Rebel city

From the time of William Wallace, Scotland has always had a revolutionary streak. Sometimes, its people strove for religious liberty or political equality, now the stakes are economic and industrial freedom as well as freedom of the individual. In all of this Glasgow has always played an important part and been home to radical reform movements.

1706 – The Union
Glasgow gained in wealth at this time when its tobacco trade rapidly expanded, followed by sugar and cotton trades. Surplus wealth poured into mining, textile, iron and railway industries. By 1885 ten Scottish firms produced a fifth of Britain’s steel output. After 1870, the Clyde replaced the Thames as the centre of British shipbuilding, and this, in association with the expanding railway and heavy engineering industries in Glasgow, created a new force, the so-called Industrial Working Class. By 1892 two-thirds of all Trade Unionists in Scotland worked in Glasgow.

1706 – Against the Union
In spite of the apparent boom, the Union was not universally accepted in Scotland. Glasgow as a city witnessed popular but violent reaction to this arrangement. On one occasion a large crowd seized of the Bishop’s House. The local forces could not remove them and the Dragoons were called from Edinburgh to dislodge them. The leaders were duly arrested. The crowd took it upon itself to seize the City’s Magistrates and dispatched a few of them to Edinburgh with the strictest mandate to obtain the release of the prisoners. However, the Privy Council in Edinburgh rejected the request and sent the magistrates back to Glasgow with the instruction to take better control of their city.

June 1725 – Malt tax riots
An aversion to the ‘Malt Tax’ caused widespread riots across the country. The most serious of these was June 1725 in Glasgow. When Revenue Officers arrived to assess the Maltsters, large angry crowds barred their way. On June 24, a large crowd stormed the house of Duncan Campbell of Shawfield believing that he had supported the tax in the Houses of Parliament. As a result, Lord Advocate Duncan Forbes summoned troops from Edinburgh. The Provost, however, refused to use them against the rioters, but the crowd turned on the troops, who retaliated, at first with powder and then with shot. Eight civilians died. There were investigations into the civilian deaths but it appeared the town council disliked the tax as much as the people. The Lord Advocate himself arrested the city magistrates and took them to Edinburgh. There was a failed prosecution in Edinburgh and they returned to their City of Glasgow to a boisterous welcome from the crowd.

15 February 1800 – Hunger demonstrations
Unemployment and high taxes caused wide spread demonstrations which culminated on 15 February 1800 when angry and hungry crowds took to the streets. They marched along Argyle Street attacking meatsellers and grocers’ shops. Vast crowds in the districts of Townhead and Calton were also smashing into similar type of shops. The authorities felt compelled to call out the troops to disperse the rioters.

1812 – Weavers’ strike
This was Scotland’s largest strike to date. The weavers protested in an attempt to protect their living standards. It was, on the whole, a peaceful protest, although the magistrates and the Government claimed otherwise in an alleged attempt to become heavy-handed with the strikers. The dispute lasted three months and eventually ran out of funds and collapsed. As a result, trade unionism was declared illegal in Scotland and remained so until 1824. Seven of the strikers were arrested and charged with ‘illegal combination’ and were each sentenced to 18 months in prison.

6 March 1848 – Street protests
A serious riot broke out in the city when unemployed operatives had expected a distribution of provisions. The provisions failed to turn up, so starving and angry crowds set off up Irongate and other main streets of the city centre, breaking into food and gun shops. Business came to a standstill and all city centre shops closed. The people continued to march through the streets shouting ‘bread or revolution’. Eventually the ‘riot act’ was read. Other groups marched off in other directions entering food shops and demanding bread. Alarmed, the authorities sent to Edinburgh for more troops. The following day crowds again gathered at Bridgeton where ‘pensioners’ were armed. A young boy threw an object at the troops and was arrested but the crowd stormed the arresting group and rescued the boy. Police Superintendent Captain Smart gave the order to fire: five of the crowd were shot. The military continued to patrol the streets and the crowd still lined the streets for some days. All public offices were securely guarded.

1915 – Rent strikes
Glasgow and Clydeside districts were gripped by a massive grassroots movement against large rent increases imposed by landlords. More than 25,000 tenants refused to pay rent increases. The struggle spread to the Clydeside engineering workshops and shipyards, forcing the government to introduce the 1915 Rent Restriction Act.

1919 – ‘Forty-hour week’ strike
In 1919 the struggle for a shorter working week came to a head with a strike which had the support of practically all the workers in the area. Marches and demonstrations were organised. One massive demonstration in George Square caused the authorities some concern and the police baton charged the crowd creating mayhem. Fearing revolution, the Government sent English troops with tanks into the city.

"We had forgotten we were revolutionary leaders of the working class. Revolt 
was seething everywhere, especially in the army. We had within our hands 
 the possibility of giving actual expression and leadership to it, but it never entered 
our heads to do so. We were carrying on a strike when 
we ought to have been making a revolution."  

Willie Gallacher, writing about the forty-hour week strike and the battle of George Square

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