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The Clyde from the Source to the Sea
Chapter V. Old Glasgow


When a stranger visits a large town or city he is generally desirous of having a comprehensive view of its extent and the character of its buildings. Some cities from their natural position are better suited than others for affording the visitor a variety of bird’s-eye views, which combine instruction with picturesque effect. Edinburgh is notable in this respect, and has for long afforded the visitor a great and lasting pleasure in the splendid views which can be obtained from the many elevations in and around the city.

Where, however, the natural features do not offer these advantages, the visitor usually betakes himself to the summit of some high building, where he can have an uninterrupted outlook on the whole city. In this way, combined with a closer examination of the places of interest and observation of the characteristics of the people and their ways, he is enabled to come to a general conclusion as to the individuality of the place, and is thus in a position to draw comparisons with other populous centres with which he is acquainted.

Ordinary industry and habits of observation should in this way enable us to have an intelligent apprehension of the life around; but when we wish to look into the state of life and work in our own or other cities during past generations, the conditions are wholly different, as we must then depend upon descriptions left us by others, and view the past through other eyes than our own. We are therefore grateful to the traveller who has left any record of his experiences, and to the artist who has faithfully delineated by picture or plan the condition of the buildings or arrangement of the city in the past. This interest in the life of the human race, especially in reference to prehistoric periods, is widely extending. The excavations in Egypt, Asia Minor, and at Pompeii, which have been carried out with scientific skill and painstaking industry, enable us now to gain very accurate ideas as to the conditions of life in far-past ages.

It is, therefore, the object of the present chapter to present in a general way to the reader some glimpses of the past of Glasgow, without attempting detailed descriptions or finished pictures, as that has already been well done ill the many excellent works published by local authors.

Glasgow seems to have impressed the visitors who at various early times came to the city from the south, as we find from many of their recorded views. Of these enterprising travellers the most loquacious is Pennant, who took such a fancy to Scotland that he made as many as three different tours through the country, penetrating even to the most northern parts. Defoe and Johnson also found time to pay visits to the city on the Clyde.

Defoe, travelling in 1727, says: “Glasgow is the emporium of the west of Scotland, being for its commerce and riches the second in the northern part of Great Britain. It is a large, stately, and well-built city, standing on a plain in a manner four square, and the five principal streets are the fairest for breadth, and the finest built that I have ever seen in one city together.”

Dr. Johnson while in Glasgow, after his return from his West Highland trip in 1778, said: “To describe a city so much frequented as Glasgow is unnecessary. The prosperity of its commerce appears in the greatness of many private houses, and a general appearance of wealth.”

Pennant, however, enters completely into the life and work of the city, his remarkable power of observation, and his cultivated tastes, enabling him to write fully and attractively on the subjects which came before him. Speaking of the city, he says: “ Glasgow, the best-built of any second-rate city I ever saw, the houses of stone and in general well built, and many in good taste, plain and unaffected.” He then goes on to describe In detail the various places of interest.

One of the best books which we have for bringing up the past of old Glasgow in its social aspects is Dr. Strang’s Glasgow and its Clubs. Here we have spread out before us a varied panorama of the life of these old days, or, as stated in the title-page, “Glimpses of the condition, manners, characters, and oddities of the city, during the past and present century.” From this work we see that club life was much in vogue in those days, as nearly thirty different social unions of this description are noted by the genial writer. Some of them had curious names, such as: “The Face Club,” “The Sma’ Waft Club,” “The What-you-please Club,” &c. At the time in which these clubs were in their glory, about 130 years ago, the population of the city was under twenty-five thousand, the streets were few, and the industries, now so multifarious, scarcely developed. The fashionable centres at that time were in the neighbourhood of the Cross, the famous Bailie Nicol Jarvie of Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy having his domicile in the Salt-market.

Apparently In these days Glasgow, like the older part of Chester, had many houses built over arcades. It is not many years since we had the fine arcade at the Cross, in front of what was at one time the Exchange.2 Arcades still exist in Glasgow, consisting of double rows of shops covered in with a glass roof, forming convenient shopping centres, especially in wet weather.

