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The History of Glasgow
Volume 3 - Chapter XLIV - War with France


As the eighteenth century was drawing to an end the shadow of want again darkened in the wynds of Glasgow. The city had now an industrial population of many thousands who depended entirely on wages and what wages could buy. The day was gone when every family owned a cow and a kailyard, and was more or less independent of prices in the market or shop. Under the new order of things, in time of war, or the failure of a harvest, or a change of trade or fashion, large numbers of persons, the less provident or less competent or less fortunate, fell very soon into distress. This happened in 1799, and the emergency was the most serious the city fathers had yet been called upon to meet.

The country was then at war. The revolutionists of France, having slaughtered their own aristocracy in the "September massacres" of 1792, and guillotined their king and queen, had set themselves to bring about revolution in this country. They endeavoured to rouse India and Ireland to throw off the British "yoke." Their agents were busy "sowing revolution" in the courts of the Indian princes, in the organizations of United Irishmen, and in the Constitutional Clubs in Britain itself. Pitt's pious hopes that France would refrain from a war of conquest, his pressure on Holland to remain neutral, and his efforts to maintain peace at almost any price, were regarded by the French revolutionaries as merely weakness. They accordingly proceeded to attack Holland, and, in February,1793, declared war on Britain. [Green, Short History, under dates.]

Of the stresses and distresses in the years that followed, Glasgow had its natural share. Mention has already been made of the commercial crisis of 1793 in which three of the Glasgow banks went down, as well as of the tremendous crash of Alexander Houston & Co. in 1795. It is true that in many respects life went on, and the city conducted its affairs, as if the war were being waged in another planet. The stipends of the city ministers were raised to £200; hackney coaches, which were ousting sedan chairs, had their fares regulated; and a great making of roads continued, amid which the Town Council subscribed £500 for the highway over Beattock Summit in the Leadhills, from Dinwiddie Green to Elvanfoot. Contracts were made for cleaning the streets, for £48 in 1796 and for ego two years later, while an order was given for whitewashing the interior of the Outer High Church, otherwise the nave of the cathedral. In private business also, notable developments took place. Among other enterprises, Charles Macintosh, son of George Macintosh of cudbear fame, established the first alum works in Scotland, at Hurlet, near Barrhead.

Again and again, however, the mighty matter of the war became insistent. In June, 1795, Glasgow was called upon to furnish a quota of 57 men for the Royal Navy. Only r5 could be got to volunteer, and the expense of levying them amounted to £290. For the deficiency the city had to pay £25 per man, or £1050 altogether. These amounts were raised by a special assessment, on the heritors, burgesses, and inhabitants.

It is to the credit of the city that no such violent outbreaks occurred as took place in London, where George III., on his way to open Parliament, was met with cries of "Bread," "Peace," and "No Pitt!" and had an attempt made upon his life—an outrage regarding which the Town Council sent a letter to the king.  [Burgh Records, 4th Nov., 1795.]

Sixteen months later the magistrates, merchants, and manufacturers sent an offer to the Government to raise two battalions of foot, each 750 strong, for national defence, and at the same time George Macintosh made an offer on his own account to raise a battalion of 500 Highlanders. The Town Council thanked Macintosh for an offer "which does him the highest honour," but declined to send it on, "for particular reasons of expediency." [Ibid. 17th March, 1797.] Later in the same month came a further requisition from the Government to raise a quota of 641 men. Of these, 9 men were actually forthcoming, at an expense of £189 6s. 4d., and the city paid £1387 10s. for the 552 who remained deficient. [Ibid. 29th March, 1797.]

