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Industrial Revolution: 1770s to 1830s

Glasgow, 1831 During these years Glasgow was transformed from a small merchant town into a burgeoning industrial city, growing rapidly in size to become the powerhouse of the Scottish economy. Industrial and technical innovation fostered this expansion and many people were attracted to the city in search of work, not just from rural Scotland but also from England and Ireland. Such rapid expansion inevitably created social problems and accompanying political tension. These came to a head in the so-called Radical War of 1820 and the events leading up to the Great Reform Act of 1832.

Irish Immigration

Fiddlers' Close Between 1750 and 1821 Glasgow's population exploded from just under 32,000 to over 147,000 people. A third of this increase took place in the last decade. In common with other periods of the city's history both before and after, this population explosion was substantially boosted by immigration. From the late 18th century, Glasgow was a natural place of settlement for Irish Protestants, particularly Presbyterians, who shared a common ancestry and cultural heritage with Lowland Scots. Skilled in linen handloom weaving, many came to work in the fiercely independent cotton weaving communities in the villages round Glasgow, such as Calton and Bridgeton. By 1819 about 30 per cent of the area's weaving population were of Irish origin. Unskilled Irish Catholics came to the west of Scotland from the 1750s in large numbers to undertake the heavy physical work involved in improving farm land. A quickly expanding industrial city needed such labourers in large numbers and they began to settle in the less favoured parts of Glasgow.

St Andrew's Cathedral Neither the Catholic nor Protestant Irish were very welcome in Scotland. The United Irishmen's rebellion against the British government in 1798 in which both Catholics and Protestants participated cast a shadow over their loyalty, especially during the period of high unemployment after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. As a result Scottish Episcopalians and Catholics, who were gaining greater tolerance and political freedom, tried to exclude them from their congregations, often by building separate chapels for their use. Irish Protestants also brought with them a commitment to the Orange Order and by 1835 there were twelve lodges in Glasgow. The appearance of sectarian Protestant bigotry on the streets of Glasgow was cause for concern amongst Tories and Whigs, who supported some measure of Catholic emancipation. There was much ill feeling in the early 1820s over the suggestion by Presbyterian extremists that the new Catholic chapel in Clyde Street had been financed out of the pitiful income of poor members of the congregation working in textile factories.


At Home Massive immigration combined with insecurity of employment and bad housing, were the ingredients for chronic public health problems. By the end of the 18th century, smallpox was responsible for almost 19 per cent of deaths in Glasgow. Not surprisingly children were the worst affected with 50 per cent of the deaths of those under 5 years of age being attributed to the disease. Serious typhus and cholera epidemics from 1817 onwards had a devastating impact. With much of Glasgow's drinking water drawn from the polluted waters of the Clyde, cholera struck even better-off households. Between 13 February and 17 May 1832 there were 1,281 reported cases, of whom 660 died. Until the very end of this period the response to these problems was largely voluntary, but in 1831 the Lord Provost established a Board of Health to address the endemic typhus and the threat of cholera.

Politics and Disorder

Cotton Spinners Concerns about public welfare were also prompted by fears of political unrest, even revolution. The growing mixed population of the city was a fertile seedbed for sedition. There were riots in 1778 against proposals to give relief to Roman Catholics in Scotland, even though there were few Catholics living in the city. Muslin weavers rioted in the summer on 1787 against cuts in their wages and three weavers were shot when the troops opened fire. Since the union of the Parliaments in 1707, the number of men entitled to vote in Scotland had been tiny and the towns and cities were under-represented in Parliament. In these circumstances it is not surprising that the radical ideas of the French Revolution found fertile ground in Glasgow with the formation of bodies such as the Society of the Friends of the People in 1792. The young Glasgow lawyer and radical agitator, Thomas Muir of Huntershill, was sentenced to fourteen years transportation in the 1790s for questioning the British constitution. He was rescued with assistance from America and settled in France where his views on the formation of a republic in Britain enjoyed popular support. Such severe punishments deterred others. At the turn of the century the first Police Act was passed which allowed for the formation of a city police force.


Ingram Street After Waterloo demand for political reform resurfaced and in 1816 a meeting of some 40,000 people took place in Glasgow Green demanding more representative government and an end to the Corn Laws which maintained the price of grain and bread at artificially high levels. Agitation continued over the next three years and culminated in the "Radical War" of 1820, with calls for a general strike and an abortive workers' uprising. There was more than a suggestion that the uprising was provoked by government agents, but nevertheless it was brutally suppressed and three ringleaders executed.

