What makes a successful and prosperous ship owner, also an assiduous and knowledgeable collector of art, become a Glasgow Corporation councillor? Is it a sense of civic duty, to give something back as it were? Is it to gain a different kind of influence, or to pursue a political view or philosophy? Or did it ‘just happen’?
Following his death in March 1958 the collector in question, Sir William Burrell, was quoted in an article in the Glasgow Herald by the then Lord Provost of Glasgow Andrew Hood as saying “I sold all my ships so I could become a councillor with the aim of helping to solve Glasgow’s slum housing problem”.[i]
He clearly became a councillor; being elected in 1899, however did he have a political objective and did he sell his ships to achieve it? Additionally by what process did he become a candidate in the municipal elections? Did he have any particular political viewpoint? Who or what influenced him politically?
The answers to these questions lie within the period 1897 to 1899 during which time all the events which resulted in Burrell becoming a councillor, occurred.
In 1899 two seemingly unconnected events happened, one planned, the other unforeseen, which, in combination, set the scene for Sir William Burrell (then plain mister) becoming a Glasgow Corporation councillor.
The last few years of the 19th century saw significant demand for ships coupled with high shipping rates. In keeping with their previous practise of buying ships when the industry was depressed and selling them in boom periods, Burrell and Son sold their entire fleet, some 25 vessels, between 1897 and 1899 most of which had been built between 1892 and 1894, when shipbuilding was in a slump. This was the second occasion they had sold their fleet in this manner and there was to be a third subsequent to the end of the Great War.[ii]
In a letter to his friend R.S. Dods dated 3rd January 1902 the architect Sir Robert Lorimer (who at that time was heavily involved with Burrell’s furnishing of his house in Devonshire Gardens) tells of Burrell explaining his company’s business tactic of buying and selling ships. Lorimer describes it as the nimblest he’s ever struck and quotes Burrell as saying he puts the money into 3% stock and “lies back until things are absolutely in the gutter” at which point he starts to buy new ships at rock bottom prices. Burrell described it to him as “making money like slate stones”. He also told him that he expected to be buying ships again in 1904,[iii] in the event it was 1905.[iv]
The sole purpose of the manoeuvre was to make money, and lots of it. Nothing wrong with that of course but there was clearly no intent to sell his ships for any other reason, it was purely a business imperative. That being so it’s difficult to accept he had any political objective in mind when he did so. Perhaps he came to that later.
The company continued to function as shipping agents and insurance brokers in the following few years and to charter ships whenever they secured cargo. Nonetheless compared to earlier years the company’s activities were clearly much reduced.[v]
Burrell continued to add to his collection, which already included paintings, tapestries, sculptures and ceramics, with more funds and at least initially, with more free time to do so.[vi]
The Municipal elections in 1899 were to be held on Tuesday 7th November. At that time there were 25 wards in the city and by the 1st October all the candidates for each ward had been identified and declared. Burrell’s name was not amongst them.
One of the candidates was Robert Murdoch, head of Robert Murdoch and Co., Iron and Steel Merchants, who was also one of three sitting members for Ward 10 (Exchange). He was the retiring member for 1899 and was standing again, unopposed for re-election.
