In preparation for the 200th anniversary of a landmark in Scottish industrial history an appeal is being launched for more information on the story of the Calton weavers. Iain Gray looks back on Glasgow's first industrial dispute and its fatal consequences
OBLITERATED inscriptions on time-worn memorial stones in a disused and padlocked graveyard are all that survive publicly to record Glasgow's first industrial strike. Lasting from June until October, 1787, the strike involving the Calton weavers was to claim the lives of six men - shot by troops acting on orders approved by the city's magistrates. Its brutal aftermath included weavers being banished from their native land, and the public humiliation of one of their number being whipped through the streets. In common with much of the history of the Radical reform movements in Scotland, however, the incident of the Calton weavers has been largely ignored, buried beside the bones of its martyrs. While the weather and apathy may have been responsible for the obliteration of the inscriptions on the few memorials, there would appear to have been a deliberate attempt over the years to efface details of the weavers' struggle from the history books.
An attempt is being made now to atone for previous neglect. Glasgow District Council, through its arts and cultural committee, and with the cooperation of the city's People's Palace, is working towards marking the 200th anniversary, on September 3 next year, of the shooting of the Calton weavers. An appeal has gone out for information to supplement the hitherto scant details available, while an artist has been commissioned to work on a mural to be displayed inside the dome of the People's Palace. The tragic events of Monday, September 3,1787, cannot be looked at in isolation. They arose as a direct consequence of developments in the spinning industry and the first glimmerings of an organised labour force whose best interests were not necessarily those of their employers.
Once the tobacco trade declined, following the revolt of the American colonies in 1775, Glasgow's merchant princes turned their attention to trade with the West and East Indies, dealing in sugar, coffee, molasses, rum. tea, brandy and cotton. But while the wealth of the merchants increased, wages between 1760 and 1813 rose by 60%, while the cost of living rose by 130%. By 1787, Calton, then a village on the boundaries of the city of Glasgow, was home to a growing population of skilled artisans, mainly weavers. Trouble began in June of that year when the weavers and their fellow brethren who were members of the Clyde Valley General Weavers Association, learned the manufacturers planned to reduce payments for the weaving of muslin.
The proposed cut came on the heels of one which had already reduced wages between six and seven shillings a week. A further cut, the weavers protested, would bring wages down by one fourth. With taxation on the basic necessities of life already a heavy burden, the weavers resolved not to carry out any work at the proposed new rate. In the midst of the bitter dispute over the issue, the weavers went back on another resolution not to "offer violence to any man or his work." Striking weavers went to premises where the work was being carried out at the new rate, cut the webs, and in some cases publicly burned them.
While the manufacturers, supported by the Lord Provost and magistrates of the city, and its Merchants House and Trades House, railed against the strikers, the dispute, now a time-bomb, ticked away towards its bloody climax on September 3. On the morning of that day, Lord Provost William French, accompanied by magistrates and a sheriff, set out to apprehend the leaders of several hundred striking weavers who had gathered in a mob about a quarter of a mile east of the city, near the site of the present-day Tennent Caledonian brewery, in Wellpark. An appeal from the magistrates to the strikers to "return peaceably to their lawful employments," was met with a chorus of jeers, sticks, stones, and whatever other missiles happened to be at hand. Beating a quick retreat back to the city, Lord Provost and magistrates were to return later — but this time accompanied by an intimidating force from the 39th Regiment of Foot, then billeted in the city. The arrival of the troops, under the command of Colonel William Kellet, appears further to have inflamed the mood of the strikers. Both magistrates and troops were again pelted with missiles. The order was then given to fire.
Died of wounds
Three weavers died instantly, while three others were to die from their wounds over the next few days. Scores of others were wounded but lived. The strikers, including women and children, immediately dispersed and ran for cover, but re-assembled later in the afternoon. Following the arrival of troops, however, they again dispersed. There is still doubt as to whether the Riot Act was read before the order for the troops to fire was given. In a proclamation published in the Mercury newspaper the day after the shootings, the Lord Provost and magistrates stated that the Act was read. Other sources claim that the sheriff-substitute was preparing to read the Act when the soldiers fired. Some claim this was done in self-defence. What is not in doubt is that the Establishment of the time considered the action justified. The proclamation from the Council-Chamber, dated September 4, stated that while there was deep regret at the action, it has been a "disagreeable necessity". The proclamation warned that the magistrates and sheriff were determined to "continue their utmost exertions to suppress these daring combinations, by every legal means within their power, whatever the consequences may be to the unfortunate individuals, who may suffer by these exertions."
Both the Merchants House and the Trades House resolved to support the magistrates in any action they deemed necessary to be taken against the strikers. It is, perhaps, worth pointing out that the magistrates were elected by the members of both these bodies. Before the dead strikers were cold in their graves, the magistrates of the city agreed to reward the troops who had taken part in the action with a pair of stockings and a pair of shoes each. Colonel Kellet and the honourable Major Vere Paulet were awarded the Freedom of the city, while the other officers were treated to dinner in the Tontine Tavern. Further measures had to be taken against the weavers, by an Establishment alarmed at a labour force united in struggle against it. Only a few years later, the first of the Combination Laws would be passed, making it illegal for workers to unite against employers — but for the time being a trial with all the trappings of justice would suffice. The trial of James Granger, a 38-year-old father of six, started on June 21, 1788. The indictment against him included that he had been involved in the forming of a combination, seized webs belonging to two brothers and assaulted them.
