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An Alternative History of Glasgow : The Victorian City and the Workshop of the Empire

Updated on January 5, 2019
The Duke of Wellington sports the latest High Street fashion. (Photo by Laertes @ Flickr Creative Commons)
The Duke of Wellington sports the latest High Street fashion. (Photo by Laertes @ Flickr Creative Commons)

The Victorian City and the Workshop of the Empire.

And so Glasgow embarked into the Industrial Revolution with such a fervour that the city became known as the ‘Workshop of the Empire’ and the shithole of Europe.

Crofters and farmers either gave up planting turnips to work in the factories or were booted off by the landowners who were developing bigger farms to make more turnips or breed sheep to interfere with.

Many Highlanders sailed to the Americas or migrated south to work and the Irish came in their thousands to help fill the jails. Lots of them toiled in the linen mills and then the cotton mills, others worked in the many factories that were springing up all over the place

Bradley Jones @ Flickr
Bradley Jones @ Flickr

The textile spinners weren’t always happy chummies as evidenced by the Calton Weavers riot of 1787 where 6 were put in the mortuary after a bit of target practice by the 39 Regiment of Foot

Their leader Colonel Kellet got the freedom of the city for marksmanship and sporting prowess.

So no surprise that eventually in 1800 The Glasgow Police Act was introduced and Glasgow became the first city in Britain to have the Bobbies plodding the cobbles and keeping the peace.

Many Highlanders joined the force because they were so tall and subsequently were given extra clothing allowance. Unfortunately, helmets were not issued and head injuries were common when they banged their skulls on doorframes during dawn raids.

But industrialisation and urbanisation from the late 18th century brought overcrowding, squalor and disease as well as the World’s largest chemical plant at St Rollox built in 1800. It also had the largest chimney in the world and if the wind blew in the right direction it could hopefully poison Edinburgh.

The growth of the city also brought lots of colourful characters in the early 19th century such as Rab Ha’ the Glasgow Glutton who did eat all the pies and left through the door sideaways. Then there was Auld Hawkie the ‘Glasgow Demosthenes’, a rough street orator bumping his gums on any subject on the city streets and taking on all comers.

And let us not forget Robert Dreghorn who was nicknamed ‘Bob Dragon’ since he enjoyed the accolade of being the ugliest man in Glasgow in the face of intense competition.

Robert S Donovan @ Flickr
Robert S Donovan @ Flickr

Invasion of the body-snatchers

Lots of people and lots of disease meant lots of stiffs getting planted in the ground and this was a great boon to the grave-robbing business.

They were always short of fresh bodies though, since the 1780’s the courts started transporting crooks to Australia.

Prior to that many had been hung in the streets of Glasgow in front of delighted crowds of enthusiastic ghouls.

Then they were carted off to the Medical Schools to be chopped up in front of delighted crowds of enthusiastic students.

But with transportation there came a shortage and the economic rules of supply and demand meant there was an opening in the market for enterprising young bodysnatchers to make a few bob.

On one particular day in 1818 in front of a class of spotty students, one of the dead bodies was the one that used to be the murderous Matthew Clydesdale. After swinging in the breeze down at Glasgow Green he started to smell and was handed over to the School of Medicine. It is said he came alive in a class laboratory after being connected to a huge battery causing pandemonium in the room.

And thus was born the legend of the ‘Glasgow Frankenstein’, although the story goes that he was immediately malkied with a scalpel by a Doctor and fell dead to the floor. Allegedly a conspiracy of silence was born to protect the name of the good doctor by a classroom of students desperate to pass their exams.

In 1823 Charles Macintosh became a true hero to the rain-soaked Scottish nation when he invented waterproof garmentry. In other words the mis-spelled mackintosh coat as he couldn’t think of anything else to call it. Someone suggested naming it the ‘raincoat’ but Charles didn’t think that would catch on.

And another inventive layabout was J.B. Neilson, who in 1828 was doing work on iron smelting when he invented the ‘Hot Blast’ furnace. He got the idea after the wife caught him teaching anatomy to a servant girl. But she forgave him as he made pots of money and kept the house warm on the cheap.

