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The History of Glasgow
Volume 3 - Chapter XLV - Glasgow Wells and Water Supply

IN modern times, when every citizen is aware of the serious dangers of a polluted water supply, it is curious to find that until the beginning of the nineteenth century Glasgow depended entirely for this chief necessary of life upon a few wells and the waters of the Molendinar, the Camlachie Burn, and the Clyde. Until the middle of the eighteenth century the wells were merely open holes in the ground, surrounded with a low parapet wall, [Burgh Records, 18th June, 1664.] and the water was drawn up by a bucket and windlass. It was only by degrees that the wells were covered, and a pump was substituted for the windlass and bucket. Of the thirty or so public wells which existed at the end of the century most were sunk in the streets of the town, and must have been liable to serious pollution from the surface filth which was only occasionally cleared away. As late as 1780 a well was sunk in Jamaica Street to supply the occupants of the new houses then being built in that thoroughfare. [Ibid. 30th Aug., 1780.]

The wells were one of the social institutions of the town. Most famous of them were the well at the Barras Yett, near the foot of Saltmarket, and the well in Trongate at the West Port, near the head of the Stockwell. There the gatherings of barefooted servant lasses, with their "girrs" and "stoups," waiting their turn to draw the household water for the day, exchanged all the latest gossip, to be carried home and duly retailed to their mistresses with exclamations and embellishments. The Town Council regularly appointed an official whose duty was to see that buckets and chains and pumps were kept in good order.

Of these wells, those still in existence, though now closed, are the famous Arns Well, [Named from the "am" or alder trees which grew about it.—Strang, Glasgow and its Clubs, pp. 160, 168.] near the Humane Society House on Glasgow Green, the well in the flower garden of the Bishop's Castle, now Cathedral Square, the Lady Well under the Necropolis, the well at the Dew Hill or Dowhill in Gallowgate, which supplied the Saracen's Head Inn, and the Deanside spring or Meadow Well opposite the entrance to Shuttle Street, which at one time supplied the Greyfriars Monastery, and which made it almost impossible to erect some of the buildings round its site at 88 George Street. Of the old private wells there is one under the paving of the Argyll Arcade, not far from Buchanan Street, where once lay the garden of a pleasant suburban house. The oldest of all, of course, is St. Mungo's Well, in the lower part of the Cathedral, which was probably used for church purposes till comparatively recent times.

Regarding the water supply of the city McUre wrote in 1736, "There is plenty of water, there being sweet water wells in several closses of the toun, besides sixteen public wells, which serves the city night and day as need requires." [History, p. 144.] Forty years later, however, when the population was increasing at the rate of a thousand each year, the Town Council began to foresee scarcity. In 1769, as we have seen, [Supra, chap. xxx.] a committee was instructed to consider means of bringing good water to the town, and a fee of £12 12s. was paid two Edinburgh plumbers for their suggestions. Again in 1775 a clause was even inserted in a parliamentary bill to authorize the enterprise, and Robert McKell was employed to "enquire and search for fountains, springs, and water of good quality"; and in the following year eight guineas were paid to another man, Dr. Irvine, for similar services. [Burgh Records, 8th Nov., 1769; 1st Oct., 1770; 16th Mar., 29th Nov., 1775; 27th Nov., 1776.] Later still, in 1783, the Town Council returned to the problem, when an offer was got from David Young for bringing water from the Forth and Clyde Canal in a four-inch pipe, filtering it, and distributing it in pipes through the city. Again the surveyor received a fee, and again nothing was done. [Ibid. vol. viii., p. 633. 12th Feb., 1783; 17th Dec., 1789. Marwick, Water Supply, p. 55.]

Once more, in 1788, James Gordon, an Edinburgh architect and master of works, submitted a scheme for supplying the city with good water. There was evidently no urgency in the project, for the Town Council only took up consideration of this scheme four years afterwards, and then deferred it again indefinitely. Gordon deprecated the Forth and Clyde Canal as a source of supply because of the filth thrown into it by sloops and passage boats. The source he recommended was the Garngad Burn, to be supplemented in summer by the Monkland Canal. He proposed to distribute the water through the city by means of elmwood pipes, and pointed out that the undertaking might prove highly profitable, as several water companies in England enjoyed revenues of from £1500 to £50,000 sterling per annum. Even this bait did not stimulate the city fathers to action, and again the project was laid aside and forgotten. [Ibid. 23rd Oct., 1788; 19th Sept., 1792.]

In 1795, when the barracks were being built in Gallowgate, the contractor arranged for a water supply to be brought in a one-inch leaden pipe from George Macintosh's ground at Dunchattan, and the Town Council hit upon the economical idea of asking that the pipe should be increased in size to 1½ inch, and that the extra water thus obtained should be distributed to the inhabitants in Gallowgate, whose supply from the wells and streams was running short. Two years later this arrangement was carried out by a subscription of the owners in Gallowgate. [Ibid. 1st June, 1795; 17th Mar., 1797.]

Still later, in 1800, the Town Council paid Bryce Macquiston, land surveyor and engineer, a fee of £21 for five different schemes for supplying the city with water to be pumped from the Clyde by steam engines. Public opinion, however, was against any public outlay, and the project was again dropped. [Ibid. 19th April, 1800.]

As in undertakings of more recent date, like the installation of a tramway system and of electric lighting, it was not till private enterprise had proved its feasibility that the Town Council ventured upon the undertaking of bringing an outside supply of water to the city. The projector of this business was William Harley, a native of Glendevon, who had learned weaving at Kinross, and made money as a gingham manufacturer in South Frederick Street. A man of public spirit, he carried on a great Sunday school and evening classes in the Briggate, and drew up a scheme for ensuring that every child in Glasgow should receive an education. He also joined Robert Haldane of Airthrey in touring the country to establish Congregational churches : the little church at Sannox in Arran was one of their planting.