Peter Mackenzie Although the fear of revolution troubled many of the better off, the middle class (most of whom were not entitled to vote) made common cause with the radicals in the campaign for reform, not just of Parliamentary representation but also local government. There were stormy meetings throughout the 1820s which were widely reported in the press. Slowly but surely the reformers gained the upper hand and eventually triumphed when the Reform Act was passed in 1832, greatly enlarging the franchise and giving Glasgow its own MP for the first time. This was fitting recognition for what was now Scotland's largest city.

Industry and Commerce

Govan Weavers' Society During the Napoleonic wars Glasgow's economy burgeoned along with that of the rest of the United Kingdom, particularly after control of the seas was secured at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The years following the end of the war in 1815 were fraught with difficulty due in part to recession but also to structural changes in the economy as machines replaced handcrafts.

Dandy Loom In 1750 the textile industry was entirely domestic, with skilled self-employed men and women producing linen and woollen cloth in their homes in weaving villages on the periphery of the city. By 1830, however, it was dominated by cotton manufactures and largely based in factories located within the city itself. Cotton had first made an appearance in Glasgow in the 1760s and technical developments allowed for yarn to be spun in factories driven at first by water power. These early factories were built mostly in the countryside near to fast flowing streams using yarn brought into the city to be woven. Glasgow and its surrounding towns soon won a reputation for the fine quality of its cloth, particularly printed calicoes. By 1795 there were eleven such factories in the west of Scotland.

Riverside, Anderston In 1792 Scott & Stevenson of Glasgow experimented with the use of steam power but it did not come into general use for another decade. Power looms began to be introduced in the first decade of the 19th century and by 1829 there were 10,000 people at work in Scotland as power loom weavers, mostly in and around Glasgow. It was, however, difficult to produce on power looms the very fine cloth for which Glasgow was famed, and demand for skilled handloom weavers remained temporarily buoyant.

Broomielaw, 1829 The emergence of a factory-based textile industry encouraged the growth of a nascent metal working industry relying for many of its components on the Carron Iron Works, near Falkirk, which was established in 1759. Engineering shops were established in Glasgow, principally in Tradeston on the south side of the river and at Camlachie to the east. Ironworks and forges were erected to exploit the ironstone deposits of the Monklands, notably the Clyde Iron Works at Tollcross in 1786. These in turn stimulated demand for coal and men such as James Dunlop and William Dixon built up large colliery enterprises which were later to be integrated with ironworks. Much of the demand for early engineering products came from the textile industry, but during the war with France there was a steady flow of orders for boring cannon and other military equipment. With the growth in steam power in the 1810s, a few engineers, such as John Napier and Duncan McArthur became skilled in constructing steam engines. The success of Henry Bell's steamboat Comet in 1812 laid the foundations of the Clyde's shipbuilding and engineering industry. Within twenty years almost sixty steamboats were plying on the river. In Glasgow John Napier's son David opened his well-known Lancefield works on the banks of the river in 1821 and soon became the pre-eminent marine engine builder in the city.

Royal Exchange Glasgow's development as an industrial city depended crucially on the deepening of the Clyde by the council's River Committee and from 1809 by the River Improvement Trust to allow ocean-going vessels to reach the Broomielaw. Work began on this major undertaking in 1770 and by 1812 Glasgow no longer had to depend on its outports at Port Glasgow, Greenock and Dumbarton. At the same time, access to the rich Monkland coal fields and to the Carron Iron Works to the east was made possible by canal. Work began on the Forth and Clyde Canal in the 1760s and was completed in 1790. The Monkland Canal was opened three years later. Until the opening of the Garnkirk & Glasgow Railway in 1831 for mineral transport, the river and canals provided the main means of transporting heavy goods to and from the city.

Raw materials for the textile industry were imported by Glasgow merchants, who in turn helped finance production and sold finished goods in the world market. The merchant community grew rich on the tobacco trade with North America, which was eclipsed by the American War of Independence (1775-1783). Resourceful, Glasgow merchants found new markets in such places as Canada, the West Indies and later India. With the coming of peace with the United States in 1783 the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, the first of its kind, was established to represent the interests of business within the city. It united merchants and manufacturers and proved an effective pressure group with government.

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