The Garngad: Heaven and Hell by Ian R. Mitchell
A chapter from Ian R. Mitchell’s forthcoming book for Luath Press, called Orange, Green and Red; Class, Community and Conflict on Clydeside, whch takes things all the way from New Lanark to the Vale of Leven, with a few new Glasgow chapters as well.
THE GARNGAD: Heaven and Hell.
The splendid spire of Townhead and Blochairn Church reaches for heaven at the summit of Garngad Hill, which at 250 feet was once the highest point inside Glasgow’s city boundaries. The spire remains, though the church, built in the 1860s and formerly containing interior decorations by Cottier and Morris, is gone. But even when the church was built, another structure in the area reached nearer to heaven than the summit of its spire. Though it was built at the foot of the Garngad hill at not much above sea level, Tennant’s Stalk or Tennant’s Lum, was at one time, at 435 feet, the fourth highest construction on the earth. The chimney pre-dated the church, being built in the 1840s, and was designed by Professor Rankine of the University of Glasgow, to carry away the noxious fumes from the St Rollox Chemical works, then the largest chemical works in the world. Though it might have come closer to heaven than the kirk spire, the lum and the factory it served brought its workers and those who lived around it much nearer to an earthly hell.
The interior of the St Rollox works was described in 1847 by George Dodd, in a book The Land We Live In, shortly after “THE Chimney” – as he designates it – was built,
“They are, necessarily, black and dirty, and as infernal in appearance as we can well imagine any earthly place to be. The heaps of sulphur, lime, coal and refuse; the intense heat of the scores of furnaces in which the processes are going on; the smoke and thick vapours which dim the air of most of the buildings; the swarthy and heated appearance of the men; the acrid fumes of sulphur and the various acids which worry the eyes, and tickle the nose and choke the throat; the danger which every bit of broad-cloth incurs of being bleached…form a series of notabilia not soon to be forgotten.”
– luckily for those condemned to labour at St Rollox, it was only 400 yards from Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary where legions of them went to receive medical attention throughout the lifetime of the works, which operated till the mid 1960s.
The deleterious effects on the health of its workforce was accompanied by a similar effect on the local population. Despite the Stalk, the works continued to rain down pollution of all sorts of the surrounding area. The water courses of the local Forth and Clyde Canal, as well as of the nearby burns, were used as locations for despatching the effluent of chemical processes, whilst the solid residue was simply dumped on a site landward of the works. Earth, water and air were all laden with the by-products of the production of bleaching powder, caustic soda and sulphuric acid.
Nowadays the image of the chemical industry evokes the idea of a science-based, advanced technological procedure; in the nineteenth century it was not so and chemicals represented the lower depths of capitalist exploitation, involving almost entirely unskilled heavy manual labour in its production processes. As well as causing the widespread pollution noted, chemical employers were notorious for the low wages they doled out to those working in the highly dangerous conditions in their works. In 1879 St Rollox paid a labourer (most of its workers were simply labourers) £40 a year, ie. 16/- a week – for a 60 hour week. About 3d ( little more than 1p.) an hour. In today’s terms this equates to about £1.50 an hour.
By this date St Rollox employed 2,000 workers. A Parliamentary Enquiry into conditions in the alkali industry in the 1880s heard evidence from a trades union official named Mitchell, who claimed that floor sweepers at the alakali works on Tyneside, which were unionised, earned more than furnace labourers at St Rollox, who were not in a trades union. Tennant’s (who owned the Tyneside works as well) argued that cheaper coal on Tyneside was the cause of this wage differential. But the real reason was not cheaper coal, but the abundant and never ending supply of cheap labour on Clydeside, compared to Tyneside, cheap labour that in Tennant’s case was disproportionately Irish. For the Garngad, like the Gorbals, became an early location for Irish immigration.
Garngad today rises above the M8 motorway. Thirty years ago this motor route still carried the Monklands Canal, which was built to connect Glasgow to the coal and iron fields of Lanarkshire, but which was disused as a waterway from the 1960s. To the canal the Garngad owed the presence of St Rollox and the other industries which were here established. But the tale starts back in the eighteenth century, in rural Ayrshire, with a man who signed Robert Burns’ birth certificate, John Tennant. He was known as “Auld Glen”, from the farm he leased at a place called Glenconnor, and Burns thought highly of the man, and later wrote,
My heart’s warm love to guid auld Glen
The ace and wale of honest men.
