The Jacobean Corsetry: The Case

At this stage I was questioning my sanity. You don’t just lose a building. Impossible. But then I was reminded of The Britannia Panoptican Music Hall on Trongate, otherwise known as ‘Glasgow’s Lost Theatre’. As a music hall established in 1850 (now the world’s oldest & well worthy of a visit) it had hundreds passing through it’s doors every night on one of Glasgow’s busiest streets. Written about in press & fliers. A key source of entertainment it would have been used be all rungs of society. And yet it’s location was only recently re-established.

In contrast The Jacobean plot 100 years older, consigned to a side street, a building used by relatively few in comparison would seem the much easier to lose sight of so to speak. I had also been exploring family history and lost count of the times I found myself saying ‘Why don’t I know this?’ From one, two generations back. So reaching back the eight plus generations with The Jacobean seemed to bring things back into perspective.


Taking today’s Jacobean Corsetry simply at face value it’s easy to see why the assumption would be that it is, always was, a commercial property. It’s scale, appearance and location lend itself to simply just that. After all Senex, JB et al. stated that their mansions were all gone, ‘demolished’. They were wrong about the location, could they be wrong about it’s provenance too?

Now that we have a clearer understanding of who the original owners were, if we are to entertain the possibility of The Jacobean Corsetry as a residential ‘townhouse’, the idea does not seem so far fetched when set against the scale of their country estates. These were individuals at the very top of Scottish & to a degree British society. They had the motive and more importantly the means to build big.

I have no thoughts of attribution or even establishing a build date. Thats beyond my means, it would require finding documented evidence establishing provenance beyond all reasonable doubt. However, I would like to progress the conversation and try and identify possible build window(s) given who we know stayed there. In order to achieve that I will explore:

  • The architecture; It’s not going anywhere. Time to look again.
  • Contemporary accounts; Nothing happens in a vacuum.
  • Pictorial Evidence; Maps, engravings, etchings & early photography.


The Jacobean Corsetry in its current incarnation dates from at least 1807 NOT 1817. Potentially it is one of Glasgows last remaining 18th Century façades. Sadly, the guts ripped out of it long, long ago.


Noting the profile of The Jacobean in Fleming’s map of 1807 when it shouldn’t have appeared until at least 1816 on the purchase of the plot by Findlay Duff & Co. prompted me to reach out to the current owner (JM) in the summer of 2020. He had been involved in the building’s refurbishment in the early 1990s. He told me there was evidence of an older mansion that had been extended upward at some point on the same footprint. He identified a crow step (dutch) gable (typical of 1700s architecture) and chimney head about second floor level. Crucially he drew attention to the fact that the quoin stones to the rear of the property only extend so far. Suggesting the building had indeed been extended upward.

He also mentioned that Ian Samuels of Glasgow Planning Dept. had been ‘all over’ the building in the early 90s. Unfortunately he has since passed and now have no way of knowing what he established. Recently I was able to obtain the following photograph:

Jacobean Corsetry (rear) ©merchantcityglasgow

The Masonry

The quoin stones clearly stop about the third floor. With a distinct change in the size and layout of the rubble work. Up to the level of the quoin stones the rubble work is uniform in size and laid out in an orderly fashion. Above this point the masonry is a ‘mish mash’ of sizes with less care and attention given to it’s appearance as if it’s been flung up with what was lying around.

At this point I had to consider that there was at least two build phases, possibly more. Did Findlay Duff & Co. extend upward? Did they reface The Jacobean Building to keep it consistent with their Virginia Buildings to the south? If not, then who did?

I decided to have a closer look at the front of the building. To identify what was and was not consistent between The Virginia Buildings to the south and The Jacobean. I was not expecting them to be the same given the plot purchase dates of 1808 & 1816. (I made an assumption that Findlay Duff & Co. did not wait to acquire both plots before building in unison.)

Architectural Consistencies between The Virginia Buildings & The Jacobean

  1. The buildings were of uniform height.
  2. Both faced in ashlar.
  3. Both shared a symmetry of design.
  4. Both utilised a relieving arch and ionic pilaster motifs.
  5. Both had evidence of the same incised decoration around their 1st floor windows.

