Calton Weavers: Scotland’s First Working Class Warriors

‘Weave Truth With Trust’ is the message which is depicted on the banner of the striking workers who belonged to the iconic ‘Calton Weavers’. A banner which has been captured in all of its tragic beauty by Scottish artist Ken Currie in a painting which now takes pride of place in the Glasgow’s Peoples Palace, the free of charge social history museum which is only yards from where the initial strike involving thousands of weavers; men, women and adolescents alike, initially took place in the proud district of the Calton in Glasgow’s east end in 1787.

Although an independent burgh and not part of the industrially belching inferno that was Victorian Glasgow until 1846, in the late Eighteenth century the Calton was typical of a proud, industrious community defined by a particular industry, in this case, hand loom weaving.

Nearby street names like Shuttle and Muslin highlight the industries importance to the wider area, not to mention the use of white outer shell and terracotta tile to roof the working class tenement dwellings of modern day Calton, a wee nod to the 18thC weaving cottages which were brilliant white in brick and terracotta in tile.

However, this proud community would fall foul to the systemic risk and endemic inequality of ‘free’ market structures. The Calton began to suffer from economic inequality in relation to decreasing wages of the weaver and gross profit margins of the merchant and capitalist class which was to exemplify the age of industry within pre-Victorian Scotland.

Pre Victorian Era as the Exploitative Blueprint  for the Victorian Era

However, at the height of the Victorian era, things were even worse. For example, it should be considered here that in 1867, midway point of the dominant Victorian policy of laissez faire, the top 1% of the Scottish population received more than 200 times that of the bottom 30%.

Even a member of the ‘labour aristocracy’ as Marx would later term it, a skilled printer, would need to work at least 15,000 years before he could earn the £1million fortune which was held by many magnates of the industry upon their death beds.

The signs of economic inequality where there for all to see in the pre-Victorian era however, there is no denying the accuracy of foresight which the Calton Weavers had in relation to resorting to strike action when faced with unimaginable inequality which was typified by the priority of bloated profit over a fair wage.

As much as the next 40 years of Scottish urban history would be dominated by riots, food strikes, Luddism and even a Radical War in 1820, it is the Calton Weavers who recognise the power of strike action first and offer us an insight into what was a well organised initial attempt at worker solidarity fighting against oppression in the late 18thC, doomed as it was to eventually be.

Weavers and Warriors

The Weavers strike leader, James Grainger, was a well-known man to the burgh and city authorities due to his supposed associations with members of the clandestine United Scotsmen, a radical political movement with an overall goal combining increased democratisation and the breakup of the Union heavily modelled on the United Irishmen which catered for Protestant and Catholic alike.

Glasgow radical historian John Couzin tells us that the Weavers trade in Scotland, of which the aforementioned Grainger would become a strike leader of, was to experience a 25% wage decrease and in the decades that followed, the industry’s wages would juxtapose with a cost of living that was twice as much.

Wages which cannot keep up with a cost of living whilst the owners of commodity production make hearty profits – something a bit familiar here and all of this in the days before Marx and Engels were around to philosophically conceptualise this for the exploited masses.

Henry McIndoe of the Operative Weavers summed up the situation perfectly when he wrote in The Glasgow Mercury,

‘No country in Europe can rival this one (Scotland) for sufficiency and cheapness of workmanship…it must therefore appear unnecessary to reduce these wages, and the more so, as the makers profits are large…the owner of the fabric is not satisfied with such profits however…he takes a fourth of the weavers bread from him and at the same time requests the world to believe that the increase of their own emolument (profit) is not their only objective…’

Militancy and the Media

Like an early footnote to the rest of the industrial communities of the 19thC yet to experience it, the Calton serves as a symbol of what happens when unfettered industrialisation and mercantilism combine in the incubator of the ‘free market’ economy.

Essentially, grotesque profit margins for the top table diners coupled with speedy production of commodities with little to no care and attention being paid to the social economy or the individual at the heart of it all, the exploited and ever increasingly de-skilled worker.

The strike itself, which was to be the first recorded strike of such scale in the West coast, was in immediate response to a dramatic cut to the price of muslin cloth which would, of course, have a drastic impact on the weaver’s wage.

Public Park meetings at Glasgow Green on the 30th of June 1787 would see an attendance of roughly seven thousand angry and organised weavers assemble according to the Mercury.

The strike, eventually to span three months, would take place out with the then city boundaries from the bottom of what is now known as Abercromby Street in the Calton, upwards to the outskirts of the medieval Glasgow Cathedral right on the edge of the city boundary.

A quick scan of the Glasgow Mercury newspaper reports of the time tell us that the striking weavers were highly organised and efficient in their practice.

For example, it documents the ways in which the strikers were stealing the materials and smashing the equipment which enabled the non-striking weavers to continue to meet merchant demands.

Essentially an early attempt at sabotaging the tools of production whilst undermining the ‘scab’ class of worker simultaneously.

