Ordnance Survey large scale Scottish town plans, 1847-1895

PAISLEY (surveyed in 1857-8)




Paisley, in Renfrewshire, sits on the White Cart Water about 3 miles upstream from its confluence with the tidal River Clyde, and 7 miles south-west of Glasgow. The name 'Paisley' is believed to mean 'pasture slope', from pasgell, a Brythonic or P-Celtic word meaning 'pasture', and llethr (Brythonic) or leitir (Scots Gaelic), meaning 'slope'. The town was first recorded, as 'Paisleth', in 1158, and by 1219 it was considered important enough for its early church to have been given abbey status. The abbey was burned by invading English troops in 1307 and remained derelict for a century, but by the mid fifteenth century the monks had become wealthier again, and the abbey was rebuilt by the small community that had grown up around it. By the late sixteenth century Paisley was becoming a prosperous market town and, in the seventeenth century, the specialisation in textiles that would make the burgh's fortune had begun. A boom in textile manufacture made the eighteenth century a period of remarkable growth in Paisley, in terms of population, institutions and overall contribution to the Scottish economy. By the mid-nineteenth century a collapse in the hand-crafted shawl industry had caused Paisley a major economic setback, but the population generally continued to grow in the nineteenth century, and in 1851 the population of the parliamentary burgh of Paisley was measured at 47,952.


Town Planning

Rather than having been planned and designed specifically as a mercantile centre like many of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century Scottish burghs, Paisley seems to have grown up around its Abbey. However, the early development of the town does appear to have followed the models of the early planned Scottish burghs, focusing the most important buildings on a central forum where financial and legal business could be transacted. The High Street slopes down and widens to an open area, through which a secondary street runs, forming a cross (sheets XII.2.14.-2.19.). The current Paisley Town Hall, built on or very near the site of the original tolbooth, looks on to the Cross. The Abbey sits a few hundred yards to the east across the White Cart Water, and the nineteenth-century county buildings and prison sit just to the north of the Cross, maintaining the compact structure of the town. Medieval Paisley is also supposed to have had a castle, by the banks of the White Cart near to the Abbey. While most of the old town was built on the west of the river, many of Paisley's eighteenth- and nineteenth-century industrial developments were made on the flatter land on the east side.


Trade and Industry

From the seventeenth century Paisley was engaged in trading coal and lime for trade and slate from the Highlands, and the burgh had a weekly market where farm produce and homespun cloth were bought and sold. The burgeoning textile industry in Paisley took off after the 1707 Act of Union introduced free trade with England. The earliest large-scale production was of coarse chequered linen and striped muslin, but lighter fabrics were produced after Miss Christian Shaw introduced methods of spinning finer thread. In 1726 the first mechanised flax mill was built in Paisley, and in 1759 the production of silk gauze started. The manufacture of shawls was begun in Paisley at the height of the muslin trade, in the 1770s, and shawls became the product for which the town was most famous, especially after a swirling pattern based on Kashmiri designs, later named 'Paisley pattern', was introduced to the town in 1805. By the 1790s cotton production was beginning to replace flax production, and in 1812 the first steam-powered thread mill was opened in Paisley, by William and James Carlile. Steam-powered cotton mills were built across Paisley in the 1820s, and factories and premises associated with the textile industry, such as bleachfields and chemical plants, also proliferated. Perhaps the most famous works in Paisley were the Ferguslie thread mills of James Coats, built in 1826 to the west of the town. Coats was a name that became internationally synonymous with thread manufacture.


Apart from textiles, nineteenth-century Paisley's major industries were the Vulcan iron foundry, which became the engineering works of Fullarton, Hodgart and Barclay, and Brown and Polson's Royal Starch Works, which manufactured sago, starch and cornflour. At the time of Wilson's Imperial Gazetteer of Scotland (1857), other smaller industries in Paisley included a tannery, several iron and brass foundries, two soap works, machine works, several breweries and distilleries, flour mills and some minor shipbuilding. A comment from Wilson reveals, however, that Paisley's economy was heavily dependent on its textile industry, rather than being able to rely on its hinterland or any manufacturing diversity: 'The general trade of the town, as a central market for agricultural produce, or as a source of miscellaneous supply for the surrounding country, is not great'.


