Updated: Oct 31
Pipe-smoking Rachel Hamilton (1829-1899) was born in Ireland but later settled in Partick (covered on our Glasgow Classics Tour), then a separate burgh, with her husband. At 6 ft 5 in (1.96 m) tall and weighing around 17 st (110 kg), she was also known as 'Big Rachel' for obvious reasons! She held a variety of jobs considered unusual for women at the time, including working as a labourer in Tod and Macgregor's shipyard, as a forewoman navvy in the brickworks at Jordanhill, and as a farm labourer in Anniesland. When the Partick Riots broke out in 1875, Rachel was one of around 30 locals sworn in by Partick Police as Special Constables to help drive the rioters back.
Events started on 6th August, the centenary of Daniel O’Connell’s birth. He was a legendary Irish political leader who had been instrumental in the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829. When the Irish community staged a rally on Glasgow Green and a march out to Partick a large crowd, including supporters of the Orange Lodge, formed to protest. Three days of rioting followed. However, once Rachel and the other Special Constables were recruited they proved terrifying enough to drive the mob back towards the city centre and the violence dissipated. Big Rachel’s reputation in this episode lived on even after her death in 1899 – aged 70 at a time when women of her class were not expected to live much beyond 50.
Rachel features in Glasgow Women’s Library’s West End Walk. She has also been honoured in a 2022 mural on Purdon Street, next to Partick Library, which depicts a towering woman surrounded by bright flowers and lush greenery. Artist Molly Hankinson explains that she had two women in mind from Partick past and present: Big Rachel and Margaret Thomson who used to run the ukulele club in the Partick Annexe. Hankinson said it was a “nice way of subtly paying homage to these women” – you can read more about her mural in the Glasgow Times.
This blog is part of a Trailblazers collection, celebrating the lives of 10 women who we decided to name our bikes after! This is the eighth in our series of blogs introducing a high-level overview of the life stories of the women who our fleet of bikes is named after. To find out about the other women, please click on Trailblazers: The 10 Women who inspired Gallus Pedals.
Many thanks to Anabel Marsh from Glasgow Women's Library for writing this post.
Anabel Marsh is a volunteer tour guide with Glasgow Women's Library (GWL). GWL now has six women's history walks, three longer trails, and one bike ride, all of which can be downloaded as self-guided tours from GWL's website. Guided walks take place during the summer months and can be booked via the library's events calendar.