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British Industrial History

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Bilsland Brothers

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From ‘Captains of Industry’ by William S. Murphy. Published 1901.


GLASGOW derives its splendid water supply from the Highland lochs. Away up in the lonely recesses of the hills the vapoury mists dissolve in gentle rain, the winter snows melt on the bare rocks, the thunder clouds pour down 'in pelting floods, and feed the deep lakes that lie embosomed within the encircling mountains, forming natural reservoirs from which, when the hour comes, great cities derive a health- giving water supply. But Glasgow owes another and deeper debt to the North; for from thence she draws a stream of living energy, strong men and women bred to health and vigour amid pure air and Nature's free elements, who come to enrich the city's life with theirs. The debt of Glasgow to the Highlands can never be expressed in figures nor summed up in statistics; but it is deep, lasting, and in some measure gratefully acknowledged.

Among those northern men who have given their lives to Glasgow's industrial welfare, Bilsland Brothers, of Hydepark Bakery, are worthy of special note. Their forefathers were farmers in the parish of Kilmaronock, near Loch Lomond, and lived for several generations there. Mr. William Bilsland, the eldest brother and present head of the firm, was born at Ballat, in Stirlingshire, on St. Patrick's Day, in the year 1847. He seems to have been destined from his early years for a life far away from his childhood's home, for he was sent to the Dalmonach School at Botthill, and lived there with his uncle, Dr. Alexander Leckie, a noted physician in his day, and worthy to be remembered as one of the earliest pioneers of temperance reform. He was fortunate in his teachers, both in school and at home, the headmaster of Dalmonach being Mr. Menzies, latterly rector of Hutcheson& Grammar School, Glasgow. After leaving school, Mr. Bilsland came to Glasgow, and engaged as apprentice to the grocery and provision trade. Serving the same employer as apprentice and journeyman for nine years, he started business for himself at the Round Toll, Garscube Road. About three years afterwards he opened a bakery in Greenhill Street, and further extended his enterprise by acquiring the old-established bakery of Mr. William Allan, in Elderslie Street.

In 1877 Mr. Bilsland assumed his brothers, James, Alexander. and John, as partners in the business, and, thus reinforced, the firm was equal to still wider enterprise. A tract of ground in Hydepark Street, Anderston, was feued, and thereon the Messrs. Bilsland erected a splendid bakery, fitted with all the newest machinery, completing it in 1881. Though Mr. William Bilsland devoted himself thus energetically to the development of his business, he endeavoured to serve the community in other ways. His earnest advocacy of temperance, his generous conduct as an employer of labour, and his evident ability, both as a speaker and practical business man, won for him golden opinions among the city electorate, and several times he was asked to stand as a candidate for municipal honours. Those requests he steadily, refused till in 1886 he was nominated and elected a representative of the Thirteenth Ward in Glasgow Town Council. It is characteristic of the man that, having undertaken municipal duty, though with reluctance, he entered into the work with vigour and earnestness, studying the needs of the city, forming definite and clear conceptions on each subject, and resolutely working to have his ideas realised. Health, education, and recreation for the people were Mr. Bilsland's leading objects in municipal work. The People's Palace, on the Green, is largely due to him; the City Improvement Acts owe not a little to his self-sacrificing labours while a member of the Health Committee; the splendid new Art Galleries were to him an object of earnest solicitude. His work as a member of the various Town Council committees extended over almost every department of the Glasgow Corporation's undertakings. Mr. Bilsland is a thorough democrat, whatever his political theory may be, for everything that will confer benefit on the poorest classes finds in him an earnest supporter. He believes in free libraries, free ferries, free art galleries and museums, free recreation grounds, and extension of public parks and open spaces within the city.

In 1891 he was elected to the magisterial bench, and continued to occupy the bailie's chair till 1894. During the Exhibition year he was Convener of the Parks Committee. Mr. Bilsland's municipal labours do not by any means represent the whole of his public activity. He is vice-president of the Canal Boatmen's Mission; president of the Glasgow Stirlingshire and Sons of the Rock Society; treasurer of the Grocer Company of Glasgow; member of the Merchants' House and Chamber of Commerce; a member of the Bakers', Hammermen's, Gardeners', and Coopers' Incorporations; and takes a prominent part in various temperance and charitable organisations connected with the city.

Busy as Mr. Bilsland must be with so many public engagements, his principal occupation is still at the Hydepark Street Bakery. The firm of Bilsland Brothers has prospered greatly. About 1896 the Bilsland family took a substantial interest in the well-known concern of Messrs. Gray, Dunn & Co., biscuit manufacturers, and since then the reputation of the firm has been maintained and the business extended - competition of many able rivals notwithstanding.

