5. Working Class Glasgow

The rapid increase in Glasgow's population soon brought serious overcrowding. Land ownership laws meant that expansion of the city was not easily achieved so most of the incoming workers and their families had to find lodgings in existing buildings. A report to parliament in 1839 claimed that nowhere in England or Europe was there “so large an amount of filth, crime, misery and disease“ existing in one place as in Glasgow. Lord Shaftsbury observed that Health would be impossible in such a climate; the air tainted by exhalation from the most stinking and stagnant sources, a pavement never dry, in lanes not broad enough to admit a wheelbarrow .

In 1842 a report into the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population observed that in parts of Glasgow there were no privies or drains and that huge dung heaps were built up with “all the filth which swarms of wretched inhabitants could give”. The report also observed that there were people so poor that some had to remain huddled indoors under blankets while the only set of clothes possessed was being worn outdoors by a companion. In other places families shared there rooms with litters of pigs or other animals.

The scarcity of accommodation meant that several families often shared the same rooms. By the mid 1820s central Glasgow had become a place of squalor. Many of the streets had deep wheel ruts filled with mire, gutters alongside overflowed with a putrid accumulation of waste matter. Cleaning of the streets was so rare that the occasional thunderstorm did more to clean them than anything else. But when it rained the streets also became impassable quagmires .

Crime became prevalent. Theft, violence, murder and suicide were common. Citizens were warned against venturing outdoors after dark, especially in the newly developing factory areas to the east of the city Calton and Bridgeton .
And yet this was the area in which William and Janet Wilkie had decided to live and work during the mid 1820s. And despite the apparent dangers and disadvantages, the family remained there for over one hundred years.

Calton and Bridgeton

In the 1820s Calton was a small but developing burgh just outside the eastern boundary of the city of Glasgow. It bordered the burgh of Bridgeton, traditionally a village of handloom weavers. Both were in the centre of an area that was being developed by wealthy industrialists with large spinning and weaving mills . Land was unavailable within the city limits, but the landowners of Calton and Bridgeton were happy to sell to the entrepreneurs who wanted to build factories and mills. Following the lead of David Dale, who had built a model spinning mill at New Lanark, to the west of Glasgow in 1784, and had built housing for the factory workers, the factory owners to the east also provided accommodation. But this accommodation, mainly three storeyed brick tenements, was of poor quality and could not be controlled by any building regulations that applied within the city limits .

The degenerate nature of living conditions in central Glasgow were surely known to William and Janet Wilkie when they decided to move to the city. In the mid 1820s it must have seemed to William and Janet Wilkie that the living conditions in Calton would be better than in the city. The houses and tenements had been newly constructed, and the proximity of a large number of mills and factories would provide easy access to work.

It is not known for whom William Wilkie worked after moving to Calton. For many years the family lived at 22 James Street surrounded by textile mills and other factories. It is possible that he worked as House Wright for one of these . In 1859 there was, at 47 James Street Calton, the workshop of Burns Brothers, Wrights . It is also possible that he may have worked at this workshop. Whatever his actual place of employment it is clear that there would have been many potential workplaces for a person with his skills.

Twenty two James Street was within half a mile of the open country and within the same distance of the city. Nearby were the three Greens, or Parks, which were the common meeting place for the residents of Glasgow. Houses near these Greens were in great demand. It is apparent that William and Janet Wilkie would have found much to attract them to Calton, although that is not to say that they may have also found much of concern as time went on.

The inhabitants of Calton and Bridgeton became a proud and loyal group of people. Calton had been granted the status of an independent burgh in 1817. Bridgeton was originally a village, and somewhat troubled by “roughs” who came there from Glasgow.
David Dale, George Mackintosh and others established the Barrowfield Dyeworks in Bridgeton, just north of the Clyde, in 1785. Streets were laid out around the mill to house the workforce. The intention was perhaps to repeat the experiment of New Lanark . Other mills followed and by the mid 1800s the old village of Bridgeton had changed from a small community of a few thousand hand loom weavers in 1805 to a district of mills with a population of over 60,000 .

Rapidly it became a district of tenements and factories, but old families remained and loyalties developed. By 1844 Glasgow had annexed Bridgeton and Calton in an attempt to find room for its expanding population which had reached 283,000 by 1841. By 1851 it had reached 359,000 .


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