The Merchants House of Glasgow is one of the oldest and most important bodies in the City of Glasgow. It was already a long established Institution, when in 1605 it first received a written Constitution. This was the Letter of Guildry which still forms the basic constitution of the Merchants House, as of the Trades House of Glasgow and the former Dean of Guild Court in Glasgow, prior to the latter’s abolition by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973.
Under this Constitution, subject to such alterations as were made by regulations passed from time to time, the House continued to be governed until the passing of the Burgh Reform Act in 1833. Subsequently, resolutions have been passed with a view to conforming its Regulations to the circumstances of the day.
The early history of the House is closely linked with that of civic government and over the centuries the House has always been connected with the Local Authority, the Dean of Guild being ex officio a member of the Town Council until the 16th May, 1975. Although the 1973 Act abolished all non-elected posts, the part played by the Lord Dean and the House in the governance of the City of Glasgow over the centuries has been recognised in that the then City of Glasgow District Council invited the Lord Dean to attend meetings of the Council in an honorary non-voting capacity, which he does regularly, thus keeping the House in touch with civic affairs.
The Merchants House Building
The Merchants House, the third building of that name, is situated at the corner of George Square and West George Street.
The original Merchants Hall, was built about 1600 as a meeting place for the merchants and also as a “Hospital” in the older sense of the word; that is as an Almshouse for Merchants and their families who had fallen on hard times. After the Almshouse had attracted several endowments the Hall was re-built in the 1650’s to a design by Sir William Bruce of Kinross, architect to Charles Π. It had ground floor lodgings for four old couples, but most of the charity of the House was expended on pensions.
In the 18th Century the hall was a major venue for social events, but latterly the Tontine Hotel became the centre of the “Exchange” and the Trades House, Assembly Rooms and Royal Exchange were built in the Queen Street area. The Merchants House met for a time in the City Chambers, then at the foot of the Saltmarket, and in 1817 the Dean of Guild, James Ewing, proposed that the Hall be moved from the Bridgegate. The building was sold, with provision for the retention of the Steeple, which remains a well known landmark in the City.
As a result of disagreements over a new site it was not until 1843 that the new hall was opened in Hutcheson Street, between the City Chambers and the Sheriff Court House for Lanarkshire. It was here that Chopin gave his only piano recital in Glasgow. In 1870 the building was reluctantly sold to the Town Council to allow for an expanding civic administration. For a time meetings were held in the Chamber of Commerce Hall in Virginia Street.
Since 1813 the Merchants House had been participating in the scheme to develop George Square. In 1877 the new Merchants House building was complete. The design by John Burnet included offices for the Chamber of Commerce. Substantial alterations were made in 1908 by Burnet’s son, also John, when two storeys were added and the building became that seen today.