Unfortunately for Mr. Murdoch, who had been a councillor for 10 years, on the 15th October he died suddenly at home, aged 75 thereby creating a vacancy in the ward.[vii]
Exchange ward was at the heart of the city and was the centre of the city’s business and commercial activity. It took in George Square, the City Chambers, Bank of Scotland, Clydesdale Bank, the GPO, the Custom House, and at No.54 George Square, the Burrell and Son offices. In 1895 the city assessor James Henry in accordance with the City of Glasgow Act 1891 (Divisional Administration) presented a report proposing a rearrangement of the 25 municipal wards, primarily to ensure that any given ward in its entirety was in a single parliamentary constituency. After a period of debate the issue was finally settled in April 1896. Exchange ward boundaries were established to the north as Bath Street and Cathedral Street, its southern boundary was Clyde Street, and it was bounded east and west by Stockwell Street/Glassford Street/John Street and Jamaica Street/Mitchell Street/ West Nile Street respectively, all contained within the Central Parliamentary Division.[viii] Its electoral roll was 2087 and it had a rental valuation of £450,190, the smallest roll and highest rental (by a significant margin) of any of the city wards. [ix]
The ward contained some of the most influential and powerful people in the city and it would be expected that its representatives on the council would come from that community. In due course that’s what happened when Richard Hubbard Hunter was persuaded to come forward to fill the vacancy caused by Murdoch’s death.[x] [xi] He was a wealthy business man who was the managing director and chairman of Hunter, Barr & Company, a company which had been started by his father in 1843. They were wholesale warehousemen dealing in textiles and had branches in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Belfast, Leeds and Newcastle.
He was a man of strong religious conviction and had a background of philanthropic works and had, among other charitable activities, joined with William Quarrier in setting up the orphan’s home at Bridge of Weir. He also established the Sailors Orphan Society of Scotland, which continues to provide assistance to the children of seamen to this day.[xii] [xiii]
At the Exchange Ward committee[xiv] annual meeting held on 25th October in the Lesser Trades Hall in Glassford Street, following accounts of Corporation business given by the other sitting councillors of the ward (Robert Graham and Thomas Watson), Hunter addressed the meeting saying he was concerned about the amount of money the city was borrowing, that he would not follow any particular party line but would use his judgement to determine matters in council. As reported in the Glasgow Herald it was a fairly brief statement. He was unanimously adopted as a ‘fit and proper person to represent the ward’.[xv]
Usually (but not always) that would have been that and Hunter would have been elected to the council without opposition.
However, that was not to be. On the 30th October the Glasgow Herald carried a short notice which said that on the preceding Saturday (28th) William Burrell had been ‘waited upon by a deputation from the electors of the Exchange Ward’ requesting him to put himself forward as a candidate for the ward vacancy. His answer was expected later that day.[xvi]
Who these electors were is not stated. Were they ward committee members despite the unanimous vote recorded for Hunter, or were they associates of Burrell (business or otherwise) who felt he would better represent their interests rather than the philanthropic Hunter?
At any rate Burrell gave his answer in the affirmative.[xvii] With one week to go to the election Burrell is now a candidate. Clearly not a pre-planned event unless he foresaw the unfortunate Mr. Murdoch’s demise!
Burrell’s decision to stand as a candidate in the election did not pass without response. Two letters to the Herald written on the 31st October and published on the 1st November gave divergent views on the situation. One was clearly in support of Burrell, the writer stating that he was glad there was to be a contest, that Burrell was Glasgow born and bred (Hunter was born in Inverkip) and that Burrell was a safe and competent individual to deal with ‘schemes’ which are ‘crowding’ on to the Town Council. The letter writer was not identified.[xviii]
The other, from ‘a large ratepayer’, basically criticised Burrell for creating a contest especially when he and Hunter were essentially saying the same thing, that Hunter was a larger ratepayer than Burrell, and had been endorsed by the Ward committee and a subsequent public meeting of electors. He encouraged voters to show their disapproval of Burrell’s candidature by voting for Hunter.[xix]
The election however did not go Hunter’s way with Burrell gaining 911 votes to his 522, thereby being duly elected to be the third member for the Exchange ward.[xx]
Why did he win? He was a latecomer to the contest and had no obvious political background. Was Hunter too much of a philanthropist for his fellow business ratepayers liking, was it local man versus outsider, bearing in mind that Hunter was born in Inverkip? Was there another reason?
