Scots linen merchant & railway developer

Portrait of John Leadbetter

Born in Penicuik in 1788, John Leadbetter made his way in the linen trade, starting his own company John Leadbetter & Co as a young man around 1815. With the advent of new power-looms, this business grew and he opened branches in Dundee and Belfast.  From 1832-1846 John Leadbetter sat on the Glasgow Town Council, and was Lord Dean of Guild in 1844 and 1845.  He was eager to see railways built in Scotland, and become the driving force in creating the new Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway, which opened in 1842. He resigned from the E&G soon after it began operations, unhappy at proposals to run trains on Sundays.  He was a director of the Ayrshire Railway Company and chairman of the Dumfries Railway in jointly promoting an ambitious new southwestern route from Glasgow to England, but in 1848 when progress was well under way his health failed and he retired. He died in Torquay in 1865.


Text from Memoirs and portraits of one hundred Glasgow men, James MacLehose, 1886:

John Leadbetter was born in Penicuik on the 2nd of May, 1788. His parents shortly afterwards settled in Lanark, where he spent his early days. His father was a wright by trade, but his son, having developed a taste for study and books rather than handicraft, was sent early in the present century to push his way in the then rising city of Glasgow. The only regular mode of communication at that time with Glasgow was twice a week by covered carrier's cart, without springs, and in visiting his family he frequently preferred to walk the twenty-four miles.


Glasgow was then a comparatively small city, but its trade with America and the West Indies was rapidly developing. There he succeeded in obtaining a situation as clerk, and was not content with mastering the duties of his situation, but in his spare time, as the manuscripts he has left behind show, he assiduously cultivated his intellect by attending evening classes, studying French, taking an active part in debating societies, and writing essays on various social and scientific subjects, and this training no doubt fitted him for the active part he afterwards took in public affairs. His guiding principle in performing his duties as a clerk, as he afterwards told his workpeople at one of their social gatherings, was to make his services indispensable to his employers. So well did he carry out this principle that he was ultimately admitted as a partner, and he was afterwards able to start a business of his own in his own name, the firm of John Leadbetter & Co. appearing in the "Glasgow Directory" of 1815. It so happened that his early employment was in connection with the linen trade, and this determined the character of his business career.


The linen trade had a very early existence in the country, probably from the time of the Romans. The lint was grown by the farmers, spun in the winter months into yarn by their families and servants, and woven into cloth by the weaver in the nearest village. Out of this grew the manufacturers in the larger centres of population, who bought the yarn from the farmers and had it woven into cloth suitable for the wants of the town or for export. In Glasgow this trade was a small one, and up to 1725 it had not greatly increased. In 1735 additional manufactories were started, making improved fabrics, and an Act of 1748 prohibiting the importing and wearing of French cambrics gave an impetus to the manufacture of linen in Glasgow. It was in this year also that the British Linen Company was established by Royal Charter, with a capital of £100,000, to promote the linen trade in Scotland. It traded for a short time, but the directors found they could best promote the object in view by granting manufacturers of approved ability and integrity financial assistance, and in this way this company developed into The British Linen Bank, now one of the most prosperous of the Scotch banks, with a capital of £1,000,000. It was further sought to stimulate the linen trade by a bounty of ½d. to 1½d. per yard, according to quality, on all goods exported. The cost to the country of this mode of stimulating production led to its gradual extinction, and it finally ceased in 1832.

 The manufacture of linen did not, however, take permanent root in Glasgow, as the introduction of the cotton manufacture in 1775 supplanted it, and it gradually dwindled away. Large quantities of linens, however, continued to be imported into Glasgow from Germany and Ireland and the East of Scotland, to supply the city and the travelling merchants or pedlars and the large export demand for America and the West Indies. Towards the close of last century there were several large linen houses in Glasgow - Smith Hutchison & Co., founded by Archibald Smith of Jordanhill, being one of them.


It was into this trade the subject of the present memoir threw himself with much energy, and succeeded in establishing one of the most important linen businesses in the city. The circumstances surrounding the trade were very different then from what they are now. There were no railways, no steamers, no power-looms, no telegraphs. The process of manufacture, was slow - the weavers scattered about in villages, and often working only as it suited them - and the means of communication difficult. To meet, therefore, the convenience of the American and West India merchants, it was necessary to anticipate their wants and have a large stock of suitable goods ready for them to select from when their orders to ship arrived. The Irish linens had to be bought in the Irish country markets from the weavers, afterwards bleached and finished, and sent over in smacks to Glasgow for sale. The Scotch linens were made by small manufacturers in the villages of Fifeshire and Forfarshire, and sent on by sea and canal or by cart to Glasgow.

