Sir William Burrell as a Glasgow Councillor.

The recent publication of a new book on the life of William Burrell has prompted me to look at some of the research I did eleven years ago on his activity as a councillor.

He was elected in November 1899 (see my post Sir William Burrell Glasgow Corporation Councillor 1899 – 1906). In his first year Burrell sat on the Gas, Electricity, Police and Library Department’s committees and two special committees on the Telephone Service and the setting up of a Friendly Society.  As perhaps expected, he was also on these department’s Finance sub committees. He was also on the Police Department’s Health committee included in which was a subcommittee dealing with Uninhabitable Dwellings as defined by the Glasgow Police Act of 1890. This committee, whose membership was that of the Health committee, was chaired by Councillor Dick.

Burrell’s ‘maiden motion’ at a full corporation meeting on 17th May 1900 was to move that the city engineer be instructed to submit a statement showing the respective values of the sites of the city churches. The motion was delayed at meetings on the 7th June and the 5th July and eventually agreed on 27th September. An early indication perhaps that the ‘mills of the Corporation grind exceeding slow’.

He was however active in meetings before that in particular with those of the Police Department (he attended 90% of them). On the 7th February 1900 a motion was proposed and seconded that a resolution received by members of the Corporation from the Glasgow United Trades Council (in this case representing Cleansing Dept workers, in particular close sweepers) be remitted to the Committee on Cleansing for report. The resolution by the trade council regretted the Corporation’s refusal to grant a wage increase and the language used by some councillors when referring to the rights of employees to have their complaints represented to the Town Council by their union representatives. An amendment was proposed and seconded by Robert Graham and Thomas Watson (both of Exchange Ward) that the resolution ‘lay on the table’ i.e. no action to be taken. The amendment was supported by Burrell (also a member for Exchange Ward )  and carried. Interestingly his brother in law Charles John Cleland supported the motion.

On the 11th June all three members of Exchange Ward voted for a motion (which was carried) which gave approval to the Superintendent of Cleansing, the department’s Cashier and Bookkeeper all getting a rise in wages. However on the 15th October he voted for an amendment against a wage increase for sanitary inspector assistants, which was carried.

During this first year his attendance at the Health Department’s meetings were less than 50%. Around one third of these meetings had content referring to uninhabitable premises sub committee one of which Burrell attended.

25 addresses were deemed unfit over the year and appropriate action identified and implemented which included demolition, closure, re-housing of tenants and improvement action. It’s not clear if any demolitions occurred.

Section 32 of the Glasgow Police (Amended) Act 1890 was the relevant legislation for identifying such premises and for the action to be taken which ranged from improvement through closure to demolition of the premises. The process was begun by the issuing of certificates, by the city Sanitary Inspector, its Medical Officer and the Master of Works following inspection by these individuals stating premises were unfit for human habitation. Burrell was not a member of this committee at this time which had twelve members (7 Baillies and 5 Councillors), chaired by councillor J Carswell. 

The next two years saw Burrell retain membership of the above referenced committees. Significantly perhaps, he was added to General Finance in 1901. He appears to have played a full part in all financial matters associated with his committee membership, no doubt bringing his own business experience into play.  However on several occasions he was defeated on his motions or his amendments, ranging from dissenting to the acceptance of departmental accounts to trying to stop by amendment, the creation of Glasgow Corporation 3% Redeemable stock. He had some successes particularly with accounting for depreciation of departmental assets. Reference the committee on Uninhabitable Houses very little action seems to have been taken, Burrell becoming a member in 1901, it still being chaired by J. Carswell.

Towards the end of 1902 the Lord Provost set up a special committee within the Police Department to review the work of the Health Committee, apparently due to concerns about the effectiveness of the Uninhabitable Houses sub committee and the relatively new Public Health Act of 1897.

In 1903 at the first full Corporation meeting of the year Burrell was elected as a Baillie, a vacancy having arisen from the death of Baillie James Hamilton. He was nominated by River Baillie Shaw and seconded by Thomas Watson, fellow Ward 10 councillor. He was opposed by Councillor George Taggart who was nominated by Councillor Alexander Murray and seconded by Councillor W.F. Anderson. Burrell gained 44 votes to Taggart’s 26, having had the support of the Lord Provost John Ure Primrose, his brother in law Charles John Cleland and Robert Graham.

He remained on the General Finance, Police, Gas and Electricity committees becoming sub convener of Electricity. He was also on seven other special committees all dealing with different aspects of Corporation finances. These covered, amongst others, rates collection, capital expenditure, tendering and bye laws for auction sales.

His focus remained matters financial and he continued to put forward his responses to situations which he felt merited it. On 13th November 1903 for example he seconded a motion which would allow private enterprise to supply or hire electric motors adding the corporation should not undertake the responsibility (he was firmly against any municipalisation action by the corporation). The motion was defeated 10 votes to 3. He could also bring simple practical input to the meetings. In 1904 he proposed that no Corporation meetings should be held ‘in July fortnight which includes the Fair week’. The motion was passed – just!

