Town Clerk of Glasgow - Times Past

Posted on 17 January 2024

In partnership with the Glasgow Times, our archivists are exploring Glasgow's fascinating history. This week, Michael Gallagher writes about the Town Clerk of Glasgow.

One of the most important jobs throughout centuries of Glasgow’s history was the Town Clerk.

The earliest references to the role, also known as the “common clerk of the burgh”, date from the 16th century and it developed as the council was gradually granted some measure of self-determination by its superiors, the bishops.

Then, its functions were mainly legal and secretarial. The Town Clerk was responsible for keeping Glasgow’s charters and collecting evidence for the city’s records which were held in the Tolbooth, making him, in some respects, the first city archivist. He (it was always a man) was also responsible for recording land ownership, producing extracts of charters, decrees and other important records, and keeping track of burgesses and licenses.

The role was pivotal in the development of the burgh, and, by the 19th century, Glasgow’s Town Clerk was the highest paid local government official in the UK. This reflected the expansion of its work, which was by that point more like a modern chief executive.

The power of the Town Clerk had the potential to cause problems and a major turning point came in the 1870s during the tenure of the unpopular Angus Turner. Turner was seen as arrogant and a hindrance to the work of the council: The Bailie magazine called him “cantankerous” and remarked on the “contemptuous disdain” he showed councillors. He was persuaded to retire in 1872 and replaced by James Marwick (illustrated above), who was poached from the equivalent job in Edinburgh with a salary of £2500 – triple his income in the capital.

It would not be hyperbolic to call Marwick one of the most significant figures in Glasgow’s history. Described by one newspaper as “courtly and imposing”, he immediately set about transforming the office. The post became full time and salaried (meaning no scope for extra legal work on the side) and Marwick prepared a detailed plan which set out a clear administrative basis for the role and its duties.

Perhaps Marwick’s greatest legacy was the expansion of the city into “Greater Glasgow”. His tact, rigour in researching the legal basis for enlargement and diplomacy in handling the delicate negotiations were crucial in Glasgow’s growth. When he took office in 1873, the population of the city was 490,000, and, by the time he retired in 1903, it had increased to 782,110.

Marwick also oversaw the great expansion of municipal services including tramways, gas, electricity and city improvements, and this new civic confidence was given permanent expression in the elaborate City Chambers, built during his tenure. He was knighted by Queen Victoria on her visit to Glasgow in 1888 and passed away in 1908.

The position of Town Clerk eventually changed as the 20th century progressed, particularly upon local government reorganisation in 1975. However, the role was a vital one throughout the city’s history, not least for the part Town Clerks played in collecting and preserving that history, which can be enjoyed in the City Archives today.