Club life appears to have been an important institution of the old times, the citizens meeting in the evenings to enjoy social recreation after their duties in the shops and warehouses, and where no doubt many subjects affecting the social welfare of the community and the progress of the nation would be discussed. Thus in speaking of the Post-office Club, which appears to have taken much interest in the venture of Henry Bell in starting the Comet, Dr. Strang says: “Considering the quality and character of the members of the Post-office Club, it is scarcely necessary to say that in the successful result of Henry Bell’s practical experiment they felt the deepest sympathy—wisely accounting it better than all the speculative theories which had hitherto been promulgated;—and, as a token of that sympathy, it may be added, that to certain of the members of this mercantile fraternity belong the honour of having afterwards aided in the establishment of our first coasting, and thereafter of our ocean steamers.”

The Hodge-Podge Club appears to have been made up largely of the Tobacco Lords, who were the aristocratic merchants of the time. This club appears to have combined literature with amusement and good cheer.

“A club of choice fellows, each fortnight employ
An evening in laughter, good humour, and joy;
Like the national council, they often debate,
And settle the army, the navy, and state.
In this club there’s a jumble of nonsense and sense,
And the name of Hodge-Podge they have taken from thence.”

One of the originators of “The Gaelic Club,” was Mr. George McIntosh, whose son, Mr. Charles McIntosh, born in 1776, was the inventor of the process of waterproofing known by his name.

The citizens of those clays dealt principally in the markets, one being at the Cross for butter and eggs, and another at Bell Street for butcher-meat. There was no water supply, the wells being the only source of that necessary. Towards the close of the eighteenth century the principal hotels were limited to four—The Black Bull, Buck’s Head, Star, and Tontine. The Black Bull stood on the north side of Argyle Street, near Glassford Street, and the Buck’s Head at the corner of Dunlop Street, the latter well-known building with its outside stairs having recently given way to the progress of the age.

The dinner hour appears to have been three o’clock, at which the wines were port and sherry, these being succeeded, Dr. Strang tells us, “by the largest china bowl in the house. In this gorgeous dish, which was of course placed before the landlord, the universal beverage of cold punch was quickly manufactured; and towards its proper concoction many opinions were freely offered; but to these the host, if a regular punch-maker, paid little attention. The ceremonial was always gone through with treat deliberation, and with an air of self-importance that must have made a stranger smile. The pleasing decoction once made and approved of, it was now the time to sit in for serious drinking—and serious indeed it often was, for while toast followed toast and bowl followed bowl, it rarely happened that the party broke up till some of the members at least were not in a condition to return to their homes without the aid of companions, who, if their heads were less muzzied, possessed more stable legs.”    .

A graphic description of a Glasgow Lord Provost’s dinner in the beginning of the present century is given in the pages of Cyril Thornton, in which he tells us that “the ladies were no sooner gone than Bell Geordy made his appearance, bearing a bowl of extraordinary dimensions, which he deposited on the table. Lemons, sugar, limes, rum from Jamaica and the Leeward Islands, soon followed, and expectation sat on every brow.” The author then graphically describes the difficulty experienced in getting any of the guests to “handle the china,” but finally this is accomplished, when, “every improvement which human ingenuity could devise with regard to the punch having been at length suggested, the business of drinking commenced in good earnest, each replenishing of the glasses being prefaced by a loyal or patriotic toast by the Lord Provost. ‘The King,’ ‘The Queen,’ ‘The Prince of Wales,’ ‘The Trade of Clyde,’ having been drunk in bumpers, the current of conversation was gradually diverted into other channels.”

The “tea parties” were held at an early hour of the evening, the guests getting home in good time.

The gentlemen of those days walked abroad in blue coats and buff-striped waistcoats, with great shirt frills, and white neckcloths, also, knee-breeches with shoes. The dress of the ladies appears to have been plain, and favouring black silks and laces.

As yet there was no police force as we understand it. Pennant, in his tour in Scotland in 1772, speaks of the guard-house “where the inhabitants mount guard and regularly do duty;” and lie further adds, “The police of Glasgow consists of three bodies—the Magistrates with the Town Council, the Merchants’ House, and the Trades’ House.” It appears that the citizens made arrangements at a later date to avoid this somewhat compulsory duty of watching, and employed representatives.