Religious Life

After the Reformation of 1560, many Roman Catholic abbeys and cathedrals were destroyed, ransacked, or abandoned and allowed to fall into disrepair. In Paisley Abbey, however, the nave was walled off but the building continued in use, as the Reformed  parish church of Paisley. The expansion of Paisley over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was so rapid that the church buildings in the town at the time of survey are too numerous to list. The denominations represented in the town, in addition to the established English and Gaelic Church of Scotland congregations, included the United Presbyterians, Free Church, Reformed Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Wesleyan Methodists, Primitive Methodists, Independents, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Evangelical Unionists, Unitarians and Mormons.



The principal school in mid-nineteenth century Paisley, as today, was Paisley Grammar, at the time still a fee-paying school which, according to Wilson (1857), had 'produced a series of distinguished classical scholars'. The John Neilson Educational Institute, established by a bequest from a native of Paisley, was also a fee-paying school, and offered instruction in English, mathematics, French and German. Other schools included a parochial school and an 'English school' administered by the town council; the Paisley Educational Association school, offering higher education to poorer children; Hutchinson's charity school; an infant school; a ragged school; several Free church schools; a Roman Catholic school; three industrial schools; and a government school of art. In the Imperial Gazetteer of Scotland, Wilson (1857) gives numbers of schools and children in education in Paisley in 1834: 'there were within the town parishes of Paisley 33 day-schools, attended by 2,458 scholars; and these, added to the schools and scholars within the Abbey parish, made a total of 65 schools and 4,776 scholars.' By 1857 these figures would undoubtedly have increased, in line with the population rise in Paisley.


Other Institutions

At the time of the survey the administration of Paisley was carried out from the County Buildings (sheet XII2.14.), immediately to the north-east of the Cross. These housed the court house, county hall, council chambers and offices (the distinctive existing Paisley town hall was not built until 1879-82, a bequest to the town from its wealthy textile merchants). The jail, a house of correction and a prison chapel were contained in another building behind the County Buildings, and adjoining them was Gilmour Street railway station, its façade designed to complement the County Buildings. The Exchange stood on Moss Street, which converged on the Cross, and the town centre also contained numerous banks and insurance agencies. At least three banks were founded in Paisley and carried the town's name in their company names, but by the time of survey they had all merged with larger banking companies. Mercantile institutions included a merchants' society, nine trades' societies, and an artisans' institution, whose building comprised a library, a news-room, rooms where classes and lectures were given, and a suite of baths. Public health and poverty needs were served by a dispensary, an infirmary, a 'lunatic asylum' and two poorhouses. There were four local newspapers in circulation in 1857: the Glasgow Saturday Post and Paisley and Renfrewshire Reformer, published every Saturday afternoon; the Paisley Herald, published every Saturday morning; the Paisley Journal, published every Thursday morning; and the Independent, published every Saturday evening.


Culture and Society

The weavers of Paisley have a historical reputation as having been highly literate, creative and politically aware, and this is reflected in the number of newspapers in circulation, and in some of the cultural establishments that existed in the town in 1857. Paisley public library held more than 10,000 volumes, and there was also an athenæum in the town which contained a news-room and a library, and where classes and lectures were given. A literary association was founded in 1850, and there was also a tract society in existence. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Paisley produced a number of accomplished poets, including Alexander Wilson, William Motherwell, the poet and songwriter Robert Tannahill, and, most celebrated of all in his day, John Wilson, professor of moral philosophy, editor of Blackwood's Magazine, and internationally famous poet and author under the pseudonym 'Christopher North'.





Groome, Francis H. (ed.), 1894-5. The Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland; a survey of Scottish topography, statistical, biographical, and historical, 2nd ed., (London: William Mackenzie)


Mackay, George, 2000. Scottish Place Names (New Lanark: Lomond)


Smith, Robert, 2001. The Making of Scotland: a comprehensive guide to the growth of its cities, towns and villages (Edinburgh: Canongate)


Wilson, Rev. John Marius (ed.), 1857. The Imperial Gazetteer of Scotland or Dictionary of Scottish Topography (Edinburgh: A. Fullarton & Co.)


Edina Website – Online Statistical Accounts of Scotland - http://edina.ac.uk/statacc/