Glasgow Work and Labour – Simon Newman


Courses that may find this source useful: The Atlantic Slave Trade, Changing Britain

University of Glasgow’s Professor Simon Newman analyses the flourishing Glasgow: burgeoning industries – such as bleaching, textile manufacturing and naval work – which increased exports from the city and attracted new denizens to it, all of which facilitated Glasgow‘s  journey in becoming the Second City of the British Empire.

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Section 1
Section 2
Section 3

Section 1

‘A View of Glasgow Looking Down the Clyde’ presents an attractive view of the city at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The open green space of Glasgow Green dominates the picture, and in the background bridges span the river and smoke rises gently from the chimneys of buildings, suggesting that warm fires and cosy homes await the people we see. Families talk and play, dogs romp, and a young woman milks a cow. All in all, Glasgow appears to be a beautiful, green and welcoming place.

Yet there was far more to Glasgow than one might think when looking at this painting. What appears to be a church steeple, rising to the right of the picture was in fact the tower of the Merchants’ Hall, which still stands to this day. Representative of the city’s trade with the far corners of the world, the steeple was topped by a copper ship and globe, symbolizing Glasgow’s place as the Second City of the British Empire, a major centre of trade and manufacturing. Closer to the middle of the picture, appearing over the northern end of the Old Bridge, are ships’ masts, providing further evidence of the huge amount of trade between Glasgow and the rest of the world. Below these is the dark slate roof of a great saw mill, providing timber for the commercial and residential building boom that was overwhelming the old city. And finally, to the left of the picture we can see women who were bleaching fabric which had been manufactured in Glasgow. The artist who painted this picture was quite clever in giving a first impression of a beautiful, calm and green town, but also including clues to indicate that this was a hard-working modern city, manufacturing goods and then trading them all over the world.

During the century preceding the painting of this picture [Scotland] had risen to become the world’s fourth most urban nation, with more and more of its people living in towns and cities. By 1800 well over 75,000 people lived in Glasgow, and each year more and more people arrived from the Highlands and Islands, and from as far away as Ireland, all eager for work. Sugar, tobacco, cotton and other goods came in from Britain’s colonies and trading partners in the Caribbean, North America, Africa, India and Asia, and in Glasgow people worked to process these raw materials. At the same time others worked manufacturing everything from hats to shoes to clothing.

Although this painting suggests that Glasgow was an open, airy and spacious city, it was in fact becoming very crowded. The area north of George Street, today occupied by Strathclyde University, remained underdeveloped with more green space than buildings, while the area west of George Square towards today’s Buchanan Street was only just being laid out and developed. The wealthy were beginning to leave the inner city, building large and spacious mansions with big gardens on the western outskirts of the city. Those who remained, the middle and working class, were crammed into the oldest areas of the city, such as the High Street, Drygate, and Saltmarket, and large tenements were subdivided with more and more families living in smaller and smaller spaces.

Section 2

So what kinds of work were the people of Glasgow doing? Cloth and textile manufacturing provides a good example. Lacking powerful rivers for large-scale water-powered spinning, Glasgow’s traditional reliance on handloom weaving continued throughout the eighteenth century, and in 1791 it was estimated that Glasgow’s textile manufacturing was built upon the work of fifteen thousand looms, in and around the city.  According to the Statistical Account of 1799, each loom gave employment to an average of nine men, women and children, from preparing the cotton and wool, spinning and weaving, and then bleaching, printing, and dyeing the fabric. Traditionally manufacturers and merchants had controlled the complicated and expensive process of preparing flax, which was then distributed to thousands of men and women in and around Glasgow and beyond for spinning and weaving, after which the fabric was returned to the manufacturer for bleaching, printing and dyeing.  Over the course of the eighteenth century, small independent spinners and weavers lost more and more of their independence as they became increasingly indebted to merchants, and with less control over the conditions and wages of their work.

The women we can see to the left of this picture, with large bundles of fabric and bowls of bleach and water, were hard at work, bleaching newly manufactured fabric white. Don’t let this picture fool you: the work they did was hard and harmful. The bleach they used was a powerful chlorine-based chemical, which would burn their skin and lungs as they worked. It was not pleasant work, but hundreds and hundreds of women and children were doing it, many more of them across the river in the less-built up area of the Gorbals. The bleach that many of them used came from Tennant’s Chemical Works, which lay just north of Glasgow and would soon become one of the largest chemical works in the world.

The fabric manufactured and bleached by Glasgow workers showed the ways in which the city was growing through trade with the outside world. While wool traditionally came from Scotland, cotton had come from all over the world – from America, the Caribbean and Africa. In Glasgow workers turned this cotton into fabric and clothing. Some of what they produced was then used in Glasgow and elsewhere in Britain, but a great deal was re-exported for sale in Asia, West Africa and America. There were, for example, slaves on Caribbean and American plantations who wore clothing made of fabric manufactured, bleached and then dyed in Glasgow.