The earlier watchers of the city appear to have been the town-officers, wearing red coats, these being supplemented at night by watchmen, who were principally old men, and who made themselves as comfortable as they could in wooden sentry-boxes placed at different parts of the town. One of these retreats was a niche in the wall at the foot of Balmanno Street, now built up. These old guardians often retired about eleven o’clock to their boxes, drew on their night-caps, and had a quiet snooze, liable, however, to have the door locked on them by some passing wag, or, what was worse, the box turned over altogether.

One of the town’s officers was noted for his characteristic appearance and humorous remarks, acting as he did as bellman and town-crier. He was usually known as “Bell Geordy.” His real name appears as George Gibson in the pages of the first Glasgow Directory, in a list of town’s officers and sergeants, numbering eighteen in all, his habitation being Lochhead’s Close, High Street. Being a big stout man, dressed in a scarlet coat, and with a turn for humour, he was quite a noted character; and in his combined functions of bellman or town-crier, town-officer, and provost’s man, was an important individual, and is still remembered by septuagenarian citizens.

Cyril Thornton, when dining with a Lord Provost of the year 1802, describes in graphic terms his announcement to his lordship’s drawing-room by this worthy, who tries to keep his assistant “Hector” (another town-officer) right by saying: “I carena whare he’s frae, but I want his name. Didna I tell baith you and Duncan to cry oot a’ the names to me, that they may be properly annoonced?”

When a fire occurred Geordy turned out with his drum, a crowd of boys following him, eagerly asking “Whaur’s the fire?” but getting often put on a wrong scent by the astute and humorous herald.

The dress of these ancient members of “the force” seems to have been of a nondescript character. Later on the police garb appears to have been a dress blue coat with a red collar; afterwards the buttoned-up surtout of the present time. Sticks and tall hats were formerly worn, instead of the helmet and baton of today. The police force of Glasgow at the present time is about 1100 strong. The night policeman, until a few years ago, was in the habit of calling out the hours and the state of the weather, so that besides his more immediate protective duties he combined the office of timepiece and meteorological register, and thus, accompanying his heavy footfall echoing in the silent streets, the gradually-awakening citizens heard the watcher’s voice crying: —“Hauf-past five and a fine inornin’.”

This practice of intimating the condition of the weather by night watchmen to those indoors seems to have held good in other towns of this and other countries. In some towns of Sweden and Norway, where, owing to the numerous wooden houses, fires are more common than in stone-built cities, the watchmen used to call out something to this effect:

“May God still keep the town from fire
While the citizens sleep.”

The following, which is called the "Watchman’s Song,” is of German origin:

“Listen, townsmen, hear me tell
Ten hath struck upon our bell;
God hath given commandments ten,
That we might be happy men.
Nought avails that men should ward us,
God will watch and (tod will guard us.
May He of his boundless might
Give unto us all good night.”

The song goes on with a verse for each hour until after four o’clock, when he sings:

“Now all stars must fade away,
Quickly now must come the day.
Thank your God, who through each hour
Kept you with a Father’s power.”

In Kennedy’s volume of Singing Round the World we find this practice referred to as existing at the present time in St. John’s, Newfoundland, as also the more modern one of the “time-gun.” Thus the writer says: “An eighteen-pounder fires every day at noon; while at eleven o’clock p.m. a watchman patrols the street calling out the hour, adding ‘and a clear starlight night,’ or whatever the sky might be.”

In old Glasgow the lamplighter made his rounds with his flaring torch, whale-oil lamp, and ladder on shoulder, ready to mount to the street lamps, which then projected from the house walls. Carrying all these impedimenta he had no spare breath for vocal announcements like his contemporary the watchman; but what he failed to supply was volunteered by the boys of the city, who greeted him with their

“Leery, leery, licht the lamps,
Long legs and crooked shanks.”

The lamplighter of modern Glasgow is independent of ladder and almost of hand-lamp, as, rapidly passing along the streets carrying his pole with its small lamp at one end, he deftly turns the stop-cock and pokes his pole through the hole cut in the bottom of the glass globe, thus lighting the gas more quickly than can be described.

Giving us a picture of the modern city, Mr. Wm. Black, in White Heather, tells us: “This golden—radiant city of Glasgow!—with its thousand thousand activities all awaking to join the noise and din of the joyous morning. The interminable thoroughfares, the sky-piercing chimneys, the masses of warehouses, the overhead network of telegraph lines, the red-funnelled steamers moving slowly away through the pale blue mist of the Broomie-law.”

