Long before heavy industry came to the Clyde and transformed forever the lands surrounding it, hand-loom weaving was the dominant trade in Govan. The formation of the Govan Weavers’ Society in 1756 demonstrates this best. The following is a Govan Press article from June 2, 1916, detailing the formation and history of the group:
GOVAN WEAVERS’ SOCIETY AND THE ANNUAL “DEACON CHOOSIN’.”
The Govan Weaver’s Society was instituted in 1756 by the master and journeymen hand-loom weavers of the village upon lines somewhat similar to the those governing out present-day trade societies. At that time, and for many years afterwards, the Society was the incorporation of which Govan could boast and was held in high esteem accordingly. At the date of its inception it represented the staple industry of the district, and its membership included the wealthiest, most intelligent, and the most respectable of the inhabitants. The Govan Weavers were a most powerful Guild, presided over by their Deacon, who was elected annually, the election being accompanied by ceremonies and processions illustrative of the antiquity and utility of the weaving mystery, as it was called, which then not only rivalled but excelled the Masonic mysteries in the support and affection of the people.
As happens, the success and distinction of the weavers was not to last.
In process of time the introduction of steam power into textile manufacturing began to change the prospects of hand-loom weaving, and on the inception of the new process of building ships of iron, the situation of Govan on the Clyde brought the weaving industry face to face with this new and more laborious, and (as it as then considered by the weavers) less ingenious class of work. But the new industry came to make a home for itself on the banks of the Clyde, and gradually the old aristocratic trade of weaving had to give way before it, the sons and sons-in-law eventually outnumbering the weavers in the society.
The criteria for becoming Deacon was quite strict. “No man was eligible for membership unless he was son or son-in-law of a member, or could produce his indentures as a journeyman weaver.” This latter distinction is noted as owing to the high standing in society of weaver as a profession, it rivalling those in “some of the learned societies of the day.” Holding such a position was obviously a high honour to have bestowed upon someone by their peers, the decision was marked by celebrations of its own:
In ancient times the “Deacon Choosin,’” otherwise the election of a Deacon of the Guild of Weavers, was a grand holiday in Govan, and it was always held as now on the first Friday of June, which had been Govan Fair since time immemorial. No relic of this great local anniversary now exists – nothing but the tradition still living in the memories of the older inhabitants of the great processions, headed by the sheep’s head, the ancient insignia of the village and of the Weavers’ Guild.
More detail was given in the Press of Friday June 4, 1920, the day of the first revived Govan Fair:
The outstanding ceremony of the Fair Day was not the morning parade, however, but the election of the Deacon for each of the Govan societies. At the outset the Weavers had matters all their own way, but in later years the Govan Friendly Society, the Govan East and Govan West Youths’ Societies – and the Govan Funeral Society, all took a hand in the Fair Day celebrations, and had their parades, their elections, and their jollifications all on the famous first Friday of June. And there were some strange “ploys” in connection with the elections. The post of “deacon” was an honour eagerly sought after, and only to be obtained at the expense of much labour in wirepulling, and the more or less lavish expenditure of “backsheesh.” There were no public displays of hostility between the contending factions, but any sort of quiet ruse to dispose of voters until after the election was admitted to be legitimate, and no party was exempt from the general charge of endeavouring to “engineer” matters to their own satisfaction. To jettison a drouthy opponent with a bowl of wassail in a convenient hostelry, to turn the lock conveniently on another recalcitrant individual, or to win over a waverer by any means to a doubtful cause at the eleventh hour, was all part of the electioneering thought to be quite appropriate to the occasion. And in the old-time villagers took the elections in all seriousness; there was no thought of junketting feasting with them until the elections were safely over and done with – but once the Deacon as duly chaired, the villagers gave themselves over unreservedly to convivial rejoicings.
A procession was formed and headed by the sheep’s head raised aloft on a pole and festooned with everygreens, and the bandsmen playing a rousing march, the villagers “walked the marches” amid great great and ever-increasing scenes of jubilation.
Essential in the formation of the society was the sentiment with which the original members convened and ensured remained the foundation which following members would build upon. In the Govan Press Edition the day of the revived fair an in-depth article on the history of the Weavers was carried:
The preamble of the Charter reads as follows:- “At Meikle Govan, the thirtieth day of August, seventeen hundred and fifty six years, at which time and place the majority of weavers there being met together, and considering the many straightening circumstances some people in this trade and other trades and denominations are often reduced to, in Divine Providence, and thinking it their duty to exert themselves as far as possible towards the support of the poor in this place are determined to enter into a friendly society or association and to elect an oversman and collector and eight members to represent the said society. The Community, being informed that the Preses had caused form of the copy of a Charter, ordered the same to be read before them, which was approved of with some little variation, and they unanimously agreed that the said Charter should be the plan and foundation of their constitution.“
(A copy of the Members Certificate for the Weavers – outlining what is expected of its members)
The article goes on to mention that 1756 wasn’t necessarily the beginning of the Fair proper – as is understandable the records kept from the time were not entirely reliable. Mention was found of a parade in 1783 and a dinner in 1785. There is a good chance that the Fair in its eventual form began at some point between then and the original formation of the Weavers’ Society. Whenever it may have began it is important to recognise that the formation of the society and the motivations for it carried over to the Fair. While the Fair in itself was and is a chance for the people of Govan to come together and celebrate Govan, to this day the Fair is organised by volunteers and any proceeds from it go to charity, as was the case originally and as was the intention of the weavers, to help the poor and disadvantaged. This community spirit is something Govan was built on and remains a crucial part of the fabric of everyday life, and now you know how far back it stretches.
It is sad to note that the decline of weaving and the Weavers’ Society led in part to the decline of the Fair – previously in the 19th century considerations had been made to postpone or stop the fair, the celebrations and music not being seen as appropriate given the austerity and hardship of the time, but it persisted in its original form until 1881 when the weavers stopped including their new Deacon election and presentation in the procession. Other Govan societies kept the Fair alive until 1883 before it was eventually revived in 1920 – but there’s more to come on that and who was responsible in later posts, so keep reading.
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