‘Tobacco lords worked here from 1817′The Merchant City Trail
The blue plaque says ‘Tobacco lords worked here from 1817’ this only tells part of the story. To understand how that date was arrived at we need to examine the shared histories of Virginia Street & neighbouring Miller & Wilson Streets.
But in examining the history, the architecture & other documented evidence it raises conflicts that can’t easily be explained unless you are willing to question the received wisdom.
Could the much loved Jacobean Corsetry building be older? Possibly. Did Tobacco Lords live and work on this plot earlier than 1817? Most certainly, from 1760 to be exact.
I believe The Jacobean Corsetry sits on the plot of self styled ‘mercantile god’ of Glasgow Alexander Spiers’ first mansion in Virginia Street.  It was the north most plot on the west side of Virginia Street as originally laid out sitting just outside the gates of Buchanan’s Virginia Mansion.
: Senex, Aliquis, J.B. etc. (1884) Glasgow Past and Present. Vol.II Glasgow: David Robertson & Co. p399.
Trying to establish the exact location of Spiers’ first house in Glasgow beyond reasonable doubt has not been straightforward. Contemporaries such as Senex , JB etc. provide statements about the development of Virginia Street that when examined closely can at times prove contradictory and misleading. It was on noticing these discrepancies that prompted my curiosity to investigate further. I decided to try and establish which of the statements could be corroborated by present day observation, documents and research. I should add at this point during lockdown of 2020 I had no access to public record archives other than what existed already online. Crucially this meant no access to city burgh sasine records.
Let me summarise the quotes in the volumes I & II of Glasgow Past & Present (1884) that made me curious:
vI p100, Senex in his letter to us on 18th October 1843 “…Virginia Street was so named by Mr. Spiers in honour of the tobacco trade”
vI p472 (footnote) “Mr. Buchanan‘s large importations of tobacco were from this plantation of Washington’s. Hence the name given to the property near Glasgow, and also to Virginia Street.”
So who named Virginia Street? Could Spiers or is this simply a typo from Senex. Well it’s a matter of record that Spiers a newcomer from Edinburgh became a member of the Glasgow Burgesses 22 March 1753. 
: Scottish Record Society (1935) The Burgesses and Guild Brethren of Glasgow 1751-1846 Edinburgh: J Skinner & Co. Ltd. p7.
He married Mary Buchanan in March of 1755.  The daughter of Provost Andrew Buchanan of Drumpellier, and the niece of Archibald Buchanan of Silverbanks who he had already entered into partnership with in 1754. . So he was very well regarded by the Buchanan’s even at this early stage but one suspects not to the extent that he would get the honour of naming rights to the very street that Andrew Buchanan of Drumpellier laid out in 1753. After all it was Andrew Buchanan who spent approx. 20 years buying up the various rigs that would ultimately form the furlong long Virginia Street. In 1753 Spiers was yet to realise the status of ‘mercantile god of Glasgow’. So it is safe to assume Senex was mistaken as neither the dates or provenance fit. It’s now undisputed (2021) that Buchanan named Virginia Street.
: Marriages Scotlandlandspeople (OPR). Glasgow 2 March 1755. SPIERS, Alexander & BUCHANAN, Mary. 644/01 250 157.
: Deed of Contract 1754. Mitchell Library Archives Glasgow. Reference Number B10/15/6653.
Next we are faced with the conflicting statements concerning the location of the southern extremity of The Virginia Mansion garden wall.
vI p519 “A large area in front of the house was allotted to shrubbery, enclosed by a parapet, carying a massive iron railing, which ran across the property from east to west, the whole space between Colonel M’Dowall’s garden wall on the one side and Mr. Miller of Westerton’s ground on the other. This cross wall stood as far south as the line of the present Wilson Street.“
vII p396 “The road or avenue reached from the Wester Gate up as far as about the point where Wilson Street now branches off.”
vII p399 “The position of the two lodges and the parapet wall, which ran across the street in front of the mansion, was nearly in line with the opening to what is now Wilson Street.”
So we have one of three options as to the exact location of the southern wall of The Virginia Mansion which marked the northern boundary of Virginia Street as originally laid out in 1753. These options are:
- That the wall was in line with Wilson Street.
- That the wall stopped short of Wilson Street to the south.
