4. Social Unrest In Glasgow

The expansion of Glasgow meant that it rapidly became a city larger than any in Great Britain other than London. This almost uncontrolled growth brought serious social problems.

The growing dependence upon the textile industry meant that any downturn resulted in massive unemployment. This first occurred in 1811 when a cotton shortage threw thousands out of work. By the 1820s there were still many unemployed parents who sent their children to work in the mills in order to provide some kind of family income. It was perhaps not so much a matter of the unemployed adults sending their children to work, but rather that the factory owners would employ only children for many tasks. They were “nimble, docile workers who could squeeze into the smallest crevices, would work the longest hours and commanded the most meagre wages” .

The return of soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars increased the unemployment problem. The returned soldiers were more militant than most and demanded what they believed was their right to food and work after having served their country. The spectacle of these soldiers, many in the remnants of their uniforms “clamouring with the rest of the hopeless for food” was an “embarrassing spectacle” to say the least . It was also a stimulant for further unrest which grew as the unemployed increasingly demanded work and as the employed increasingly demanded better conditions of work. A secret government report during the early 1820s branded Glasgow as a place 'where treasonable practices prevail to the greatest degree' .

The unrest grew. The population grew. The conditions worsened. Every night during 1819 cavalry patrolled the streets of Glasgow. Special constables cleared the crowds of unemployed in an attempt to prevent riots. In April 1820 unemployed weavers from out of Glasgow confronted the police. Eighteen were arrested and charged with treason. The next day the majority of workers in Glasgow stopped work in protest. The arrested men were tried. Two were executed and sixteen transported to New South Wales . The 1820s were a little more subdued but the underlying problems remained .

The pressure for reform continued and at the time of the so called “Reform General Election“ in 1830, one hundred thousand supporters of reform marched through Glasgow. Such protests continued during the early 1830s with larger marches occurring and protesters shouting “Liberty or Death”.

In 1837 cotton mill workers went on strike for fourteen weeks in support of retaining wage levels in the mills. Five of the strikers were brought to trial in January 1838 charged with illegal combination, assault, fire raising, and murder. Each was transported for seven years. This prompted further protests and calls for parliamentary reform . Such social unrest as occurred in Glasgow was common across Great Britain, but Glasgow developed a reputation for excesses of violence and “treasonable activities”.

There were, of course a number of issues, including inadequate parliamentary representation, that had led to public unrest across the country, but in Glasgow the conditions of employment and living were closer to the hearts and minds of the people. Exploitation of workers by mill owners and chronic unemployment were serious considerations. Government legislation outlawed the “combination” of workers into unions or societies aimed at bettering conditions. But conditions could not get better until workers had some way of countering the power of the mill owners. The target of their protests was the government and parliamentary reform.
Given the scale and frequency of the protest marches it is easy to imagine that William and Janet Wilkie must have taken some part in the demonstrations during the 1830s.


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