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The Anecdotage of Glasgow
Courageous arrest of would-be assassins at Glasgow by Sheriff Alison

DURING the commercial crisis and panic of 1837 which swept over the country, Glasgow, as a great mercantile and industrious centre, suffered severely. Prices of all kinds, of manufactured goods sunk to nearly one half; many workers were thrown idle, and the wages of those still employed were reduced, which reduction again led to general and foolish strikes, at the instance of their trades unions; first, of the operative cotton-spinners in and around Glasgow, and soon after of the whole colliers and iron miners in Lanarkshire. The effect of these two strikes was to let loose, upon an already over-distressed community, above 80,000 persons, all in a state of utter destitution, and yielding implicit obedience to their trade leaders. To cope with this formidable and well-organised body there was, in and around Glasgow, a police force of only 280 men. Bands of 800 to 1000 men traversed the streets, with banners flying and drums beating; and the colliers assembled in such numbers as to render any attempt to disperse them, except by military force, out of the question. Many violent assaults were made on the nobs or new hands, who took the place of the men out on strike, and at length, on the 22nd July of that year, a new hand was shot dead on one of the streets of Glasgow.

The masters met and offered a reward of £500 for the discovery of the persons implicated in the murder; and three days afterwards two informers met Sheriff Alison by appointment in a vault under the old college, to which the informers were admitted by a back door through the college green. They disclosed to the sheriff a plot "to assassinate the new hands and master-manufacturers in Glasgow, one after another, till the demands of the combined workmen were complied with," that the man shot three days before had been selected as the first victim, and that Mr. Arthur, master-manufacturer, was to be the next victim. The informers told the sheriff that the next meeting of committee would be held on the evening of Saturday, 29th July, in the Black Boy Tavern, Gallowgate, Glasgow. At nine o’clock at night the sheriff left his office, with no arms but his walking-stick, accompanied by Mr. Salmond, the procurator-fiscal, and Mr. Nish, the principal sheriff officer. They met Captain Miller of the police force, with twenty constables, at the mouth of the Black Boy Close, a vile den in the Gallowgate, near to the Cross. Four constables were stationed at the entrance to the close, with instructions to let no one out or in; twelve of the others were stationed round the tavern at the front, and four at the back, with orders to seize anyone attempting to escape.

Sheriff Alison, Mr. Salmond, Captain Miller, and Mr. Nish, then entered the tavern. They at once passed by a trap-door, in the chief room, and to which they ascended by a movable wooden stair or ladder, into the room above, Captain Miller first, the sheriff second, Mr. Salmond and Mr. Nish following in rotation. They found the whole committee, sixteen in number, seated round a table in consultation, with a lot of money spread out before them, and only one light, from a gas pendant descending from the roof, lighting the apartment. The sheriff brought up eight of the police, whom he stationed in the room below, re-entered the upper room, and took up his position under the gas-light to prevent it from being put out. He then looked round and saw that the committee were so panic-struck that no resistance would be offered, though they were in the room four to one. Captain Miller next called out the name of each member of the committee, and as each was named, beckoned him to go out, and they were thus one by one secured by the police in the room below. Not a blow was struck, so coolly, quietly, and firmly did the sheriff and other officials go about their work.

On Monday following (31st July), the cotton-spinners met on Glasgow Green, and by a great majority resolved to resume their work on the masters’ terms; and on Tuesday the courageous sheriff had the delight of seeing the whole of the tall chimneys in Calton and Bridgeton sending forth their wonted smoke, after a stoppage of three months. The trial of the cotton-spinners came on at Edinburgh on the 8th January, 1838; and resulted in the whole of the would-be assassins receiving sentence of transportation for seven years.

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