It was Auld Glen’s son, Charles who, after being apprenticed as a weaver at Kilbarchan, was to establish the St Rollox chemical works on the canal in 1799, shortly after the opening of the waterway. Here the bulk items of raw materials such as coal, lime and potash could be cheaply transported, and thence re-exported as bulk manufactured chemicals.
Charles Tennant’s fortune was made by the industrial manufacture of bleaching powder, in a process which owed much to the chemical genius of his initial business partner Charles Macintosh. (The latter was a pioneer of scientific textile development, who was also to discover how to waterproof cotton by dissolving rubber with naptha, and to thus give birth to waterproof clothing, hence the generic name Macintosh). Bleaching powder soon replaced urine, sunlight and other inferior bleaches in the textile industry, and from this base the firm diversified into sulphuric acid, caustic soda – and soap manufacture. By the time of his death in 1838 Charles Tennant employed 500 men, in what the New Statistical Account of the 1840s described as,
“This manufactory, the most extensive of any of the kind in Europe. In the furnaces are upwards of 100 furnaces, retorts and fire-places. In this great concern upwards of 600 tons of coal are consumed weekly.”
This dependence on coal lead to Tennant’s involvement in the promotion and financing of Scotland’s first railway, the 1831 Glasgow and Garnkirk railway which broke the canal companies’ monopoly over carriage of coal and chemicals, and which joined the coalfields of Lanarkshire to the St Rollox works.
As one of the new industrial capitalist class, excluded from political power, Charles was a Radical, engaging in the struggle for political reform and abolition of the Corn Laws. One of the main reforming organisations at this time, was the Crow Club which grouped together many of Glasgow’s leading businessmen and reformers. In Glasgow and its Clubs, Strang tells us that Tennant gave his warehouse to be a meeting place of the Crow Club, and that “Mr. Charles Tennant was one of the leading members of the reform party in Glasgow.” Strang’s chapter entitled ‘Glasgow Politics in 1832 – Crow Club’ from his book is very interesting, not least in showing that he, like Tennant approved of the agitation for middle class reform, but disapproved of that by lower class reformers. Charles, give him his due, was “radical” enough to refuse a peerage when it was offered to him shortly before his death. A life-size effigy in Carrara marble sits on top of his grave in Glasgow’s Necropolis. Like other monuments here, it is much eroded – partly by the pollution produced by St Rollox, which lay less than half a mile away.
Even before the events of 1832, Garngad had been a hotbed of radicalism. In 1816 a Glasgow businessman, James Turner, held a series of meetings for reform at Thrushgrove, his estate in the Garngad, which at that time lay mostly in open country. Crowds of up to 40,000 people tuned up at the meetings organised there. Later as Garngad was built over, Turner, (and Tennant) had streets named after them, and further ones were called after other Victorian bourgeois reformers, such as Cobden and Bright. The emerging working class supported these agitations enthusiastically, feeling that they too would benefit from them. Local trades unions turned out for the mass meeting on Glasgow Green of May 1832, attended by 120,000 people. Alas, when reform came in 1832, the working class were excluded from its fruits.
Charles was followed by John Tennant, who expanded the firm’s operations to Tyneside, where an even bigger factory than St Rollox was in existence from the 1860s (though, with a smaller lum.) At this time the firm had a near industrial monopoly in Britain, and was making money hand over fist. Part of the profits were used to diversify. John bough the Tharsis mines in Spain, where a Scottish colony of several hundred oversaw mining operations employing 2,000, and producing iron ore, copper and sulphur. In 1866 with the products from these mines, John opened the Tharsis Sulphur and Copper Works in Garngad, where the mass use of cyanide added to the toxic mix of the area. This Tennant was a campaigner against the Corn Laws, and a stalwart of the Liberal party in Glasgow, as were most of the rapacious capitalist industrial exploiters. But it was with Charles Tennant II that the dynasty was to reach its dizzy climax, and under whom the seeds of its ultimate collapse were sown.
Charles Tennant came into the firm’s leadership in the 1870s, when Britain’s industrial monopoly was just beginning to be challenged by the USA and by Germany, with their much more scientifically based industrial practise. In 1884 he was forced to remain competitive by broadening the company’s capital based and making it a public concern; Charles Tennant and Partners. However, Tennants was producing bleaching powder by the Leblanc process, one almost a century old, when overseas competitors were adopting the much more efficient (and less polluting) Solvay process. Tennant considered this option, but rejected it as it would mean an expensive re-equipping of his factories and consequent reduction in profits and dividends for an interim period. This rejection of scientific chemistry was an example of how, by 1900, Germany was able to dominate the world market in alakalis and other products.
