The Rise of Glasgow

Like any other famous city , Glasgow's earliest history is masked in a twirl of myth. It was William the Lionheart who gave the town an official charter in 1175. The Victorian age transformed the city beyond recognition.

Read on to learn how this city with humble beginnings continued to grow in importance over the years to evolve into what it is today.

The Rise of Glasgow

When England and Scotland finally joined together in the Act of Union of 1707, Glaswegians were so angry that they mounted a fierce and bitter rebellion against the plan.

They were so determined to try and block the merger with the auld enemy that they stormed the council chambers, threw the Provost out, and were only stopped from marching on Edinburgh when they heard that the army was on its way.

It was a bad start to the new relationship between the two countries - yet, ironically, Glasgow was eventually to benefit more from the union than anywhere else in Scotland.

The huge growth in the tobacco and cotton trades and the process of industrialisation which followed the formation of Great Britain sent its population soaring from just less than 13,000 to more than 200,000 in little more than a century.

Until the Act of Union, Glasgow had been famous mainly for its cathedral and its university, which gave it an unparalleled reputation as a place of religion and learning.

It was not, however, a major trading city - Scottish towns such as Edinburgh were in a far better commercial position to do business with other countries because they faced east towards the continent.

However, that all changed with the Act of Union. The treaty meant that, for the first time, Scotland could trade directly with England's colonies - and particularly with America.

At long last, Scots could start to take advantage of the import and export trade which England had previously kept to herself. And it was Glasgow which stood to gain most from this move.

Until the 17th century, Glasgow also faced a major physical barrier to trade as well as a political one. Though it sat on the Clyde, the river was only 15 inches deep at law tide - far too shallow for seagoing shipping.

However, this obstacle was finally removed. A quay built on the Broomielaw in 1662 and a new port built downriver at Port Glasgow to handle large seagoing vessels. The town could then take advantage of its most important asset - it was closer to America than any port in England.

The colonists in America made much of their money by shipping tobacco to Europe. In return, however, they needed manufactured items such as linen and iron.

Britain would not allow its colonies to trade directly with each other - they had to pass through Scotland or England first. This clearly presented the newly-founded port of Glasgow with a major opportunity.

The town's merchants were not slow to seize it. Even by 1674 - long before the Act of Union was finally agreed - tobacco from the New World was reaching Glasgow. But it was the unrestricted access which the creation of Great Britain gave to the colonies which led to the boom.

By the 1770s, 37 Glasgow companies were involved in the tobacco trade with America. They kept more than 300 ships busy on the transatlantic route - an incredible number for the time.

Glasgow's merchants quickly showed the entrepreneurial spirit for which the place has been famed ever since. They started simply by acting as freight carriers, but quickly realised that they could make more money by becoming involved in the tobacco trade themselves.

They set up their own purchasing agencies in the colonies and soon the Tobacco Lords, as they were known, had the industry sewn up.

Most of the tobacco was re-exported to the European mainland, and especially to France. The wealth created was invested in the manufacture of other local products in the Glasgow area, ranging from linen to farm implements, which were then exported out to America.

However, Glasgow's new-found reputation and prosperity suffered a major blow with the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775. This quickly led to American independence, killing off the tobacco trade virtually at a stroke.

The Glasgow merchants who had bought and developed plantations in the New World suffered worst of all, but the outcome of American independence was nothing like as disastrous to Glasgow as it could have been.

Many of the merchants had developed other lines of trade, particularly with the West Indies, and so managed to limit their exposure to the collapse in the tobacco market.

The Tobacco Lords - many of whom came from tight-knit families - didn't employ many people, which meant that the collapse in trade wasn't particularly disastrous in employment terms.

The downturn also helped persuade the town to set up a Chamber of Commerce - the first of its kind in Britain. But, far more importantly, it changed the nature of its trade from the import of tobacco to the export of goods like cotton.

The cotton industry was well established by the time the crisis in tobacco occurred, but - along with linen - it went through a boom afterwards. All around the city, mills flourished, and weaving villages sprung up.

Cotton also needed a commodity which tobacco didn't - labour. A massive army was employed working in these new industries, with weavers recruited from places such as the Highlands and Ireland.

Employers were forced to advertise for workers and to adopt new spinning and weaving technologies developed in places such as France and Lancashire. In just a couple of generations, Glasgow had changed from being a small country town to one of the most important industrial centres in Britain and Europe.

This huge rise in commercial activity brought previously undreamed of wealth to the town. New shops and streets sprung up. St Enoch and George Squares were built, and thoroughfares such as Jamaica Street and Buchanan Street laid out.

To the North of the Trongate, a whole new area was created which, as with its counterpart in Edinburgh, became known as the new Town, it later became called the Merchant City - a title the area holds to this day.

However, Glasgow's prosperity did not find its way into the pockets of everyone. Workers were paid appalling wages which allowed them to survive only at or even below subsistence levels.

Women and children were routinely employed in the mills, and the conditions in which they worked, with the air filled with tiny cotton particles, were poor and dangerous. Youngsters were given jobs because they were small enough to crawl under the machines and sweep away the fluff during spinning.

The huge rise in industrial production across Britain meant that mills and other factories turned away from traditional sources of power such as water towards coal. Here again, Glasgow was lucky: there were plentiful coal deposits on its own doorstep, such as Govan and Monklands.

Like spinners and weavers, miners were badly paid, and had to work in the most appalling conditions. They could be bought and sold by their owners, and if a man died while working in pits which were little more than dangerous hell-holes, his wife was sometimes bound to take over and do his job. Again, use of women and children was rife.

Coal, of course, allowed iron to be smelted, and this in turn created another industry, which eventually led on to the more modern shipbuilding and heavy engineering industries for which Glasgow will forever be famous.

As technology was introduced, so the requirement for human labour fell. Employers often exploited this by paying their workers less or by laying them off. This led to the so-called Radical War of 1819, when placards calling for an uprising and General Strike appeared in Glasgow.

The government moved quickly to stop the unrest, which was caused by weavers fearing they would lose their jobs to the new power loom mills. Troops were placed on the streets, and the threat quickly dispersed.

The rebellion may have petered out, but the battle lines had been drawn. Glasgow's working classes had established a reputation both for labouring hard and for flexing their muscles in an attempt to win a better deal for themselves.

It was a combination which would eventually help to make Glasgow not just one of the greatest cities in Scotland, but one of the most industrially powerful and yet politically radical cities in the world.


Meanwhile...

  • 1636 Tea is drunk for the first time in Paris
  • 1770 The first public restaurant opens in Paris
  • 1770 James Cook discovers Botany Bay in Australia
  • 1770 Ludwig van Beethoven is born
  • 1775 Pierre-Simon Girard invents the water turbine
  • 1770 James Bruce discovers the source of the Blue Nile
  • 1775 Glenturret Distillery, Crieff, is established. The oldest distillery in Scotland.

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