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The History of Glasgow
Volume 3 - Chapter LII - Reform


MANY circumstances contributed to bring about the passing of the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1833. Chief of these was the tremendous development of industry and commerce in the last quarter of the eighteenth century and the first quarter of the nineteenth. That development had brought into existence great new populations with interests which they thought were not sufficiently attended to by the old parliamentary machine. Again and again, during the Napoleonic war, they petitioned for the closing of the distilleries, which used large quantities of grain, and so raised its price against the inhabitants of the towns. [Burgh Records, 17th Oct., 1811.] Again and again, also, they petitioned against the "Corn Laws," which levied a tax upon imported grain so long as it remained below a certain price. [Ibid. list Nov., 1826.] In neither case had they been successful, and they attributed their want of success to the fact that Parliament was mostly elected by the great landowners, whose interest lay in keeping up the price of grain. This was only one of the grievances under which the industrial and trading communities chafed, and which they thought might be removed if they had a voice in electing their law-makers. From that attitude of mind it was an easy step to believing that, if they had the right of voting for the election of members of Parliament, they could bring about many other improvements in the conditions of their lives which at present were denied them. There are few men who do not imagine that, if they had the power of law-making, they could very shortly make the world "a place fit for heroes to live in."

But the demand for change received its effective stimulus from the hardships of the war-time and the great debacle in industry which followed our victory at Waterloo. In Glasgow in particular the trouble was by no means ended by the suppression of the "Radical Rising" of 1820, already described. Winter after winter saw unemployment, distress, and discontent in the city. In i8z6—the "year of the short corn," when the grain in the fields could not be cut, but was pulled by hand with the roots—the Lord Provost was obliged to call a public meeting to raise a subscription for the relief of the unemployed weavers and other operatives. To the fund then raised, King George IV himself contributed a thousand pounds, while a committee in London, raising subscriptions for a general fund, allotted another thousand. It was to afford relief at that time also that the proposal to form a carriage road round Glasgow Green was revived, the public and the London committee, each subscribing £boo and the Corporation £400 towards the work. [Burgh Records, 15th and 23rd May, 1826.]

On the head of these troubles, and partly, no doubt, by reason of the lowered vitality of the starving people, an outbreak of typhus and cholera took place, and so serious were the ravages of the latter that the Town Council was compelled to purchase special ground for the burial of its victims. [Ibid. 16th Dec., 1831; 7th Aug., 1832.]

Against conditions like these the soul of a people rises in ferment, and threatens to overwhelm the established order of things. In Glasgow, as in other industrial centres, the belief grew stronger that the trouble could be cured by political means. The city, it was declared, should have its own representation in Parliament, instead of sharing a member with Renfrew, Ruthergien, and Dunbarton ; and the choice of that representative should be made directly by the citizens, and not by the nomination of the Town Council.

Just then two events occurred which gave an impetus to the movement. One was the revolution in France, which drove Charles X from the throne, and replaced him with his cousin, Louis Phillipe, as a constitutional monarch. The other was the death of George IV, with the accession of his brother, William IV. The new King was favourable to reform, and the new French revolution flooded Britain with a glowing enthusiasm for the acquisition of political rights. These events occurred in the summer of 1830.
As the movement grew, and it became common knowledge that there were actually boroughs in England in which a member of Parliament was returned by a single voter, a sense of injustice spread through the community, and the demand for "Reform" became insistent and even threatening. The refusal of the Duke of Wellington, then Prime Minister, to transfer members from the "rotten" and corrupt boroughs of East Retford and Old Sarum to the rising cities of Manchester and Birmingham, which were entirely unrepresented in the House of Commons, brought about the fall of his Government, and its replacement by the Whig Government of Earl Grey. Glasgow then entered the lists and added its weight to the popular demand. In December the Town Council sent a petition to both Houses of Parliament urging both parliamentary and burgh reform. [Burgh Records, 3rd Dec., 1830.]

