The first meeting of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce took place on the 1st of January, 1783.
Hands up who believes Margaret Thatcher had a sense of humour? Well, even the ‘Iron Lady’ could raise a smile or was it merely a simile when she addressed the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce on its 200th Anniversary, an occasion shared by the Glasgow Herald, in 1983. Maggie was glad haggis wasn’t on the menu and professed her intent not to quote Burns in public, but she was more than happy to give a mention to McGonagall. In fact, she recited one of her own compositions in the style of McGonagall. Now, there’s a tribute if ever there was. A British Prime Minister honouring Scotland’s greatest rhymer; or was it she had a Scots scriptwriter? Here’s her wee bit poem from that night’s address:
“The Glasgow Chamber of Commerce
Has been going for two hundred years,
So has the Glasgow Herald;
To them both we say three cheers,
’Twas in the year of 1783 they started;
Now they’re flourishing and sage;
Which goes to show what we all know:
That Scotch improves with age.”
Not only did she so honour William Topaz McGonagall, she also quoted Adam Smith and David Hume in the context of her address. She knew of course that the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce was the first Chamber of Commerce to be founded in Britain and she was gracious enough to have said, “Where your forefathers in Glasgow led, we in England have gladly followed”. She went on to suggest that the forefathers of Glasgow’s Chamber of Commerce would have heard in their youth the lectures of Adam Smith and absorbed the practical common sense displayed when he wrote that “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”. Her quote from Hume, regarding the nation’s finances and the accumulation of debt, was apposite as it is even more so today, “The source of degeneracy which may be remarked in free Governments consists in the practice of contracting debt and mortgaging the public revenue, by which taxes may in time become altogether intolerable”. Anyone for a VAT rise?
The first Chambers of Commerce were founded in 1599, in continental Europe. Those were in Marseille and Brugge, but the world’s oldest English-speaking Chamber of Commerce is reputedly that of New York City, which was established in 1768. The Glasgow Chamber of Commerce is the oldest known existing chamber in the English-speaking world with continuous records and with its first meeting on the 1st of January, 1783, it became the first such Chamber in the UK. A Chamber of Commerce or Board of Trade is a form of business network; an organisation of local businesses whose goal is to further their mutual interests. Local owners in towns and cities formed such local societies in order to advocate on behalf of their business community. The incentive for the formation of the Glasgow Chamber derived from the gloomy commercial prospects of late 18th Century Glasgow after the end of the American War of Independence (or Revolution if you prefer) and the loss of the Virginia trade. Cotton spinning was as yet unknown and, in fact, except for a growing traffic with the West Indies and the manufacture of a few domestic fabrics, Glasgow’s trade was fairly limited. It became apparent that opening up new sources of trade and commerce, and establishing direct communication between the trade of the West and the Government and Legislature, would be a good idea. It was the first institution of its kind in the United Kingdom and what Glasgow did in January, 1783, it took Edinburgh nearly three years, until December, 1785, to copy.
At that first meeting in 1783, which was held in the Town House, the Chairman, Patrick Colquhoun, Glasgow’s Lord Provost, submitted the proposed constitution, which he had drafted. That stated that the Association be established on the most liberal and equitable foundation, and that it should include in its membership the merchants of the principal towns in the west of Scotland. The Constitution outlined eight principle goals or intentions, which included the development of systems to protect and improve those branches of Trade and Manufactures “peculiar to this country”; regulation in “all matters respecting any branch of Trade or Manufacture”; affording aid to members and “interposing the weight and influence of the Directors” in matters relating to Parliament and “the King’s Ministers”; consideration of the ‘Corn Laws’ as “being of the utmost consequence” to “this part of the United Kingdom”; and in general, to “take cognisance of every matter and thing that shall be in the least degree connected with the interests of Commerce”.
The Chamber’s early priorities were to raise the quality of goods produced and to lobby the Government to lower taxes, reduce tariffs and abolish smuggling. The Chamber also fiercely opposed the East India Company’s trade monopoly with India and all territories beyond the Cape. After the first meeting in the Town House, the Glasgow Chamber’s early meetings were held at the Tontine Tavern, then at premises in Virginia Street. Later, in 1877, it moved to offices in its present home, the Merchants House. The Chamber was first incorporated by Royal Charter, granted by George III on the 31st of July, 1783, which out the its powers and privileges. A new Charter, obtained on the 28th of July, 1860, was deemed necessary, because of the growth of the City and the extension of trade and manufactures. Supplementary Charters were granted by Queen Victoria, Edward VII and Elizabeth II.
Patrick Colquhoun was an interesting character. By the time he was twenty-one, he had experienced the heyday of the Virginia trade and when he returned to Glasgow, in 1766, he set up his own business as a merchant. He was elected Lord Provost in 1782 and it was his estate of Kelvingrove that now forms the greater part of Glasgow’s spacious West End Park.