Tennant’s solution was partly to diversify into new areas. That into explosives which he undertook with Nobel at Ardersier in Ayrshire, was a success, and that into steel production not. He was -effectively – sacked as director of the Scottish Steel Company in 1895 when it was technically bankrupt. This company owned two works, Hallside in Lanarkshire-and Blochairn on the east side of the Garngad, keeping up the local Tennant connection. Blochairn too was a notoriously polluting works. In fact Tennant’s Garngad connection goes further. The family owned much of the surrounding land, and made a lot of money from the erection of poor quality tenements in the area from the 1870s onwards. And Garngad housing was bad – even by Glasgow standards. The houses generally had outside toilets, if toilets at all, and overcrowding was so great, that the inspectors given the job of enforcing Glasgow’s ticketing system, where each room had a maximum number of occupants, noted that not only were people sleeping in the house lobbies, but also on the stairs and closes of Garngad.
Charles Tennant’s other policy was to keep wages rock bottom. In the Garngad he was able to do this is his factories with the availability of cheap unskilled labour. But his Tyneside works were unionised, and so too was Hallside Steel Works, and he was not always able to pay as low wages as he would have everywhere liked. A visitor to the Tennant household in 1897 noted, “my host is possessed by an almost maniacal hatred of trades unions and all their works.”
Tennant carried on the family tradition of political Liberalism, actually becoming Glasgow’s M.P. from 1877-80, and serving for Peebles and Selkirk afterwards. But the political trajectory of the family clearly mirrors that of the British bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century faced with the rise of foreign competition and of the labour movement: from radicalism to reaction. Free trade was the first of the liberal policies to be abandoned. Competition was eliminated or reduced by amalgamations. Tennant merged with its main competitor in the soap industry- the Ogstons of Aberdeen – and also with its domestic rivals in bleach-manufacturing in the United Alkali Company in 1891. Although one of his daughters was to marry Asquith, a future Liberal Prime Minister, by his death in 1906 Tennant was a Conservative in all but name, supporting their policy of imposing import duties and serving on Chamberlain’s Tariff Commission of 1904. He died with a fortune of over £3 million, a half billionaire in today’s terms.
Charles II had bought a country estate in Peebleshire, which he called “The Glen” after his ancestors’ Ayrshire farm. He had divided his time between here and his house in London’s Grosvenor Square, hardly ever visiting the outposts his industrial empire. His son, who later became Lord Glenconnor- the full title of the original farm- lived the life of a country gentleman, and took little interest in the company, which by now was a public company, not a family firm. Glenconnor dabbled in politics, in spiritualism and in philanthropy, giving a piece of waste ground in the Garngad to Glasgow Corporation, who subsequently turned it into Glenconnor Park. This shabby gift was the sum total of Tennant benefactions in Garngad.
Those who are interested in the further decline and fall of this paradigmatic capitalist family, whose firm eventually became absorbed by the Unilever empire, can read Broken Blood, by S. Blow. A better title for the book might have been: The Sins of the Fathers. One wonders what Auld Glen, the “wale of men” would have made of these, his degenerate descendants. But enough of this (albeit necessary) account of the Tennants, let us go walkabout in the Garngad, known to the locals in their rhyming slang as The Good and the Bad. Bad the Tennants certainly gave the Garngad and its inhabitants, in living, housing and working conditions. Any Good, they made for themselves.
The entire site of the St Rollox works has been cleared. The Stalk had come down in the 1920s, and even then Tennants legacy of death continued; several men were killed in the demolition process. In addition, the canal where the works had its own large berthing facilities at St Rollox basin, and the railway which ran through the works, have also gone. Further, the region around is (for the pedestrian) the Gordian knot Junction 15 of the M8 motorway and the atrocity of the Expressway which destroyed the railway metropolis of Springburn to the north of Garngad. But standing on the M8 overpass at the north end of Castle Street, which formerly crossed the canal here and carried on northwards, you can see where the works once were; basically they occupied the ground now bounded by Pinkston Road and Pinkston Drive, whilst the sports fields at Sighthill, and Sighthill Park itself were where the mounds of chemical waste were deposited. There are allotments here; I wouldn’t did too deeply if one of them was mine.