On 1st March in the following year Lord John Russell introduced the famous Reform Bill in the House of Commons. That Bill proposed to take away the right of returning members from fifty-six decayed boroughs, and to give the seats thus made available to counties and large towns hitherto unrepresented. It gave the vote to householders paying £10 rent in

towns or £50 in the country. In the new distribution of seats, two members were allotted to Glasgow.

Throughout the country feeling ran high and strong regarding the Bill, and in the Houses of Parliament the battle was bitter and fierce. The preliminary debate on the motion for leave to introduce the Bill was carried on with vehemence for seven nights. While this was taking place a public meeting was called in Glasgow by the senior bailie, in the absence of the Lord Provost, and spirited speeches in favour of the Bill were made by some of the most prominent citizens, while petitions were sent to both Houses of Parliament, and an address, which was signed by nearly 30,000 persons in a few hours, was sent to the King. [Peter Mackenzie, Reminiscences, p. 234.] This was followed by petitions to Parliament and an address to the King from the Town Council itself, [Burgh Records, 18th March, 1831.] and petitions from the Merchants House, the Faculty of Procurators, and all the incorporated trades.

At four o'clock in the morning of 22nd March the second reading of the Bill was passed in the House of Commons by a majority of one. In Glasgow the issue was awaited with great excitement. A party of prominent citizens met the mail at Hamilton, and when they galloped to the cross waving their hats and shouting the news, they were met by a cheering crowd, the bells of the city were ordered to be rung, and the Town Council directed a general illumination to be made. [Mackenzie's Reminiscences, p. 244.]

The Reform Bill, however, was not yet passed. A month later, on 19th April, it was thrown out in committee, and three days later, at the request of Earl Grey, the King dissolved Parliament. The dissolution was the signal for an outbreak of hooliganism in London, in which the dwellings of opponents of the measure were attacked, and all the windows of Apsley House, the residence of the Duke of Wellington, were smashed. In Scotland the demonstrations of the reformers were hardly less violent.
In the new House of Commons, when the measure was introduced again on 4th July, it passed the second reading by 367 votes against 231; but its fate still hung in the balance. The Bill was still dragging its way through the committee stage when the coronation of King William and Queen Adelaide took place on 8th September. This event was made the occasion for another great demonstration, in which a vast crowd, with bands and banners, marched to Glasgow Green cheering and acclaiming "the Bill, the whole Bill, and nothing but the Bill."  [Mackenzie's Reminiscences, p. 256. A notable demonstration of this time was the procession of the Crafts of Glasgow. It included, perhaps for the last time, the mediaeval pageant of "King Crispin," got up by the Cordiners, in which King Crispin himself appeared, splendidly arrayed in royal robes, accompanied with banners and masques and music, in very gorgeous style. MacGeorge, Old Glasgow, p. 266. St. Crispin was closely associated with Glasgow. The Feast of St. Crispin (25th October) was the statutory day on which the University met in the chapter-house of the cathedral before the Reformation, to elect a Rector and other officials.—Cosmo Innes, Sketches, 223; Coutts, Hist. University, p. 13.] A few days later the Town Council sent another memorial to the House of Commons and the House of Lords urging the passing of the measure on the ground that it would "by uniting all classes of the community in support of the great interests of the nation, tend effectually to secure the stability of the constitution, and to promote the prosperity and happiness of the British empire " [Burgh Records, 22nd Sept., 1831.]

Yet another address was sent to the King when the Bill was thrown out on 8th October by the House of Lords. [Ibid. 18th Oct., 1831.]

From end to end the country was by that time awakened by the cry of "Reform." Political Unions, which had been organized for the purpose, actively stirred up the popular fervour, and in the industrial centres there were threats of revolution if the measure were not passed into law. In Glasgow Peter Mackenzie, secretary of the local Political Union, did his utmost to keep public feeling up to the explosive point, and the Loyal Reformers' Gazette, which he launched and carried on in the interest of the movement, was one of the typical fulminators of the hour. The character of its editor, and much of the spirit of the Reform Party of the day, are reflected in the garrulous pages of Mackenzie's Reminiscences.

