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The Ephemera of John Smith
by Adam McNaughton

City Affairs


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John Smith, Youngest, of Crutherland, was given the honorary degree of LL.D in 1840. In 1842 he announced the bequest to the University of his runs of publications from learned societies, and his volumes of ephemeral items. These came to the library on Smith’s death in 1849. The ephemeral items were bound as Smith received them in large scrapbook-type volumes. A decision was taken in the late Twentieth Century to disbind them and arrange them in boxes according to theme.

John Smith’s ephemera differs from other collections in the library in that it consists almost entirely of items sent to him in the course of his career as bookseller, town councillor, estate owner and citizen. He did not purchase items of ephemera as did David Murray or Wylie. Thus many of the items have slight damage left by the removal of sealing wax after delivery; they were not enclosed in envelopes but one end of the document was folded inside the other and the edge secured by a blob of melted wax imprinted with the sender’s mark from a signet or stamp.

Ephemera F155: Book of signalling codes

These pages show flag signals, with numerous manuscript additions in the hand of Captain Taylor of the Camilla, lead ship of the convoy. The flags are hand-coloured. Other pages give signals for use at night or in fog, when flags were useless, and secret passwords which would change with each convoy.

Ephemera L195: Strip of four meal-tickets

The policy of the Committee for Relief of the Industrious Poor in the national depression of 1826 was, as it had been in 1816 and 1819, to avoid handing over cash. Material help in the form of clothing, bed-linen and meal was preferred. Different tickets were issued to the temporary poor and to the regular sessional poor. The Committee's aim was to prevent the temporary sufferers becoming part of the permanent problem.

Ephemera H200: Buildings insurance certificate issued by West of Scotland Fire Insurance Co.(detail)

The buildings insured in course of erection in St Vincent Street were to be the site of the shop of John Smith (Glasgow) Limited, booksellers, for over 150 years. The firm stopped trading as general booksellers in 2000.

The items collected provide a valuable signpost to aspects of nineteenth century life in Glasgow that the histories and books of reminiscences take for granted. We may know that merchant ships from the Clyde were escorted by the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, but we learn something of the mechanics of that from a book of signalling codes used by the captain of the Greenock-registered Countess of Bute in 1807 (F155: to the left).

We may be familiar with references to “a meal-ticket”; above, we can see what a meal-ticket looked like (L195: in the middle).

Most of the items were delivered to Smith at his city address either at home or at his bookshop in Virginia Street or later, in St Vincent Street (H200: above right). Often “John Smith, Bookseller, Glasgow” was sufficient to find him.

Ephemera G183: Letter to official inspector of Glasgow Bridewell (detail)

The Glasgow Bridewell, or house of correction, in Duke Street had been built in 1798 with 115 cells. It was extended in 1826 to provide a further 160 cells. By 1833 these included a certain number of prison cells for prisoners awaiting trial and civil prisoners. he law provided for at least one official visitor a week, making fifty-two appointed annually. Twenty-six were to be Commissioners of Supply or Justices of the Peace, and twenty-six to be citizens of Glasgow. John Smith, the recipient of this letter, belonged to the former group. John Smith conscientiously followed the directions of the letter. As a Baillie he was in a position to comment on the failure to follow the Council's orders regarding repairs.

Ephemera E376: A playbill for the York Street Theatre, Glasgow, in its first season, winter 1829-30.

This is one of a collection of 200 bills for York Street in Glasgow University Library, covering the whole of the theatre's eighteen-month existence. The theatre's unfashionable location made the contest with the Theatre Royal, Dunlop Street, an unequal one.

Ephemera S61: Illustration of Andrew Cochrane monument, Glasgow Cathedral

Andrew Cochrane was Lord Provost of Glasgow during the 1745 Rising. By his demeanour then and afterwards, in negotiations with London, he ensured that Glasgow was compensated for the damages inflicted by Charles's visit.As the inscription says, "He offered an example of leadership, equally just and sagacious in evil times and raging civil war." This is one of few monuments introduced to Glasgow Cathedral during the eighteenth century; it is placed to the south of the west entrance.

The majority had reference to his public life; his position as a Merchant Bailie put him in positions of responsibility for many of the new institutions for which the Council had at least a supervisory authority (see G183: above left). His business interests went far beyond bookselling; he had shares in at least one steamship and probably had a financial interest in the York Street Theatre managed by Frank Seymour from 1829 -31 since the collection includes an almost complete set of its playbills. (see E376: aboive middle). He was also in demand as an efficient administrator; for example, as secretary of the Maitland Club. This Club published learned volumes, some with a Glasgow reference, such as Andrew Cochrane’s Correspondence, the frontispiece for which is in the collection (see S61: above right).

Ephemera S128: Questionnaire on potato disease, Lanarkshire, 1845 (detail)

This questionnaire was sent by the County Clerk of Lanarkshire to John Smith as an estate owner at Crutherland, East Kilbride, Lanarkshire. There were eight questions in all, asking about the condition of Smith's crop and desperately seeking to find out what to do about the crop failure. The effects of the Irish potato failures of the 1840s have been well documented, but Scotland was also badly hit. The Lowlands were not quite so dependent on that one crop, but the famine in the Highlands and Islands contributed to the accelerating drift to the cities.


Ephemera G4: Broadsheet account of attempted prison break

This was a splendid scoop for the broadside printer. The prison was about one hundred yards from his printing office and with the break occurring on a Sunday none of the Monday newspapers could beat him to the story. He could also link it to his regular list of prisoners for the Assizes.


As a landowner in Lanarkshire he dealt with surveyors and he received questionnaires about his crop from the County (see S128: above left). On one occasion only he was a participant in a newsworthy incident, when he witnessed a gaol-break from the Tolbooth (see G4 side 1: above right).

The Smith Collection gives us a broad picture of Glasgow life in the first half of the nineteenth century, and not simply middle class life. The poor, the physically and mentally sick and the criminal classes all crossed the path of the Bailie or the bookseller.

Please note that records for items in the Smith collection of ephemera are, as yet, not available on the main library catalogue. There are sheaf subject binders that index the collection available for consultation in the Special Collections reading room; there is als oan access database of the items: this is not publicly available, but Special Collections staff can search it on your behalf. Please contact the Special Collections reading room for further advice.

Other Special Collections web pages of interest:

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Introduction Transport Political Church Trade Entertainment Crime Education Medical CityAffairs


Text by Adam McNaughton and web editing by Julie Gardham September 2004

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