Architectural Inconsistencies between The Virginia Buildings & The Jacobean

  1. The architecture of The Virginia Buildings appears more utilitarian ‘chunky’ when placed up against The Jacobean. Yes same features but ‘heavier’.
  2. Key build lines do not match, window heights are off.
  3. 1st floor windows Although they share the same incised decoration The Jacobean has this detail on every bay whereas The Virginia Buildings only captures this on the most southerly and northern bays.
  4. Then there is the issue of No.49 Virginia Street. This is a close (an entrance) lying directly between Virginia Buildings (Nos. 37-47 ) to the south and The Jacobean (No.53). It is not flush with either building. Why? Logic would dictate it should be flush with at least one of them. It’s design ties it in with The Virginia Buildings, it’s first floor incised decoration providing the symmetry I spoke of earlier. So why isn’t it flush on at least one plain?
  5. Finally there was the balustrade at roof level of The Jacobean. Neither The Virginia Buildings nor Robert Findlay’s own house featured this detail. So why introduce it onto the later building?
  • The Architecture:

I’m not qualified to comment in detail about the stylistic architectural differences if they are indeed different. To my eyes at least, it looks different, has a different ‘weight’. It’s part of the reason I’ve written this blog to try and bring more qualified voices to the discussion at least.

  • Key Build Lines

Window heights not matching seems incongruous when there was every opportunity to match up The Jacobean with the building to the south even when built sequentially as the text would tell us. However, if The Jacobean existed first as the map evidence of 1807 would seem to suggest and was used as an anchor to build north to then this might explain the heights being slightly out. It might also explain the difference in the incised window decoration.

  • Incised Window Decoration

Why does The Jacobean have incised decoration on all 1st floor windows but The Virginia Buildings only on the outside bays? This decoration is additional expense. Extravagant for a townhouse but would it be used so freely on commercial property such as an office tenement that we know The Virginia Buildings were built as? I think not.

However, if you wanted to unify the street architecture and were taking cues from an existing building then you just might prudently ‘borrow’ elements to achieve this. Glasgow has ‘previous’ in this approach. The old Bank of Scotland by James Sellars, 24 George Square and Merchants House, 30 George Square by J Burnet 1874. Two different buildings by two different architects. However, there was a prior agreement to keep the design uniform and cohesive for the benefit of the square.

  • Close at No.49

This perplexed me. Why is it there, what was it’s purpose? Was it bomb damage from the war? I searched Glasgows database of known hits but there was no match against Virginia Street. Was there fire damage? Again whilst there had been fires documented in the street, some even like Reid’s warehouse sadly with the loss of life none were associated with this location. In the absence of information relating to subsidence I then decided to look again at the maps that had helped me get this far.

And there it was, No. 49 Virginia Street sits on Spiers original plot not Bowman’s as expected. This suggests that Findlay Duff & Co. required the gap to bring symmetry to their original plan for The Virginia Buildings. I thought initially that the gap had been filled when the later purchase of 1816 from Dunlop took place but the symmetrical design of The Virginia Buildings strongly suggests the purchase was made earlier, possibly at the same time of the Bowman purchase.

On re-examining both recessed ‘wings’ that contain closes No37 & No49 if removed from the design then what remains (the 8 bays over the central pend) more closely matched the internal courtyard stylistically. Were both No.37 & No49 added as the business expanded, requiring other plots to be bought? We simply don’t know for certain. But their width matched closely the width of arched gateways that Glasgow of mid 1700s was famous for having either side of gentrified property. The central 8 bays also appear to fill in totality the width of Bowman’s original plot.

The design could have been 10 bays in total from the start, mirroring in scale the most prestigious building of that time The Tontine on The Trongate. Again we can only speculate. However, what’s not in doubt is that the newly acquired slice of Spiers’ plot has been used to maximum effect. It has enabled the internal buildings of Virginia Court that run perpendicular to be set back creating more internal space for the passageway between Virginia & Miller Streets. In the rear courtyard there is another clue that The Virginia Buildings were built in phases. Again the window line does not match up & the inside windows north most on the rear Virginia Street side appear to have been halved to accommodate the internal return through the courtyard space. This suggests at least two build phases for The Virginia Buildings excluding The Jacobean.

Given No49’s unified exterior with The Virginia Buildings as far as I am aware today there is no internal link south to The Virginia Buildings. Logic would seem to suggest there must have been. At some point in the early 19th Century The Jacobean became a girls’ school. Would this have necessitated the rejigging of the internal layout requiring a staircase north instead of south? With any connection to the neighbour to the south blocked off for the girls safety. A theory at least; I’m not aware of any evidence to support this. However an insurance map of Glasgow (Goad 1889-1946) would appear to show what looks like a connecting internal staircase with exits both north & south.

  • The Balustrade:

I’d seen a building with a similar feature but where, what building was it reminding me of? Then the penny dropped… it closely matched the known designs of The Virginia Mansion. Why was The Jacobean mirroring the mansion? It was time to explore the sale history of The Virginia Mansion.

