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Issue 40 - The Merchants and their city

Scotland Magazine Issue 40
August 2008


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The Merchants and their city

Aileen Torrance leads us on a tour of Glasgow shaped by the historic Tobacco Lords.

Glasgow’s rejuvenated Merchant City area is a magnet for both tourists and locals alike.

Drawn by the opportunity to eat, drink and socialise in its plethora of trendy bars, cafés and restaurants, the one pleasure denied them is a cigarette, banned by the Scottish Parliament in all public places since 2006. All the more ironic then, that tobacco is the very product which provided the wealth on which the area is founded.

Back in 1707, when the Union of the Scottish and English Parliaments allowed Scots access to English colonies and trade routes, canny Glaswegians were quick to capitalise. Loading their ships with consumer goods, they ploughed back and forth across the Atlantic to barter with the plantation owners of America and the Indies for tobacco.

By 1770, more than two thirds of all tobacco imported into Britain came into Glasgow via the Clyde, supplying tobacco leaf to the domestic market, as well as the export markets of France, Holland and Germany.

The ‘Tobacco Lords’ as the merchants of this lucrative trade came to be known, were among the wealthiest commoners in the land.

The Jamaica Gentry, Virginia Dons, or ‘princes on the pavement’ as the merchants were variously labelled, assumed a distinctive style of dress which made them easily recognisable. Black silk breeches and lavishly trimmed long coats were offset by scarlet cloaks and accessorised with expensive ebony canes with gold or silver handles, tricorn hats and gleaming silver buckles on their shoes. They were the aristocracy of the commercial world.

Like the landed gentry, they accumulated large country estates, but business dictated they remain close at hand for much of time, necessitating the building of town houses befitting of their consequence. The relatively undeveloped land along the River Clyde, to the west of Glasgow’s centre – then around the High Street and the Cathedral – was the obvious choice for expansion. Thus the Merchant City was born.

This compact area bounded by Queen Street, Ingram Street, the Trongate and High Street is redolent of its trade history. Wander through streets named for the merchants such as Alexander Oswald, John Glassford and John Ingram, and the exotic plantations such as Jamaica, Tobago and Antigua, and step back in time to a Glasgow on the brink of a transformation which would propel it from a small town of 17,000 people to the beginnings of the grand cityscape familiar today.

Queen Street was once Cow Lone, a muddy thoroughfare peppered with lowly cottages and smallholdings, the main route to the common grazing grounds in Cowcaddens, where Glasgow’s herdsmen led their cattle each morning. On the north west corner of Cow Lone, where it adjoined Back Cow Lone (now Ingram Street), was a plot of land containing a thatched cottage. This was the site purchased by Tobacco Lord William Cunninghame, and this is where the walk starts, in what is now Royal Exchange Square.

The building which is now the Gallery of Modern Art is actually William Cunninghame’s house, built for the then astronomical cost of £10,000. It has been much altered, metamorphosing from private residence to Royal Exchange before its present incarnation as an art gallery, but the foyer is original, and gives some idea of just how opulent the mansion was.

If you’ve taken time out to wander round the exhibitions on offer and all that culture has already made you thirsty, Rogano’s Oyster Bar in Royal Exchange Square will soon put you to rights. Glasgow’s oldest restaurant, the bar is beautiful original art deco, with classy service and a classy cocktail list to match.

Returning to the walk, make your way along Ingram Street and into Miller Street. At Number 42 you will find the residence of Robert Findlay, part of a complete terrace built in 1775 by John Craig, and the only complete Tobacco Lord’s mansion still standing unaltered.

Back in Ingram Street, on the site where the Corinthian bar now stands, George Buchanan built Virginia Mansion on land inherited from his father Andrew. Before work could begin, the clutter of farm buildings and cabbage fields which ran all the way along what became Virginia Street down to St Enoch’s Gate had to be cleared away.

Nearby, at what is now 191 Ingram Street, the Assembly Rooms, designed by the Adams family (no, not that one!) opened in 1796. Built along the lines of the more famous Rooms in Bath, it was a subscription club hosting balls, musical evenings and readings for the elite who could afford it.

Turn into Virginia Street, which was laid out in the 1750s when Virginia Mansion was built. The Tobacco Exchange, which became the Sugar Exchange, was established in 1819 in Virginia Galleries. Sadly, the Galleries have been largely demolished and redeveloped, but enough remains to give a real sense of what it would have been like in the heart of the commercial city.

All along Virginia Street right down to the river, were the offices and warehouses of the Tobacco Lords. Here was the hub of the tobacco business, a bustling hive of activity, where the merchants mingled with clerks, ship’s crew, warehousemen, perhaps even the occasional freed slave, the atmosphere redolent of the hogsheads of tobacco piled high in the stores awaiting auction or export.

Situated conveniently close at hand in Glassford Street (reached by way of Wilson Street) were the offices which controlled and regulated trade, playing a quintessential role in Glasgow’s mercantile life. The Trades Hall, which was designed by Robert Adam, was the ‘head office’ for Glasgow’s 14 trade guilds, and continues to perform the same function today. Directly opposite, on the corner of Wilson Street where the old Sheriff Court building now stands was Merchant’s House (now located on George Square), with its tower at the rear giving a view over the River Clyde and homewardbound vessels.

Near the Trongate end of Glassford Street a plaque marks the spot where Shawfield Mansion, home to the Glassford family from 1770, once stood. Before the Glassfords took up residence, in December 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed several nights here following his retreat from England.

