The three most prominent Glasgow ‘Tobacco Lords’ were William Cunningham, Alexander Speirs and John Glassford. Much has been written about all three, in particular detailing how they and others, developed the trade, ran their businesses and with whom. In more recent times the issue of Glasgow’s involvement with slavery in the American Colonies and the Caribbean has been more vigorously explored than previously. It’s clear that the success of the Colonial tobacco trade owes much to the use of slaves in Virginia and Maryland.
The purpose of this post is not to look at this aspect of the trade* but to comment on John Glassford’s family background and his immediate family life, identify his business structure, activities and partnerships, and give some detail to a few of the men he partnered.
There will be one comment on what may be a direct contact Glassford had with slavery but more of that later.
*Those with an interest in this subject should, at least, read ‘It Wisnae Us’ by Stephen Mullen and ‘Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past’ edited by Tom Devine.
John Glassford’s father James was a merchant in Paisley. He married Eupham Smelie (various spellings) in Edinburgh on the 27th April 1710. Her father was Thomas Smelie, an Edinburgh merchant and also a burgess and guild brother of the city. As was the custom, the daughter of a burgess could transfer to her husband her right of admission as a burgess, which she got through her father. This duly occurred and in July of 1710 James became a burgess and guild brother of Edinburgh.
It seems they had six children, born in Abbey parish, Paisley: one son John, and five daughters, Jannet, Euphame, Catharine, Rebecca and Helen. However, there are other sources which say that John was the third of three sons, the others being William and James, and that there was another daughter Elizabeth.
If he did indeed have other children he must have been married before. One strong candidate would be Agnes Gemmill who married a James Glassford in 1690. They had children named William, Elizabeth, James, and Agnes, all born in Abbey parish, Paisley, the father being described as a bailiff or merchant there.
Pure conjecture of course, and just to confuse matters further a William Glassford, described as ‘James Glassford’s’ first son was made a burgess and guild brother of Glasgow in 1723 by right of his father, additionally a James Glassford, described as ‘James Glassford’s’ second son was made a burgess and guild brother of Edinburgh in 1733 by right of his father and also a burgess and guild brother of Glasgow in 1734 by right of his father.
One thing is certain, when James Glassford senior died in 1730, age 63, his wife Euphame survived him and in his will he mentions he had four living children all in their minority; John, Rebecca, Katharine and Helen. He died in Edinburgh on the 6th November, reportedly murdered on the way home to his chambers. He was buried in Edinburgh in the Smelie family lair on the 9th November.
It’s not clear when he became involved in the tobacco trade however his initial business activity was as a manufacturer of textiles. In 1739 he, along with fellow merchant Andrew Thomson, is said to have undertaken a trip on horseback to London. For what business reason has not been established however it must have been a long and arduous journey with “no turnpike road until they came to Grantham, within 110 miles of London.” 
John Glassford married three times, the first of whom was Anne Coats, who he married on the 24th April 1743 in Glasgow. Her father was the Glasgow merchant Archibald Coats who, along with Baillie George Carmichael, was ‘taken hostage’ in 1745 by Bonnie Prince Charlie and his army to ensure that the terms they had forced on Glasgow were duly implemented. These demands included “six thowsand shirt cloath coats, twelve thowsand linnen shirts, six thowsand pairs of shoes and the like number of pairs of tartan hose and blue bonnets.”
Anne’s mother was Jean Campbell who was the heir to the Clathick estate in Perthshire. On her death in 1729 her eldest son John became heir and in due course became known as John Coats Campbell of Clathick.
John and Anne had five children, all but one dying in infancy.
- Anne – born 1744, died the same year.
- Jean – born 1746.
- James – born 1748, died in 1751.
- Archibald – born 1750, died the same year.
- Euphan – born 1751, died 1752.
In each case the registration documents record the witnesses to be Anne’s father Archibald and Archibald Ingram, who had married John’s sister Rebecca in 1743. More of Ingram and Campbell of Clathick later.
A few weeks after giving birth to Euphan, Anne died on the 18th December.
Less than a year later in November of 1752 John married Ann Nisbet the daughter of Sir John Nisbet of Dean in Edinburgh.
