Works of David Hamilton, Architect
The Royal Exchange
 Royal Exchange, Queen Street, Glasgow.         Builder:  John Smith & Son  
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The Royal Exchange
An Article from "Scottish Country Life" - July 1917

Probably nothing could indicate better the change which has come over the aspect of Glasgow in the last two hundred years than the contrast between the appearance today of the ground now occupied by the Glasgow Royal Exchange and its appearance in 1715 as described in Glasgow Ancient and Modern. And perhaps nothing could better illustrate the successive steps in the city’s development during that period than the story of this piece of ground and the buildings by which it has been successively occupied. 

In 1715, the line of the noble city thoroughfare now known as Queen Street was occupied by a narrow country lane which ran between hedges from St Enoch’s Gait, now Argyll Street, northwards to the Cowcaddens. This narrow rustic road was known as the Cow Loan, from the fact that the town herd, after collecting the cows of the citizens in High Street, Trongate, and the Wynds, drove them along the Westergate and northwards by this loan or lane to the grazing ground in the Cowcaddens Parks, and brought them home by the same way in the evening. Some of them, he occasionally brought from the High Street along the back Cow Loan, now Ingram street, and where this joined the Cow Loan, at what is now the Royal Exchange, stood a thatched farmhouse, gracefully ornamented with a huge muck midden on either side. One may picture the last of these town herds, John Anderson, wearing his kilt and with his horn, the sign of his calling, hung around his neck, splashing his way northward along this muddy and dangerous farm road, and doing his best to steer his charge clear of the deeper quagmires in which, not infrequently, a beast would be laired so badly that it stuck fast. 

Between St Enoch’s Gait and the Back Cow Loan, the Cow Loan ran through the ancient grounds of the Lang Croft. In 1715, the ground on the west side of this part of the Cow Loan belonged to John Neilson, a "land labourer in Garioch," a locality near Maryhill. It was occupied with a cabbage garden, measured about three acres, and stretched westward as far as the mouth of the present Arcade, where it marched with another set of cabbage gardens which, soon afterwards, became the property of George Buchanan of Auchentoshan, and is now occupied by Buchanan Street. Like his neighbour, Buchanan, Neilson became a maltman and his house, malt-kiln and loft stood at the south end of his property. He died in 1756 and, four years later, his son, Walter Neilson, a merchant in the city, who lived in the Candelriggs, with a view to improving his property, employed James Barrie, a land surveyor, to prepare a plan of the old Drove Road. 

In 1766, an agreement was made between the magistrates and the proprietors, by which the Cow Loan was widened to form a street fifty-five feet broad. This the magistrates undertook to causeway, while the proprietors formed pavements seven feet broad, with curbstones, and undertook to make no "forestairs" on the building line. On this building line Neilson laid off fourteen stances, which gradually were taken up and became the sites of elegant mansions. On plots 6, 7 & 8, James Ritchie of Busby, one of the great Virginia Dons, a partner of the Thistle Bank, and one of the "four young men" who were said to have been the makers of Glasgow’s modern prosperity, built the house afterwards occupied by the famous Kirkman Finlay, whose enterprise broke up the monopoly of the East India Company and defeated Napoleon’s boycott of British trade. The site of this house was long occupied by the National Bank. The three northmost plots, numbers 12, 13 & 14, were purchased for £761 7s 9d by William Cunningham of Lainshaw, also one of the famous tobacco lords and another of the above-mentioned four young men. 

The story of the founding of Cunningham’s immense fortune is told in Stewart’s Curiosities of Glasgow Citizenship. On the outbreak of American War, the firm of which Cunningham was a partner held a very large stock of tobacco which had cost it something like three pence per pound. When the price rose to sixpence, Cunningham’s partners, believing that Britain would soon subdue her rebellious colonists, determined to sell out. Cunningham, however, was of a different opinion and purchased, for himself, the entire stock. The price ultimately rose to 3s 6p, and the shrewd speculator realised a great fortune. Like his brother merchants, in Glasgow, he proceeded to purchase a country estate and, on the property acquired in the Cow Loan, by that time renamed Queen Street in honour of the wife of George III, he, in 1778, built a splendid town mansion at a cost of £10,000, then a very large sum. 

