James Cleland (1770 – 1840)

A Thomas Annan photograph of a portrait of Dr James Cleland (1770-1840). The painting was by William Ross. Copyright Glasgow City Council

James Cleland was born 28 January 1770 in the Trongate, Glasgow. He was educated at Glasgow High School and completed his training in London. In 1791 he returned to Glasgow and joined his father’s business as a cabinet maker and trunk maker at 28 Virginia Street. In the Post Office directory for 1799 the firm is listed as J & J Cleland. Later the younger Cleland would branch out and became a successful property developer and civic citizen.

I believe his father John bought and built in the grounds of the Virginia Mansion when John Dunlop of Rosebank decided to extend Virginia Street. But that would place the Virginia Street timeline circa 1796 not 1791 as some records would suggest. The location would be in the vicinity of current day 65 Virginia Street and the vacant lot/carpark.

circa1974 location of I suspect 28 Virginia Street. Now a car park

Sadly the surviving Glasgow Post Office Directories are not complete during this period. There is a John Cleland wright listed in the 1789-91 directory as working ‘oppofite to Grahameftone’. I suspect this is James’ father. There is also listed a ‘Matthew Cleland, mafon, St Andrews entry by the salt market’. I suspect this is his uncle. In addition, a business listing is for ‘Cleland & Low’ manufacturers, shop Gallowgate No.11. may be associated with the family business. But by 1799 the next available directory there is no mention of Matthew, but his father’s business is now ‘J&J Cleland, cabinet and trunk makers, Virginia Street. The Gallowgate manufacturing business is now listed under William Cleland, Allan’s new land.

Why do I think Matthew is a relation? The more I learned about James and what he achieved the more I was intrigued by understanding how James was able to make the leap from a wright’s son making cabinets and trunks to Glasgow’s Clerk of Works so effortlessly involved not just in the administration of building works but getting actively involved in their construction as he did for example with St David’s Kirk, The Ramshorn.

He famously shut himself away for three days to amend the drawings of Thomas Rickman for The Ramshorn and it was he who would design the infamously narrow front door that was lampooned in his day in the Northern Looking Glass. For him to be so prodigious and successful he not only had to have faith and confidence in his abilities he also must have had a sound understanding of the fundamentals of building and an awareness of the technical developments of his day. How did he acquire this so quickly? Having a mason uncle would certainly help. And that is where Matthew possibly would play an important role. But in investigating this I also came across some other familial connections with masonry.

Reading the ancient families of Cleland, his father John Cleland is listed, born 1745, died 1822. Listed is his father’s brother Matthew who married Marion Naysmith. daughter of the famous Glasgow mason Mungo Naysmith, Deacon of the Incorporation of Glasgow Masons. And there is the link I was looking for. Through familial associations James Cleland would have had access to the best contacts, knowledge and advice that Glasgow masons would have to offer. Not only that, being associated through marriage with the mason responsible with building one of Glasgow’s finest Georgian buildings, namely, St Andrew’s Parish Church (b1756) would have opened doors socially to the young James Cleland. Notwithstanding that his father’s business was producing furniture of the highest quality. It would grace not just the Maxwell’s of Pollock House but also Scotland’s first public museum, the Hunterian.

He rose to become a leading figure in the Age of Improvement. He was a remarkably able man and his public spirit combined with his energy in promoting schemes for the improvement of the city made him one of the outstanding figures in Glasgow during the first three decades of the 19th century. To get an idea of what James Cleland achieved for Glasgow the following is a list of his more well known accomplishments:

  • 1794: Appointment to public office as collector to the Incorporation of Wrights.
  • 1800: Appointed a member of the Town Council.
  • 1803: Baillie of Glasgow. It was at this point that he became involved in architecture and building.
  • 1804: Authorised to superintend the building of a new toll-house.
  • 1807: His plan for the building of a new grammar school was adopted.
  • 1809: Appointed Convenor of the Trades House.
  • 1814: Appointed Superintendent of Public Works, a post held for 20 years.
  • 1814: Removal of Town Council from Tolbooth to the Justiciary Buildings.
  • 1817: Cleaning and landscaping of Glasgow Green into a public park. Completed 1826.
  • 1831: Appointed a Justice of Peace for Glasgow.
  • 1835: Cleland Testimonial Building by David Hamilton. A statue was not deemed an appropriate monument for the innovative and influential Cleland. £4,600 was raised to fund the build. (It would later become known as the George Hotel and feature in Taggert, Shallow Grave and Trainspotting.)

In addition to the above he was also published and in some circles this is where he is of more renown as the ‘Father of modern Statistics’. In 1816 he published Annals of Glasgow which provided a history of the city’s public services, societies and institutions. It was republished in 1820 as The Rise and Progress of the City of Glasgow. Glasgow was the first UK city to carry out a modern census under Cleland’s guidance and set the benchmark for others to follow.