Perhaps nothing shows better the extent and resources of a great commercial city than the means now adopted for the checking of the spread of fire. Not only does this appear in the high pressure of our modern water supply, by means of which a hose fixed on a fire hydrant will convey a stream of water to our high buildings, but also in the steam fire-engine, with its powerful pumps and capacity for rapid steam raising, all enabling the fire brigade to effectually cope with the most serious outbreak.

Without a proper supply of water, and machinery to utilize it, any outbreak of fire could only be dealt with in a very primitive fashion. Indeed, to a comparatively recent period the “butts” were a great institution, for when a fire broke out a dash was made with these water-barrel carts, the first carter getting a sum of money as a premium to hasten up the supply for the small engine worked by hand. The West of England Company placed a more modern type of fire-engine in the city about forty years ago, which with its helmeted firemen was the great attraction of the youngsters as it urged its course to the scene of the conflagration.

About forty years ago the announcement of an outbreak of fire was made by means of a drum by day and a rattle by night, the latter, consisting of a set of big “clappers” made of loose pieces of wood, tied in such a manner as to cause a strong rattling noise when shaken by the hand, the night policeman at the same time crying out fire at such and such a number and street. The clappers were only disused a few years ago, as the spread of the city and the modern improvements in the communication of messages by means of electric signalling combined to lender the slow transmission of the news by word of mouth of no effective service.

The celerity with which the fire-brigade can be turned out varies somewhat, depending a good deal on the necessities of the case. In our own city, where with our solid stone buildings and stone stairways, more resistance is offered to the spread of the devouring element than in lighter-built brick houses with wooden stairs, or in wooden houses throughout—as is the case in many towns in America—there is not such danger of the fire obtaining the mastery. Still, in the interests of the community, the quicker a fire is put out the better.

The fire-brigade of Glasgow do not pretend to the speed of the Chicago firemen, who can turn out in a few seconds, being stimulated, if asleep, by the electric current 'hitching” the bed-clothes off them and almost dropping the active brigaders through the opening trapdoor of their room on to the fire-engine standing ready in the ground-floor below. The average time taken in Glasgow to turn out is about a minute and a half.

Besides the fire-engine to send the current of water on the burning mass, we have the fire-escape, a familiar object, especially in London, as a long strange ladder-looking apparatus standing in some quiet corner of the busy city, ready to be brought out and run to the nearest fire. In America, however, the traveller moves and sleeps in an atmosphere of contingent fire; in the hotels he sees placards “ To the Fire Escape,” and directions to the-nearest exit. Recently an invention was patented for enabling an individual to escape single-handed by means of a reel of steel wire, one end of which he screwed into the window-sill. Securing himself to the reel, he then, with a faith in a successful journey which could only he implanted by the urgency of the occasion, is supposed to launch himself out into space and descend spider-like by means of his reel and wire.

Besides the use of water to extinguish fire, chemists have supplied us with compounds in cases, which, by the quality of the gases emitted, smother the flame.

In Mr. Nicol’s excellent Statistical Account of Glas-cjoiv, published in 18cS5, the following reference to the early methods of coping with the city fires appears:— “The first fire-engine was got by the corporation in 1657, five years after the great fire which destroyed one-third of the town from the Trongate southwards, and unhoused some thousands of people. The engine was similar to one in use in the Capital, and its functions are described in the Council minutes as for The occasioune of Suddent fyre in spouting out of water thereon.’ As another destructive fire, from the Trongate northwards, occurred in 1677, the engine, if brought into use, would appear to have been inadequate. And no wonder, seeing great part of the structure of Glasgow houses was then of wood.”

Later on fires became less disastrous as the use of stone became more general; although we find that in some towns the use of wood was so much preferred that after the great fire in Dunfermline in 1024, in which 220 houses were destroyed, the wood of Garvock, in the neighbourhood, was completely denuded of its old trees for the rebuilding of the town.