This was described as one of the most splendid houses in the West of Scotland, and it must have formed an astonishing contrast to the thatched farm-steading or cow-feeder’s cottage which it replaced. In front of the house, within the parapet wall, was a gravel space with trees and shrubs, while behind the mansion was a delightful garden with jargonelle trees trained upon the walls. The drawing room on the first floor was a splendid apartment with windows looking east, south and west, its walls and roof beautifully ornamented in antique style with raised wreaths of flowers and other tasteful designs. 

Mr Cunningham’s property was bounded on the north by a low stone dyke, separating him from the lands of Meadowflat, eleven acres in extent, which belonged to the Corporation. An unsuccessful attempt had been made, there, to bore for coal, and the ground was let to two gardeners, James Wilson and William Bryce, who grew fruit and vegetables for sale, and had the space thickly planted with pear, apple and other trees. Their tenancy lasted until 1802, when a joint stock company was formed which pulled down their two thatched cottages behind the hedges facing the street, and built on the spot, on what is now the north east corner of Exchange Square, one of the largest provincial theatres of its time in Europe. 

On the opposite side of Queen Street, north of the Back Cow Loan, lay the lands of the Ramshorn [pronounced rams-horn]. Here was a large hollow, generally filled with green water, where the boys of Glasgow came to drown cats and puppies, and on the banks of which dead horses were skinned. It was not until the spring of 1781 that the Corporation began to transform this swamp into what is now the stately central pleasure-ground of the city, known as George Square. 

Meanwhile events were hastening with Lainshaw’s fine town mansion. Its builder only continued to own it for eleven years and, on the 3rd November 1789, it was sold to the famous Glasgow firm of William Stirling and Sons. They used one of the wings as offices while the rest of the house was occupied firstly by John Stirling who built, for his country house, Tullichewan Castle, near Balloch, then, after his death in 1811, it was occupied by two of his sons. The firm were not only proprietors of the great printing and dying works at Renton in the Vale of Leven but, among other enterprises, were purchasers of the Monkland Canal which they converted into a paying concern by linking it up with the forth and Clyde canal at Port Dundas, and, to provide access to their loading basins at Townhead, they built the thoroughfare still named after them, Stirling Road. 

These Stirlings of Cordale claimed their descent from Robert Stirling of Lettyr, in the 16th century, who could trace his ancestry from William the Lion. Their rivals, as chiefs of the name, were the Stirlings of Keir and Cadder and the Stirlings of Kippendavie and Kenmuir. 

Alas, the backwash of the Napoleonic War brought disaster to Glasgow. In three months, the business failures in the city amounted to more than two millions sterling; the famous William Hartley was forced to relinquish his great feu of the Blythswood lands and, among others, the firm of William Stirling & Sons had to shut its doors in 1816. The prosperity of the firm was subsequently revived but, meanwhile, the mansion in Queen Street had to be sold. 

In 1817, it was purchased by the Royal Bank of Scotland. The Bank made certain alterations, in particular, erecting a double front stair to the new first floor doorway. On the left, the old drawing room became the telling-room of the bank, while on the right, was the cashier’s reception room, and other parts of the building became the cashier’s residence. 

The Bank had not been three years removed hither from its old quarters at the south-east corner of St Andrews Square when it had to take measures for defending its premises like a fortress. In 1820, party in consequence of the financial difficulties in the country, the radical Riots broke out. The citizens had taken the precaution of depositing much of their plate and other treasure in the bank, and an attack upon it was hourly expected. The premises were, accordingly, barricaded, a captain’s guard of the Glasgow Sharpshooters was quartered in the wings for more than a week, while triple sentries were posted at the gates, and videttes were kept moving along Queen Street and Ingram Street. The Radical rising, however, went to pieces upon news of the skirmish at Bonnymuir with the Hussars and Yeomenry, and matters quietened down once more. 

Still another chapter, the longest in the history of the old mansion, was opened in 1827. Until then, the chief business centre and exchange of the city had been the Tontine in Trongate, near Glasgow Cross. This had been built in 1783 at a cost of between £5000 and £6000 and its coffee-room, for size elegance and accommodation, had been admitted to be the finest commercial hall in Britain. The city had, however, been growing rapidly since then and the business centre of the city had been moving westward with the result that the Tontine coffee-room had begun to be deserted. It was felt that a new Exchange, in a more suitable spot was necessary. Accordingly, in 1827, the Lord provost called a public meeting; a committee was appointed; £60,000 was subscribed and the enterprise was proceeded with. 