These events were a sign of the anxious condition of the nation's affairs. Since suggesting the strategy which drove the British garrison out of Toulon in 1793, the young artillery officer, Napoleon Bonaparte, had risen rapidly into power. France had broken up the confederacy of nations—Spain, Austria, and Prussia—which, in alliance with Britain, ringed her round, and she had overrun Holland. It was true that our fleets at sea had taken possession of the French West Indian islands and the Dutch colonies of the Cape of Good Hope, Ceylon, Java, and the Malacca Islands, but Napoleon had marched an army over the Alps, and brought Austria to terms, while Spain and Holland had become allies of France. Under Pitt's policy of peace and retrenchment in previous years, the British army had been reduced to insignificance, and, as invariably happens in such circumstances, the enemy was encouraged to attack. Ireland, seething with sedition, was on the eve of revolt, and it was known that the French were planning an invasion there. A mutiny which broke out in the fleet was put down with difficulty, and in the general alarm the Bank of England suspended payment. If the fleets of Spain and Holland could unite with that of France to seize the Channel, an overwhelming force was ready to be landed on our shores.
In this crisis Britain was saved by the skill and bravery of her seamen. In February, 1797, when the Spanish fleet put to sea, it was met by Admiral Jervis off Cape St. Vincent, and driven back to Cadiz with the loss of four of its finest ships. And in October, when the Dutch fleet sailed out of the Texel, it was engaged, and, after a tremendous battle off Camperdown, almost entirely destroyed by Admiral Duncan.

The relief felt by Glasgow, which was no doubt typical of that of the rest of the country, was testified in no uncertain fashion. The Town Council wrote a letter of congratulation to George III., it conferred the freedom of the city on Admiral Duncan, and it named the two avenues then being made westward out of George Square respectively St. Vincent Place and Camperdown Place [Ibid. 21st Nov., 1797; 4th Sept., 1802.] (now West George Street).

An exploit of particular gallantry following the Battle of Camperdown, was singled out by the Town Council for special recognition. During the conflict the Dutch battleship Vreyheid had struck her colours to the British Director, and Lieutenant John MacTaggart was put on board, with twenty-two British seamen, to navigate the prize to a British port. The Vreyheid had a complement of 500 men, nevertheless MacTaggart, with his small prize crew, took possession, and successfully brought the big Dutchman into Yarmouth Roads. The feat was accomplished in spite of excessive hardships through stress of weather and fatigue. As a reward MacTaggart was promoted to command the Ferret sloop of war, and, in recognition of his meritorious and gallant behaviour, the magistrates and Town Council of Glasgow made him an honorary burgess and guild brother. [Ibid. 29th March, 1798.] No doubt the gallant officer was a Glasgow man.

Three months later, while the Irish, aided by a force under General Humbert, which the French had managed to land in August, were doing their utmost to stab Britain in the back, the Town Council of Glasgow rose still further to meet the occasion, by making a voluntary contribution of £i000 for the support of the Government and the defence of the kingdom. At the same time the citizens subscribed and sent to London £13,500 for these purposes, and the first battalion of the Royal Glasgow Volunteers by itself subscribed and remitted to the Bank of England the sum of two thousand guineas. [Burgh Records, 15th Feb., 10th Sept., 1798.]

Glasgow just then had its own reason for knowing that the Government was short of money. Since 1794 the city's account for the ground in Gallowgate on which the barracks were built had remained unpaid. With interest this now amounted to more than £2000, and many applications to the Barrack-master General had been made without result, that officer assigning frankly as a reason that there were no funds in his hands for the purpose. It was not till the year 1799 that a settlement was obtained. [Ibid. 11th June, 1799; 22nd Aug., 1800.]

At that time the income from the "Common Good" of the town, that is, from the tron and weigh-house, markets, cran dues, ladles, and bridge tolls, amounted to no more than £3377, while the impost duties upon ale and beer brought a further £2600. The seat rents of the churches also brought in a certain sum. There was then no regular system of rating, except for the support of the poor, and the entire income of the city in 1797 was only £8943 4s. 8d. [Ibid. 24th May, 14th Dec., 1797; 2nd Oct., 1801.] It will therefore be seen that the sums voluntarily subscribed for the defence of the country represented really substantial efforts. The Town Council indeed regarded its own affairs as in a serious position, and urged the committee charged with auditing the chamberlain's books to devise some scheme for increasing revenue and diminishing expenditure. For this, it declared, there appeared to be "the most urgent necessity." [Ibid. 2nd Oct., 1797.]