If there was, it was probably related to Sir Samuel Chisholm and his politics. Chisholm was one of two candidates for Lord Provost that year (he was duly elected at the first meeting of the new council) and was a radical Liberal.[xxi] Thomas Gray, who was the Town Treasurer, spoke at Hunter’s pre-election meeting in the Merchant’s House on 2nd November suggesting the contest was not between Hunter or Burrell but which of the two would be more aligned to the politics of Chisholm. He felt Chisholm was being unfairly treated because of views being expressed that his appointment “would result in unnecessary and wasteful expenditure and that as he was an abstainer the city’s hospitality would suffer”.[xxii]
One individual in particular, to whom I’ll return to later, vigorously promoted these views over a number of years. Gray clearly was of the opinion that Hunter, perhaps because of his philanthropic activity, was more in tune with Chisholm than Burrell would be. The day before the election the Herald carried a notice from the Progressive Union, combining Christian, Philanthropic and Temperance agencies, supporting Hunter.[xxiii]
What were Burrell’s politics and influences then? His background would indicate he would at least lean towards the Conservative party. He was an extremely wealthy individual, was a successful business man, already had an extensive collection of artwork, and lived in Glasgow’s West End at 4 Devonshire Gardens with his mother and sisters Mary and Isabella.[xxiv] Additionally, his father William senior was described in his obituary in the Herald in 1885 as “a keen Conservative and active in a minor way in local politics in Bowling and Old Kilpatrick.”[xxv] It’s difficult therefore to see him having any contrary political views.
Another, perhaps more significant, influence was probably his brother in law Charles John Cleland who had married Burrell’s younger sister Janet Houston Burrell on 14th June 1888.[xxvi] Cleland worked for his father’s stationers company and in 1891 he was elected as one of three councillors for Glasgow Ward 25 (Maryhill). He had a deep interest in politics and was Vice Chairman of the Glasgow Conservative Association in 1909. He was also a member of the Conservative Clubs in the city.[xxvii]
In 1907 he was honoured with membership of the Royal Victorian Order (M.R.V.O.)[xxviii] and in 1917 was invested as a Knight Commander, Order of the British Empire. (K.B.E.).[xxix] At one time he was also Deputy Lieutenant for the County of the City of Glasgow. He remained a councillor for Maryhill until 1907 when he retired from public office. However he stood for the Exchange Ward in 1929 and was duly elected subsequently becoming sub convener of the new Education Committee. He finally retired from politics in 1934.[xxx]
Cleland had three daughters, one of whom, Jessie Muriel Cleland, married Sir Richard Dawson Bates in 1920.[xxxi] He was an Ulster Unionist politician who was in the forefront of opposition to Irish Home Rule prior to the First World War and subsequently.[xxxii]
Cleland had significant influence as a politician and it’s probable that when Burrell was approached to stand as a candidate that he would seek advice from his brother in law and be guided by him, maybe even encouraged by him to stand.
One other influence on Burrell may have been the views of fellow business man and collector Arthur Kay. He was a director of Arthur and Co. whose offices were located at 78 Queen Street, approximately 350 yards from Burrell’s offices. He was also the individual referred to earlier who had a deep aversion to Samuel Chisholm and all he stood for.
Kay had much in common with Burrell in terms of collecting and had a similar approach in that he would rather trust dealers than academics when it came to seeking advice. Like Burrell he had started collecting early in life and was wary about alerting potential rivals to his interest in a particular item. It’s probable therefore they were acquaintances possibly even friends through their interest in art and their business activities. They would certainly mix in the same business circles and be aware of each other’s collecting activity and preferences,[xxxiii] an example of which is; around 1900 Kay bought Manet’s Un Cafe Place du Theatre Francais, which was eventually purchased by Burrell.[xxxiv] In 1907 they were founding members of the Provand’s Lordship Society in Glasgow. They therefore had a lot in common in business and art, and as I’ll show, their approach to civic governance.