The great outpouring

A cholera epidemic struck the city in 1832 with over 3,000 perishing and then it happened again in 1848 and 1853 as well. Cholera was the scourge of the city as half the population were crapping themselves into oblivion.

People drained away into dehydration as snotters, sweat, vomit and diarrhoea spouted from every pore and orifice. To make matters worse temperatures were mild and the binmen were on strike.

“Knock! Knock!”

“Who’s there”

“Health inspectors”

“Health inspectors who?”

“Pack it in! We’re checking for cholera” said the inspectors, “Come to the door”

“I can’t”

“Why not”

“I can’t move my legs”

“Are you ill? Have you had an accident”

“No! I’ve been stuck on the toilet for eight hours”

No surprise then that in 1842 the Glasgow slums were described as the filthiest in Britain, proving that the city was always one step ahead of the competition. The city held this record for 130 years running, a world record unlikely to be beat. The citizens of Naples, Calcutta and the shanty towns of Rio held benefit dances in their honour, but kept the cash.

atomic jeep @ Flickr
atomic jeep @ Flickr

Lord Kelvin, International Superprof.

By 1848 Glasgow University mathematician and pioneer of modern physics Professor William Thomson had grown an enormous beard.

This meant that he didn’t have to shave his throat and it also entitled him to a peerage.

Therefore he became Lord Kelvin named after the pollution-ridden river that flowed into the Clyde the latter of which had enough muck of its own.

Nevertheless he was an exceedingly bright egghead and science boffin.

He worked in Thermodynamics and introduced the absolute scale of temperature which was named the ‘Kelvin’ scale as they couldn’t think of anything else to call it.

In 1856 he was also responsible for the first Atlantic telegraph cable 3,000 miles along the sea-bed using a crack team of underwater Navvies.

By 1851 the population reached almost 330,000 of which about one-fifth were Irish. This had a profound effect on the local economy as Guinness were now in competition with Tennents and sales of rosary beads and dog collars went through the roof.

The candle factories worked double-shifts at Easter and bare-knuckle fighting became a national sport. Sectarianism went from strength to strength and became a popular past-time even till this day.

Celebrity murders

Many famous events took place in the late 19th century such as the poisoning of Frenchman Pierre L’Angelier which led to his secret lover Madeleine Smith being charged with murder and tried in Edinburgh in 1857.

Since Madeleine was a young middle class woman from a respectable family her arrest sent shockwaves through Scottish society.The scandal and public interest was on a scale comparable with the O.J. Simpson case apart from the high-speed car chase, live TV coverage or anything else.

The verdict in Edinburgh was kind of similar though as it was the uniquely Scottish 'not proven' decision which basically means "we know you did it but we can't nail you for it" and Madeleine walked free.

Like many notorious Scots suspected of heinous crimes she moved to the USA and became a highly respected member of New York society where she died in 1928. Poor Pierre lies in unmarked burial ground in the Ramshorn graveyard in Glasgow.

Scott Clark @ Flickr
Scott Clark @ Flickr

In 1865 Dr Edward Pritchard was at it too when he was convicted and hung for the murder of not only his wife but also his mother-in-law.

There is no substance to the rumour that his lawyer considered a plea of justifiable homicide and so the evil doctor was executed in front of 80,000 people at Glasgow Green.

His coffin was so shoddy that the bottom fell out and so did he and then someone nicked his boots. You've got to keep your wits about you in Glasgow.

This record attendance by far still stands today for a public entertainment event at the Green.

The next closest was believed to be Michael Jackson in 1992 when a paltry 35,000 came along, although to be fair that was all ticket whilst Pritchard was hung for free.

The Glasgow medical profession weren't all bad of course as in the 1860’s the English doctor Joseph Lister conducted world pioneering research into antiseptics at the Royal Infirmary in the city.

This meant that many more patients left hospital in a vertical, ambulatory state instead of feet first into the graveyard. His name now lives on gloriously in mouthwash and tasteless chewing gum.

In sport an historical event took place in the world of football in 1876 when the famous Partick Thistle were founded. This was 9 years after Queens Park started up as well as a couple of other teams in the city, most notably of course the monolithic giants of Third Lanark in 1872 and Clyde FC in 1877.

