WEAVERS' STRIKE - 1787
The Weavers' Memorial, Abercromby Street Graveyard
Many of the small villages which developed to the east of Glasgow had large communities of hand-loom weavers in their midst. Traditionally, weaving had been a profitable trade to be engaged in; one which afforded its practitioners a better than average lifestyle. The raw material provided to the weavers by the manufacturers was known as work. The weavers would negotiate a price for the labour to be undertaken, complete this and be paid when the cloth, or web as it was known, was returned to the manufacturer.
In places such as Calton and Bridgeton, manufacturers were locally based and the weavers would collect and return the cloth themselves. In more outlying villages, the transportation of work and webs was undertaken by the manufacturers.
The weavers themselves were well regarded for the high standard of their education - many being self-taught - and their social awareness. The also tended towards more radical political views, which made them less popular with the authorities.
Towards the end of the 18th century there were more than 20,000 in the West of Scotland, but the once prosperous weavers had witnessed a serious decline in their fortunes. Easier access to the trade had seen their numbers grow, with many new workers taking lower prices for their labour as competition for work increased.
A crisis was reached with the importation of cheaper textiles, especially from India. This resulted in a fall in prices which seriously affected the native industry. In an effort to lower their own costs of production to compete the manufacturers reduced the price they were prepared to pay the weavers for their work.
Following two significant reductions in the price level within a period of 7 months, a mass meeting of those weavers affected was held on Glasgow Green on 30th June, 1787. They felt that they could not live on the remuneration offered by the manufacturers and it was agreed that no work would be accepted at the new prices. The weavers' strike had begun. The situation was desperate, for few workmen could afford to remain without employment for even the briefest of periods.
The weavers tried to act reasonably. As in previous disputes, they seized the materials which had been accepted by some workers at the reduced rates, but these were then returned to their owners. Pressure was put on those still willing to work, and materials in transit to them were also intercepted and sent back to the manufacturers.
After 4 weeks, the manufacturers retaliated by deciding to give out no work whatsoever. However, this ban was not entirely complied with - some work continued to be provided and was undertaken by desperate workers. As time passed, the hardships experienced by the weavers increased and the measures adopted to attempt a resolution of the deadlock became more extreme. It seemed inevitable that violence would erupt. Materials once returned to their owners were seized and publicly burned. Working weavers were increasingly threatened; three Camlachie weavers had their furniture destroyed and at least one was assaulted.
The dispute reached a climax on 3rd September, 1787 when a crowd of weavers gathered in Calton, seized materials from those still working and publicly paraded them. Calton at the time was independent of Glasgow but the Lord Provost himself and other town authorities went to the village and attempted to disperse the weavers. They proved unsuccessful, being forced to retreat under a hail of bricks and stones.
The military was called out in support of the authorities, a detachment of the 39th Regiment, and this seemed to have the desired effect initially with the crowd scattering. Later in the day however, it was found that the weavers and their supporters were moving towards the Cathedral in procession with seized cloth which they intended to destroy. They were intercepted by the Glasgow magistrates and the troops near the Drygate. This time when the strikers threw their missiles, the soldiers opened fire. Three demonstrators were killed immediately and others were wounded, three fatally. Although there was some rioting the following day, this was contained and the strike was effectively broken.
Many arrests were made and varying terms of imprisonment imposed. Some were forced to leave the country. One, James Granger, was whipped through the streets of Edinburgh and exiled from Scotland for 7 years. The Glasgow Magistrates had been determined that they would break the combinations of workers which were to prove the nucleus of future trades unions, no matter what the consequences for the individuals involved. They ultimately failed, and it has been suggested that "Red Clydeside" found its origins in this dispute.
Trades disputes had not been uncommon in the 18th century, but the 1787 weavers' strike had been remarkable for its duration, the violence with which it was met and in the reprisals which followed it. The dead were regarded as martyrs, with three being buried in Calton Burying Ground. Such was the poverty caused by the strike that no gravestones could be provided - only the lairs. It was not until the following century that a memorial was raised to their commemorate their actions.
The preservation of the Weavers' Memorial and the story of the weavers' strike owes a great deal to the efforts of Red Clydesider Harry McShane. His portrait beside the weavers' graveside was painted in 1977 by Alisdair Gray for the People's Palace. Later, on the 200th anniversary of the episode, a commission for a commemorative mural for the People's Palace was awarded by Glasgow District Council to Ken Currie. Part of this work depicts the immediate aftermath of the soldiers' fusillade in Drygate.
King, Elspeth. (1987); "The Strike of the Glasgow Weavers, 1787." Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries, Smith Brothers (Kilmarnock) Ltd.
© 2005 Gordon Adams
NOTES: Updated for 1st March, 2010.
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