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The History of Glasgow
Volume 3 - Chapter L - The Convention of Burghs; the Resurrectionists; George IV. in Scotland


AMID these "excursions and alarms" democracy may be said to have made its first bid for power in modern times in this country. It is notable enough, and significant of the spirit and hereditary character of the people, that movements such as this and the war of the Covenant against the arbitrary actions of Charles I, should both have had their opening act played in Glasgow. It may be claimed to have been the same racial quality which urged William Wallace of Elderslie, near Glasgow, to strike the first blow for freedom against the usurped authority of Edward I of England.

Meanwhile it is curious to remark that, at the actual time of the Radical Rising, the Town Council had reason to complain of certain acts of the Convention of Burghs which illustrate one of the weaknesses and dangers of democracy. In the Convention the representatives of all the royal burghs had equal votes, though these burghs did not all contribute equally to the funds at its disposal. A tendency had arisen for the representatives of the smaller burghs, which had the majority of votes, to combine in voting considerable sums to each other for purposes not always strictly legitimate. Glasgow had always been generous in affording help when disaster overtook any other community, or some smaller burgh was faced with such extraordinary expenditure as the building of a bridge or a harbour. But it was quite another matter when the smaller burghs combined to impose assessments and then vote the money for the relief of their own debts and the carrying out of ambitious local schemes, in defiance of the larger burghs, which were called upon to furnish nearly all the funds. So serious became the grievance that in 1822 the Town Council appealed to Parliament, suggesting that the money grants of the Convention should be decided, not by majority of votes alone, but by majority and value of votes. The appeal was without result. In 1823, out of the common fund, Dumfries secured £400 for improvement of the navigation of the Nith, and two years later Crail was granted £500 "upon public grounds." With difficulty several later applications for grants of money by the minor burghs were successfully resisted, but these attempts at plunder brought the Convention itself into such disrepute that after the passing of the Reform Act, it was proposed to bring in a bill for its complete abolition. [Burgh Records, 27th June, 23rd Sept., 1816; 9th Dec., 1818; 9th May, 1822; 25th July, 1823; 12th Aug., 1825; 19th July, 1832; 19th July, 1833.]

Strangely enough, at the same time, progress in another arena had also its obverse to show, and Glasgow had something more than its own share of a terror which affected not so much the living as the dead. The medical schools at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow were then developing rapidly, and one of their difficulties was the scarcity of subjects for dissection in the anatomy classes. The bodies of criminals who were hanged were handed over for the purpose till one terrible occasion when, in the course of an experiment in galvanism in Glasgow the murderer came to life again. To the horror of those present, the man opened his eyes, breathed, and began to rise from his chair, whereupon the professor, Dr. James Jeffrey, sprang forward and plunged a lancet into his jugular artery. After this occurrence the judges ceased to order the bodies of executed criminals to be handed over for dissection.

To secure subjects a practice then grew up of plundering graveyards of their newly buried dead. Spring-guns and other devices were employed by the public to prevent desecration, and one student was actually shot in the Blackfriars churchyard ; but the practice went on. When it was known that even the Cathedral graveyard had been plundered, public indignation reached its height, and a mob smashed Dr. Jeffrey's windows in the College. Following the disappearance of the body of a Mrs. M'Allister from the Ramshorn burying-ground, a warrant was issued, and a police raid was made on the dissecting rooms of Dr. Pattison in College Street. There, at the bottom of a tub full of water, were found some remains, including a jawbone with teeth, recognised by her dentist as those of the missing woman. In consequence, Dr. Pattison, his assistant, and two of his students were tried before the High Court in Edinburgh on 6th June, 1814. The accused were acquitted because of a technical flaw in the evidence—parts of the body identified as that of Mrs. M'Allister, who was a mother of children, were proved to be those of an unmarried woman. But public resentment was so strong that Dr. Pattison found it necessary to emigrate to America, and the activities of the resurrectionists ceased for a time. On a revival of these activities in 1823 associations of watchers were formed in the different parts of the city, [Burgh Records, 20th May, 25th July, 1823; 23rd Feb., 1825.] and till quite recently in certain of the city burying-grounds were to be seen the heavy railed iron enclosures erected by the wealthier classes over their family graves, and the watch-towers from which relatives kept guard till the danger of desecration was past. It was not till after the trial in Edinburgh in 1829 of the notorious Burke and Hare, who had murdered no fewer than fifteen persons, and sold their bodies to the College professors for dissection, that arrangements were made by law for an adequate supply of subjects for anatomical purposes. [The Anatomy Act, 1832, 2 and 3 Will. IV. C. 75. The story of the Glasgow resurrectionists is given with much detail by Peter Mackenzie in his Reminiscences of Glasgow, vol. ii. pp. 462-500.]