Worker Solidarity Calton Style

Significantly, the aforementioned Mr McIndoe, writing again in the Glasgow Mercury, stated that the authorities, in collusion with merchants, had placed a reward of 20 Guineas to any weaver who had information or knowledge which would be of use in relation to breaking the strike.

As McIndoe noted,

‘…a reward of TWENTY GUINEAS has been repeatedly offered to any disorderly member among them (striking weavers), to their unparalleled credit, no such person has been found in that great multitude.’

This is perhaps Scotland’s first example of industrial based worker solidarity recorded over such a considerable length of time.

A history which ought to, and must be, more widely known than it currently is.

The Strike in Detail

On the 3rd of September, it was reported that both Glasgow’s Lord Provost, John Riddell, and magistrates attempted to read the Riot Act of 1714 somewhere in the region of the Drygate Bridge area (Modern day John Knox St and Wishart St which is nestled between Duke Street and Townhead)

After being driven back, it is the striking weavers who are deemed to be the illegitimate party and the 39th Regiment of Foot are brought in to ‘…disperse the crowd’ – this, in reality, meant the unleashing of bullets and sabre slashes which would result in 6 deaths and several hundred wounded.

The troops were once again called out after this bloody legitimised slaughter as there were rumblings of a re-gathering of militant strikers along the Gallowgate but nothing more was to come of the strike which was now deemed to be a failure.

State Apparatus Serving Corporate Interests are Clearly Nothing New

Militarisation of the state authorities and the brutal suppression by lethal force as an answer to genuine worker and social unrest within the context of inequality is, of course, nothing new.

Perhaps a trip through recent history can exemplify such a point. Consider the tactics of Chile’s military dictator Pinochet, long time amigo of neo-liberal architect and de-industrialiser extraordinaire Thatcher, in his dispersal of the striking copper miners in Chile in the nineteen seventies. Pinochet’s form of ‘industrial dispute resolution’ would rely heavily on striker executions and torture in order to routinely subordinate and smash the striking workers.

Closer to home however are Thatcher’s very own ‘boys in blue’, the taxpayer funded police who were trained in paramilitary tactics to ensure the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the followers of Scargill or McGahey would fall in line and remember ‘their place’.

The Calton Weavers Strike is not the only such strike on Glaswegian soil which evidenced state collusion with profiteering financial elites either.

Consider that as recent as 1919 Glasgow’s George Square, that civic centrepiece at the geographical heart of the city, became an ‘occupied’ area with British army snipers on the roofs of surrounding buildings due to the gathering of the 100,000 strong striking workers of various Scottish industries over a week long period at the beginning of the year.

This is where an eventual Red Flag of Bolshevism was to be raised, whether it was intended to genuinely incite a Bolshevik rising or not. This ‘40 hours strike’ as it was dubbed due to workers demanding the 40 hour week, showcased the police using baton and fist whilst horseback to ‘maintain order’ on ‘Bloody Friday’.

The state, just as they did in 1787, will always strive to maintain and uphold a ‘natural order’ for the masses of workers, regardless of social class or class consciousness levels.

This is the order that maintains that workers are there to work, draw a static wage, be grateful of a pittance pension, if any, and repeat.

Not for one moment are the workers, like those of the proud weaving district of the Calton, to develop a shared aim of solidarity and collective security and actually begin to bargain for a more secure future whilst remaining an industrious and productive workforce.

For as long as the UK government wishes to profit from privatised industries set to capitalistic or neo liberal tunes, the exploited worker will feel and remain to be just that; exploited.

Lastly…

Arguably, little has changed in relation to the states agenda since 1787.

Sure, the Calton Weavers strike was eventually doomed with James Grainger being expatriated to a penal colony for over a decade and several excellent young workers lost their lives as martyrs in the fight for worker equality, but its significance is not in how the strike ended.

The significance is to be found in its legacy and it’s remembrance.

If we are made aware of the Calton Weavers Strike, if we realise the strikes significance of being Scotland’s initial grassroots movement against state oppression on such a large scale, and crucially, if we take heed of the fact that in 1787 the state allowed economic oppression and provided brutal suppression of the very same workers, then we surely come to realise that it has been a shameful period of time in which collusion between central government and private enterprise have been seemingly imdominable whilst we remain part of a British Union where profit reigns supreme.

They have had it their own way, at the detriment of the industrious and eventually exploited grafter, for far too long.

For those among us who seek genuine change and increased democratisation from a grassroots level up, we could do worse than to make a bigger noise than we already do in relation to commemorating the Calton Weavers.

For all the rich and community focussed history that Glasgow has, let us not leave the Calton Weavers Strike of 1787 as one of it’s forgotten chapters.

 

 

 

– This article is an edited and updated version of one that I first submitted to The Scottish Left Review which appeared in their print and pdf version of Issue 106 (July/August 2018)

 

– Image Credit: Ken Currie painting, ‘Weavers Struggles: The Calton Weavers Massacre”

https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/weavers-struggles-the-calton-weavers-massacre-83678#

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