The strength of the Glasgow fire-brigade, according to the published report for 1886, is as follows:—Permanent firemen, 81; auxiliary firemen, 54; horses, 17; 6 steam fire-engines; 9 manual fire-engines; 19 hose and ladder carriages; about 7500 yards of hose on engines and carriages, with over 3000 feet of spare hose; about 600 feet of scaling-ladders; 1 telescopic fire-escape; and 83 electric street fire-alarms. During 1886 there were 244 fires at which the engines were called out, and 128 at which the engines were not called. Of fires which occurred, 154 happened through the day and 218 during the night. Of these fires 326 were extinguished by firemen, and 46 by occupants and others. The bulk of the calls were through the electric fire-alarms, a good many being of a malicious character, ending in nothing but a turnout of the brigade.

The average annual loss of property in the city by fire during the last six years is valued at about £134,000, Physicists tell us matter is never lost, and, like energy, it simply changes its form. In the case of a large city fire we have a striking spectacle of such transformation, the stored-up valuables, whether of art or commerce igniting and disappearing in fiames, sparks, and smoke, whilst the inclosure becomes a roaring furnace, and the walls themselves crack and splinter under the fervent heat. Meanwhile the vital energy on the streets below, in the shape of the daring firemen, scorched by the heat and blinded by the smoke but undaunted in their efforts, directs the play of the water-hose to arrest the destruction going on; for whatever the result may be physically, it is a loss commercially, as much as when a gallant ship founders and takes her cargo down to the depths of ocean. Strange it is in this advanced age of applied science that, as yet, we have to lament those appalling catastrophes of fire, in which not only valuable property but infinitely more valuable human lives are destroyed in a short hour or two.

Previous to the year 1750 there were no banks in Glasgow. In that year, however, several of the merchants started what was known as the Ship Bank, the notes issued bearing a ship engraved upon them. In the first Glasgow Directory, published one hundred years ago, we find seven banks mentioned, viz.: The Glasgow Arms Bank, Ship Bank, Thistle Bank, Merchant Bank, Royal Bank, Messrs. Thomson’s Bank, and Paisley Bank.

The following lines, which quaintly and graphically portray the changes which have come over our old city during the space of the last century, appeared in the jGlasgoiv Herald, and were written for the centenary of that newspaper, February, 1882:

“A hundred years ago! As in a dream
All things have changed along the human stream,
The thousand roaring wheels of traffic pass
Where the maids spread the linen on the grass;
The mighty ocean liners outward bound
Heave o’er the spot where windmill sails went round.
The haystacks of the Trongate, where are they?
Where the green meadows which produced the hay?
Who were the last fond lovers (who can tell?)
That kissed beneath the alders at Arn’s Well?
Oh, quaint Arcadian city which appears
In the bright vista of a hundred years!
The ancient merchant in his scarlet cloak,
Great wig and silver buckles, if he woke
From his archaic slumber, would he know
Th’ Havannah of a century ago?
In that brave year of seventeen eighty-two
The stars looked out of smokeless heavens and knew
The city by its nine dim lamps. At dawn
The glimmering vapours from the Bens were drawn.”

These are a few of the brighter aspects of the “good old times;” but there are other aspects less pleasing. Fortunately the latter are not necessarily specially identified with Glasgow, but belong to an age now fortunately passed away, when regard to the value of life and living had not taken the high position of the present day.

The execution of criminals for what we would now call comparatively trivial offences was the law of the land. The condition of the unhappy prisoners incarcerated within the jails for crime or debt was miserable in the extreme. Jail-fever was a disease by itself. The “ Hulks ” still existed for convicts, at places such as the Thames, Plymouth, and Portsmouth; from which detachments were sent from time to time to Botany Bay.

Howard, in his work on Prisons, &c., says: “On my coming into Scotland in July 1787 the first county gaol I visited was at Ayr. There is no court, so that debtors and felons are never out of their rooms.

“There is the same defect in the Tolbooth at Glasgow. As the transports continue long in confinement, some alteration was making, by arching the rooms, in order to obtain greater security against escapes and disturbances.

“Several of the transports were removed to a neiv prison adjoining to the poor-house. Each had a separate room (about six feet and a half by six). The rooms here not being very strong, the prisoners had chains on their feet and necks.

“The passage being only two feet eight inches wide, most of the rooms were very offensive, and some very damp. No endeavours are made to reclaim these unhappy objects; whose long confinement, together with the great severity of their chains, and their scanty food (being only two pennyworth of bread in a day), must reduce them to the extremity of misery and desperation.”

