Greenock (surveyed in 1857)


Greenock is a large industrial town in north-west Renfrewshire, on the south side of the River Clyde, located about 23 miles west of Glasgow. The name of Greenock translates from Scottish Gaelic into English as 'sunny and hilly place'. For the first syllable in the Scottish Gaelic word Grian-aig means 'sunny', while the aig syllable translates as 'hilly place' or 'hillock'.

Originally starting off as a fishing village, the town evolved into a major port for the herring trade, before becoming a major centre for shipbuilding, heavy engineering and a major leaving point for Scottish emigrants, during the nineteenth century. Greenock's most famous son is probably the inventor and engineer, James Watt, who invented the steam engine during the late eighteenth century.

The population of the burgh of Greenock was recorded in the 1831 census as 27,571, increasing to 36,689 by 1851, with 1,714 houses. This unequal ratio between the town's population and number of houses illustrates why Greenock had such a bad reputation for slum housing, poor health and unsanitary conditions during the Industrial Revolution.

Trade and Industry

In his Imperial Gazetteer of Scotland of 1857, Wilson observes that 'The manufactures of Greenock are various and extensive.' At the time this survey was carried out, shipbuilding was the staple industry in the town, having started just after the end of the American War of Independence in 1776. To complement the town's shipbuilding, Greenock also boasted two sail-cloth factories, five roperies, five sail-making establishments and two workshops where anchors and chain-cables were manufactured. Ironworking was another major industry in the town, with six iron-works located in the town in 1857, as well as a number of foundries. Greenock was also the Scottish capital for sugar refining, with 11 sugar refineries existing in the town in 1857.

As Greenock possessed the waterpower that was required to power machinery, the town also housed a large cotton mill, two woollen factories, a flax mill, a paper mill, six grain mills, four saw mills, three dyewood mills and five tanneries. In addition to a chemical works, Greenock also boasted a distillery and three breweries. This image of industrial diversity is completed by two soap and candle works, a large cooper works, handicrafts and a biscuit factory.


Greenock Academy was established in 1855, when a new school building was built just to the west of Nelson Street. However, Wilson (1857) claims that the scholarly tradition for the setting up of this school dates back to the middle of the eighteenth century. The Highlanders' Academy was founded in 1836, and is located in the south-west part of the town. In addition to the town's religious and private schools, there also existed a ragged school (i.e. a school for impoverished children), a seamen's children's school and a charity school and a school of industry.

Culture and Society

Wilson (1857) writes that 'For a long time the inhabitants of Greenock were almost exclusively devoted to commerce, and gave little countenance to literature or science.' However, he notes that culture is now thriving in the town, as highlighted by the establishment of a large library in 1783, housed in a building built by James Watt. Another library was founded in 1832, this one belonging to the town's Mechanics' Institute.

At the mid-point of the nineteenth century, the town also boasted a number of other societal bodies, including a Watt club, a philharmonic society, a medical and chirurgical association, a horticultural body, an agricultural society, a society for promoting Christian knowledge and two arts societies. The town also boasted two newspapers, the Greenock Advertiser (founded in 1802) and the Greenock Herald, which were published twice a week.