Kay was the second largest ratepayer in Glasgow, after the railway companies and was vigorously against what he called Municipal Trading such as running tram systems, municipal telephone services, housing and so on, the sort of activities Glasgow’s citizens in due course readily accepted as municipal services. He also had concerns about the financing arrangements of the Council and the burden, actual and potential, it put on business ratepayers.[xxxv] He specifically was against the Housing Scheme proposed by Sir Samuel Chisholm which was in response to the Housing of Working Classes Act 1890, the scheme proposing a municipal solution to the problem.[xxxvi]
In general Kay was against the encroachment of the council into activities that he felt were the province of business, that the cost of doing this was being placed on the business ratepayers in particular, and that the debt caused by the council’s financial arrangements (stock issues) would ultimately default to the ratepayer. He was the founder of the Glasgow Ratepayers Federation and a member of the Citizen’s Union, both organisations being against Municipal Trading and all that it implied. He wrote pamphlets on the subject, delivered speeches to various bodies including the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, and on June 25 1903 gave evidence to a parliamentary committee during which he stated he is fundamentally against Municipal Trading and that ‘it is the opinion of a great many ratepayers – if all these undertakings are on the rates, a day will come when our representatives are not so reliable as they are at present – they may be socialists.’[xxxvii]
There is no evidence to suggest Burrell was a member of any of these organisations and there is no doubt most ratepayers (or council tax payers today) would support a reduction in their rates burden. However when Burrell spoke at his pre-election meeting at the Merchant’s House on the 1st November his ‘manifesto’ was very much in line with the essence and some of the specifics of Kay’s views.
Amongst those present at this meeting were Burrell’s brother George and his brother in law Bailie Charles Cleland. He opened by saying he ‘came before the electors neither as a stranger or an outsider’.
The key elements of his address dealt with Corporation finance as follows: expenditure, greatly increased in recent years due to municipalisation of the city, now time to call a halt as capital expenditure exceeded reserves; ratepayer burden generally increasing; flotation of stock to raise capital inefficient and excessive; Corporation would be better off paying attention to savings on large items rather than getting involved in ‘crotchets and fads’ such as the municipalisation of bread and milk, and the manufacture of policeman’s helmets; was against the Free Libraries Act as it would increase the rate burden on businesses in the city, from which they would get no benefit, (this at a time when Andrew Carnegie was building free libraries all over the world, including Glasgow); the Building Regulations Act imposed several unnecessary and oppressive restrictions on the erection of business premises and that some of the Act’s clauses should be eliminated and others amended.
A Mr. John Wilson asked Burrell why he had decided to stand for election without going to the Ward Committee either publically or privately. Burrell stated he had been pressed to do so and having agreed he would not turn back. A vote of confidence in Burrell was then proposed and seconded which was carried. Wilson had put forward an amendment to the motion saying there was nothing to suggest that Burrell would be better than Hunter, however it was not seconded.[xxxviii]
It may be that Burrell came to these views by himself, however what is not in doubt is that his comment that he had become a councillor to help solve Glasgow’s slum housing problem is not borne out by the facts.
He sold his ships for business reasons, no other. His candidature was pure happenstance. There was nothing in his ‘manifesto’ to demonstrate he wanted to help solve Glasgow’s slum housing problem. In fact he allied himself to the views of an individual (Kay) who was specifically against improving working class housing through municipal action.
There is one further question to be pondered, how effective was he as a councillor?
In the Herald article of 1958 Andrew Hood further quotes Burrell who told him that “after seven years as a member of the corporation I became so disappointed over my inability to realise my ambition.”[xxxix]
As ever with Sir William Burrell, there is probably more to it than that.
Images: Heading © CSG GIC Glasgow Museums Collection.(http://www.artuk.org)
Figures 2, 3 and 5, © CSG GIC Glasgow Museums Collection. (http://www.artuk.org)
Figure 1 The Glasgow Story website, http://www.theglasgowstory.com/ward-maps/?ward=10
Figure 4 Courtesy of Glasgow City Archives.
[i] Glasgow Herald (1958) Death of Sir William Burrell, Art Lover and Benefactor. The Glasgow Herald, 31 March, year 176, issue 55 p. 7f,g http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=GGgVawPscysC&dat=19580331&printsec=frontpage&hl=en: accessed December 2013.
