3. The Attraction Of Glasgow

The population of Glasgow had been around 28,000 in 1765 and grew to 67,000 by 1791. By 1811 it was well over 100,000 and by the mid 1820s when William and Janet Wilkie moved into the city, it was over 150,000. This sustained increase in population had several major causes.

Glasgow had been a major centre of the tobacco industry during the early and mid eighteenth century, processing tobacco imported from the American colonies. The American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars brought an end to the supply of tobacco during the last years of the 1700s and the early 1800s, and caused many businesses based upon the trade to collapse. Entrepreneurs soon turned their attention from tobacco to cotton.

During the same period of time, the late 1700s, Adam Smith's work on The Wealth of Nations had been influential in changing economic thought in Great Britain. Smith advocated the division of labour in order to maximise profits, believing that workers would benefit from the flow-on of increased wages. The division of labour, he argued, would simplify tasks and would make them more easily adapted to being performed by machinery. The benefit, Smith claimed, would be that the worker would be freed to do other tasks. Smith’s ideas were taken up and refined by others during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries .

The entrepreneur, however, saw the division of labour and the use of machinery mainly in terms of maximised profit for himself and reduced labour costs, not in terms of benefits for the workers .

The division of labour enabled machinery to carry out simplified and repetitive tasks. Machines could be gathered together in one location a factory. Entrepreneurs thus sought capital to establish factories, to equip them with machines, and to employ 'operatives' to operate the equipment.

The invention of the Spinning Jenny in 1765, the Water Frame in 1769, and the Spinning Mule in 1779 brought about a substantial mechanisation of the spinning industry and the establishment of many power operated spinning mills around Glasgow the number doubling from 19 in 1787 to 39 in 1796, and then jumping to 120 by 1812 .

Although the mechanisation of the spinning process reduced the demand for skilled hand spinners around Glasgow, the output from the power operated spinning mills was soon more than local hand loom weavers could cope with and weavers from outlying areas moved into the city to satisfy the demand for labour. For some years hand loom weavers around Glasgow enjoyed a boom period as the new spinning factories turned out vast quantities of yarn. But the weaving process was itself mechanised with some perfection by the late 1820s and in turn the hand loom weavers found themselves displaced by machine minders. In the meantime the number of weavers living in and around Glasgow had increased dramatically.

A second major cause of Glasgow's increasing population was the huge immigration of Irish weavers into the city. Harvest failures, serious overpopulation and unemployment in Ireland meant that Glasgow appeared very attractive to these Irish workers. By 1841 44,000 out of 270,000, or 16%, or Glasgow's population was Irish .
The third cause of population increase was the end of the war against France in 1815. Many soldiers gradually made their way home to Scotland after years away only to find that employment was no longer available in traditional rural occupations such as textiles or agriculture. They too moved into the city hoping to make a living .

The plight of the Highlanders was significant. Traditionally many Highlanders had depended upon raising cattle. But times had changed. Lowland cattle were providing greater competition; the Highland population was increasing beyond a sustainable level; thousands of Highlanders were returning from the Napoleonic Wars. To make matters worse, changes in farm management and the use of machinery, meant that it was even harder for Highlanders to survive. One option was to emigrate, and many did during the 1820s either to Australia or North America .

The option of emigration was attractive mainly to the middle classes, but for the lower classes, whether Highland or Lowland, the fares were prohibitive and an easier solution was to seek work in the expanding factory towns .

Changes in agricultural management during the mid 1700s had thrown tens of thousands of poor tenant farmers off their rented land. Landowners recognized that a more scientific management of agriculture could provide greater profits. This required the use of larger acreages and the enclosure of the land. Parliament bowed to pressure from the landowners to pass a series of Enclosure Acts evicting tenant farmers from traditionally held land. With little agricultural wage labour available most were compelled towards the cities to seek work, or charity. In Glasgow it was the rapidly expanding textile industry that provided some hope for work.

Map of Glasgow and Calton, Early 1800sBy 1834 there were 134 textile mills within a twenty five mile radius of Glasgow. Most of these were located at Anderston in the west and Calton in the east . By 1851 the textile industry was by far the greatest employer of labour in Glasgow with over 19% of the male labour force, or nearly 61,000, being directly employed by the industry . Such increase in industry encouraged urbanisation and by 1841 70% of the population of the west of Scotland was urban.

These, then, were the major causes of such rapid population growth in Glasgow during the early nineteenth century. Why did William and Janet Wilkie join this exodus to the city? To find an answer there are several further aspects of the question that should be considered.

During the 1820s large numbers of rural workers had considered the option of emigration, either to America or to Australia, although for most the fares were prohibitive, unless one was a convict and had no choice. So the majority moved into the cities where a new problem emerged what to do with masses poverty stricken, unemployed people. The Edinburgh Review had urged a program of assisted emigration in preference to increased poor relief. After 1832 free and assisted passages did become available for emigration to Australia, mainly as a response to the unemployment and poverty problems of Britain's cities . In 1837 a shortage of skilled agricultural workers and mechanics in Australia prompted a scheme to encourage the emigration of such people. An increase in emigration did occur, but not of people with the desired qualifications .

Did William and Janet Wilkie consider emigration? Possibly, but probably not.

If William Wilkie's work as a millwright was based in agricultural mills then the changes to agricultural production since the 1700s could have made his work less secure, although improved methods should also have provided more work for agricultural mills.

But it is possible that William's training as an apprentice was in an early textile mill, such as Monteith's at Pollockshaws. If so, it certainly made sense that he could use that experience in the Calton mills. His training as a millwright would have meant that he had skills that were much sought after as the textile industry rapidly became mechanised.

Furthermore, if Janet had also worked in the Pollockshaws mill, then the readiness with which they later allowed their three daughters to work in the Calton mills is easier to understand.

If William and Janet Wilkie did consider emigration during the 1820s they would have been among the minority, as few from Glasgow showed any interest in the earlier schemes put forward . By the time there was a call for mechanics in particular to emigrate in the late 1830s the Wilkie family was already well established in Calton.

As we shall see later, the demand for millwrights increased dramatically during these years as a direct result of technological changes in textile manufacture. It seems likely that William and Janet Wilkie moved to Glasgow because of better job prospects for themselves and their family.


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