In 1883 the Boys Brigade was formed in the city to train up young fit lads and imbue them with enough morals and upright principles to become cannon-fodder in the Boer War of 1899-1902. In 1908 the Boy Scouts movement began in Glasgow just in time for the First World War.

Queen Vicky pays a visit.

In 1870 the University relocated permanently to Gilmorehill in the West End because the High Street had become such an overflowing toilet of filth and contagious diseases. Also because the greedy Profs got a huge bunch of cash from the Glasgow Union Railway who wanted to build a goods yard on the site.

Back over in the west in 1888 an International Exhibition was staged at Kelvingrove Park which attracted 6 million visitors and was attended by Queen Victoria herself on two occasions to help boost the numbers.

ofarri @ Flickr
ofarri @ Flickr

“Welcome to the Exhibition” announced Lord Provost Sir James King,

“Thank you” replied the Queen,

“I must say, I really love that dress Your Majesty”

“Thank you kindly” she replied gracefully

“Kind of Gothic you know, that dark look” he said, “I like it, do you have boots underneath that.......!”

“I’m in mourning for my late husband I’ll have you know” she interrupted,

“But that was 27 years ago!” said the Provost, “C’mon lighten up now, give us a smile”

“How dare you!” retorted the Queen, “I could have your knighthood for that”

“Well then, come and see the show", said Sir James, quickly changing the subject, "How about the Eastern Palace or the Dutch Cocoa House? I think you’ll find them all rather amusing”

“Don’t bet on it mister!!”

It was such a rip-roaring success that they had another one in 1901 attended by 11.5 million. Queen Victoria didn’t turn up this time because she was dead. Before that in 1896 the subway system was opened which meant you could travel to work or play without choking on the fumes of industrial Glasgow. Although if you stayed down too long you could get a nasty cold in the chest or the occasional rat bite.

The Glasgow School of Art (Dalbera @ Flickr)
The Glasgow School of Art (Dalbera @ Flickr)

Who'd be an architect?

In 1868 the famous architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh was born and in 1897 he was commissioned to design a modest building for the new Art School.

So just to annoy them he cooked-up a world-famous masterpiece.

Nobody knew this at the time as Mackintosh was largely ignored until the 1970s, 50 years after his death in 1928.

He was preceded however by Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson who was born in 1817 and was unknown outside his native city until the 1950’s, long after his death in 1875.

It was a hard life being an architect in Glasgow in those days, and these guys were men of genius.

There was much, much worse to come

But above all else this was the time when heavy industry truly flourished in Glasgow. This left its mark on Glasgow as many rich businessmen, industrialists and other criminals embarked on a massive building programme of factories, mansions and townhouses noted for their architecture of the time.

Many of these buildings still survive today and not for nothing is Glasgow referred to as 'The Victorian City' such is the influence of that golden age of economic exploitation, child labour and dodgy health and safety practices. The ubiquitous red sandstone tenement buildings spread all over the cityscape and have become synonomous with the name of Glasgow.

Absolutely Steamin' in Glasgow

In industry the city became a hub for the building of steam locomotives and by 1903 around 600 were being built every year. Around two-thirds were exported which meant that one-quarter of the world's steam-trains were built in Glasgow.

One of the biggest customers were the people of India as many trains were needed to steal their raw materials and rush them to the ports before the locals cottoned-on.

The most important industry in Glasgow however was in Shipbuilding and by 1914 the yards along the Clyde River accounted for almost one-fifth of the tonnage of ships in the entire world.

Famous ships such as the Cutty Sark were built on the Clyde and during the age of steam the great Robert Napier was known as ‘The Father of Clyde Shipbuilding’. Luckily the Clyde never got the contract for the Titanic so you can blame the Irish for that one since it was built in Belfast.

Glasgow did get the equally ill-fated Lusitania though, which was a bit of bad luck. But you can blame the Germans for that one.


Photo from 'Jon's pics' @ Flickr Creative Commons
Photo from 'Jon's pics' @ Flickr Creative Commons

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