It is not every day that I have on my desk tables of revenue and expenditure from the Trustees of the River Clyde “for improving the navigation of the River Clyde, and enlarging the harbour of Glasgow, from 1st July 1850, to 30th June 1851.” I also have the July 1846-June 1847 accounts. The Accounts of the Trustees of the River Clyde booklets are crinkled and folded, the twine holding pages together is loose. The small stain in the corner– ink, perhaps, or tea? Immediately I’m learning that the standard of a fiscal year running from July-June is far older than I may have thought. But how can a book of accounting charts be interesting, tell a story, or reveal the unknown?
Far from being dry tables of numbers, the Accounts are a snapshot in time. Salary numbers, snippets of life events that describe expenditures, the names of machines used, grounds purchased, all raise further questions of social history, engineering history, technology history, legal history, navigational history, business history, and tax history. Here’s some examples:
- We learn that in fiscal year 1850-1851, the treasurer of the Trustees, George Readman, earned a salary of a cool £600 (up from £500 in 1846-1847). Total expenses for clerks in the treasurer’s office were £165.
- We discover that Mrs. Henry Bell was granted an annuity of £50 (down from £75 in 1846-1847). The Widow of William Dunn, Assistant Harbour Master, killed in discharge of duty, was given an allowance of £10.
- The cost of ”dredging in harbour and Upper Stage of River,” came to £11,593. Total taxes, on income and “Poor rates, Prison and Police assessments on various properties belonging to the Trustees,” cost £128, 11 shillings, 4 pence.
- In 1846-1847, there were expenses related to Opposition to the West of Scotland Railway Junction Bill of 1846.
- Also in 1846-47, the Trustees were busy buying grounds, presumably along the river, in preparation for dredging work. By 1850-51, the dredging work was underway.
- Both Accounts include sections for expenditures on law and Parliamentary expenses.
Who and where was Mister Henry Bell? What was the given name of the Widow of William Dunn? Did she have children? Where could a treasurer’s office clerk afford to live? Why did the Trustees oppose the railway bill? What were the relationships between the Trustees and Members of Parliament?
A couple of these questions I answered for myself in a quick Google search. Mr. Henry Bell was the first “engineer to launch a commercially successful steamship in Europe” (from Encyclopedia Britannica). The Clyde Trustees awarded him an annuity that passed to his wife upon his death.
Many other questions, especially those of greater abstraction, can be explored in more depth in additional primary sources. One example that addresses aspects of social history (e.g., what were living conditions like for the labourers dredging the river?) is Shadow’s Midnight Scenes and Social Photographs: Being Sketches of Life in the Streets, Wynds, & Dens of the City (Glasgow, 1858). ‘Shadow’, pseudonym for letterpress printer Alexander Brown of Glasgow, took an approach to descriptive investigation that employed “a ‘snapshot’ technique [to] provide a succession of vignettes of the dark side of city life during one week in 1858” (McCaffrey, “Introduction”). Of particular interest to this series is the Wednesday night chapter, in which Shadow visits ‘Clyde side.’ Shadow crafts word pictures of the urban devastation that occurred in early and mid-19th century Glasgow.
Accounts, charts with numbers, revenues, expenditures, lists of imports and exports, and where ships came from need not be dull dry reading. The gems are in questions that the details raise. Even better is finding primary sources that push closer to answering those questions. As you study accounting tables and charts, ask yourself the why, who, what, and how questions. Take yourself back to the Library to look for answers. Combining research in many types of documents and resources strengthens your questions, captures your curiosity, and takes you to unexpected places. Or, at least, it does for me.
Additional Items Related to the Trustees of the River Clyde
- Record in declarator : the River Clyde Trustees against Todd’s trustees & Wright. [Scotland] : M. Anderson and Co., . Catalog record.
- Report by the committee of the Clyde trustees on the weir question. [Glasgow, 1845]. Catalog record.
- Report on the plans for preventing accidents on board of steam. [Glasgow, 1839]. Catalog record.
- Logan, David. Report on the improvements of the river Clyde and harbour of Glasgow. Glasgow, Printed by Bell & Bain, 1835. Catalog record.
- Reports by eminent engineers, on the improvement of the navigation on the river Clyde, from 1752 to 1834. Glasgow, J. Heddernick & son, 1839. Catalog record.
- Bell, David. Lecture on various matters connected with the improvements of the river Clyde and the harbour of Glasgow. Glasgow, M. Ogle & son, 1837. Catalog record.
- Gemmill, David. Topography of the river and firth of Clyde, from Glasgow … Intended as a guide to accompany the navigation of the Clyde by the steam boats. Catalog record.
- Marwick, James D., Sir. The river Clyde and the Clyde burghs: the city of Glasgow and its old relations with Rutherglen, Renfrew, Paisley, Dumbarton, Port-Glasgow, Greenock, Rothesay and Irvine. Glasgow, J. Maclehose, 1909. Catalog record.
- Randolph, Charles. Remarks on improvements of the river Clyde. Glasgow : [s.n.], 1871. Catalog record.