The son of a shoemaker, James Turner was apprenticed in the tobacco trade and in 1798 he set up on his own as a tobacconist and tobacco spinner. The business clearly flourished and by the early 19th century he had his own small estate of Thrushgrove, just outside Glasgow near the present site of Royston. It was in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars that he came to public notice when the town council and other owners of the usual meeting places refused permission for a meeting to demand political reform. Turner allowed the meeting to take place at Thrushgrove, which was outside the jurisdiction of the magistrates. On 29 October 1816, a huge demonstration of reputedly 40,000 marched to Thrushgrove behind banners demanding political reform, large brooms to sweep away corruption and caps of liberty to symbolise the call for freedom, by far the largest gathering that had been held in Glasgow up until that date. From then on he remained firmly identified with movements campaigning to extend the franchise.
In the aftermath of the radical unrest of 1820, Turner, along with many other reformers, was arrested and charged with high treason. He was, however, never brought to trial and was soon released. When the demand for political reform was renewed in 1830, Turner became a leading member of the Glasgow Political Union, which aimed to unite working-class and middle-class supporters of reform of Parliament. When the Reform Act of 1832 gave the vote only to the middle class, Turner continued to campaign for further reform and for a further extension of the franchise to include all householders.
In 1833 a democratic electorate was introduced in local politics and Turner was elected to the new Town Council as a representative of the First Ward. He remained an active member of the Council until his defeat in 1847, and he became a Baillie. He continued his interest in reform and was regularly asked to chair political reform meetings, although he did not go as far as supporting universal suffrage like the Chartists. He remained convinced of the importance of re-establishing the links between middle class and working class reformers.
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