[ii] Cage, R.A. (1997) A Tramp Shipping Dynasty: Burrell and Son of Glasgow, 1860-1939. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. pp31, 39-41.
Marks, Richard (1983) Burrell – Portrait of a Collector. Glasgow; Richard Drew Publishing. pp 53-57.
[iii] Lorimer, Sir Robert (1902) Letter to R.S.Dods 3 January, Edinburgh University Library, Centre for Research Collections, reference MS 2484.6 Jan3 1902.
[iv] Cage, R.A. (1997) A Tramp Shipping Dynasty: Burrell and Son of Glasgow, 1860-1939. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. pp31, 39-41.
[vi] Pearce, Nick (2004) Chinese Art-Research into Provenance (CARP)Sir William Burrell http://carp.arts.gla.ac.uk/essay1.php?enum=1097247776; accessed January 2014.
[vii] Obituary (1899) Glasgow Herald. 18 October, year 117, issue 249 MURDOCH, Robert. p.6f.
http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=GGgVawPscysC&dat=18991018&printsec=frontpage&hl=en: accessed December 2013.
[viii] Miscellaneous Town Clerk Records, Glasgow. Mitchell Library reference MP 27.687-697.
[ix] Bell, Sir James and Paton, James (1896) Glasgow, Its Municipal Organisation and Administration. Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons. https://archive.org/details/glasgowitsmunici00bell: accessed December 2013.
[x] Glasgow Herald (1899) Municipal Election Meetings, Exchange Ward The Glasgow Herald, 21 October, year 117, issue 252 p.3d. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=GGgVawPscysC&dat=18991021&printsec=frontpage&hl=en
accessed 10 December 2013.
[xi] Glasgow Herald (1899) Municipal Election Meetings, Exchange Ward The Glasgow Herald, 25 October year 117, issue 255 p.9i. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=GGgVawPscysC&dat=18991025&printsec=frontpage&hl=en: accessed December 2013.
[xii] Eyre-Todd, George, ed.(1909) Who’s Who in Glasgow 1909, Richard Hubbard Hunter. Glasgow: Gowans and Grey Ltd. http://gdl.cdlr.strath.ac.uk/eyrwho/eyrwho0821.htm: accessed October 2013.
[xiv] In 1896 the Lord Provost of Glasgow Sir James Bell defined ward committees as voluntary bodies, the special functions of which were to deal with candidates for office and in a minor degree, with the elected and sitting representatives. They would also nominate or recommend a candidate for municipal elections which in practical terms would be a strong endorsement of the candidate to the electorate. Scottish Archive Network Ward Committees 1860 – 1974 Person code NA 18958 http://184.108.40.206/catalogue/person.aspx?code=NA18958&st=1&tc=y&tl=n&tn=y&tp=y&k=ward+committees&ko=a&r=GB243&ro=s&: accessed December 2013.
[xv] Glasgow Herald (1899) Municipal Election Meetings, Exchange Ward The Glasgow Herald, 25 October year 117, issue 255 p.9i. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=GGgVawPscysC&dat=18991025&printsec=frontpage&hl=en: accessed December 2013
[xvi] Glasgow Herald (1899) Exchange Ward The Glasgow Herald, 30 October, year 117, issue 259 p.10e. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=GGgVawPscysC&dat=18991030&printsec=frontpage&hl=en: accessed December 2013
[xvii] Glasgow Herald (1899) Representation of Exchange Ward The Glasgow Herald, 31 October, year 117, issue 260 p.9b. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=GGgVawPscysC&dat=18991030&printsec=frontpage&hl=en: accessed December 2013
[xviii] Glasgow Herald (1899) Letters to the Editor. The Glasgow Herald. 1 November, year 117, issue 261.p.9d. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=GGgVawPscysC&dat=18991030&printsec=frontpage&hl=en: accessed December 2013.