- That it was located north of Wilson street.
Using the National Library of Scotland map functionality ‘side-by-side’ with McArthur’s map of Glasgow 1778 and comparing that with Fleming’s map of 1807 it can be seen that the southern wall of The Virginia Mansion was located north of present day Wilson Street. Even allowing for a margin of error based on the inherent inaccuracy of the 1778 map using the mouth of Virginia Street as a datum this suggests that the map is out only by a few metres and certainly not by an amount sufficient to place the mansion’s southern wall at or south of Wilson Street.
It’s interesting to note that Virginia Place is a relic of the mansion garden serving to denote both it’s original width bounded by Glassford’s garden to the east and Miller Street’s solum to the west and also the southern location of the well documented out buildings and offices.
Having established the rough location of the garden wall I next wanted to establish who was living at the north end of the street circa1760. The sources seemed straightforward.
vII p399 “Immediately outside the gates, four plots were given off by Mr. Buchanan to two of his friends, namely, Mr. John Bowman of Ashgrove, afterwards Provost of Glasgow, and Mr. Alexander Spiers, who subsequently purchased the estate of Elderslie, and was married to Mr. Buchanan’s sister, Mary. Both these gentle men were Virginia merchants of no small degree. The plots which they purchased lay next each other, two being on the west and two on the east side of the street, directly opposite. The north most two were those of Mr. Spiers. The date of Mr. Bowman’s acquisition was 14th May 1754, and of Mr. Spiers’, 26th March 1760.
vII p400 These four plots filled up the gap between the steadings before referred to, belonging to Silverbanks, and the south retaining wall of the Virginia Mansion shrubbery.
vII p400 “The two plots acquired by Mr. Spiers measured 1883 square yards; each had a frontage of 100 feet; and the price of both was £141 : 4 : 6.”
vII p400 “Dwelling-houses, something in the style of the antique edifices still lingering in Miller Street, were built by Mr. Bowman and Mr. Spiers on their westmost plots. Those opposite were left unbuilt for many years, being reserved as gardens, and to preserve the pleasant view from the windows eastward, which reached all the way to the Candleriggs, and included the fine gardens behind the Shawfield Mansion and Hutcheson’s Hospital.”
So far so good. We are also informed that Spiers’ frontage was larger than Bowman’s. It seemed straightforward that Alexander Spiers resided in the northern most plot on the west side with Provost John Bowman’s residence to his south. That was until I tried to reconcile the following statements which seemed to suggest that Wilson Street was projected through Provost Bowman’s garden. Now inferring that his was the northern most plot not Spiers.
vI P489 “Thus, four banks—the Paisley, British Linen, City of Glasgow, and the Savings Banks—have successively been owners of this Virginia Street tenement, which was built by Mr. John Leckie, writer, in 1800, on part of old Provost Bowman’s garden.”
vII p401 “Wilson Street had also been laid off through Provost Bowman’s garden-plot immediately adjacent. Hardie and Co. were taken bound to lay a pavement along the south side
of their purchase, which skirted the north side of what is now Wilson Street. They seem to have bought the ground merely on speculation, for they did not build ; but after holding it as a garden for three years, Hardie and Co. sold their half of the original plot in 1800 to Mr. John Leckie, writer.
So which gentleman owned which plot? It was a case of going back to the source text, reviewing the sale history as written and having established a potential link ask ‘who would live in a house like this?’ Does the location fit in the context of status, of outlook, and of course were there any other contemporary sources that could give a clue as to the correct match. Each piece of the puzzle alone not sufficient to prove beyond all reasonable doubt but when added together a case could potentially be made.
Given we were told that each of the two plots acquired by Spiers had a frontage of 100ft and that it was larger than Bowman’s plot then looking at the map evidence alone would confirm the scale of the respective plots. Taking two British National Grid References from the southern and northern points on the eastern face of the most northern plot gave a distance of approx 31metres using the NLS map functionality. This equates to a shade over 100ft. The smaller plot to the south equated to about 24m approx 78ft. Allowing for a margin of error it would still suggest the length quoted for the frontage of the northern plot was indeed correct.
Next looking at the original feu history quoted by Senex, JB et al. established the following ownership of the respective plots:
- 1754 Buchanan to Mr John Bowman of Ashgrove. The southmost two (east & west) were purchased 14th May 1754. (Afterward Lord Provost of Glasgow 1764-66.)