Granger, who claimed throughout his trial, in Edinburgh, that he had not been directly involved in any rioting, was found guilty on July 2. Lord Hailes sentenced the unfortunate Granger to be banished from Scotland for seven years. Before this, however, he was to be publicly whipped through the streets of Edinburgh at the hands of the common executioner. Lord Eskgrove spoke against the sentence of whipping being carried out, but it was supported by Lords Swinton and Henderland. In time, Granger was to return to his native land. He died, aged 75, and was interred beside three of the shot weavers - John Page, Alexander Miller and James Ainsley. Up to 6000 people, meanwhile, had attended the burial, in the Calton burial ground, of Page, Miller and Ainsley. A monument was erected 50 years later, and the stones renovated and rededicated by Glasgow Trades Council in 1931. In 1957 the Trades Council removed the stones to a place on the south wall of the burial ground, just inside the south entrance. Time, however, has ravaged the inscriptions. Only a few hundred yards from the site of the Templeton Business Centre, the burial ground, in Abercromby Street, Bridgeton, is padlocked against vandals — the site apparently forgotten by the vast majority of the city's inhabitants. Part of the inscriptions originally read: "They Though Dead Still Liveth. Emulate Them." The base of one stone read: "They are unworthy of freedom who expect it from other hands than their own."
These sentiments were to be expressed well into the following century. Only two years after the Calton weavers tragedy, weavers again went on strike against a reduction in wage rates — only this time they were further inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution. Another strike, in 1812, eventually led to the courts ruling that justices of the peace should be allowed to fix wage rates. A rate was agreed between the weavers and the justices, but despite its legal standing the manufacturers ignored it. Evidence of sedition was manufactured against the weavers' leaders who were duly tried and convicted. Rights of property, it was evident, held greater precedence in the eyes of the law than the rights of man. Events were to culminate, in May, 1820, with the posting of a proclamation in Glasgow calling for a general strike in support of political reform. Nearly 30 years before this, a young Glasgow advocate, Thomas Muir, of Huntershill, had been sentenced to transportation for his work with the Friends of the People Society — an influential body whose republican sentiments, combined with the fate of both monarchy and establishment in revolutionary France, was seen as a dangerous
threat to the established order.
The Radical Rising of 1820 was doomed before it started. Despite the censoring of trial records for the period, it is now evident that the reform movement had been infiltrated by Government spies. Following a brief skirmish at Bonnymuir between woefully ill-armed and trained weavers and other artisans and well-equipped Government cavalry, it was to lead to the execution of three men and the transportation to Botany Bay of dozens of others. A strathaven weaver, James Wilson, was hung and beheaded on Glasow Green for his part in the rising, while John Baird and Andrew Hardie met a similar fate at Stirling. It is only within the past few months, through pressure from the 1820 Society, which annually marks the men's martyrdom, that a monument erected to their memory in Glasgow's Sighthill Cemetery has received historic listing status and is to be renovated. Glasgow district and Strathclyde regional councils have agreed to contribute towards the estimated £10,000 restoration cost. The balance has been raised through donations from a public slowly becoming aware of their history, and other concerned bodies.
"Radical Glasgow," meanwhile, is the theme of an exhibition at the moment in the city's Mitchell Library. It is in this mood of growing awareness of parts of out heritage previously ignored that Mr Phil O'Rourke, chairman of the arts and cultural committee on Glasgow District Council, has launched his drive for the Calton weavers to receive the recognition they deserve. With the aid of Elspeth King, Michael Donnelly, and other staff at the People's Palace, it is planned to stage events, coinciding with next year's Mayfest events, to mark the weavers' struggle. The artist Ken Currie is to begin work on constructing a vast mural, to be made in sections, which will eventually adorn the inside of the dome in the People's Palace. It will depict 200 years of Glasgow's labour history, including the shooting of the Calton weavers. The only other mural depicting the event is in Maryhill Trades Council's premises. In September of next year, Mr O'Rourke plans to have pageants staged which will also depict the struggle. It is also hoped that renovation work can be carried out on the near-forgotten memorial stones in Calton graveyard.
(This article originally appeared in the Glasgow Herald, Saturday July 5 1986)
Parts of a mural in Maryhill Trades Centre, Glasgow. Left - the shooting of the Calton Weavers. Right - James Granger being whipped through the streets of Edinburgh by the city executioner after being found guilty for his role in the Calton Weavers' riot. He was later banished.
The Calton Martyrs of 1787
A small green grave lies down by Calton
In the heart o' Glasgow town.
Men of honour, men of courage,
Their names are honoured with renown.
Two hundred years ago they suffered
For the workers glorious Cause,
They were shot defending Freedom
Against the boss and Tory laws.
On Glasgow Green the weavers gathered,
For Tyrants might cared not a fig,
They marched from Calton up towards the Highgate,
And faced the army at Drygate Brig.
At the provost's order the coward soldiers
Opened fire and six men were slain,
And the people's anger it spread like wild-fire
From Glasgow Cross out to Dunblane.
These were the lads who wove all clothing,
Shot for upholding a scanty wage,
While the boss and soldier are damned forever,
Brave names will glow on history's page.
In a small green grave down by Calton,
Spare a thought and a prayer as you pass on,
These were the pioneers of Freedom,
And heralds of a brighter Dawn.