Mr. Howard adds: “The Tolbooth is in the Tower, has no apartments for the keeper, no court, no water, no sewers, and seems as if it was never whitewashed; allowance to prisoners 4d. a day; 1787, Augt. 3, prisoners 4.” One bright gleam falls across this dismal picture. We are told that the magistrates expressed “ their readiness to make any alteration for the benefit of their fellow-creatures.” The magistrates also accompanied Mr. Howard on his visits, and presented him with the freedom of the city.

Since in dealing with such far-back matters we can only gain our information from records of the times, it may not be out of place to refer to a later description1 of the new jail of Glasgow built in 1810, where we are told that “ In its construction much attention has been paid to the health and comfort of the unfortunate; and while it is to be lamented that the crimes of men render such a structure necessary, it is at the same time agreeable to reflect that, in promoting security, humanity has not been overlooked.

“The superintendence of building the jail was intrusted to Mr. James Clelland, whose zealous exertions on the public account have been eminently conspicuous on many occasions. From his judicious suggestions, the cells for the reception of criminals under sentence of death were constructed. In these, the wretch who had hitherto pined in irons, and under a restricted use of his limbs, may now, even in his dreary cell, employ them with freedom in acts of exercise and devotion.”

That this humane spirit was now growing in the community we can readily gather from part of the inscription on the plate over the cavity in the foundation-stone.

“To afford more suitable accommodation
Such as the increasing population
And wealth of the City
Have, for many years, required for those
Engaged in the Administration of Justice, and in
The Management of the Affairs Of the Community:
And to provide
More convenient Places of Confinement,
Secure, and yet not injurious to Health, for
The unfortunate Individuals
Whose Imprisonment
Their Debts, or their Crimes
May render legally necessary,
The Magistrates and Council of Glasgow
Have resolved, after mature Deliberation,
To erect these Buildings By the favour of Almighty God.”

The first ten or twelve years of the beginning of the present century appear to have wrought a great change in the size and appearance of the city and of the manners of the people. Thus the population of the city has been stated in 1795 at about 70,000, whilst in 1819 it was 147,000. This great change is graphically portrayed in the pages of Cyril Thornton, where this gentleman says: “Though in the external aspect of Glasgow little change was apparent from the lapse of years which had intervened since my former visit, yet a great change was certainly observable in the manners and mode of life of its inhabitants. Wealth had evidently increased, and exotic luxuries and fashions had taken root in the soil. At the epoch of my former visit the city boasted but one carriage; now gay equipages, with servants in gaudy liveries, were to be met with in every street. Formerly a few clumsy and Quaker-like buggies, drawn by horses better fitted for the plough than the shafts, might be seen lumbering along, conveying a physician on his rounds, or an elderly gentleman and his wife to their cottage in the suburbs; now vehicles of the smartest and most fashionable description, whether designated in the nomenclature of the day as Dennet, Stanhope, Whiskey, Tilbury, or Drosky, glittered past with almost meteorlike velocity in all the great avenues of the city. The ideas of the generation which had been springing up during my absence evidently differed widely from those of their fathers. .    . . Several new and elegant streets had sprung up to the westward of the city, and the gayer and more wealthy part of the population had deserted their former small and smoky residences, for the more elegant and commodious mansions which these afforded.” In reference to early commercial matters in Glasgow Dr. Strang says: “While the tobacco trade existed, as we have already seen, the class engaged in this lucrative business was limited, and their position in society was special and prominent. But no sooner had the Virginia lords thrown aside their scarlet cloaks, gold-headed canes, cocked hats, and bushy wigs, and left the field open to the ambition and enterprise of the wider circle of merchants engaged in the growing commercial intercourse with the West Indian colonies and foreign countries, than a new order of things began to be developed. Business of all kinds became diffused among the citizens. The two great classes of society, into which the city has been so long divided, gradually disappeared. The merchant and manufacturer were now seen amalgamating; while the strict social barrier, which so long separated the tradesman from the foreign trader, was henceforth swept away amid the daily intercourse of business men, which, after 1781, had been taking place under the canopy of the public News-room at the Cross. Trade, in fact, was now regarded under a new and more universal phase; and society assumed a more cosmopolitan condition, under a happy amalgamation of all classes.”


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