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The Paisley Shawl and the People who made it
Chapter IX - National and Local Politics


ALTHOUGH the weavers dealt separately with the manufacturers for each piece of work, there were some general lists of rates to be maintained against the more selfish of the employers, and hence the Weavers' Trade Union arose. Many a fierce struggle they had with the manufacturers, more or less successful. In one of these contests over what was called the "sma'" shot, they gained a notable victory, which they commemorated by instituting a holiday under the name of "Sma' Shot Saturday." The "sma' shot," as already explained, was a binding thread not included in the design but necessary for making a perfect fabric. The masters did not wish to pay for this, but the weavers stoutly held to their demand and were successful. This holiday was instituted in 1856 and is still celebrated on the first Saturday of July, although "sma' shots" are no longer used, or even understood in Paisley.

Many of the men who began life as weavers rose to be manufacturers, and also obtained civic distinction in the town. Politics absorbed much of the weavers' attention. They were all Reformers in those days and strong Radicals, with even a considerable leaning to Socialism, but always vigorous and intelligent. It was a common saying that the weavers of the First Ward (the West End) "gave the tone of politics to Europe;" and no doubt some of them believed it, or something near it. Sir Daniel K. Sandford was Member of Parliament for Paisley in 1834, and, on retiring, gave it as his experience that, for Paisley to be adequately represented, there would have to be a Member for every weaver's shop in the town.

The weavers took part in the Radical Movement, which came on after the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars, and was to some extent a consequence of these events. One of their leaders was John Henderson, a cutler to trade, who, it has been said, escaped to America concealed in a herring barrel. It is characteristic that, after the affair blew over, he returned, and subsequently became Provost of the town. Provost Henderson was a Quaker, and a cultured and much-esteemed man, and at one time edited the Paisley section of the Reformers' Gazelle. He was Provost during the great depression of trade in 1841-2, when the town became bankrupt, and worked hard to alleviate the distress of that unfortunate time.

Some good stories are told of the weavers during the Radical time. They were all "agin the Government" in those days, and at one time a general rising was to take place. One ingenious weaver was reported to have invented a "boo't gun," which was to do great destruction upon the "sogers," while the users were safe. The present generation will have to be told that a "boo't" gun, was a gun that could shoot round a corner!

It is told of another weaver, who kept the roll of the conspirators, that when called upon by his comrades to produce it, confessed that he had burned it, because, said he, "I wis telt that if the sogers fan it on me, they wad chap aff my heid like a sybo," and that although the loss of his head would be no loss to the cause, "it wad be a sair loss tae him." And no doubt it would, yea an irreparable loss.

The "beaming shops" were the great places of meeting for the weavers, when the affairs of the State were to be discussed, and the inevitable "committee with power to add to their number" appointed, which was to carry Out the decisions of the meeting. When the weaver gets a web from the manufacturer, it is in the form of a chain, rolled up in a ball. The first process is to spread it properly on a beam. This is done in the beaming shop, and necessitates a considerable clear length of floor. Such a room, lit up by a dozen "crusies," formed the favourite place of meeting. Here were spent many happy nights. Here debate ran high, and burning eloquence was poured forth, and men received a real education, which it is to be feared the present generation of working men can scarcely obtain.

The writer, as a boy, took immense delight if by any chance he could manage to gain access to these weavers' meetings, and now through the mists of years, looks back on these rare occasions as not the least enjoyable and instructive hours of his life. Some of the weavers were good speakers, and could enrich their discourses with appropriate allusions and quotations, especially from the poets, of whom they were particularly fond. Sometimes a less well-informed speaker would get hold of a " lang-nebbit " word which he would introduce so often as to provoke merriment, and have it fastened upon him as a nick-name. Many of these nick-names were very amusing, and not unkindly. One frequent speaker who was accustomed to straighten up a subject, when the discussion got a trifle "ravelled," as was often the case, acquired the name of "Clearhead." Another worthy, not being able to tackle the big word "Constantinople," pronounced it so like S "scones-tied-in-a-napkin," that this name stuck to him for the rest of his life.

The comic element and a pawky style of expression that was peculiar to the weavers, were never absent, but were always employed with the utmost good humour. The weavers knew how to conduct public business with decorum, and no rows ever took place. At one meeting an obstinate weaver insisted on keeping his hat on, notwithstanding the protests of the meeting. This was speedily brought to an end by the sarcastic remark, "Let the puir man alane, d'ye no see he has got the scaw?" and off went the hat immediately, as the only way of proving that the owner did not suffer from that disease. This adroit sally was received with roars of laughter.

The Lasher's Frame, with design on point paper

When the Chartist agitation began, the weavers threw themselves into it with characteristic ardour. The meetings at that time were usually held in the Old Low Church in New Street. Here Daniel O'Connell held forth in 1835, on which occasion that pugnacious divine, the Reverend Patrick Brewster, got into a  notoriety which lasted through life. Many stirring scenes took place in this hail, which is now classic ground to every old Paisley man.

A leader among the weavers in those days was Robert Cochran. Although more renowned as a speaker than as a weaver, Mr. Cochran, in later life, by the aid of his family, established a thriving drapery trade. He continued to take an active interest in the affairs of the burgh, and after many years of municipal labour, attained the distinction of being Provost of his native town.

In religious matters, also, the weavers had ways of their own. They were in the main a devout and serious class, and much given to theological discussions. Sunday was well observed. The streets were singularly quiet, and the sweet sounds of family worship could be heard in the morning from nearly every house. The staid character of the weavers was not unmixed with a little humour. A weaver of this very solemn and serious order was groaning over a bad web that sorely tried his patience, and was sympathised with by a neighbour, who remarked, "Puir John, ye ken he daurna swear," which would no doubt have relieved his feelings. As was natural, they were nearly all dissenters; indeed, they had a tendency to set up little kirks of their own. This phase of the character of the weavers of Paisley is described with much delightful detail in The Pen Folk of the late Mr. David Gilmour. Paisley is fortunate in having had an author, who in such graphic sketches, has immortalized the condition and peculiarities of the harness weavers.


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