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Second City of The Empire: 1830s to 1914

Map of Glasgow, 1897 Glasgow in these years was at the peak of its self-confidence. Its population had passed that of Edinburgh by the 1821 census and soon after it was referring to itself as the "second city of the Empire". Popular histories lauded its rise and compared it with great imperial cities of the past such as Rome and Venice. By the 1880s fine classical buildings as statements of power, of wealth and of confidence were appearing along fine new streets. Population increased five-fold, much by natural increase and migration but also by boundary extension as surrounding burghs were "annexed". By the end of the century it was also claiming to be the best governed city in Europe. Its cultural life was vibrant and creative. The "Glasgow Boys" were challenging conservatism in the world of art; its art patrons were among the first to purchase the work of French impressionists. Its many theatres were boldly presenting the innovative works of Ibsen and Chekhov while its music halls made or broke scores of comics. Its orchestras and choirs gained international reputations. Voluntary associations abounded and there were politics for all tastes and classes. Gilbert Scott's towering spire rising on Gilmorehill in the 1880s marked a University which was attracting scholars of international distinction. The Kelvingrove Art Gallery brought together one of the country's great art collections while its Mitchell Library was building up one of the largest public book holdings in Europe.

Heavy Industry

Garnkirk & Glasgow Railway At the same time it was a great industrial city and trading port. The decades after 1830 saw Glasgow develop into a major centre of heavy industry. The invention of the "hotblast" opened up the rich black-band deposits of Lanarkshire and greatly reduced the costs of producing pig-iron. The Monkland Canal provided a cheap and easy route to the city and to this was added a developing rail network. By the 1830s the most entrepreneurial were turning from textiles to iron founding and engineering.


The Ship Launch From the 1820s steam power was applied to the boats which plied the Clyde estuary and across the Irish Sea. What had previously been a relatively insignificant shipbuilding industry began to expand. Wooden ships gave way to iron-hulled ones. A network of entrepreneurial engineers pushed forward innovation in shipbuilding and marine engine-making. David Napier had built the engines for the first steamers. In 1830 his cousin James invented a boiler which reduced fuel consumption by some 30 per cent. Their cousin Robert moved down river from Lancefield to Govan at the end of the 1830s where he soon began to land some of the contracts for Cunard's transatlantic steamers. It was often men who had trained in Napiers' yards who went on to form new shipbuilding and marine-engine firms along the Clyde. By 1864 there were more than twenty shipyards and by 1870 more than half the British shipbuilding workforce was based on the Clyde, producing half of Britain's tonnage of shipping. The shipyards were downriver but firms in Glasgow itself provided the engines, the boilers, the brass, copper and wooden fittings and the frequently lavish furnishings. Forges and foundries abounded.


Neilson, Reid & Co The expansion of the railway network had begun in the 1830s and the Glasgow-Edinburgh link was completed in 1842. It was in the late 1840s that "railway fever" took off first in Britain but soon spreading throughout Europe and beyond. Engineering expertise allowed Glasgow firms to tap into the new markets for locomotives. Soon Glasgow was supplying custom-built locomotives to all corners of the world but especially to the ever-expanding empire. When the three main companies merged in 1903 to form the North British Locomotive Company the new company employed 8,000 workers and one of the sights of Glasgow was a locomotive being hauled from Springburn to Finnieston Quay for export. Competition from abroad, however, was making it ever more difficult for the company to find new markets for its locomotives.

Wm. Teacher & Sons A huge number of Glasgow's businesses depended upon exports. Pipes and piers, bridges and bandstands, cranes and cupolas, stoves and steam hammers were sent across the world. Some individual families made huge fortunes but it is a sign that general standards of living were on the rise that from the 1870s industries catering for domestic consumption began to grow. Thomas Lipton opened his first grocery shop in 1871 and by the 1880s had shops across the country. Others followed, bearing names which were to remain familiar until the 1960s: Masseys, Templetons, Cochranes and Galbraiths.

Boom and Bust

City of Glasgow Bank cheque Of course, there were fluctuations in the economy. Not all prospered and even the most comfortable were vulnerable to the collapse of a company or to periods of unemployment. A period of rapid growth in the early 1830s gave way to the worst depression of the nineteenth century in the late 1830s and early 1840s. Wages of handloom weavers plummeted to a few shillings a week (as low as 25p.) Yet another crisis in 1857 led to the collapse of the Western Bank and of a number of major firms. The shortage of cotton supplies in the early 1860s threw thousands out of work. But the late 1860s and first few years of the 1870s brought the century's biggest boom. With labour scarce, wages soared and workers were able to negotiate improvements in working conditions. It came to an end with the collapse of the City of Glasgow Bank in 1878 which destroyed many firms and a general economic recession brought a slump in orders for ships. Shipbuilding was always vulnerable to sharp fluctuations and the knock-on effects were felt by the numerous firms who supplied the industry. There was always the expectation of recovery which generally came but by the early 20th century there were signs of a lack of confidence and of entrepreneurial foresight. There was a slowness in investing in the steel industry. The steam engine was giving way to the oil-driven diesel and these were being developed in Germany rather than on the Clyde. Ship orders were becoming more difficult to get, were often built at a loss and the Clyde yards were becoming increasingly dependent upon government orders.

Urban Squalor

Slum Housing A look at the city's buildings provides evidence of the great wealth which was still being generated as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, but for many industries growth was faltering. The social problems too were mounting. By the 1820s and 1830s there was already comment on the difficulties being experienced in coping with the very rapid growth of population. What were once elegant squares were getting built up. What were once mansions for a single family were being made down to house a dozen or more. By the 1840s some of the city's housing conditions were regarded as among the worst in Europe. Overcrowding and a highly mobile population made the city vulnerable to epidemics. Cholera came in lethal waves. Typhus and typhoid struck with depressing regularity in foul housing "backlands" or in dingy lodging houses. Polluted water supplies, a smog-laden atmosphere and a lack of sunlight were ripe conditions for chronic illnesses as well as epidemics.

Public Health

James B Russell In the 1830s there was still a tendency to see epidemics as an act of God which had to be accepted. By the 1840s, however, campaigners were persuading the corporation that some human intervention was necessary to tackle the worse conditions. The town council took the lead in trying to remove the middens and dung heaps which were seen as a source of infection. The new civic spirit was most clearly symbolised by the opening of the new municipal water scheme from Loch Katrine in 1859. The first of a powerful line of medical officers of health was appointed in 1862. A pioneering programme of slum clearance was embarked on under the City Improvement Act of 1866. Yet the problems continued to grow. The response of the town council was to become increasingly interventionist. When private enterprise failed to build on the areas cleared of slums by the City Improvement Trust then the Trust itself began building. The gas supply, electricity, the tramways and the telephones all were in municipal ownership by the early 20th century and there was much talk of municipal socialism as a model for the future.


In politics Glasgow tended to be seen as a Liberal city, with a town council dominated for much of the time by evangelical Liberals. But with so much of its trade dependent on Empire, Conservatism and Liberal Unionism gained ground. In 1900 Conservatives and Unionists held all seven Glasgow seats. Socialism also began to advance. The first working men were elected to the town council in the 1890s and the city got its first Labour MP in 1906. It reflected a city that was increasingly socially divided with the better off moving westwards to escape the smoke and smells of the inner city and the new working-class suburbs expanding in the east or on the south side. Such divisions were to become even more pronounced in the aftermath of war as the economic difficulties mounted.

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