They had six children all of whom, with the exception of John, survived into adulthood.
- Ann – born 1754.
- Catherine – born 1755.
- Christian – born 1757.
- Rebecca – born 1758.
- John – born 1762, died 1777.
- Henry – born 1764.
An interesting point again arises from the parish registration documents in that James Glassford is recorded as a witness in five of the births. Was this John’s brother from his father’s first marriage to Agnes Gemmill? If so why was he not mentioned in his father’s will?
Ann Nisbet died on the 11th April 1766 in Glasgow, cause of death was child bed fever.
In 1768 there were two Glassford family marriages. The first was that of daughter Jean to James Gordon on the 18th August. The second was when John married his third wife Lady Margaret McKenzie, daughter of the Earl of Cromarty on the 7th December.
This marriage produced a further three children.
Euphemia was born on the 21st February. Unfortunately, just over five weeks later on the 29th March, Lady Margaret died.
Throughout the period of his three marriages Glassford’s business empire, in common with the other leading tobacco merchants increased almost exponentially. His local prestige and involvement with the city’s governing bodies both commercial and civic grew apace.
He became a burgess and guild brother of Glasgow in 1737 by right of his father James, played his part in the activity of the Merchants House, was a partner in two Glasgow banks (see business section) and finally in 1783, the year of his death, was a founder member of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, created by Royal Charter on the 9th June.
The Glassford family portrait referred to earlier demonstrates how wealthy John had become with the fine clothing on display and the room’s fine furnishings. Much has recently been written about it particularly around the time (2007) when conservation work on the painting was being undertaken.
The painting contains the surviving children from his first two marriages and his third wife Lady Margaret McKenzie. The conservation work led by conservator Polly Smith established that his second wife Ann Nisbet had been painted out following her death in 1766 suggesting that it was in progress prior to that date or possibly had been completed, with Lady Margaret being added when he remarried in 1768.
I believe the children in the painting to be Jean at the rear to the right of her father, the middle row left to right being Rebecca, Christian, Anne, Catherine and on Lady Margaret’s lap Henry, and standing at the front, John.
Another figure was also established behind John Glassford’s chair, that of a negro manservant. It had been believed previously that he had been painted out to avoid any family connection to slavery, however it seems that the figure simply faded over time.
Who was he, by what means did he come to Glassford’s household? Perhaps the answer lies in the following extracts from Frederick County, Maryland Land Records and the Maryland Genealogical Society Records.
Robert Peter or Peters was a Scottish tobacco factor working for John Glassford and Company in Maryland. He began in Bladensburgh circa 1746, moving to Georgetown in 1755. (In 1790 he became the first mayor of Georgetown). He was also John Glassford & Company’s attorney in Maryland. On the 27th September 1756 he bought a negro boy named Jim for 4,000 lbs of tobacco and £2 5s. I think it probable that this purchase was in the name of the company. Why else record that it was made by the attorney of John Glassford?
Robert Peter bought other slaves but those records I have seen clearly state that the purchases were on his own or his family’s behalf, and they never involved a single slave purchase.
Was ‘Jim’ purchased for Glassford personally? Is he the manservant in the painting? In truth who knows but intriguing none the less.
It’s probably worth looking, first of all, at how the tobacco industry in Glasgow began and developed.
Before the Union of Parliaments minor trade in tobacco took place between Glasgow merchants and the American colonies during the 17th Century. This included having an embryonic stores system on the Potomac River manned by Scottish agents towards the end of the century.
The English Navigation Acts of 1660 to 1664 in particular treated Scotland as a foreign nation thereby legally excluding them from colonial commerce.
Some circumvention of these Acts occurred aided and abetted by Scottish settlers in the Chesapeake colonies and by speculative purchase of tobacco from traders in Whitehaven and Liverpool for resale to the European markets, particularly in Holland and Sweden.
The Act of Union of 1707 resulted in changes to the Navigation Acts which allowed ‘Freedom and Intercourse of Trade and Navigation’ with England and her colonies.
