AS founder, and for eighteen years sole partner of Glasgow Colosseum, Ex-Bailie Walter Wilson has wrought a revolution in the methods of retail drapery trade in Scotland which is as vital as it is complete. That revolution has been accomplished by individual effort and energy, and a great business built up from very small beginnings and with no outside advantages.
Born in Gorbals, 21st August, 1849, Mr. Wilson began the battle of life almost upon entering his teens, and while still in his twentieth year began business for himself in Jamaica Street with a capital of £100, all his own savings. He had fouremployees, and his speciality was the manufacture of ladies' hats. Presently he hit upon the policy of selling single hats at wholesale prices, and in spite of the attempts to boycott his enterprise, the business gradually increased, adding department after department, till it assumed the proportions it exhibits to-day, when it is one of the most extensive businesses, housed in one of the largest and handsomest warehouses in the country.
Even the advertisements of the Colosseum were refused at first, because they threatened to monopolise too great a space in the newspapers ; but time and success have changed all that, and every business in the country now more than ever recognises how "great are the uses of advertisement" on an extended scale. Mr. Wilson, it has been said, was among the pioneers of those who reduced advertising to a fine art, and his "season's sales" and "Christmas bazaar," put a new life into retail trade throughout the country. At the same time his relations with his employees have always been most cordial.
For years the proprietorship of the Colosseum was almost as great a mystery and object of curiosity in Glasgow as the authorship of the Waverley Novels once was in Edinburgh. The facts were made public at a banquet in the Colosseum on the occasion of assumption of Mr. Wilson's brother-in-law, Mr. Robert Binnie, as a partner, in November, 1887. Mr. Wilson then declared that, so far, he had himself been sole partner in the concern.
By this assumption of a partner, Mr. Wilson was not only allowed greater freedom to travel abroad for business purposes, but was enabled to take a part in the public life of the city. It was the year of Queen Victoria's Jubilee, and he began by chartering a fleet of river steamers in June, and conveying many thousands of the poorer Glasgow children for a day's excursion to Rothesay, where he entertained them at a picnic and sports on an immense scale. Next, in September, he entertained nearly forty thousand children on Glasgow Green, where among the amusements provided were the performance of many bands and three circuses, besides sports and a balloon ascent. On this occasion the Lord Provost and several magistrates took part, and the Prince of Wales and many peers contributed prizes. The outing inaugurated the Children's Day in the parks, which for twenty years remained a regular feature in Glasgow. Later still, Mr. Wilson feasted several thousand of the poorest city children in the City Hall, and clad each before they left in new suits of clothes.
In November, 1887, he entered the Town Council as one of the representatives for his native district of Gorbals, and in due course he was elected River-Bailie, and held office for one year. Then followed three years as a magistrate of the city. He was remarked for his regularity at the Council meetings, and for the fact that while he indulged in no sensational flowers of oratory, his speaking was always practical and to the point. He only retired from the Council after nine years' work on account of the increasing demands of his huge business. Meanwhile, however, he had come prominently before the public eye by the active part he took in making the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1888 a success. In it, and also in the later exhibition of 1901, he acted as chairman of the Printing and Advertising Committee, to the efficiency and economy of which much of the success of both enterprises was due. Among other public bodies, he is a member of the Merchants' House and the Grocers' Company; he was Chairman of the Glasgow City Educational Endowments Board from 1903 to 1906, and is still a member of the Glasgow Burgh Committee on Secondary Education.
He had still, however, to make a new departure in business. While remaining principal partner in the Colosseum, with its branches in London, Edinburgh, and other towns, he had long been interested in the firm of Tréron et Cie, and in 1904 in that connection, he opened the handsome warehouse in the building of the McLennan Galleries in Sauchiehall Street, which has since been a chief feature of that thoroughfare. In this undertaking he has the assistance of his son, Mr. Arthur Wilson.
Mr. Wilson has travelled very considerably. In 1878 and also in 1903 he made prolonged tours through the United States and Canada, and he is well acquainted with nearly all the capitals of Europe.
Index of Glasgow Men (1909)