On 6th November 1903 the Corporation (presumably on a recommendation from the Special committee set up in 1902) nominated the Health committee to enact the Public Health Act of 1897 “with a view of efficiently and with reasonable expedition carrying into operation the Sanitary and Public Health provisions of the Act.” The sub committee of Uninhabitable Houses became ‘Uninhabitable Houses, Areas and Back Lands, and Underground Dwellings’ as required by the Act, Convener was W. F. Anderson, membership was again that of the Health committee. As before it had the power to issue closure notices and demolish premises that did not meet the requirements of the Act with respect to human habitability.

During the committee’s first year over fifty properties were identified as not complying with the Act: the previous 4 years had barely got into double figures when non-compliance had been measured against the Police Act.

Fifteen months after it was created, in January 1905, Burrell became its Convener, perhaps surprisingly as the general thrust of the committe was to resolve working class housing through some form of municipal action. Was that because it’s action would somehow be ‘contained’ by him or did he he have a genuine desire to improve the situation? His previous voting record, where he resisted what he called unnecessary expenditure which would not benefit the ratepayers of the time, makes me tend to the former reason rather than any altruistic feelings he may have developed to support the non rate paying working class. I recognise that I may be doing him an injustice in saying that as he was born into a tenement flat in 3 Scotia Street, however his life as a businessman, councillor and collector really give no indication of any kind of social concern.

He also continued to be involved in all his other committees in what proved to be his last full year as a councillor, but there is no doubt the Health sub committee became a major focus of his attention.

From the first meeting of the newly named sub committee on 7th November 1904 to the last chaired by him on 10th January 1906 nearly 200 premises were recommended for closure to be followed by demolition should the owners not comply with required improvements (they were given one month) or closure.

There seems to have been some initial success in that the first premises recommended for demolition at 101 Maitland Street and 240 Gallowgate were approved on 21 December at a cost of £37 10s., and in due course demolition took place.

However an indication of how the committee faired in the longer run in dealing with this significant social problem can be given by looking at the case involving 16 Sharps Lane.

The owner of these premises (James McNicol) had been given an improvement order during November 1904. At a meeting held on 28th December the Town Clerk advised Burrell that the owner had appealed to the Sheriff to have a demolition order rescinded. The Sheriff indicated he would hear the arguments from both sides on the 16th January. It’s not clear what happened in detail at the appeal but what is certain the property reappeared as a concern to Burrell’s committee at their meeting on 29th March 1905 when a further order was recommended. This was approved at the full Corporation meeting on 27 April and the Town clerk instructed to pursue the issue. It’s worth pointing out at this stage that all the recommendations for improvement, closure or demolition that Burrell’s committee recommended during his 14 month tenure were all approved by subsequent full corporation meetings.

The owner continued to appeal until November when the Town Clerk was instructed to request the Sheriff (who always seemed to want more information, particularly from the Corporation) to refer the matter to the Court of Session for their determination as was allowed for by the Act, which the Sheriff refused to comply with! Eventually the property was demolished as was indicated to Burrell at his final meeting on 10th January 1906, at a cost of £25.

Burrell’s attendance at his other committee meetings declined noticeably during the latter half of 1905, he was building ships again and preparing to return to running Burrell & Son. Despite all his Uninhabitable Housing committee’s input and the Corporation’s approval there appears to have been no process or sufficient capacity in place to create the desired results. All Burrell’s recommendations went to the Town Clerk to action, all Corporation supporting actions or recommendations also went to the Town Clerk. This activity would not be the only responsibility he or his department would have. Was he and his department sufficiently prepared to deal with the process required, both in terms of  understanding  what that should be and what resources he needed? As an individual who always was running his business efficiently and seeking improvement this situation must have been very frustrating for Burrell, purely, at least, from an efficiency point of view.

There may have been one other source of irritation for Burrell during this time. At a meeting on 10th May 1905 his committee recommended that a report be prepared with plans, for circulation among Corporation members, dealing with the work done by it. On the 24th May a Special Committee was set up by the Lord Provost to deal with Part 2 of the Housing of Working Classes Act 1890 relating to ‘Buildings Unfit for Human Habitation and Closing Orders and Demolition’. This committee was initially chaired by Councillor Steele who was a member (and remained so) of Burrell’s. Burrell was present at the first meeting of this new committee as a member but did not attend any subsequently. In terms of what activity it undertook it clearly was no different from that of Burrell’s, which continued to meet, with Councillor Steele in attendance!

Burrell remained a Baillie until 10th November 1905. At the start of 1906 he decided to resign. His letter of resignation dated 17th January was accepted by the full corporation meeting on 18th January without comment.

His election as a councillor was not pre planned, he became a candidate due to the death of Robert Murdoch, who was one of three sitting members for Ward 10 (Exchange). He was the retiring member for 1899 and was standing again, unopposed for re-election. What is therefore not in doubt is that Burrell’s later comments that he had become a councillor to help solve Glasgow’s slum housing problem are not borne out by the facts. A number of ratepayers had specifically pressed him to become a candidate as there were some concerns that the selected candidate after the death of Murdoch, Richard Hunter, who helped found Quarrier’s orphans home, would have some degree of liberal concern for social issues despite his general conservatism, and that Burrell would better represent the views of commerce and business.


Corporation Minutes: 1899-1900, 1900-1901, 1901-1902,1902-1903, 1903-1904, 1904-1905, 1905-1906. (Mitchell Library, Glasgow).

Author: harmonyrowbc

Ex aero engineer with a life long passion for Glasgow History

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