The pre-union trading in tobacco helped establish commercial knowledge and trade contacts which made Glasgow ready to develop and exploit the activity.
English tobacco trading was mainly commission based which involved taking crops on consignment and selling them on in domestic and European markets on behalf of the planters thereby earning a commission on the sale. Ownership of the tobacco remained with the planter until the sale. Fundamentally the English traders were ‘middle men’ with business risks mainly with the planter.
The Glasgow trade involved direct purchase of tobacco from the planters, but as other ports including English ones gradually moved to this system, this was only one factor which distinguished the Glasgow businesses from those in England and made it eventually very successful and pre-eminent in Britain.
Not everyone welcomed this success. The near monopoly of the English ports had been removed by the Act of Union; therefore, the challenge from the Glasgow merchants was not welcomed by them. When that challenge began to erode the English ports activity in tobacco, the reaction from London and Bristol merchants in particular was to attribute this to illicit activity on the part of the Glasgow merchants.
Specifically, they formed the view that ‘North British’ customs officers were corrupt and lazy thereby impairing the collection of taxes to the benefit of the Glasgow trade, and to the disadvantage of the Treasury. Lack of familiarity with correct English customs procedures was also blamed.
In due course this view prevailed and in 1722-1723 Parliament and the Treasury upheld the complaints resulting in significant changes to customs collections in Scotland.
Key changes were: more stringent regulations for the collection of dues, abolition of the separate Board of Customs for Scotland and replacing it with a rotating subcommittee of the London Board located in Edinburgh, and the sacking of native Scottish customs officers and their replacement by experienced English officers.
Despite these actions the Glasgow trade continued to flourish resulting in further complaint from the main English ports which gave rise to the Tobacco Act of 1751.
This Act put in place a series of controls which were intended to govern the internal movement of tobacco. In essence unmanufactured tobacco could not be moved or traded without a permit. A central accounting system was established, operated by special officers in London and Edinburgh, to ensure that every pound of tobacco was tracked from importer to retailer.
Contrary to expectations perhaps, Glasgow activity continued to grow to such an extent that by 1758 it surpassed London as the first tobacco port of the realm. In 1762 tobacco accounted for 81% of Scottish re-exports of foreign produce and 52% of all Scottish exports. By 1775 the Scottish share of imports to Britain from the American colonies was 45%.
The ‘business compass’ below shows what I believe became the generic arrangement of the businesses of the major tobacco lords. The core business may have been tobacco but their diversification into other industries and the selling of their other products to the tobacco producers, their use of several co-partneries, the fundamentally tight communities internally and externally within the broader Glasgow merchant class where they set up institutions (banks) to help finance their ventures, all created a very successful business model.
The statistics quoted earlier are no doubt impressive however they do not convey the rapid growth in the Scottish (mainly Glasgow) tobacco industry from 1707 until the American War of Independence. To have a full understanding of the change of activity during these years it’s necessary to look at import levels at key points during this period.
Immediately post 1707 imports averaged 1,450,000 lbs per annum
Post 1710 pre-1720 imports averaged 2,500,000 lbs per annum
1722 6,000,000 lbs.
1741 8,000,000 lbs
1745 13,000,000 lbs
1752 21,000,000 lbs
1753 24,000,000 lbs
1760 32,000,000 lbs
1771 47,000,000 lbs.
Some stagnation occurred after 1722 when the initial custom changes were applied. However, it’s clear that in the long term the changes in law, regulation and customs procedures did not hinder Glasgow’s implacable growth in tobacco trading.
There were a number of advantages Glasgow had over the English ports, one natural, the others as a result of astute business methods and structures. It can be argued however that in due course, in one of their methods of operation, namely advancing credit to the colonial planters lay the seeds of the ultimate demise of the Glasgow tobacco trade.
The shortest route to the American colonies from Britain was north of Ireland. As a consequence, a ship sailing from the Clyde to Virginia could arrive there two to three weeks earlier than one sailing from London. Ships from the Clyde could achieve two journeys per year compared to those from London. Shorter sailing times meant commercial intelligence could pass between Glasgow and the colonies much more quickly. Control of the operation in the colonies by the principals in Glasgow would be tighter ensuring a more rapid response to changing circumstances than their competitors could achieve. Coupled with the organisational structure of the Glasgow companies, namely, partner (Glasgow), managing partner or factor (colonies), and storekeeper (colonies), this was an important feature of Glasgow’s success.