To give time for reflection, Parliament was prorogued on 25th October, 1831. In the interval the demonstrations became more and more serious. Alarming riots took place in Bristol and other towns, and Glasgow was threatened with a similar outbreak. When Parliament met again on 6th December, the Reform Bill was again introduced, and passed in the House of Commons with large majorities, and in the House of Lords the second reading was passed with a majority of nine.

When the Lords, however, came to consider it in committee, the measure was rejected by a majority of thirty-five. The public furore then reached still greater heights, and when it was rumoured that the King had refused the unsportsmanlike demand that he should create enough new peers to overturn the decision of the House, and that Earl Grey's Government had resigned, the clamour became prodigious. [An example of the declamation which flooded the country may be found in Peter Mackenzie's appeal published in the Loyal Reformers' Gazette: "Reformers of Glasgow!—The Tories, the Anti-Reformers, may regain the ascendancy for a short-lived moment; but the brilliant star of Freedom can never be obscured by them. No, never! But if all should fail—if Anarchy should even overthrow us, we shall not despair. Yea, though society should be dissolved into its elements, and moral chaos overspread the land, we still believe that God-like Liberty, surmounting all, will change discord into order, divide light from darkness, bid man's free form arise once more erect, and cause a renovated world to spring from the confusion."—Loyal Reformers' Gazelle, 12th May, 1832. Reminiscences, p. 339.]

A gathering of 70,000 persons assembled on Glasgow Green, and an address was sent to the King, beseeching him to recall Earl Grey, and to take measures for the passing of the Reform Bill as it stood. Glasgow, to its credit, did not go so far as London, where an abusive gutter press incited the mob to the worst extremes of violence, and an attempt on the King's life was made at Ascot races [Burgh Records, 3rd May, 1832. *Mackenzie, Reminiscences, pp.345-349.]; but the situation was certainly precarious.

In the upshot the King, though hardly at the recommendation of Peter Mackenzie and his friends, as that worthy does not hesitate to suggest, invited Earl Grey to retain office, and make certain alterations in the Bill to meet some of the objections urged against it. This was done, and the new Bill, introduced to the House of Lords, was read a third time and finally passed on 4th June, 1832.

By the new Act Glasgow became entitled to send two members to the House of Commons, and seven thousand and twenty-four persons became entitled to vote for their election. The first election for the new House of Commons took place in December,1832, and the "hustings," or platform for candidates, was erected in front of the Justiciary Buildings facing the Green. On the 17th the election writ was read, and nominations were received by the Sheriff before a crowd of some 20,000 persons. There were six candidates; voting took place on the 18th and 19th, and the members elected were the Lord Provost, James Ewing, and James Oswald of Shieldhall. To keep the peace on the occasion a force of special constables was enrolled, and the total expense to the authorities, was £753 7s. 3d. [Burgh Records, 12th Feb., 1833.] What the cost may have been to the candidates there is no means of knowing, but it was probably enormous, for the "free and independent voter" was largely influenced by material considerations.

Thus the new era of popular government was inaugurated in this country. It removed many anomalies and abuses, but it was not without its weaknesses and drawbacks. Perhaps its chief merit lies in the fact that if the Government makes mistakes the people have no one to blame but themselves for

having placed the power in its hands. On the other side, it is open to question whether the last word of wisdom really lies with the less tutored and less disciplined multitude.

No sooner had the Act for Parliamentary Reform received the King's signature than the Government began active preparations for a measure of reform in the government of royal burgles. The first taste of the new measure in Glasgow and the other Scottish burghs was not a little ominous. It was a request from the Government for a detailed statement of the burgh accounts for the last five years, and of minute particulars of transactions and statistics in scores of other arenas, going back in some cases as far as twenty years. The city fathers were greatly startled by the demand, which meant not only a vast deal of trouble, but also very considerable expense. It was an experience to be repeated on countless occasions later, when parliamentary action was concerned. To meet the expense an attempt was made to procure a subsidy from the Government, a device which also has been resorted to in instances without number. [Burgh Records, 7th Aug., 1832.] This request, however, was refused. The returns were duly made, and on them and the returns from the other Scottish royal burghs, elaborate reports were drawn up and presented to Parliament in 1835. [Ibid. 26th Sept., 1832. General Report, p. 7. Local Reports, Part II. PP. 1-53.]

