Born in Edinburgh, the son of an Episcopalian minister, Archibald Alison (1792-1867) was educated at home and then at Edinburgh University. His politics were Tory. He regarded the French Revolution as a dire warning against popular participation in politics.
He was called to the bar in 1814 and he published various studies of the criminal law, believing in the efficacy of public executions, transportation and harsh sentences. In 1834 he became Sheriff of Lanarkshire and he and his family moved to Possil House. He was strongly opposed to trade unions which were growing in strength in the Glasgow of the 1830s and he also pressed for the introduction of a police force to the parts of Lanarkshire outside the city. All Alison's fears of popular disorder materialised in 1837 in a strike of cotton spinners during which a strike-breaker was shot. At Alison's instigation the committee of the cotton-spinners' union were charged with murder and other offences. Although acquitted of the more serious charges, they were sentenced to seven years' transportation to Australia. Alison followed up the trial with a series of attacks on trade unionism. In many ways he over-stated his case and the men were not in fact sent to Australia and, after three years in the prison hulks on the Thames, were pardoned. Alison, however, continued to fear the possibility of insurrection during the 1840s, fears enhanced by his writings on the French Revolution.
Although Alison showed a great deal of concern about the increase of poverty and ill health in the growing cities, his solutions were traditional Tory ones of hankering after a world of farms and small towns where the better off would accept some paternal responsibility for the less well-off. Along with his brother, William, he campaigned for reform of the Scottish Poor Law and for compulsory poor rates to finance ways of tackling the problems of pauperism. He died on 23 May 1867 and reputedly some 150,000 people lined the streets for his funeral.
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