However probably the most significant and influential aspect of the Glasgow tobacco trade was the combination of information pooling between agents and employees (referred to as ‘network externalities’), reduced operating costs, the factoring system, and economies of scale.
Operating costs fundamentally were driven by freight costs. At a time when tobacco could be purchased for one penny to three halfpennies per pound, the cost of freight was one halfpenny per pound.
The size of ship was important, however unit shipping costs varied directly with the length of the voyage. The principal variant in the length of the voyage was the duration of the stay in the colonies, which could be between three and six months as a full ship load for the return journey was procured.
In terms of ship procurement, a considerable number were built in the colonies due to the cheaper cost of labour, sometimes built with Glasgow capital.
Ships crewing, and victualling costs were significantly lower due to the shorter journeys. Dwell time in port was considerably reduced by advance purchasing of tobacco (turn time in port could be as little as fifteen days), which was more expensive, but more than compensated for by the much-reduced freight costs. This also drove up the price of tobacco which obviously benefited the planter but disadvantaged the consignment competition with their higher operating costs.
The factor system with its network of stores and agents scattered throughout Maryland and Virginia was the means by which tobacco could be purchased directly from the planter. The consignment system had been best suited to large scale planters but as planting of tobacco expanded westward into the ‘back’ country this resulted in a large number of smaller individual operations which were not attractive or viable to the commission businesses.
A key aspect of direct purchase was that the business risk shifted from the planter to the merchants. Inevitably such small operations required financial support which was provided by the Glasgow merchants through extended credit, primarily to buy goods shipped from Glasgow, which were necessary to everyday life.
As the merchants owned a number of manufactories where goods and supplies were produced this was another significant income stream where ownership of production would lead to lower operating costs.
Liquidity however of this process was not ideal as continuing extension of credit for a number of reasons, including rivalry between the merchants, merely increased the indebtedness of the planters. A goods pricing structure evolved where cash purchases or purchases made using tobacco as currency were cheaper than if a purchase was made on credit.
Whilst this would appear as a reasonable long-term investment in the trade, particularly as the shipped tobacco was very quickly sold on domestically and into Europe, there was an incipient threat in that a growing and significant proportion of the capital in the business was debt. A further consequence was that eventually accessible credit became the life blood of the trade without which, it would not have existed in the way that it did.
Another significant advantage of the Glasgow tobacco trade was its access to capital in Scotland. There was a lack of competing areas of investment therefore the industry had little difficulty in attracting investment from the landed gentry and others who had capital to spare. Most of these investors had no connection to the industry other than what they had invested.
Additionally, the three major banks (Ship, Arms and Thistle) formed between 1750 and 1761 were co-partnerships dominated by the tobacco lords. This situation would have facilitated financial support of the industry.
There was another major change in the tobacco trade which significantly contributed to Glasgow’s success. The size of the market increased. Originally the most important market for tobacco was centred on Amsterdam. The nature of that trade meant that supplies of tobacco came from a multitude of ports in Britain. Small businesses therefore flourished.
The emerging French and German markets changed that situation. As they grew in significance, particularly the French, major companies prospered driving out the smaller ones. French and German buyers were in place in Glasgow and London making sure they were able to satisfy their own domestic demands for tobacco.
In Glasgow between 1728-1731 there had been 91 companies involved in the tobacco trade. By 1773 that number had reduced to 38, many with common partners and more closely associated by joint interest and kinship. This in turn provided another edge for Glasgow in that London merchants tended to act alone or in smaller partnerships of two or three.
French purchase of tobacco was not carried out by individual merchants or companies but through a state monopoly run by private interests.
