During this period manufacturing in Glasgow and the west of Scotland was transformed from domestic handcraft to factory-based industries, beginning with the linen industry. By 1771 Glasgow was Britain's leading linen town, producing over 2 million yards of cloth and specialising in printed calicoes. The villages around the city all had their communities of handloom weavers, whose families spun the yarn. The first print works was established in 1742 in Pollokshaws and others followed after 1750 with families such as the Crums, the Orrs and Stirlings dominating the industry. Although quality was the hallmark of the trade, coarser osnaburgs and brown linens were produced for day-to-day use. With the mechanisation of spinning, particularly by the Lancastrian Samuel Crompton's mule in 1779, cotton, which could be spun more easily by machine, began to replace linen. The first cotton mill was opened at Rothesay on the island of Bute in that year and by 1793 there were thirty-nine water-powered mills in the west of Scotland, including the celebrated New Lanark and Catrine mills. Because of the lack of suitable water courses none of these was in Glasgow itself.
Improvements made to the steam engine by James Watt in Glasgow in the 1760s revolutionised the means of production. The west of Scotland was slow to adopt steam. The first steam powered mill, the Springfield Mill, was built in the east end of Glasgow in 1792. By 1800 there were only eight in the whole of Scotland but by 1831 in Glasgow alone there were 107. Despite this most weaving continued to be on handlooms. By then the number of weavers had increased to such an extent that some villages on the outskirts of Glasgow, such as Calton and Anderston, were fast becoming towns. It was estimated there were 45,000 hand loom weavers in the west of Scotland in 1831, with 20,000 in the city alone. Although power looms had been introduced in the first decade of the century they were used mostly for weaving simple fabrics. The development of both water and steam powered mills bought new custom to the west of Scotland's long established leather industries as nearly all the machinery was driven by leather belts.
The mechanisation of the textile industry encouraged the development of metal working trades. The first modern ironworks was opened in 1779 at Wilsontown in north Lanarkshire, but it was not until the 1780s and 1790s that there was a sustained expansion. These early foundries, which drew much of their expertise from Carron & Co outside Falkirk, made parts for textile machinery and later steam engines. The first engineers often owned their own mills, such as James Cook and Henry Houldsworth. Although the Clyde Ironworks at Carmyle won orders for boring canon during the Napoleonic wars the industry languished and with the coming of peace in 1815 it declined. Its fortunes did not revive until after the invention of the "hot blast" furnace for smelting iron by James Beaumont Neilson in 1828. Nevertheless a few engineers had begun to exploit new markets. In about 1815 James Cook, who had a works at Tradeston, built a sugar mill driven by a beam engine for a West Indian plantation, laying the foundations of what was to become a significant speciality.
Although boats had been built around the shores of the Firth of Clyde for centuries, they were nearly all for local use, such as ferries and fishing boats. It was not until after the American War of Independence that larger ocean-going vessels began to be built on the river for such merchants as Kirkman Finlay. In 1812 Henry Bell, a Helensburgh hotelier, designed and commissioned the first commercially successful steamship, the Comet. The engines and boiler were built in Glasgow and the hull on the lower Clyde at Port Glasgow. Others quickly followed this example and two years later nine steamboats were launched. These were at first for use on the sheltered waters of the Clyde, but by the 1820s larger vessels were being built for the coastal and Irish trades. Barclay & Co opened the first shipyard in Glasgow itself at Stobcross pool in 1818. Marine engineering was by then a significant feature of the industrial landscape.
Although textiles and engineering were the largest Glasgow trades by 1830, there were several other significant industries such as chemical manufacture, brewing and whisky distilling. Charles Tennant invented dry bleaching powder for use by the textile industry and established the St Rollox works in 1800 to make soda from common salt. With its famous stalk (chimney), it was to become the largest works of its kind in the world. The Anderston Brewery was regarded as a model enterprise and the Greenhead Brewery was equipped with a Watt steam engine as early as 1800. Side by side at Port Dundas by 1820 were two of the largest distilleries in Scotland which made pot still grain whisky, often termed Irish whiskey. Most beer and whisky was sold from the barrel but some was distributed in earthenware "piggies" or glass bottles. Earthenware was made in Glasgow at the Delftfield pottery and glass in the glass cone in Jamaica Street, which can be seen in nearly all the early views of Glasgow.
Despite the advances in technology and an overall increase in production, these were difficult times for Glasgow industry. Trade was disrupted first by the American War of Independence (1775-1783), then by the wars with revolutionary France (1793-1815) and finally by the long depression in trade which followed the victory at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The mills were often idle and weavers thrown out of work, raising the danger of civil disorder. There were regular failures at times of crisis, such as the collapse of James Dunlop, one of the wealthiest merchants in Glasgow with extensive industrial interests, in 1792 and of the colourful William Harley in 1822. Bankruptcy was treated leniently by the courts in Scotland and imprisonment for debt was rare. Commonly it was possible to make a composition with creditors (the payment of a proportion of the debt) so that the business could continue to trade until conditions improved.
Although by 1830 Glasgow was an important industrial as well as commercial centre, its future domination of the world's heavy industries was not assured. The Thames and the Avon at Bristol led the way in shipbuilding and engineering and the Lancashire cotton industry had outstripped that of the west of Scotland. Edinburgh had bigger breweries and distilleries. Glasgow's greatest resource, plentiful supplies of coal and iron and cheap labour, had yet to be exploited.
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