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John Duncan, Glasgow Trams

by Alan Dawson


John Duncan was the Manager of the late Glasgow Tramway and Omnibus Company, Limited, was a native of Kinross-shire, and began business life in the office of the procurator-fiscal, who was also a writer and banker in the county town. In 1859 he came to Glasgow to the office of Messrs. Moncrieff, Paterson, Forbes & Barr, solicitors. While in this employment he spent a session in Edinburgh, and passed through the regular Law curriculum at Glasgow University. His energies, however, were to find their real outlet in another field. The tramway car, an American invention, had been introduced to this country by a strange genius, George Francis Train, who had a small line running at Birkenhead in 1861. Eight years later Glasgow Corporation determined to adopt the invention, and the first line, from St. George's Cross to Eglinton Toll, was opened for traffic in 1872. By law the Corporation could not work the tramways, but it constructed the lines, and leased them for twenty-three years to the private Glasgow Tramway Company. Of this company Mr. Duncan was appointed secretary in 1870, and he had the entire task of organising the work. To begin with, he bought up the old omnibuses, and this and the promotion expenses loaded the company with a debt of 180,000. The  prophets said  the enterprise  could  never  pay, and  after  the John  Duncan,

John Duncan

John Duncan

Glasgow, first dividend it paid none for six half years. After this, however, it steadily progressed, till its dividend was over eleven per cent. At the end of 1894 there were in operation 32 miles of double rails, 300 cars, 3,600 horses, and 1,800 men. Forty-three million passengers a year were carried, and the revenue was a quarter of a million sterling.

Then the Corporation stepped in. Seven years earlier the company, with the end of the lease looming before it, had sought Parliamentary powers to extend its business by carriage-hiring, contracting and the like, but was induced to drop the project by the Corporation's promise to negotiate for prolonging the lease. But in 1891 the city resolved to municipalise the tramways, and in due course this was done. Mr. Duncan, nevertheless, found new resources. He obtained powers to include cab and carriage hiring, undertaking, and other work in the business, was himself appointed managing director in 1894, and forthwith launched the enterprise upon a new career. He extended the business to Edinburgh, Leith, Greenock, Ayr, and other places, and developed the undertaking five-fold. In 1901 the company had 1,800 horses and nearly 1,400 men.

In 1892, when the Corporation had decided to terminate the tramways lease, Mr. Duncan was, at the hands of the servants of the company, presented with by Sir George Reid, P.R.S.A. He died suddenly at his residence, Thornbank, Pollokshields, on 20th August, 1908, and was survived by a wife and a grown-up family.


Alan Dawson, Centre for Digital Library Research, University of Strathclyde


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