As an aside around 1717-1720 that monopoly was run by a Scottish economist called John Law (a convicted murderer) through an organisation called ‘The Mississippi Company’ who had the monopoly on the importing and reselling of tobacco. He created a joint stock company which unfortunately became the first casualty in 1721 of a share price bubble which starts with share prices inflating rapidly followed by a total collapse of the price. The company became known as ‘the Mississippi Bubble’. Its effect on the French economy was disastrous far outweighing the impact of the ‘South Sea Bubble’ in Britain.
The French purchases from Britain were initially small but as the 18th century progressed they began to buy more and more from Britain; significantly greater domestic demand, reduced British taxation impositions and the quality of the product driving them to do so. By the 1760’s over 50% of the French requirement was being purchased through Glasgow.
The Glasgow tobacco trade was by this time a resounding success with the main players such Glassford, Spiers and Cunninghame becoming fabulously wealthy.
Part 2 will look at Glassford’s business structure, partners, children and how the American War of Independence effected the tobacco industry generally.
The Tobacco Lords, Tom Devine, 1975, John Donald Ltd Edinburgh.
The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson, 2009, Penguin Books.
Scotland’s Empire 1600 – 1815, Tom Devine, 2003, Penguin Group.
The Union – England, Scotland and the Treaty of 1707, Michael Fry, 2007, Birlinn Ltd.
Studies in Scottish Business History, Ed. Peter Payne, 1967, Frank Case & Co. (Reprint from the William and Mary Quarterly entitled ‘The Rise of Glasgow in the Chesapeake Tobacco Trade 1707-1775)
Glasgow Past and Present-3 Volumes – 1884, David Robertson and Co.
 Marriages (OPR) Scotland. Abbey, Renfrewshire. 14 November 1690. GLASSFORD, James and GEMMILL, Agnes. 559/ 10 336
 Births (OPR) Scotland. Abbey, Renfrewshire. 1695-1702. Glassford. 559/ 10 164; 559/ 10 196; 559/ 10 204; 559/ 10 215.
 Addison, W. Innes. (1913) The Matriculation Albums of the University of Glasgow 1728 to 1858. Glasgow: James Maclehose & Sons. p. 1. https://archive.org/stream/matriculationalb00univuoft#page/n9
 Devine, T. M. (1990) The Tobacco Lords. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 181.
 Cleland, James (1832) Enumeration of the Inhabitants of the City of Glasgow ….1831. Glasgow: John Smith & Son. p. 156.https://archive.org/stream/enumerationofinh00clel#page/156
 Senex et al. (1884) Glasgow Past and Present. Vol.2. Glasgow: David Robertson and Co. p. 499
 Ewing, Archibald Orr, ed. (1866) View of the Merchants House of Glasgow etc. Glasgow: Bell & Bain. p. 530
 Stewart, George (1881) Curiosities of Glasgow Citizenship. Glasgow: James Maclehose. p. 138. https://archive.org/stream/curiositiesofgla00stewuoft#page/138/search/coats
 Ewing, op.cit. p. 166
 Marriages (OPR) Scotland. Glasgow. 27 February 1743. INGRAM, Archibald and GLASSFORD, Rebecca. 644/01 0250 0080.
 Deaths. Scotland. Glasgow. 29 March 1773. McKENZIE, (Glassford) Lady Margaret. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/182330714/margaret-glassford#source
 Senex et al. (1884) Glasgow Past and Present. Vol.2. Glasgow: David Robertson and Co. p. 50
 Senex et al. (1884) Glasgow Past and Present. Vol.2. Glasgow: David Robertson and Co. p. 499.
 Goodfellow, G. L. M. “Colin Campell’s Shawfield Mansion in Glasgow.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 23, no. 3, 1964, pp. 123–128. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/988232.
 Devine, op. cit. p. 181.
 Maryland State Archives. Maryland Indexes, (Chancery Papers, Index), 1788-1790, MSA S 1432. 1790/12/013990: Robert Peter vs. William Deakins, Jr., Bernard O’Neal, Edward Burgess, Richard Thompson, John Peters, and Thomas Beall. MO. Contract to serve as securities. Accession No: 17,898-3990. MSA S512-4108 1/36https://msa.maryland.gov/msa/stagser/s1400/s1432/html/s1432b.html