The overpass becomes an underpass, and eventually leads you to Royston Road. After the slum clearance programmes of the 1930s, Glasgow Council went in for a bit of spin and decided to improve the image of the Garngad by renaming it, and all its applications, as Royston. You very quickly come to the first, and most successful, of these slum clearance programmes. Garngad Square was built in 1918-20, and were the first council houses constructed in Glasgow. It is still a well maintained area, and has the honour that James Maxton, the M.P. for Bridgeton from 1922, lived here for a time. Garngad Square was built on the site of a cotton mill, which in the nineteenth century belonged to one of Glasgow’s provosts, Galbraith. In 1858 there was a strike, a “turn out” here by 400 women workers when Galbraith brought in two technicians to double the amount of power looms each operative would work. The Glasgow Sentinel described the scene,
“At the meal hours these two men are escorted to their houses amidst the shouting and yelling not only of the hundreds of the ‘turn outs’ but by many of their sympathisers belonging to the factories and other public works in the same locality and notwithstanding the presence of Mr Galbraith and a posse of police…..bills have been posted in the neighbourhood expressing “Down with the nobs’.”
– the girls won their strike.
Just opposite Garngad Square is St Rochs (another name for St Rollox, who had a dedicated church hereabouts c1500) Secondary School. Originally built in 1928, it was rebuilt post war and has recently undergone its PFI/PPFI makeover. The school occupied the site of the former Glasgow Malleable Iron Works, where in 1880 a boiler exploded killing 17 people and injuring 35. Just another day in the Garngad. Almost nothing, just one tenement on the south side of the street, remains on the now Royston Road to remind us of its nineteenth century aspect; indeed, apart from a semi-derelict building showing faint signs of Art Deco further on, almost nothing remains of the social housing which replaced the tenements in the inter war period in the last century. This means the road has the appearance of a German city after WWII for much of its length, with gap sites, isolated buildings and a negative feel to the public domain.
The Royston Library is a little like a WWI pillbox; its lovely Edwardian predecessor, Townhead Library on Castle Street, was demolished for the M8 motorway and this is what the locals got in return. Opposite however, is an Edwardian survival. St Rollox Public School, built in 1906 is in a somewhat severe Art Nouveau style, and was designed by the firm of Duncan Macnaughtan. It is still in use as the local non-demominational primary, though a ghastly concrete entrance block from the 60s or 70s has spoiled its bold frontage. In former outbuildings in the playground is the Rosemount Learning Centre, which provides a wide range of social and educational facilities for the area, and whose courses are constantly over subscribed. A couple of years ago I took walks of Garngad women from Rosemount to various parts of Glasgow. Some amazed me with their knowledge, others had hardly stepped outside of the Garngad -even to Springburn across the railway line.
Most of my ladies stuck to the term Garngad, and so too, boldly does the last pub standing on “Royston” Road, The Garngad Bar, another pill box in its no-man’s land. I was initially cheered at this sighting of a determination to maintain the area’s nomenclatural heritage, and was taking a picture of the establishment when a local, half jokingly, nudged my elbow and advised,
“Dinnae go in there, son. That’s a Celtic pub.”
How had I missed the obvious signs? No tricolor, no shamrock – but every door and window shutter painted green. Immigrants have always been highly visible and their numbers exaggerated. This was the case in Glasgow -and Garngad- with the Irish, who never at any time were a majority in any major area of the city, though they were so in certain sub-localities. In 1851 for example, the Irish population of the Garngad was 25%, and though it grew with time they were never a majority. This compares with areas of Liverpool, where at the height of the Home Rule agitation (when) an Irish nationalist M.P. was actually elected in that city. In the last census 30% here in Garngad claimed nominal allegiance to Catholicism.
The Garngad has retained a catholic sub-identity in a way the Gorbals has to a lesser extent. As well as the pub, the local secondary school is a catholic one, and at the end of Royston Road, before one comes to Glenconnor Park, is a catholic complex consisting of St Rochs primary school – founded in 1907-, a church and a catholic mission. And in some of the houses you will see occasional tricolour flags that convey not only a footballing allegiance, but explicitly stated political ones as well. That sectarianism in the working class was a problem here cannot be denied. In the 1930s the Garngad was a not infrequent scene of sectarian rioting around Orange and Hibernian parades, and in 1925 even firearms were used in a riot following an Orange march. But here as elsewhere the events around the First World War (and the subsequent partial settling of the Irish question) changed things. In 1912 the Labour Party did not even put up a candidate in St Rollox, so dominated was that election by the Irish Home Rule Crisis. In 1922 the same party took the seat in a landslide, with almost 60% of the vote.
Most of the Garngad’s industry lay in a line from the St Rollox works to the present Glenconnor Park, along the dual axes of Garngad Street and Charles Street. The chemical works were the biggest, and employed mainly Irish immigrants. Much of the other industry was also unskilled, including the cotton mill which employed female labour, and a couple of foundries. There were exceptions. In 1907 Cowieson’s built a factory for the construction of prefabricated steel buildings, and diversified into bodies for buses. There was also a small clay pipe factory, which incredibly-Glasgow’s last- closed in 1967. Was anyone using clay pipes in the 1960’s? Most of the sites of these former works, around Charles Street, have become a modern trading estate.