The Town Council itself drew up a series of suggestions for the new constitution of the burgh. It proposed to increase the number of councillors to forty, each serving for five years, so that the city should benefit by their experience in management. No one was to be eligible unless he was a burgess and occupied a house of £30 rental. Of the eight members elected annually one was to be the Dean of Guild, elected by the Merchants House, and another the Deacon Convener, chosen by the Trades House. The other six were to be elected by burgesses assessed at the same rental as for the parliamentary vote. The Lord Provost and six bailies, as well as the River Bailie and the bailie of Gorbals, were to be elected annually by the Town Council. The Lord Provost and two bailies might be re-elected for a second year. [Burgh Records, 23rd Feb. 1832.]

Glasgow, as the largest Scottish burgh to be affected by the proposed new measure, urged that it should have a separate Bill of its own; but the suggestion was rejected by the Lord Advocate, Francis Jeffrey, who was in charge of the Bill. [Ibid. 11th June, 1833.] Before the House of Lords, again, a strong effort was made to confine the vote to burgesses, who, it was said, were the sole owners of the city's property; but this was opposed by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Brougham, who, however, allowed the burgess interest to be directly represented in the Town Council by the Dean of Guild of the Merchants House, and the Deacon Convener of the Trades. [Ibid. 27th Sept., 1833. ] Upon this footing the Royal Burgh Reform Act was duly passed into law. [13 and 4 William IV, C. Ixxvi.] By that Act the old system of a close corporation appointing its own successors was abolished, and the system of popular election, which had been abandoned because of its abuses in the days of James II, [See supra, p. 78. ] the middle of the fifteenth century, was restored. Under the Act the city was divided into five wards, each electing six councillors in the first year, and replacing two in each year afterwards, while the Dean of Guild and the Deacon Convener became members ex offacio. [London Gazette, 18th Oct., 1833. Burgh Records, 23rd Oct., 1833.] The first election took place on 5th November, 1833, and the new Town Council held its first meeting on 8th November, choosing Robert Graham of White-hill to be Lord Provost.

Thus passed the old regime, with its drawbacks and its advantages. The new regime was begun by its supporters with the highest hopes.

Meanwhile certain factors of quite other kind were at work which, far more than the mere possession or exercise of the franchise, were to wipe out finally the disastrous effects of the Napoleonic war, and bring prosperity, comfort, and happiness to vast numbers of people. To the east and south of Glasgow the great furnaces of the Dunlops, the Dixons, the Bairds, and other ironmasters were, on a gigantic and growing scale, turning to the service of man the riches of coal and iron existing in the region. In 1828 James Beaumont Neilson, foreman and manager of the Glasgow Gasworks, by his device of smelting the ore with a hot-air blast instead of a cold one, trebled the output of these furnaces with the same amount of fuel. The genius of David Napier and the business ability of his cousin Robert were starting the real shipbuilding industry on the Clyde, which, first in wood and afterwards in iron, was to become the greatest in the world. Railway after railway was planned and built, till the enterprise threatened to become a mania, like the Darien Scheme or the South Sea Bubble. [The craze was probably stopped short of a disastrous issue by Professor Aytoun's amusing satire, "The GIenmutchkin Railway," which appeared timeously in Blackwood's Magazine.] Foreign trade at the same time was increasing. The revenue of the Clyde Trustees, which had been £6328 in 1820, was £20,296 in 1830, and Glasgow itself in the latter year owned 39,432 tons of shipping, more than twice as much as it had owned ten years before. In those ten years also the population of the city had increased by more than 55,000, from 147,043 in 1821 to 202,426 in 1831. Glasgow was in fact, in 1833, a great workshop, fully engined, manned, and equipped, getting into its stride for the hundred years of usefulness which we recognize as the Modern Age, the most wonderful in the story of the world.


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