THE grave robbing that had become a sad fact of Glaswegian life in the early years of the 19th century caused the city fathers to have a serious rethink about the city’s approach to life, death and burials.

The still new Royal Infirmary and other institutions did their best to prolong life in the city, with the Glasgow Asylum for Lunatics on Dobbie’s Loan opening its doors in December 1814 and making an immediate impact on the treatment of those people unfortunate enough to be deemed insane.

As we have seen, the so-called resurrectionists were a considerable blight on Glasgow, though another problem was the sheer lack of organised cemetery space. By the late 1820s, several prominent people in the city were determined to do something about that problem, and so the great Glasgow Necropolis was born.

One of the most distinctive features of Glasgow, the Necropolis can trace its origins to Napoleon himself. The Emperor of France during the Consulate period declared that “every citizen has the right to be buried regardless of race or religion”, and he personally approved the plans for Pere Lachaise, perhaps the most famous cemetery in the world, which opened in Paris in 1804.

This prototype of a garden cemetery became renowned across Europe within 20 years of its establishment, and the men who were behind the plan for a new Glasgow cemetery were quite adamant that it should be based on the model of Pere Lachaise in Paris.

The Merchants House had bought land near Glasgow Cathedral and turned it into Merchants Park, later known as Fir Park from the distinct species planted there. In 1825, at the suggestion of Rev Dr Robert Stevenson McGill, professor of theology at the University of Glasgow, the merchant and plantation owner James Ewing, who had been dean of guild of the Merchants House in 1816-17, almost singlehandedly persuaded the guild to erect a statue to commemorate John Knox, Scotland’s principal Protestant reformer, who died in 1572.

It would be the first such monument to Knox, who would most likely have cast a withering look on such frippery. After all, there was not even a headstone on his grave in Edinburgh, which can be found under a yellow brick in the car park off the Royal Mile between St Giles’ Cathedral and Parliament House, which houses the Court of Session.

There was great public interest in the construction of the statue – sculpted by Robert Forrest to a design by William Warren – atop the monument, designed by Thomas Hamilton, and tens of thousands are reported to have attended the ceremony of its unveiling on September 22, 1825.

As prime mover for the building of Knox’s statue, Ewing now saw that Fir Park could provide the location for the cemetery that Glasgow very much needed.

Ewing was one of those merchants who was involved in the slave trade as the owner of a plantation in the West Indies. Even as the forces for abolition of the slave trade were gathering strength, Ewing built up his business and became rich and successful, allowing him time to devote to civic matters.

Glasgow-born, Ewing was educated at the high school and university, and moved straight into the mercantile trade. In 1815, he was joint founder of the Glasgow “Provident” or Savings Bank – specifically designed to encourage working people to save money – and he went on to either create or be involved in the establishment and improvement of everything from hospitals to prisons and the widespread use of gas lighting as pioneered by Scotsman William Murdoch.

Apart from the Knox monument, Ewing’s most enduring building in Glasgow is Royal Exchange House which he largely developed in 1827 and which is now the Gallery of Modern Art. In later life, Ewing would become an MP for Glasgow and would purchase Strathleven House in what is now West Dunbartonshire, becoming known as Ewing of Strathleven by the time of his death at the age of 78 in 1853. Ewing was one of those slave owners who were compensated generously by the British Government for their losses when the slave trade was abolished, and his undoubted achievements in Glasgow have to be seen against that background of slavery.

It was while he was Lord Provost of the city in 1831 that Ewing and others brought forward the idea for a new cemetery around Knox’s monument in Fir Park.

It was to be for the use of merchants and their families, and thanks to that excellent organisation the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis, we can read online the report by John Strang, chamberlain at the Merchants House in 1831, who wrote “Necropolis Glasguensis”, or “Thoughts on Death and Moral Stimulus”, which gave the new cemetery its famous name.

Strang wrote: “The Fir Park appears admirably adapted for a Pere Lachaise, which would harmonise beautifully with the adjacent scenery, and constitute a solemn and appropriate appendage to the venerable structure [the cathedral] in front of which, while it will afford a much-wanted accommodation to the higher classes, would at the same time convert an unproductive property into a general and lucrative source of profit, to a charitable institution.”

He added that the Necropolis was to be “respectful to the dead, safe and sanitary to the living, dedicated to the genius of memory and to extend religious and moral feeling”.

Public works director James Cleland and the architect David Hamilton together wrote the feasibility study and David Bryce won the competition to design it, though first Superintendent George Mylne is usually credited with

building it.

(Hamilton’s influence on Glasgow’s development cannot be understated and I will give a fuller account of his work next week.)

The Necropolis took shape quickly and was formally opened in 1832. The first citizen to be buried there was Jewish, a Mr Joseph Levi. The cemetery was later extended, and thanks to the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis, we know that 50,000 burials have taken place there in 3500 tombs, some of them created by such architects and designers as Alexander “Greek” Thomson and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

The Necropolis remains one of the most remarkable places in Glasgow, a symbol of the Victorian era which, as we shall see from next week, was the most significant time in Glasgow’s development.