Cleland published:

  • 1816: Annals of Glasgow, Glasgow.
  • 1820: Rise and Progress of the City of Glasgow, Glasgow.
  • 1832: Enumeration of the Inhabitants of Glasgow, Glasgow.
  • 1836: Historical Account of Bills of Mortality of the Probability of Human Life in Glasgow and other large towns, Glasgow.
  • 1837: Description of the Banquet in honour of the Right Honourable Sir R. Peel, Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow, 13 Jan. 1837, Glasgow.
  • 1840: Description of the City of Glasgow, Glasgow.

His first essay in the realm of statistics was in the 1790s when he published a small pamphlet entitled ‘Tables for Showing the Price of Packing-Boxes of Sundry Dimensions and Thicknesses’ which was used widely by tradesman and established Cleland’s interest in the standardisation of weights, measures and prices. His awareness of the deficiencies of parish records led him to his ‘Letter to His Grace the Duke of Hamilton, respecting the Parochial Registries of Scotland’ in 1813. This was sent out widely to all the presbyteries of the church and to Members of Parliament. In this he can be seen to becoming interested in the collection of detailed statistics of the structure of the country.

In 1816 he published the ‘Annals of Glasgow’ which provided a history of the City’s public works, societies and institutions. It showed his concern with issues such as population growth, commercial matters and the condition of the poor. This was republished in 1820 as ‘The Rise and Progress of the City of Glasgow’. In 1819 he carried out a classified census of the population of Glasgow, the first modern census in the United Kingdom.

Cleland was for the time a superb statistician. He could tell you how many executions took place in Glasgow between 1767 and 1820, the breadth of the River Clyde at the west end of the Broomielaw, or the number of livestock slaughtered in Glasgow from 1 June 1817 to 1 June 1818.
Answers: 52 including 12 for murder and 5 for forgery; 140 feet; 12,716 bullocks, 8752 calves, 43,273 sheep, 45,062 lambs.

In 1836 he followed this up with ‘An Historical Account of the Bills of Mortality, and the Probability of Human Life in Glasgow and Other Large Towns’. Cleland’s pioneering approaches to census taking and demographic statistics were adopted by the British Government officials for the national censuses of 1821 and 1831. His contribution in this field was widely recognised in Britain and Europe as a result of his numerous publications, public lectures and membership of learned societies.

For his achievements in statistics he was awarded an honorary LL.D from the University of Glasgow in 1826. He also founded the Cleland Gold Medal at the University. He retired in 1834 and lived his remaining years in the building built in his honour. He was a member of the Society of Civil Engineers of London; a Fellow of the Statistical Societies of London, Manchester, and Bristol; a corresponding member of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland; and a short period before his death, he was elected an honorary member of the Société François de Statistique Universelle.

It would appear he opened a family business ‘Clelands & Co.’statuaries at 5 Cathcart Street, Hutchesontown. His sons James & Alexander worked there as noted in the directory of 1830. Previously this address was listed as their marble works. But that is not to say the family dispensed with their roots. William Cleland is listed as joiner and cabinet maker 142 Upper Nile Street. It would appear that like at Virginia Street the Clelands kept their residence and business enterprise in close proximity.


Cartoon of the day lampooned Cleland’s narrowing of the doorway like a window & mocked him for designing such a “neck-breaking stair” for the Thomas Rickman designed St David’s (b1824-46), Ramshorn Kirk.

Northern Looking Glass, 12 December 1825. Glasgow University Library, Special Collections
St George’s Tron. cc-by-sa/2.0 – © David Dixon – geograph.org.uk/p/2035806

St David’s was not the only Church in the vicinity that James Cleland took an interest in. In the early 1800s St George’s Parish Church (b1808) was intended to cap the western aspect of St Vincent Street. It was James Cleland who instigated a change of location to the current Nelson Mandela Place, capping the western aspect of George Street. I’ve not been able to establish a reason for the move. At the time James Cleland was still residing at 28 Virginia Street. Although he would later move to 15 (later renumbered to 130) Upper Nile Street on the corner of Bath Street which is nearby the new church’s location. In his final years he resided at the top of Buchanan Street in the David Hamilton designed Cleland Testimonial Building which was unusual for the day for having internal toilets.

Cleland Testimonial Building b1835 by David Hamilton
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Anne Burgess – geograph.org.uk/p/5196326

James Cleland passed away on 14th October 1840 and was laid to rest in the crypt he designed in St David’s at the top of Candleriggs.

© Cicerone: MerchantCityGlasgow.  All Rights Reserved. 2021 

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