[xx] Glasgow Herald (1899) Municipal Elections, Glasgow. The Glasgow Herald. 8 November, year 117, issue 267. p.9f. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=GGgVawPscysC&dat=18991108&printsec=frontpage&hl=en: accessed December 2013.
[xxii] Glasgow Herald (1899) Municipal Election Meetings, Exchange Ward. The Glasgow Herald. 3 November, year117, issue263. p.9e. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid+GGgVawPscysC&dat+18991103&printsec=frontpage&hl=en:
accessed October 2013.
[xxiii] Glasgow Herald (1899) Public Notices. The Glasgow Herald. 6 November, year 117, issue 265. p. 1b. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=GGgVawPscysC&dat=189911068&printsec=frontpage&hi=en;
accessed December 2013.
[xxv] Glasgow Herald (1885) 22 June, year 107, issue 148. p. 9f. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=GGgVawPscysC&dat=189911068&printsec=frontpage&hi=en: accessed December 2013.
[xxvi] Marriages. Scotland. Old Kilpatrick, Dumbarton. 501/00. 14 June 1888. CLELAND, Charles John and BURRELL, Janet Houston. GROS Data 501/00 0036. http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk: accessed September 2012.
[xxvii] Eyre-Todd, George, ed. (1909) Who’s Who in Glasgow 1909, Charles John Cleland. Glasgow: Gowans and Grey Ltd. http://gdl.cdlr.strath.ac.uk/eyrwho/eyrwho0821.htm: accessed September 2013.
[xxviii] The Edinburgh Gazette (1907) Chancery of the Royal Victorian Order. The Edinburgh Gazette, 2 July, issue11947 p.689b. https://www.thegazette.co.uk/Edinburgh/issue/11947/page/689: accessed October 2013.
[xxix] The Edinburgh Gazette (1917) Knight Commanders. The Edinburgh Gazette, 24 August, issue 30250. p.8795b. https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/30250/supplement/8795: accessed October 2013.
[xxx] Obituary (1941) The Glasgow Herald. 20 January, year 159, issue 17 CLELAND, Sir Charles John. p.7b. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=GGgVawPscysC&dat=19410120&printsec=frontpage&hl=en: accessed October 2013
[xxxi] The Peerage, person page13507. ‘Jessie Muriel Cleland was the daughter of Sir Charles John Cleland. She married Sir Richard Dawson Bates, 1st Bt., son of Richard Dawson Bates and Mary Dill on 8 April 1920. She died on 31 October 1972.’ http://www.thepeerage.com/p13507.htm: accessed October 2013.
[xxxiii] Marks, Richard (1983) Burrell; Portrait of a Collector, Sir William Burrell 1861 – 1958. Glasgow: Richard Drew Publishing. p.58 – 60.
[xxxiv] Fowle, Frances (2010) Van Gogh’s Twin: The Scottish art Dealer Alexander Reid 1854 – 1928. Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland.p.50
[xxxv] Eyre-Todd, George ed. (1909) Who’s Who in Glasgow 1909, Arthur Kay. Glasgow: Gowans and Grey Ltd. http://gdl.cdlr.strath.ac.uk/eyrwho/eyrwho1002.htm: accessed September 2012.
[xxxvii] Glasgow Ratepayers Federation and Citizens Union. Minutes, pamphlets, etc., parliamentary evidence given by Arthur Kay. GB243 TD488/6 and /11 Mitchell Library : Glasgow City Archives
[xxxviii] Glasgow Herald (1899). Municipal Election Meetings, Exchange Ward. The Glasgow Herald. 2 November, year 117, issue 262. p.9b. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=GGgVawPscysC&dat=18991102&printsec=frontpage&hl=en: accessed October 2012.
[xxxix] Glasgow Herald (1958) Death of Sir William Burrell, Art Lover and Benefactor. The Glasgow Herald, 31 March, year 176, issue 55 p. 7f,g http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=GGgVawPscysC&dat=19580331&printsec=frontpage&hl=en: accessed December 2013.