- 1798 John Bowman’s trustee to Mr John Lang (writer). Mr. John Lang, many years Dean of Faculty acquired after Mr Bowman’s ‘misfortunes’.
- 1808 Mr John Lang to Findlay Duff & Co.
- 1760 George Buchanan to Mr Alexander Spiers (of Elderslie) The northmost two (east & west) were purchased 26th March 1760. Afterwards in 1770 after the death of his friend he moves into The Virginia Mansion.
- 1770 Mr Alexander Spiers of Elderslie to Mr George Oswald of Scotstoun (Afterward Rector of Glasgow University 1797-98.) The price of both house and ground in June 1770 was £1,600. Doesn’t sound like much now but it was double the price paid by the Thistle Bank for the next most expensive house on the street. The price paid wouldn’t be matched in the area for almost a decade! The east most plot is described in the conveyance as the little garden opposite the house. Mr. Oswald possessed the house and garden twenty-three years.
- 1793 Mr George Oswald of Scotstoun to Mr John Dunlop of Rosebank. (Afterward Lord Provost of Glasgow 1794-96.)
- 1816 Mr John Dunlop of Rosebank to Findlay Duff & Co.
Now the chronology above would seem to fit with the received wisdom on the build sequence of the Virginia Buildings. That is, Robert Findlay of Easterhill residing at 42 Miller Street developed east to create what’s now known as Virginia Court and north up Virginia Street toward The Jacobean Corsetry. The dates of purchase 1808(south) to 1816(north) would support that theory. Suggesting that Spiers did in fact reside in the most northern plot. But was there another source that could lend weight to the argument?
In The Old Country Houses of the Old Glasgow Gentry 2nd ed published 1878 which detailed info on the families associated with the estates there was an interesting comment concerning George Oswald of Scotstoun. It said that he had 13 children and referred to his house in Virginia Street with an additional footnote. This footnote(9) read:
His house was the northmost house on the west side of Virginia Street. It looked north into the grounds of the Virginia Mansion, and in front, across the great garden of the Shawfield Mansion and other vacant ground, it looked east to Candleriggs and beyond it. To secure this eastern view Mr. Oswald owned the building stance across the street, and kept it as a gardenLXXXVII. Scotstoun – The old Country Houses of the Old Glasgow Gentry 2nd ed: Glasgow James Maclehose & Sons (1878)
The above tells us three things:
- Oswald’s house was north most.
- The garden plot was still not developed.
- Crucially it looked north into the grounds of The Virginia Mansion.
It would have been impossible to look into the grounds of The Virginia Mansion if Oswald’s house was located further south. He would have been unable to see over the large perimeter garden wall. (We are told the iron gate was 15ft high.) Even if there wasn’t a house in between, such as Bowman’s, given the wall’s height the house would need to be located almost right up against it, as indeed the map evidence supports, in order to claim you could look north into the mansion grounds.
The fue history captures that George Oswald of Scotstoun bought the plot belonging to Alexander Spiers of Elderslie. So we now have two corroborating sources supporting the case for the north most plot being Spiers’.
Circumstantial evidence is the feuing history of the street. Andrew Buchanan began selling his plots at the southern end of the street first working his way north. His son George Buchanan of Mount Vernon continued this with the sale of 1754 to John Bowman. The last large plot(s) to be feud(1760) were to Alexander Spiers and they were the north most just outside the garden.
This approach would make sense for two reasons. The broad plan was to build a fine mansion and garden with avenue leading up. Now if you haven’t quite ‘nailed down’ what your own plot requires logic would dictate that you feu other plots from the Wester Gate (Argyle Street) moving north. This would (a) buy you time to sort out your own plot out (b) Keep noisy build work well away from your aspect as long as possible.