At Tharsis Street, named after Tennant’s mines in Spain, we come to a still functioning relic of the past; The Foundry Boy’s Church. The Glasgow Foundry Boys’ Religious Society was established in the nineteenth century as an offshoot of Victorian evangelicalism, to spread the gospel, and social welfare, amongst those working in Glasgow’s many iron foundries. Originally located elsewhere (and known as the Protestant Foundry Boys), their church moved to Tharsis Street in 1894, and is still functioning, though not a foundry boy (or man) remains in the city. This was a very active organisation, which regularly took 1000 kids on a summer outing before WWI, and was still doing its charitable and religious works in the 1960s. Such an organisation would develop other functions. Clearly, those parents who supported the group, and sent their children to the church would stand in better with foremen and managers of local businesses, than those who did not, leading to the possibility of preferential treatment for employment and promotion. And it got your kids off your hands for a while as well, which for most people was the main thing.
Next we come to The Copperworks, some excellent modern co-ownership and housing association tenemented properties, which are typical of the kind of housing going up all over the Garngad. The Copperworks was built on the site of the Tharis factory, and Micheal Keenan in his Garngad, (a typewritten copy is in Royston Library) mentions the piles of copper slag, called “Blue Billy” here when he was a boy. Keenan thought it had something to do with William of Orange. Keenan’s memoir is a warm and touching account of the Grangad from the 1920s to the present day, covering religion, housing, social life and sport. If his account is an accurate reflection of life there, the Garngad was not a political place; he mentions politics not once. No elections, no strikes, no political activists.
In the last twenty years Garngad had been rebuilt for the third time, and this time it looks like having more chance of being a success. There is a mix of rented, co-ownership and affordable private housing in the area, and it appears that unlike the New Gorbals, most of those living here are re-located from the previous housing, thus maintaining community links. The improvement of housing requires the associated improvement of public space, and sadly so far in the Garngad that is lacking. Public facilities like libraries and schools need to present a positive outlook, shops and pubs need to be attractive, and rubbish needs to be cleared. Not much of this is apparent yet.
At the eastern reaches of Garngad, where the railway divides it from Germiston, we come to Glenconnor Park, the only green space available for a long way around for the Garngad people. The state of this park, with its undermaintained sports fields and derelict bowling green, is a disgrace. But the squeaky axle gets the grease, and sadly, in places like Garngad, people do not have a culture of complaint, or often the skills to apply political pressure, unlike the middle classes of the city.
From Glenconnor Park, it is a steep walk uphill along Roystonhill (formerly Garngadhill). From here you can see where the St Rollox Works to the west lay, and its Tharsis offshoot to the north, and you also overlook the site of the former Blochairn Steel Works, now Glasgow’s fruit market, lying south-easterly. Here stands the lonely steeple of Townhead and Blochairn Church which was rescued, unlike the church itself, by Glasgow Buildings Preservation Trust, and a small community garden created. Again, maintenance is as important as creation, and the garden now suffers from neglect -and was locked on my last couple of visits. From here the view must be the best in Glasgow. Tinto to the south, Arran to the west and the Campsies to the north. Changed days from those when a cartoon could be published showing nothing but blackness and chimneys, and entitled A Clear Day at St Rollox.
On Garngadhill were built the brick and render three storey tenements of Glasgow Corporation, which were such a social disaster -unlike much of their other slum clearance programmes in the 1920s and 30s. Most of these are now gone and have been replaced by the much more visually attractive architectural styles of the 1980s and 90s. Indeed you might say that after 200 years, the people of the Garngad have finally achieved housing conditions that are fit for human beings. Its population is rising after 50 years of decline, with the arrival of economic migrants from eastern Europe, asylum seekers from Africa and refugees from Iraq, devastated by the Blair/Bush “liberation”. What the population now needs is for their public spaces to be upgraded -and of course, much harder to provide locally in today’s free market, globalised economy: they need work. But for all that, there are worse places in Glasgow today than the Garngad, and that is not something that could have easily been said in the past. Despite the overreaching spire dominating the Garngad hill, it is not Heaven – but no longer is it a living Hell redeemed only by the enormous capacity of its population for endurance.
Ian R. Mitchell
This section: Ian Mitchell
Filed under: Ian Mitchell