Another need of the University just then provided the city with an amenity which may be allowed to have offset the terror of the body-snatching. Hitherto, as part of its pleasure-grounds, the college had possessed a botanic garden on the ground which sloped down, behind its quadrangles, to the Molendinar. But the building of the Hunterian Museum there, and the increasing smoke of the city, had destroyed the suitability of the spot. These drawbacks led to the formation of another pleasure-ground for the citizens. In 1816 a society was formed, for which nearly £6000 were subscribed in ten-guinea shares, to establish a Botanic Garden in a more favourable location. The University subscribed £2000 on the understanding that a lecture room and the plants in the garden should be available for the use of the Botany class, and the Government also made a grant of £2000 out of the teinds of the burgh and the Barony parish. [Burgh Records, 5th March, 1824.] The society was incorporated as the Glasgow Royal Botanic Institution by the Prince Regent; it bought some six acres of land on the Sauchiehall Road, a mile to the west of the city, and proceeded with much enthusiasm to lay out the ground for the twin purposes of science and pleasure. [Later in the century Fitzroy Place was built on the spot, and the Gardens were removed to Great Western Road. They remained a private possession till 1887, when they were taken over by the Corporation, and they were opened as a public park in 1891.]

An amenity of greater importance was the lighting of the city by coal gas. As early as 1792 William Murdoch, the Ayrshire engineer and inventor, who was afterwards manager of Boulton and Watt's engineering works at Soho, lighted the offices and miners' cottages at Redruth in Cornwall with gas distilled from coal. In 1813 Westminster Bridge was lit with the new illuminant, and the device began to spread throughout the country. Glasgow was still lit by dim oil lamps in 1816, [Mackenzie, Reminiscences, ii. 141.] when a committee approached the Town Council with the suggestion that it should either itself embark on the enterprise of lighting Glasgow with gas, or give its countenance to a private company to be formed for the purpose. The Town Council cautiously chose the latter alternative, but agreed to take shares to the amount of £500 in the Gas Light Company, [Burgh Records, 15th Oct., 19th Nov., 27th Dec., 1816.] which was then formed, with a capital of £40,000. The Company's light was first turned on at the grocery store of James Hamilton, at 128 Trongate, on 5th September, 1818, and on the 18th, when a great audience crowded the Theatre Royal in Queen Street, to see Mozart's "Giovanni," the grand crystal lustre hanging from the roof was, for the first time, "illuminated with sparkling gas."  [Mackenzie, Reminiscences, ii. 141. A very full account of this great occasion is furnished by the gossipy historian.]

Notwithstanding the progress and growth of the city thus indicated, it is curious to note that, so late as 1817, when a public market was formed upon its site, there was still a bowling-green on the east side of Candleriggs, [Burgh Records, 28th Feb., 1817.] and that not till the same year could imported goods be placed in bond in Glasgow, Greenock and the parent city having been regarded, for customs purposes, merely as "creeks" of Port-Glasgow till 1812. [Ibid. 16th Dec., 1817; 18th May, 1818. "Reminiscences of Glasgow Custom House." in Glasg. Archeol. Soc. Transactions, 1st Series, vol. i. pp. 55, 57-8.] Not less curious is the fact that as late as 1818 the Town Council actually consented to the proposal of Campbell of Blythswood to have his lands of Blythswood, which were separated from the royalty of Glasgow only by St. Enoch's Burn, erected into a separate burgh of barony. [Ibid. 25th June, 1818.] In dealing with this proposal, however, the Town Council was sufficiently alive to the possibilities of the city's development to stipulate that its consent should form no bar to future extension of Glasgow's boundary to the westward.

The Council was also sufficiently conscious of the development of democratic ideas to agree to join the Merchants House and the Trades House in considering whether a change in the method of electing its members might be "conducive to the public welfare." This was a concession to the stalwarts of the Trades' House, which had made an attack on the time-honoured plan of the Town Council itself electing its successors. [Ibid. 9th July, 1818; 27th May, 1819.]

The city fathers also showed themselves so modern and free from prejudice as to concede a substantial request of the four Seceding congregations in the city. The form of the oath to be taken by burgesses at their enrolment had brought about the notorious split between the "Burgher" and the "Anti-Burgher" religious bodies. This oath, as a matter of fact, had for a long time ceased to be applied in Glasgow, and the Town Council found no difficulty in agreeing to abolish it altogether. [Ibid. 25th March, 1819.]

Shortly afterwards the Council conferred a favour on another of the dissenting "bodies" of the city, by agreeing to purchase the Methodist chapel and schoolrooms in Great Hamilton Street. The building was transformed into yet another city church—the ninth—and received the name of St. James's. The new church was expected to relieve the Tron and St. John's of part of the immense Ioad of pauperism attached to them, and also to afford a fair trial to Dr. Chalmers's plan of management, and thus reduce the city's assessment for the poor. [Ibid. 28th Jan., 14th Feb., 27th July, 1820.]