Mr. Leadbetter used sometimes to describe his early experiences in these journeys to Ireland. He had to sail from the Clyde or Portpatrick in a small sailing vessel for Belfast. There he hired a horse, and having secured a quantity of gold about his person would ride round the weaving districts, travelling by day for safety, and paying in gold for his purchases. He would thus visit Ballymena, Cookstoun, Armagh, Dublin, Drogheda, and some smaller towns, returning to Belfast, where he gave up his horse and again sought a sailing vessel in which to return to Scotland.


The linen trade in Ireland is now very much confined to Belfast and its neighbourhood, and in Scotland, to Dundee and its neighbourhood. The finer qualities are made in Ireland, owing to the quality of flax grown there being suitable for such goods, and the coarser in Dundee, owing to its proximity to the Baltic, where the coarser quality of flax is extensively grown. There is now a large production of jute goods in Dundee, and these are often classed as linens, as they take the place of coarse linens and are similar in appearance. The trade has centred in Dundee on this account, but again the proximity of the source of supply of the raw material is determining the locality of the manufacture. A large number of mills have been erected in Bengal, where the jute is grown, and are beginning to challenge the supremacy of Dundee in the production of jute fabrics, and in, at least, the heavier makes bid fair to make good their position.


Glasgow has now ceased to a large extent to be a centre for the sale of linen goods required for shipment. The quick production of power-looms, the rapid conveyance by railway, and the telegraph have brought shippers into direct contact with the manufacturers in the Dundee and Belfast districts, and goods now pass direct from the factories to the ship. This change in the course of trade was early foreseen by Mr. Leadbetter's firm, and it was met by establishing branch houses in Dundee and Belfast, and erecting power-looms in these districts, and then allowing the trade to pass over in great measure to these branches. Various attempts have been made to re-establish the manufacture of linen in Glasgow, but without conspicuous success. Very extensive spinning mills were erected at St. Rollox by Alex. Fletcher & Co., and latterly a large jute work was established by the Glasgow Jute Co. in the east end of the city, but after many years of struggle both works have ceased to exist.

John Miller’s Garnkirk & Glasgow railway was approved 1826 and opened in 1831

In 1832 Mr. Leadbetter found himself established in a good and profitable business, and his active mind being interested in the public questions of the day he was induced to enter the Town Council, and took for fourteen years a keen and active interest in all municipal matters, both as councillor and magistrate. He also filled, as head of the Merchants' House, the honourable position of Lord Dean of Guild for two years, 1844-45. He took a very warm interest in the establishment of the Glasgow Mechanics' Institution, was president for many years, and when the difficulty of finding suitable premises occurred he erected a building specially suited for the Institution. The Clyde Trust, the Houses of Refuge, the Church Extension Scheme, and the Normal School all received a large share of his time and exertions.

Sir Robert Peel

Mr. Leadbetter was a Conservative in politics and a great admirer of Sir Robert Peel. He took an active part in arranging the great banquet given to that distinguished statesman in January, 1837, when a large pavilion was erected on what is now Princes Square, Buchanan Street. On that occasion upwards of 3,500 citizens dined together to welcome their distinguished visitor.  Mr. Leadbetter was a member of the Established Church, sympathizing with the movement that led up to the Disruption, but disapproving of the course the non-intrusion party took in leaving the Church. Though much pressed to go out with the friends he usually acted with, he remained firmly attached to the Church, as he considered he could best serve the cause he had at heart from within its pale.

Sankey viaduct built 1828-30 for the Manchester & Liverpool Railway

This was the first line to link two great cities when it opened in 1832.