The old Cunningham mansion was purchased from the Royal Bank, which moved a few yards westward and took up its quarters on the site of the old Glasgow mansion of John Gordon of Aikenhead. The Cunningham mansion was not demolished by the new Exchange company, but a magnificent Grecian portico with lofty Corinthian pillars was thrown out as an entrance on the eastern front and, over the garden behind where the jargonelle trees used to grow, was built the lofty pillared news-room, in which a large part of the commerce of the city has since been arranged. It was while these operations were being completed, on a dull January day in 1829, that fire broke out in the Theatre Royal in Queen Street, a few yards away, and that famous home of dramatic art, including its standard scenery by Naismith and the famous drop-scene by Sir Henry Raeburn, of the Clyde from Dunnotter Hill, was entirely destroyed. 

The foundation stone of the new Exchange was laid on the 18th December 1827, with full Masonic honours, by James Ewing of Strathleven, the committee of management including all the best known names among the Glasgow merchants. After the ceremony, the company dined in the George Hotel, when, as reported in the Scots Times of that day, "the evening was spent in the most convivial and harmonious manner." David Hamilton was the architect of the building and the decorative sculptor-work was carried out by James Fillans whose plaster statue representing "Grief" is one of the cherished works of art in the city’s Art Galleries at Kelvingrove. On the 3rd September 1829, the Royal Exchange was opened with a great dinner with 500 guests, at which James Ewing of Strathleven occupied the chair and among the number whose healths were proposed in the spacious manner of that time, were the Earl of Glasgow, Sir Walter Stirling, and Principal McFarlane of the University. In 1836, a constitution was adopted by the proprietors of the 1177 shares of £50 each, and from that day to this, the enterprise has gone on profitably both for the proprietors and for the annual subscribers who make use of the facilities of the Exchange. 

During its occupation for the purposes of an exchange, the building has had to be altered no fewer than three times, the roof having been raised on each occasion. For 25 years, the basement, attics and roof of the building were occupied as a central exchange by the National Telephone Company, and upon the telephones being taken over by the Government and their headquarters… [there’s a line missing here - someone is a lousy photocopy-taker!] …owing to the difficulties caused by the war, the scarcity of workmen and materials, and the fact that the work had to be done without disturbing the members of the exchange and the occupants of the offices within the building, the operations were carried out at night and at weekends after business hours. In the course of remodelling, 300 sq ft were added to the floor space of the great news room. A formidable engineering feat, in this connection, was the bringing in and setting up of two additional pillars, 16ft 5in high and 30in wide at the base. The stone of the original monoliths came from the Humbie Quarries near Aberdour, but the two additional columns had to be transported from the famous Blackster Quarry in Northumberland. These were brought in through the front doorway and, notwithstanding their enormous bulk and weight, were set up without [ ? ] of any kind. For this purpose, the floor had to be strengthened. Further, in course of the operations, in order to convert the sunk area of the building into a restaurant, the old walls which supported the lines of pillars were taken down and replaced by square columns of brick, covered with marble panelling. 

The completion of the remodelling, which occupied nearly three years, was celebrated on the 24th December 1915, by a luncheon at which Mr W J Chrystal of Auchendennan, chairman of Directors, presided. On this occasion it was noted that the conversion of the floor area into a restaurant under the lesseeship of Messrs. Stuart Cranston Ltd., was a return to the original conditions of the building, in which a tavern was carried on there by Mr Allison, first Master of the Exchange Rooms. MacKenzie, in his Reminiscences of Glasgow records that "many a capital dinner was consumed therein." 

In the course of its history, many an interesting event has occurred in the Royal Exchange of Glasgow. Many distinguished visitors to the city have received an ovation in the news-room, and among the names inscribed in the visitors’ book are those of Sir Robert Peel in 1837, when he delivered his great address in a marquee in what is now Princes Square; Napoleon in 1839, when he took part in the Eglinton tournament; and Henson, the notable ex-slave from America, known to all the world as the original Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Among notable events: during the Bread Riots of 1848, troops were billeted in the Royal Exchange, their muskets being stacked round the pillars of the news-room; and on the occasion of the marriage of the late King Edward and Queen Alexandra in 1863, a great ball took place on that spacious floor. The building, today, forms a typical monument of the business, enterprise and memories of the Second City. 

Copyright © Scottish Country Life 1917 

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