John Glassford of Dougalston and Whitehill (1715 – 27 August 1783) was a Scottish Tobacco Lord, considered by his contemporaries to be the greatest of the era. He owned tobacco plantations in Virginia and Maryland, as a result, his name is synonymous with Glasgow's link with the slave trade.
Background and early life
Glassford was born in Paisley, the third son of James Glassford, a merchant and burgess in Paisley. Glassford went on to marry first a merchant's daughter, then a baronet's, then an earl's. His immense wealth allowed for the construction or purchase of a number of major properties in and around Glasgow; Whitehill, Shawfield and Dougalston, from which he took his title, are the most notable. He appeared to pride himself on home improvements, especially on the Dougalston estate, where he enacted an extensive programme of planting and building, and even the creation of an artificial lake, Dougalston Loch. The Glassford Family Portrait, commissioned from artist Archibald McLauchlan in 1766 – and currently exhibited in Glasgow's People's Palace – shows Glassford with members of his family in their city home the Shawfield Mansion. This house stood on what is now Glassford Street in Glasgow, named in his honour. Glassford sired fourteen children in all, though only eight survived to adulthood. The portrait also features the faint outline of a negro servant, which serves to highlight Glassford's involvement in the slave trade.
From 1710 Glasgow became the focus of an economic boom which lasted nearly fifty years. This was the age of the Tobacco Lords, the nouveau riche of the mid eighteenth century. Glassford entered the tobacco trade in 1750 and soon made a success of his venture, with a fleet of vessels and a large number of tobacco stores across New England. Celebrated in his lifetime, Glassford was the most extensive ship owner of his generation in Scotland, and one of the four merchants who laid the foundation of the commercial greatness of Glasgow through the tobacco trade. Tobias Smollett wrote of a meeting with Glassford in 1771:
|“||I conversed with Mr G--ssf--d, whom I take to be one of the greatiest merchants in Europe. In the last war, he is said to have had at one time five and twenty ships with their cargos – his own property – and to have traded for above half a million sterling a year.||”|
In business Glassford was not confined to traffic from the colonies. He had begun his career in the 1740s with various manufacturing interests and with his tobacco wealth he continued this patronage. Almost all of the principle manufacturing establishments in Glasgow had his support, and he was a leading partner in the Glasgow Arms and Thistle Banks. However, it was the tobacco trade that was to be his financial downfall. The American War of Independence (1775–83) ruined Glasgow's part in the trade, and while other tobacco lords were shrewd enough to sell their shares in the business before the crash, Glassford was not among them.
Character and family life
Accounts of Glassford written in the nineteenth century all have in common the fact that he appeared to be a good man. Though very much drawn to the drinking and gambling culture that characterised much of Glasgow's merchant community, he was "of very gentle, pleasing manners," "dispensed princely hospitality", and possessed "much energy of character."
Glassford married, as his third wife, Margaret Mackenzie (d. 29 March 1773), sixth daughter of George Mackenzie, 3rd Earl of Cromartie. From this marriage he had:
- James, advocate, Sheriff-Depute of Dumbartonshire, who died 28 July 1845
As one of Glasgow's leading 'tobacco lords', modern recognition of Glassford has been surprisingly considering his contribution to the mercantile history of Glasgow. This is a fact that was recognised in 1881 by George Stewart who in his collection Glasgow's Old Commercial Aristocracy noted that Glassford was "at one time the very prince of Glasgow merchants, and now almost forgotten". Arguably, the Glassford name is forgotten, or marginalised, as a result of contemporary attitudes in Scotland that see his involvement in the slave trade to be inherently shameful.
- TGS - 1560 to 1770s - Personalities - John Glassford of Dougalston
- Curiosities of Glasgow citizenship: JOHN GLASSFORD [ebook chapter] / George Stewart, 1881
- Smollet, Tobias. "The Expedition of Humphry Clinker". Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 4 February 2009.
- Devine, Tom The Tobacco Lords: A Study of the Tobacco Merchants of Glasgow and their Trading Activities, 1740-1790 (John Donald, 1975)
- Oliver, Neil, A History of Scotland, Phoenix, Orion Books, London (2009)
- The Glasgow Story Retrieved June 2012