The opening of the Manchester and Liverpool Railway in 1832 greatly interested him, and exerted a powerful influence on the following years of his life.  Having travelled over it he became keenly alive to the importance to the country of extending this mode of communication, and he strove with enthusiasm to have it introduced in his own neighbourhood.  When the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway was proposed he was the first to subscribe for its promotion, and soon afterwards, becoming chairman of the directors, he devoted much of his time and energy to carrying on this project to a successful issue.  It met with much opposition, and for three sessions the Bill was contested in Parliament before the royal assent was obtained. In furthering this scheme he made nine journeys to London, spent six months away from his family and business, and attended about two hundred committee meetings, at most of which he presided, and the journey to London in those days, and often on the outside of the coach, was a fatiguing and tedious ordeal to face.  The shareholders, on the passing of the Bill, were so impressed with the value of the services he had rendered that they presented him with a service of plate of the value of £500.  The original prospectus of 1835 is a very modest document.  The probable cost is put down at £550,000, and the traffic is calculated on the very moderate assumption that the then existing passenger and parcel traffic would be doubled.  Of course the cost was largely in excess of this, but fortunately the traffic also far exceeded expectations.  Mr. Leadbetter continued to give much attention to the interests of the railway during its construction, and, all difficulties having been surmounted, it was formally opened on the 18th February, 1842, when a party from Glasgow travelled to Edinburgh, were there joined by a party of Edinburgh citizens, and returned to a banquet in the station at Queen Street. 

Ticket from the Edinburgh & Glasgow railway’s opening in 1842 (actual size) by MacLure & MacDonald of Glasgow.

The firm had established branches in Manchester and Liverpool and were to install Britain’s first steam press in 1851.


On that occasion Mr. Leadbetter, as chairman, in the course of his remarks said - "When I look back upon the past and trace the various fortunes which marked the progress of this great undertaking, its germination in the autumn of 1835, its struggles for existence during an unexampled parliamentary contest of three sessions, its receiving the royal assent in July 1838, the subsequent expenditure in a period of three years of a million and a quarter of money on the formation of the line, requiring much care and anxiety; I say, when I glance at these things I trust you will regard it as a pardonable pride in those who have been connected from the beginning in this work to look upon this day with self-complacency and ask your recognition of it as the crowning triumph of our labours. But the directors have another source of satisfaction, one that may be considered as more pure and elevated - they know that this national work will add greatly to the prosperity of Scotland.  It forms part of the great railways' system which the genius of Britain has raised as a monument of her science, her enterprise, and her wealth. As Scotchmen, therefore, we rejoice that our country shall share in the advantages of this great improvement in national communication."

The Edinburgh & Glasgow railway’s Edinburgh General station.

The E&G opening from Glasgow in February 1842 was only as far as Edinburgh Haymarket.  Tunnelling and cutting from Haymarket to the new General Station at today’s Waverley site took another four years –years in which Scottish civic life felt the huge seismic effects of the Disruption of the Church of Scotland.  The E&G’s General station was to link with the North British lines to Berwick and Carlisle (the NB’s chairman Learmonth was Leadbetter’s deputy on the E&G) and with the rails of the Edinburgh, Perth and Dundee. All three companies later amalgamated as the North British.


The working of the railway proved very successful, as it is one of the most level lines in the kingdom. It was the first great railway work undertaken in Scotland, as prior to 1835 only some short lines existed. The Dundee and Newtyle was opened in 1830, but it was a small line over steep gradients, worked chiefly by ropes and fixed engines, and some local mineral railways, such as the Garnkirk, were in existence, but this line, specially constructed for passenger traffic, proved what could be done in Scotland in developing traffic. Its success changed public opinion, and from holding back and shaking their heads people soon rushed to the opposite extreme, and were ready to support even the most visionary schemes.  This led to the railway mania of 1846-47, which did much harm in the too hasty development of new railway works.


Mr. Leadbetter retired from the chairmanship of the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway soon after it was opened, as the English shareholders insisted on trains being run on Sunday.  This he disapproved of, as uncalled for by the public, unprofitable to the railway, and offending the religious feeling of the country.  Mr. Leadbetter was also a director of the Ayrshire Railway Company and chairman of the Dumfries Railway, these being afterwards amalgamated as the Glasgow and South-Western Railway.  The shareholders of the Dumfries Railway Company also recognized the value of his services by presenting him with a service of gold plate of the value of £500.  All these labours were not, however, borne without serious strain on the system, and in 1848, in his sixtieth year, his health gave way, and he was forced to retire from his active public life and to winter either in the south of England or abroad.

Ballochmyle Viaduct (1846-7) on the Ayrshire-Dumfries railway, the ambitious new

 southwestern route from Glasgow to England promoted by John Leadbetter.

Designed by John Miller (1805–1883) this was the largest railway arch in the world


He retained a keen interest to the end of his life in Glasgow and all its institutions, and to the last his desire to add to his information remained unabated. He died at Glenallon, Torquay, on the 17th March, 1865, in his seventy-seventh year. He was survived by his widow, two sons, and three daughters. His sons continue the business he established.

Portrait of John Leadbetter

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