shutters and glass broken by a mob at the cotton mill of Spreull, McCaul & Company in John Street. [Burgh Records, 27th Sept., 1787; Macgregor's History of Glasgow, p. 371.]

Such occurrences were among the results of a new order of things which the promoters of the Chamber of Commerce no doubt felt might to some extent be regulated by the institution which they proposed.

The promotion of the Chamber was also possibly quickened by the opportunity which just then arose for revision and improvement of the bankruptcy law. In 1782 the old law was about to lapse, and in the absence of a body better adapted to deal with the matter the Town Council took action. Under the guidance of Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo, the celebrated banker, and James Ritchie of Busby, one of the "four young men" of Glasgow merchant fame, it appealed for a law requiring a full and fair surrender of bankrupt estates, including the heritable property of merchants and traders, the abolishing of unjust preferences, the vesting of management in the creditors alone, and the grant of a discharge to a fair bankrupt. [Ibid. 5th March, 1782.] From these suggestions something may be gathered of the shortcomings of the law previously existing with regard to bankruptcy in Scotland.

Just then the affairs of Glasgow were threatened with a further complication. Following the surrender of Lord Cornwallis and his whole British army to the Americans under Washington at Yorktown in March, 1782, the downfall of Britain seemed at hand. Ireland, with forty thousand volunteers in arms, was clamouring for independence, and Britain was without a soldier to oppose an invasion. In the emergency the new British Government called upon the principal towns to arm their inhabitants, and the Lord Provost of Glasgow, Patrick Colquhoun, received a letter from Lord Shelburne, desiring the Town Council to take measures for that purpose. [Ibid. 12th June, 1782.] The request cannot be said to have been received with enthusiasm by the main body of the citizens, who seemed to regard any interruption of their business pursuits as a matter not to be thought of. They also regarded the enrolment of manual workers as undesirable, probably for the same reason. The Lord Provost, however, informed Lord Shelburne that a number of the younger inhabitants, who could afford to buy arms and to spend time in learning military exercises, were willing to take up the project. [Ibid. 26th June, 1782.] At the same time, as if to gloss over this rather lukewarm compliance, the inhabitants declared their resolution "to give their firm and steady support to Government, more especially in times of difficulty and danger"; Lord Shelburne, his son, and his chaplain were made honorary burgesses of the city, and the Town Council increased its offer of bounty to seamen joining the royal navy to £3 3s. for an A.B., £2 2s. for an ordinary seaman, and £1 1s. for a landsman. [Ibid. 26th June, 22th July, 1782.]

A few months later, when the Government proposed to meet the difficulty by raising a militia, the Town Council appealed to the Royal Burghs of Scotland to oppose the bill in parliament, on the ground that it was against the interests of the manufacturers. [Ibid. 9th and 29th Jan., 1783.] In this matter the community of Glasgow does not make a very heroic appearance.

Fortunately, however, the crisis in the nation's affairs had already passed. A month after the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Admiral Rodney had secured the seas for Britain by his great victory over De Grasse and the French fleet in the West Indies, the demands of Ireland had been settled by the grant of a separate parliament in Dublin, Sir John Elliot had defied and defeated the attempt of France and Spain to storm Gibraltar, by the agency of Oswald of Auchencruive the preliminaries of a treaty of peace with the United States of America had been signed, and an end of the war with the European powers was in sight. Though the Bourbon courts believed that Britain's position as a world power was at an end, the fact was really exactly the opposite. Through the flash of inspiration which had come to James Watt on Glasgow Green, this country was on the eve of becoming the great manufacturing workshop of the world. The younger Pitt had entered parliament, and in December 1783, at the age of 24, became prime minister, and began a career which was to steer the nation triumphantly through all the perils of Revolution in Europe.


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