On the corner of Wilson Street is Rab Ha’s bar. Robert Hall had an appetite so prodigious that his mother threw him out of the house when she could no longer afford to feed him. Rab made a living from eating competitions after this, and the pub serves food worthy of its namesake, in a cosy, woodlined bar which has the bonus of a toasty open fire in the colder months.

Returning to Ingram Street, walk along to Ramshorn Kirk and into the ‘Merchant’s Graveyard’, a pleasant oasis of calm. The cemetery at Ramshorn was the last resting place of many of the Tobacco Lords. As Ingram Street developed from Back Cow Lone, some of the graveyard was ‘reclaimed’, and in fact the bodies of the Buchanan family amongst others lie beneath the road now.

A more recent internee is Pierre Emile L’Angelier. This unfortunate young man was once suitor to Madeleine Smith, who in 1857 was accused (and found not proven) of murdering him by arsenic poisoning. A second, little-known connection between Madeleine and the law-abiding merchants is to be found through her grandfather, David Hamilton, the architect responsible for the conversion of the Cunninghame mansion from private residence to Royal Exchange.

Make your way towards Toll Cross through a district which then, as now, was a bustling mix of food markets, inns and housing. In taverns here and along the Trongate, the Tobacco Lords and their fellow merchants met to form clubs intended to promote a ‘better’ way of life. They founded the Glasgow Literary Society and the Sacred Music institution.

The Hodge Podge where merchants Cunninghame and Glassford invited speakers such as Professor of Moral Philosophy Adam Smith and philosopher Thomas Reid, started out with esoteric aims.

As with many such clubs, the original purpose became clouded, and very quickly a meeting of the Hodge Podge became as much about eating and drinking as debating.

The American Wars of Independence proved fatal to the fortunes of many of Glasgow’s Tobacco Lords. Plantations were confiscated, and trade suspended. Those who diversified (into sugar, cotton, rum, even slaves), or switched attention to the West Indies, survived, but some, such as the Buchanans, lost everything. A further blow came in 1807, the trade of slaves within the British Colonies became illegal.

Return to nearby Blackfriars Street for a final, well-deserved pit stop. Babbity Bowsters is a friendly pub with a beer garden, located in a town house designed by Robert Adam. Though there is little left, save the lower façade, of the original building, the sympathetic restoration gives a good idea, from the outside at least, of how the house would have looked in its heyday.

By the time Queen Victoria ascended to the throne, the Tobacco Lords had faded into distant memory. But their legacy lived on, not just in the street names of the Merchant City, but in the establishment of Glasgow and the River Clyde as the vast engine which would drive forward Scotland’s industrial revolution and the glory years of Glasgow ship building and heavy engineering. The tobacco on which their wealth was built may be the subject of modern disapproval, but the Tobacco Lords can be justly proud of their contribution to the development of both their city and their country.

Biographies THE BUCHANANS The son of a wealthy malt man, Andrew Buchanan (1690-1759) founded the family firm which his sons continued. He was elected Dean of Guild in 1728, and Lord Provost in 1740 and 1741. His country estate, Drumpellier, which includes the Drumpellier lochs, is now a public park near Coatbridge.

Eldest son James Buchanan (aka ‘Provost Cheeks’ because of his moon-like face) became a Commissioner of Customs in Edinburgh, and second son George Buchanan died young, leaving a country estate in Mount Vernon. His son, also called Andrew, owned large tracts of land in what is now Buchanan Street ALEXANDER SPEIRS 1714-1782 Speirs relocated from Edinburgh with the specific purpose of investing in the tobacco trade following some time spent in Virginia as a plantation owner. He made his money as a partner in a variety of firms including Speirs Bowman, Speirs French and Alexander Speirs. By diversifying into other areas such as the Glasgow Arms Bank, the Western Sugar House and the Smithfield Iron Works, Speirs protected his family fortune JOHN GLASSFORD 1715-1783 Originally from Paisley, John Glassford was probably the most successful of all the merchants, with a fleet of 25 ships and an immense fortune originating in his Virginia plantations. In addition to his town house, Glassford had another large house in Whitehill, near the Carntyne area, and a country estate in Douglaston. The Glassford family fortune did not survive the American war Nearby places of interest THETOLLBOOTH At the busy road intersection which forms the eastern boundary of the Merchant City stands the Tollbooth, which was once a much larger building five stories high, incorporating courts, a prison and a scaffold. In front of the Tollbooth was a large flat cordoned-off area called the Exchange, where merchants came to do business, the Tobacco Lords easily distinguishable in their vivid scarlet cloaks STANDREW’S PARISH CHURCH Situated in St Andrew’s Square (just down the Saltmarket from Toll Cross), this was the church the merchants helped fund and the place they came to worship. Built in the neo-classical style reminiscent of St Martin’s in the Fields, near Trafalgar Square in London, its ornate baroque interior (unfortunately not open to the public unless you’re attending an event) is an ostentatious tribute to the wealth of its original congregation. David Dale, the cotton manufacturer responsible for the founding of New Lanark, was among the church’s benefactors GLASGOW GREEN The majestic McLennan Arch towers above the entrance to Glasgow Green. This was the centre piece of the Assembly Rooms in Ingram Street, later the Athenaeum Club, opened by Charles Dickens in 1847, and fortunately saved when the building was demolished to make way for a post office

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