By that time the reign of George III.—one of the longest in British history—was drawing to a close. On 29th January, 1820, the old King died. The Town Council duly sent an address of congratulation to his successor, George IV., [Burgh Records, 11th Feb., 1810.] but one of the first acts of the new King raised an undesired commotion in the city. The bill of pains and penalties which he caused to be introduced into the House of Lords to procure a divorce from Queen Caroline excited throughout the country a large amount of sympathy for the Queen. A granddaughter of George II. and a cousin of the King, she had been forced as a bride by George III. upon his son, and she had been deserted by her husband a year after her marriage, persecuted by his mistresses, and subjected to repeated indignities. Glasgow was just then distracted by the Radical Rising and the trials and executions which followed, but an address was drawn up by a committee of citizens, and sent, with 35,000 signatures, notwithstanding the opposition of the magistrates, to the unhappy Queen. The majority for the third reading of the bill in the House of Lords on 10th November was so small that the Premier, the Earl of Liverpool, withdrew the measure, and when the news reached Glasgow the event was celebrated with illuminations and the lighting of bonfires. Fearful of trouble, after their recent experience, the magistrates caused the Riot Act to be read, and called out the dragoons and artillery. No disturbance took place, but on the soldiers proceeding to disperse a crowd at the foot of Saltmarket, large numbers crowded upon the wooden bridge at the spot, and under their weight it broke down, and threw them into the river. Fortunately the tide was out and no lives were lost. [Macgregor, History, p. 410.]

In the following year the King's coronation was celebrated in Glasgow with an entertainment in the town hall and fireworks on the Green; [Burgh Records, 24th July, 1821.] but in London the poor Queen was forcibly excluded from the coronation ceremony itself in Westminster Abbey, and soon afterwards died broken-hearted.

A year later still saw George IV.'s visit to Scotland. Largely on the invitation of Sir Walter Scott, he was splendidly feted in Edinburgh, which had received no visit from a crowned monarch since Charles I. came and went uncomfortably, nearly two centuries before. Before the event Glasgow Town Council enquired whether the King intended to honour their city with a visit, but received an answer from the Home Secretary, Mr. Peel, that on account of the limited time at his disposal His Majesty would be unable to visit the West of Scotland. No doubt the recent Radical Rising, and the rejoicings in the city over the failure of his action against Queen Caroline, had not a little to do with this decision, as with the previous refusal of Prince Leopold.

The questionable reputation of Glasgow as a law-abiding place was under a cloud just then for other reasons also. In the preceding February, on the rumour that a colour merchant named Provand was implicated with the resurrectionists, a furious mob broke into his house in Clyde Street and destroyed its contents. So serious was the outbreak that the Riot Act had to be read and the military called out. In consequence five persons were transported, and one was whipped through the city. [The culprit on that occasion was the last on whom the punishment of public whipping was inflicted in Glasgow.]

Again on Saturday, 21st July, less than a month before the King's visit to Scotland, occurred the great outbreak in which a mob threw down the wall at Westthorn, by which Thomas Harvey, a distiller, sought to close the footpath by the riverside. On this occasion an actual conflict occurred with the Inniskilling Dragoons, and several persons were thrown into the Clyde. [The question of right of way was decided against Harvey by the Court of Session in the following year.]

No whit daunted, however, by the King's refusal to come to Glasgow, the Town Council voted £1000 for the expenses of a deputation to Edinburgh, where the Lord Provost duly presented a somewhat effusive address. The deputation stayed in the capital for upwards of a week, "in suitable style and with state equipage." It had the honour of kissing hands at a levee at the Palace of Holyrood House on 17th August, and a month later the Town Council subscribed one hundred guineas for an equestrian statue to commemorate His Majesty's "auspicious visit to Scotland." [Burgh Records, 2nd Aug., 6th Sept., 26th Sept., 1822.]

While the civic chiefs were thus sunning themselves in the smiles of royalty at Edinburgh, it is only fair to say that they were by no means neglecting the town's interests at home. They were widening and strengthening the Old Bridge of Glasgow at the foot of the Briggate, on plans drawn up by the engineer Telford, at a cost of £5590; [Ibid. 8th March, 1822.] they were carrying on active operations to ascertain the value of the coal seams under Glasgow Green; [Ibid. 15th, 26th Nov., 1821; 31st May, 23rd July, 19th Nov., 1822; 3rd June, 1824. There were found to be six seams of coal, of a thickness altogether of 24 feet 9 inches.] and they were anxiously considering the possibilities of applying a recent Act of Parliament for the consumption of the factory smoke which already was darkening the city's atmosphere and blackening its walls. [Ibid. 8th Nov., 1822.]


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