Like the rest of the kingdom, Glasgow was no doubt cheered by the rout of the Irish rebels at Vinegar Hill in June, 1798, , and the surrender of the French force under General Humbert who landed in August to assist them; also by Nelson's destruction of the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile, and the repulse of Bonaparte from the siege of Acre, which together put an end to that enemy's designs for the conquest of India. By way of commemoration the Town Council gave the name of Nile Street to one of its new thoroughfares. [Ibid. 4th Sept., 1802.]

But the troubles entailed upon this country by the political upheaval in France were really little more than begun, and meanwhile Glasgow had its difficulties suddenly and enormously increased from an altogether unexpected quarter. In the year 1799 the harvest failed. The most grievous scarcity that had yet been known was experienced in the city, and a large part of the population was reduced to real danger of starvation. While the pressure of want was felt by all, the most serious distress was experienced by the working classes, and memories of the events of the time remained among the fireside tales of Glasgow folk for the better part of a century. Stories were told of the struggles to secure the single peck of meal to which each family was restricted, of the long hours of waiting for that precious dole, and of the terrors of, the military guard which prevented the hungry crowd from raiding the diminishing store. [Curiosities of Glasgow Citizenship, p. 55.]

Fortunately the Town Council took early alarm. The Lord Provost, Laurence Craigie, drew attention to the danger, not only of starvation among the poorer inhabitants, but of the disturbances likely to arise if precautions were not taken to quiet the minds of the people. [Thomas Paine, the stormy petrel of two continents and the Henry George and Karl Marx of his time—privateer, excise officer, and agitator in England, who fought against this country in the revolt of the American colonies, and became a French citizen and member of the Convention in 1792—was just then stirring up trouble with his writings, "The Age of Reason" and "The Rights of Man."] On his suggestion, and following the example set in the similar but smaller emergency of 1782, the Town Council opened a guarantee fund, which it headed with a subscription of £500, and appointed a committee to import grain, meal, and other provisions, and distribute them, by sale and otherwise, to the citizens. Within a month the sum of £12,000 was subscribed, and the committee was at work. From first to last that body expended no less than £65,330. It is interesting to note that the largest item was £28,150 for oats, while wheat came next at £13,388. £8800 were spent on barley, and £3881 on beans and pease, while 3360 barrels of flour were purchased for £8191, and of potatoes there were no more than 165 tons, which cost £398. [Burgh Records, 13th Nov., 16th Dec., 1799; 6th Nov.,1800; 7th Feb., 1803.] In addition to this public effort, private benevolence took part on a large scale. It was on this occasion that David Dale imported and distributed his shipload of Indian corn, which was welcomed by its recipients under the name of "sma' peas." Altogether food to the value of £117,500 was imported. [Curiosities of Glasgow Citizenship. The total public subscription amounted to £18,000. In addition the cost to the Town Council was £7611, but when the Council proposed to raise this sum by taxation the proposal was strenuously resisted.—Glasgow and its Clubs, p. 359.]

Notwithstanding the strenuous efforts which were thus made, the city did not escape disturbance. On 15th February, 1800, a bread riot broke out, and did considerable damage to person and property, which had to be made good out of the public purse. The "meal mob" of Glasgow, however, attained no such serious proportions as the disturbances in

London, where yet another attempt was made to assassinate the king. [Burgh Records, 19th March, 24th Sept., 1800; 30th March, 1801; 21st May, 1800.]

Fortunately the years that followed produced plentiful crops. That of 1801 was stated to have been harvested in better condition than any within living memory. The troubles arising from scarcity of food accordingly came to an end. [Ibid. 6th Nov., 1801.]


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