In the past manufacturing had generally been on a very small-scale, and was usually done by skilled craftsmen and their apprentices. If you had been in Glasgow in 1700, for example, and you wanted and could afford shoes or a shirt, you would have gone to a skilled shoemaker or a shirt-maker. This skilled craftsman would have measured you and then he and his apprentices would have made what you wanted by hand. But by the time this picture was painted in 1808, mass-production of manufactured goods was replacing this older craft system. The advantage of mass-produced shoes, clothing and other items was that they were cheaper. The disadvantage, however, was that the work was no longer done by skilled craftsmen but instead was increasingly done by semi-skilled and even unskilled workers who were usually very poorly paid. Wages declined as more and more semi-skilled and unskilled workers entered the workforce, and living conditions deteriorated.

We can see the increasing desperation of textile workers who could not earn enough to feed, clothe and house their families. Wage cuts during the 1780s prompted thousands of Glasgow’s weavers to strike and, in 1787, to attack the looms of those who continued to work.   Angry strikers threw “stones, brickbats and other missile weapons” at troops who then fired on the crowd. Conditions worsened during the Napoleonic Wars, and over the following two decades weavers’ income declined by two-thirds while food and other costs rose.  Glasgow weavers worked hard to enforce the traditional rights of the craft associations and guilds to turn to the courts for fair prices and wages, but the bosses refused to give way.  Backed up by Parliament, which legislated against combinations of workers (in other words unions), the employers were empowered to set wages and conditions of employment.  As fast as the Glasgow workforce had increased during the long eighteenth century, so too had the traditional rights and privileges of its workers declined.

Section 3

Workers like the women bleaching cloth in this picture remembered what was called the “fearful time” of eight years earlier. For one Glasgow handloom weaver and his family there had been no work and no money. A visitor to their one room remembered “There was nothing in the house to eat, and they had little coals except what was on the fire.  They went to bed supperless, and as they had nothing to eat thought it better to remain in bed instead of rising on Sunday morning.” Such desperation prompted these poor and starving workers to take action, and the same memorialist remembered “Every Saturday night some meal-dealer’s shop or other was gutted, and his provisions thrown to the starving people outside.”  Merchants and shopkeepers who were said to be hoarding food or charging unfair prices while working people were hungry were “put in bodily fear,” as in the case of a merchant on the High Street, outside whose store a crowd waited “with a halter fixed to the lamp-post opposite, ready to hang him had he come out – and ten to one they would have done it.” Glasgow’s textile workers were often starving and desperate.

And it was not just low wages that made their lives more difficult. The increasing concentration of population had serious consequences. As textile production, dye-works and tanneries expanded, pure water became scarce. Fresh water supplies within the city were increasingly limited and often contaminated. Living in crowded and unsanitary conditions, diseases and illnesses spread like wildfire. By the early nineteenth century over 60% of all deaths in the city were the result of infectious diseases, with tuberculosis the largest single killer. So again, don’t be fooled by this picture: Glasgow was, for many of the people who lived here, a very unhealthy and dangerous place. Living in increasingly concentrated quarters, with contaminated drinking water, and suffering from the malnutrition that was inevitable during periodic bouts of unemployment, mortality rates in the city rose.  Between 1783 and 1791, for example, over-half of the people who died in Glasgow were children under the age of five.

Glasgow was becoming a city of great wealth inequality – the rich were becoming much richer, and the poor much poorer. Perhaps inspired by the attempted strikes and protests of their parents, the children of workers sometimes mounted their own protests. One Glaswegian remembered winter snowball fights in the late eighteenth century, which took on new significance when large groups of young boys gathered and called on rich men and women in the streets “to make obeisance to them on passing – the men to take off their hats, and the women to drop them a curtsey.”  The wealthy men and women who refused were “unmercifully pelted with snow balls.”  These young boys grew up watching their parents living and working in more and more deferential relations with employers and the city’s financial elite, and they knew that similar lives awaited them: but on some winter days, with well-aimed snowballs, they could strike back.

It is worth thinking about the children we see in this picture, almost all of whom are well-dressed middle and upper class children. Why are there so few working class children in this picture? Because, quite simply, most of them were already working: only the rich had the time and leisure to play during the workday. And besides, when working class children did play, they may well have chosen other places. In the late 1700s, for example, a disused quarry lay at the edge of the city, on what would become West George Street, and it was a dumping ground for much of the city’s rubbish, including the carcasses of dead horses, cows, dogs and other animals. Young children scavenged the dump, looking for things they could play with or sell. Some even tore into ‘the numerous putrid carcases’ of dead animals for what one remembered to be ‘the finest maggots in the world’, which he and his friends used as bait when they went fishing. Any fish they could catch might make a big difference to what they and their families would eat that night. The lives of working class children and the lives of the more privileged children who we see in this picture were worlds apart.

And so in this picture of ‘A View of Glasgow’ we can see quite a lot about the changes going on in the city, and about the hard lives of those whose work would help turn Glasgow into the Second City of the Empire, a mighty centre of trade and manufacturing.


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