But there is still the issue of the statements concerning Wilson Street being projected through Bowman’s garden. In each of the statements above concerning Bowman’s garden ‘Leckie’ & ‘Hardie & Co.’ are mentioned. Again we need to look at the sale history of the garden plots. First Spiers’ garden as quoted by Senex, JB et al.:
North Plot Garden
- 1793 Mr Alexander Spiers to Mr John Dunlop of Rosebank. (Whole)
- 1797 Mr John Dunlop of Rosebank to Mr. Robert Brown. (North half)
- 1797 Mr John Dunlop of Rosebank to Henry Hardie & Co. (South Half)
- 1800 Henry Hardie & Co. to Mr John Leckie, writer. (South Half)
The sale history noted against Spiers’ garden transactions recorded both ‘Leckie’ & ‘Henry Hardie & Co.’ The fact that these are not linked with Bowman contradicts what Senex, JB et al are telling us about which of the two gardens was impacted by the projection of Wilson Street. The sale history would support it being Spiers’ garden that was most impacted by the development of Wilson Street.
Looking at the statements more closely they talk about Henry Hardie & Co. being obliged to put in a pavement on their southern boundary (North side of Wilson Street). This clearly defines Henry Hardie & Co. southern limit as being on the north side of the new street leaving no room for ambiguity as to how far south it extended.
In addition, and more importantly, we have reference to the banks that operated from Leckie’s tenement. Map evidence supports the location for these banks being located at the north west corner of Wilson Street at the junction with Virginia Street. Currently the home of the Polo Lounge.
On the Glasgow OS 1857 map you can clearly see The Savings Bank being highlighted on the corner. The same Savings Bank that we are told operated from the tenement that Leckie built. This confirms for me the fact that Wilson Street was projected through Spiers garden and not John Bowman’s as the literature would have us believe.
In summary the six pieces of evidence for speculating that The Jacobean Corsetry sits on the plot of Alexander Spiers’ first Virginia Street mansion are:
- Establishing the exact location of The Virginia Mansion southern wall with map technology.
- Validating the feu history of both plot & garden against map evidence & received wisdom.
- Finding a detailed description of the north plot in family history of one of the owners; George Oswald of Scotstoun, who crucially purchased direct from Alexander Spiers of Elderslie.
- Proving with map technology the north plot on which The Jacobean sits is 100ft long.
- Confirming the exact position of Leckie’s plot with reference to map evidence detailing the position of The Savings’ Bank mentioned in Glasgow Past and Present vI/II.
- Disproving that Wilson Street was projected through Bowman’s plot.
The five pieces of circumstantial evidence are:
- The order in which the plots were feud, from the south, north up toward The Virginia Mansion.
- The negative space. In every map I’ve seen the rear courtyard has never been encroached. The pressures on land during the late 1700s in Glasgow were incredible. So for this area not to be put to ‘good use’ suggests someone had the means and ability to protect it. As Spiers, Oswald & Dunlop would have. The fact that it survived after the purchase of Findlay Duff & Co is I suspect more by chance than anything.
- Zoning: With the sale of 1798 of Bowman’s plot to Lang a ‘writer’ (solicitor) this is the prevailing use of the buildings that evolved and stayed with The Virginia Buildings in this vicinity as evidenced by the ghost signs of 1820 that still linger today. Whereas The Jacobean evolved to serve a variety of uses.
- Gavin Stamp writing in 2003 about ‘Soane in Glasgow’ for the Georgian Group identifies that Senex et al got the location of Robert Dennistoun’s house in Buchanan Street incorrect. If wrong about one it open’s the door to there being other innacuracies.
- The north plot is the more prestigious of the two. It also retained its uninterrupted aspect east longer than the plot to the south. As a location then, the north plot aligned with the status of Spiers, Oswald & Dunlop better.
As of writing this 2020/21 I have not had access to sasine burgh records. Land Title documents begin 1836. I hope to be able to resolve this and prove beyond all reasonable doubt that the current site of The Jacobean Corsetry was indeed the plot belonging to Alexander Spiers of Elderslie early 2022.
In trying to answer these questions I came across something completely unexpected. In the map above you shall see the striking similarity between the two maps of the building facing east down Wilson Street. It looks like one in the same, The Jacobean Corsetry. That profile remains unchanged to this day. Which begs the question what is the profile of a building we are told was constructed circa1817 doing on a map dated 1807?
vII p400 “In the course of years many changes took place in the ownership of these properties. Mr. Buchanan’s fine mansion and the houses of Mr. Bowman and Mr. Spiers have been demolished ; both sides of the street built up, with tenements for places of business.”
‘Demolished’, were they? …
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