  • 1752 George Buchanan of Mount Vernon.
  • 1769 Buchanan’s trustees.
  • 1770 Alexander Spiers of Elderslie. (confirmed by McArthurs map of 1778)
  • 1777 Spiers conveys the property to his wife Mary.
  • 1779 Spiers dispones the property (under the burden of Mary) to his second son Peter.
  • 1787 Peter Spiers sells to James Dunlop of Garnkirk. (The brother of John Dunlop of Rosebank)
  • 1789 Dunlop sells to George Oswald of Scotstoun.
  • 1793 Oswald sells to John Dunlop of Rosebank.

Then it hit me, all 3 owners of The Jacobean prior to 1816 had also owned The Virginia Mansion. Indeed John Dunlop had bought both The Virginia Mansion & The Jacobean in the same year (after George Oswald of Scotstoun had held both for four years). Two of the most prestigious properties in Glasgow bought at the same time. On the face of it, extravagant. What was going on?

Knowing that both The Virginia Mansion and The Jacobean had had the very same owners did this explain the balustrade? Was this architectural feature used at some point to unify and link both buildings and/or signify status?

What made me even more curious was Senex, JB et al. commenting on the following about John Dunlop. On purchasing both properties he stayed in The Virginia Mansion for two years before moving into his Virginia Street townhouse which he owned for almost 25 years.

Why would he move out of what on the face of it was the more prestigious property? The Virginia Mansion was renowned , it carried more ‘clout’; it had been Alexander Spiers’ residence after all. And then there was the delay of two years. Was this window used to refurb The Jacobean plot before he moved back there? The purchase was 1793 and we are told he moved back into his townhouse in Virginia Street circa1795.

By this time circa1793 The Virginia Mansion was almost 50 years old and possibly showing it’s age. John Dunlop of Rosebank was a man of refined tastes, did he see an opportunity to make a mark with his Virginia Street townhouse The Jacobean?

Equally it’s well documented that George Oswald of Scotstoun used this as his city townhouse for quarter of a century. He also had a large family, possibly 13 children. They’d need housed somewhere.

Could Alexander Spiers be responsible? He had the means, certainly, but I think not as evidenced by the later engraving showing The Virginia Mansion as a two story building. I don’t think he’d go to the trouble of erecting a 3/4 storey building only to move to something smaller in stature, spend the money widening and not extend upwards. I doubt as in business he would have allowed himself to be dominated by another.

And then I came across Annan’s image of The Tontine on The Trongate. Photographs of Old Closes, Streets, etc., Taken 1868 – 1877. Glasgow City Improvement Trust. Here we had what Gomme & Walker (p52) referred to as, ‘perhaps the most distinguished building of eighteenth-century Glasgow.’ Significantly important to Glasgow, Annan would photograph it several times from different perspectives. Built originally as a 5 bay Townhall circa 1740 it was extended circa1760 to ten bays. [coincidently Virginia Buildings eastern aspect is ten bays wide] We are told, ‘Above a dental moulded cornice was a balustrade (dating from after 1756), topped with urns. Since the building was ten bays long no bay could be central.’ The date of the balustrade being added ties in with the build date of The Virginia Mansion: both 1750s.

The Merchants’ House(1874) at 30 George Square, by J Burnet, prior to the addition of two floors also utilised a balustrade I suspect to provide a ‘nod’ to the original of The Tontine. This was captured circa 1900 by George Washington Wilson the photographer.

So if we are to take the Balustrade as a key piece of evidence, it opens the door to the possibility of The Jacobean being 18th not 19th century. Circa1770-1795.

Of course given John Dunlop held the Jacobean until 1816 he could have built at any point up until then. Equally Findlay Duff & Co could have introduced the motif at any point until 1826 when they too sold. But why would they go to the expense of introducing a balustrade when they wouldn’t even expend the cost of decorating all the 1st floor bays uniformly with the incised detail? The lack of window detail points to Findlay, Duff & Co. being less frivolous, and more prudent with their build costs. Which I guess was as true then as it is today for a commercial venture. The heart is less likely to rule the head when the venture is simply business.

If John Dunlop was choosing The Jacobean over The Virginia Mansion it really must have been something in its day. Hence leading us to think it was at least 20 years younger. The owners certainly had the means and contacts to achieve this. However, such a building would be ‘known’, remarked upon in contemporary sources: newspapers/magazines. Right?

It was time to explore contemporary sources and find what was happening locally.

© Cicerone: MerchantCityGlasgow.  All Rights Reserved. 2021 

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