In 1802 Harley developed in a new direction. He bought a house named Willowbank, in the Sauchy Haugh, now Sauchiehall Street, near the site of the present Blythswood Street, and two years later he set about his famous enterprise of supplying Glasgow with water. There was a strong flowing spring at Willowbank. He led its water in a pipe to a tank on the spot where the Tramway Offices now stand in Bath Street, and from that tank he distributed supplies by means of pony carts throughout the town. The water was sold at a halfpenny a stoup, and is said to have brought him a revenue of several thousand pounds a year.

This enterprise did not continue long without competition. Its evident success stimulated certain other citizens to form a Glasgow Water Works Company. In support of this scheme the Town Council subscribed £1000. The company secured powers from Parliament to pump water from the Clyde and distribute it in pipes throughout the city. It began operations in 1806, and had its pumping station and chief reservoir at Dalmarnock, with other reservoirs at Sydney Street and Rotten-row. [Burgh Records, 25th Feb., 14th March, 1805; 28th Feb., 1806.] In the following year, 1807, another body entered the arena. "The Company of Proprietors of the Cranstonhill Water-works" obtained authority to pump water from the Clyde at Anderston Quay, and distribute it from reservoirs at Cranstonhill. This company was to supply the suburbs only, and not to encroach upon the royalty without permission of the Town Council. [Ibid. 9th June, 1807; 26th Jan., 24th Mar., 1808.] By reason of increasing steamboat and other traffic on the river, the Clyde water at Anderston became unfit for use, and in 1819 the company secured powers to pump its supplies at Dalmarnock. In 1838 the two companies were amalgamated, and ten years later a further supply was introduced by the Gorbals Gravitation Company, which brought water to Gorbals and the southern suburbs from the Brock Burn and other streams and lochs in Renfrewshire, six miles away. These companies kept the city supplied till the Town Council in 1855 took over the water companies, and proceeded to bring a more ample and permanent flow from Loch Katrine, through the waterworks which were opened by Queen Victoria on 14th October, 1859. [For details see Sir James Marwick's Water Supply, etc.]

Meanwhile William Harley did not confine himself to the supply of water for domestic purposes. Adjoining his reservoir he established baths, and on the top of Blythswood Hill, now covered by Blythswood Square, he laid out pleasure gardens after the style of Vauxhall and Ranelagh at London. He feued all the rising ground westward from St. George's Church, and, as an approach to his pleasure gardens, built a bridge over the St. Enoch Burn, and laid out the street which took its name from his bath establishment. He reclaimed and cultivated Garnet Hill, and grew there strawberries of a particularly fine flavour for the enjoyment of the visitors to his Blythswood gardens, while the cream to be consumed with these dainties came from a farm which he purchased at Sighthill.

After their first novelty the public tired of the pleasure gardens, with their bowling-green and strawberry arbours, and dubbed the view tower and summer house which he had built in the centre as "Harley's Folly." The tower, however, was afterwards used as an observatory by the University authorities until the erection of a special building for the purpose, and Harley proceeded to plan the building of Blythswood Square as well as St. Vincent Street, West George Street, Sauchiehall Street, and other residential quarters.

As with the pleasure gardens the public tired of Harley's baths after their first novelty had worn off. But meanwhile, beside the baths, to supply the demand for some refreshment after a plunge, one cow and then another had been installed, the enterprise of supplying Glasgow with sweet clean milk had been set afoot, and by and by the great establishment by which William Harley is best remembered came into existence. "Harley's Byres" housed 260 cows, with numerous calves and pigs, all scrupulously groomed, tended, and fed. The public paid a fee to see the establishment, and its fame spread through Europe. From these byres the milk was distributed throughout the city in well-appointed carts, with harness and brass shining, and every detail in perfect order. Harley was the pioneer, a long way ahead of their time, of the great public baths and spotless hygienic dairies which are notable features of the life of every great city to-day. In 1814 the Highland Society presented him with a piece of plate bearing a complimentary inscription ; the visitors to the byres included the future Emperor Nicholas of Russia, and many other foreign princes, and the charge for public admission is said to have realized as much as £200 a year.

Harley's next enterprise, begun at the request of a number of the principal citizens, was to supply the inhabitants of Glasgow with pure and wholesome bread. In this again he shewed the way for the development of an industry in which Glasgow till the present day remains second to none.

This new venture, however, started in 1815, was only beginning to establish itself when, with the British victory at Waterloo, the long Napoleonic wars came to an end. As has happened after a more recent war, the entire trade and industry of the country suffered dislocation. While industry was adapting itself to new requirements and commerce was finding its way into fresh channels, there was widespread suffering among the working classes, and in the maelstrom many long established and previously prosperous businesses went down. Among these were Harley's many enterprises. He was forced into bankruptcy; his assets were sold at throw-away prices, the great establishment in Bath Street, which had cost over £10,000, realizing no more than £2550; and his fortune of £54,000 disappeared. He died in London in 1829 on his way to St. Petersburg, to organize a dairy enterprise at the invitation of the Russian Czar. [William Harley, a Citizen of Glasgow, by J. Galloway, Glasgow, 1900. Before ruin came upon him Harley had acquired the old mansion of Enoch Bank, near his baths and byres, and was residing there in 1810 and 1818.—Burgh Records, 19th July, 1810; 14th Jan., 1818.]

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