The works at Hydepark Street, however, are the headquarters of Messrs. Bilsland Brothers. Occupying a square fully half an acre in extent, having a frontage of 180 ft. to the east side of Hydepark Street, the bakery is a pile of fine buildings in two divisions. The front division stands three storeys high, and contains counting-house, rooms for heads of departments and partners of the firm, dwelling-house for caretaker, and retail shop. Separated from the frontage by a wide court, enclosed on each side by stables, hay loft, granary, mechanics' shop, boiler and furnace, engine-house, and hoists, the back division is six storeys in height and nearly 200 ft. long. This building is the bakery proper.

The first floor is occupied by a bake house, extending 180 ft., with a range of 19 ovens and an American reel oven of enormous size. Jutting out from the main building, at either side are the barm-rooms, where the yeast is prepared. Here the process of bread making begins. Four days before it is required a quantity of malted barley is laid with water in a high tub and left to ferment. Carefully watched and tended by the skilled oversman, it develops strength and flavour, until ready for use in the "quarter sponge," as it is technically named. Quarter sponge consists of barm, salt, water, and flour thoroughly mixed together. For mixing the quarter sponge the Messrs. Bilsland have a special appliance consisting of a long spindle armed with projecting blades fitting into the mixing-tub, and geared to the engine shaft by a movable belt. When the ingredients arc all in the tub the spindle is set agoing, and in a few minutes the mixing is complete. Allowed to develop for about an hour and a half, the quarter sponge is next transferred to the doughing machine, a huge horizontal trough equipped inside with revolving paddles. Into this the quarter sponge is emptied, the requisite quantity of flour added, the trough closed like a cylinder, and the doughing machinery started. When thoroughly worked, the dough is put into shallow little bogie waggons and run into a cool place to lie aside for about an hour and recover from the exciting battle in the dough trough. It is then put into the dough divider, an American contrivance consisting of a hopper into which the dough is fed, a down-cutting-knife that slices off a piece of dough, a horizontal knife that shaves the cut dough into two, and a receiver into which 2 lb. 3 oz. of dough drops ready for the baker's hand. The dough is then taken to the baking board, flattened out in a small roller machine, and finally folded by the baker into a neat little square of dough. Now the great business of charging the ovens begins.

Ovens resemble nothing so much as cleanly-built caves lighted with gas, heated by coke fires, little iron-girt furnaces placed at two corners of the cave, and floored with smooth whin- stone. Before being opened to receive the moulded dough the ovens have been heated to high temperature and thoroughly cleared of smoke by means of the ventilators. Heated and clear, the ovens are ready for filling. The doors are flung open, and three men set to work at each door, one to bring up the moulded dough in boards, one to hand the loaves in pairs, while the third deftly sends them sliding along the oven floor into rank on rank of orderly regiments of white dough. When the ovens are filled the doors are closed and the baking process begins. About an hour and thirty-five minutes thereafter the loaves are ready to be taken out, clean, shapely squares of bread, and are quickly transferred to the bread-room, a large well-lighted place like a broad verandah above the courtyard where the vans come to be loaded up. Having been allowed to cool for a while the loaves pass down the hoists to the vans below for town delivery, or are packed in huge hampers for railway transit to the Highlands, the Western Isles, to the coast towns, or to country mansions.

In the south-west corner of the ground floor stands the American reel oven, a contrivance composed of 12 plates hung on swivels which revolve slowly round like the paddles of a huge steamer. This is the oven whereon the pan loaves are baked, the heat being supplied from two furnaces built below. Beside the reel oven stands a steam press, where the dough laid in the pans is brought to a proper state for firing, and from which they are transferred to the oven plates. This novel oven is capable of turning out as many loaves as four ordinary ovens. On the floor above the same process goes on. It is even a finer bakehouse than that on the ground floor, having eight double and one single ovens. The whole bakehouse department is divided into four, two divisions on each floor, with barm-room, doughing machines, dividers, and baking boards complete, each division operated by an oversman and 25 to 30 men.

On the third floor stand two large tanks, one a cold water tank capable of holding 4500 gallons; the other a hot water jacketed tank holding 1000 gallons, heated by the waste steam from the works boiler. Hot water and cold water taps are fitted conveniently to the workmen's hands for use at need. Here also the flour required for immediate use is stored. On the three floors above, tons upon tons of flour lie waiting for the bakers' call, and at the word are wheeled on to the hoist and drop down into the bakehouses. The organisation of this bakery is wholly admirable and complete, ingeniously devised to save time and labour.

The employees number about 200 in all; the output averages over 270,000 loaves weekly; 24 vans are daily employed, and 47 horses are required for the work of cartage and van distribution. Mr. William Bilsland is at the head of the concern, but he is ably assisted by his brothers and managers. Mr. James Bilsland is a director of the Scottish Alliance Insurance Company, and Mr. John Bilsland has filled, with conspicuous ability, the office of Deacon in the Incorporation of Bakers. One point is noteworthy. The bakers employed by Messrs. Bilsland enjoy the much-desired eight hours' day, under the best conditions, with the highest standard rate of wages, and have also, in common with all their fellow employees, the inexpressible comfort of serving kindly and considerate employers.

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