The Gorbals: A New Glasgow Suburb
Ian R Mitchell looks at an area undergoing another of a long line of historical redevelopments.
In the early years of the nineteenth century the burghers of Glasgow looked across the river and saw, adjacent to the existing village of Gorbals, a prestigious example of Regency town-planning rising on the southern bank of the Clyde. The aristocratic names of its streets reflected its aspirations; Bedford, Eglinton, Norfolk. After two chequered centuries, half way through which the Gorbals became identified as one of Europes worst slums, the wheel is turning if not full, at least part circle, and the area is again being developed as a desirable place to live.
Emerging into daylight at Bridge Street Subway station on Eglinton Street, such an urban renaissance is not immediately apparent, as around you lie large tracts of derelict land, functioning mainly as commuter car parks. But two centuries ago this area was the site of the development of Laurieston, Glasgows newest suburb, which the Laurie brothers hoped would make their fortune. Carlton Place, fronting the Clyde, was the jewel in the crown of this development and thankfully is fully extant today, though functioning as offices not as the original housing. Laurieston House here was deemed grand enough to host George IV on his projected Glasgow trip of 1822 only he never visited the city to see the interiors which had been done by the same Italian artists who decorated his own Windsor Castle.
Though much of Laurieston was never built it is a mistake to see the area falling immediately into decay. Much quality middle class housing continued to be erected after the Lauries plans were abandoned, such as Abbotsford Place in the 1830s. Each dwelling here had 7 0r 8 rooms, with a mews for the horse-carriage out back. Examination of the mid nineteenth century censuses shows that Laurieston retained its middle class status until well after many think, and it was only the development of the suburban railways, connected to new housing around the Queens Park area to the south, that caused the middle classes to finally leave the area. In 1872 Tweeds Guide to Glasgow and the Clyde described a walk down Eglinton Street, and noted the many graceful buildings in this fine street, recommending to the tourist a circular walk through the area – which he would hardly have done, were it a slum.
Heading south down Eglinton Street today is sadly not the experience it was in Tweed’s time, and virtually nothing remains from that period, indeed from any but the most recent era. Passing a couple of disused 1930s cinemas leads you towards a landscape of derelict railway viaducts, waste ground and some examples of 1970s housing at its least imaginative. At the corner of Cavendish Street is a 1980s red brick dwelling, admittedly better than its 1970s neighbours, but a mere shadow of what it replaced. Here till 1980 stood one of the glories of Alexander Greek Thomson, his Queens Park Terrace block of middle class tenements, constructed from 1856-60. Though subsequently suffering multiple occupancy and deterioration, their demolition by Glasgow District Council was one of the greatest acts of vandalism in the city’s history. Thomson, probably Glasgow and Scotland’s most original nineteenth century architect, lived in this desirable area himself, at Apsley Street from 1847-57, when he designed Queens Park Terrace.
A little south Cavendish Street, where Eglinton Street and the Gorbals – ends at St Andrews Cross, lies a row of rather scruffy shops. Here until 1992 one of the premesis housed the offices of the Jewish Echo, Glasgow’s own English-language weekly Jewish newspaper, published since 1928, when it replaced earlier Yiddish publications. As the Glasgow middle classes left Laurieston, their houses became sub let and occupied by new arrivals, amongst whom the Jews from eastern Europe were to be the most prominent. By 1885 half the children at Gorbals Primary School were Jewish. The community about 10,000 souls – was large enough to support the building of a synagogue in South Portland Street, the establishment of a Talmud Torah school and a Zionist reading room. But organisations which integrated the Jews into Glasgow life were also founded, such as the Oxford Star Football team, and the Jewish Lads Brigade, which boasted the only all-Jewish pipe band in the world. Greens Kosher Hotel in Abbotsford Place was a point of arrival or transit for many Jews fleeing persecution first from Czarist Russia and then from Nazi Germany. Glasgow Council organised meetings in 1892 to protest against persecution of the Jews in Russia, and in 1933 boycotted German goods in protest against Hitlers anti-semitism. Many of the Jews worked in the sweated trades and were active in the early trades union and socialist movement, like Manny Shinwell Glasgows adoptive Jew and Red Clydesider, while others like Isaac Woolfson made their mark on the business world or in the arts, such as the sculptor Benno Schotz.
At the gushet of St Andrews Cross, Pollokshaws Road leads back north towards the Gorbals, passing the fine old Abbotsford School (up for sale) on our left, set amidst piecemeal housing development and land that has lain derelict for over 30 years before arriving at Gorbals Street, where we enter territory with a much more ancient pedigree than Laurieston, which we have just walked through.
The Gorbals has medieval origins, and was at one time Glasgow’s leper colony. It grew to a population of 5000 by 1800, and had swelled to 36,000 by the time it was annexed by Glasgow in 1846. At this time Gorbals Cross was still a cluster of buildings many dating from the seventeenth century. But the old baronial dwellings had been subdivided into festering slums and the back lands were breeding grounds of squalor. This situation worsened when Gorbals became one of the favoured settlement areas for the impoverished Irish immigrants who poured into Scotland from the 1840s. One observer commented,
We are really grieved to part with some of these old landmarks of the city, and we cannot help urging the proprietors of such houses as exist to pay some little attention to them, and above all to prevent them falling prey to the hordes of Irish immigrants who have a fancy to burrow in these ancient spots.
But those which did not fall into ruin were swept away by the City Improvement Trust from the 1870s, and by 1900 the area around Gorbals Street was entirely tenemented. The amazing thing is that this Gorbals too has almost totally vanished in its turn. On Gorbals Street remains one empty and derelict tenement, and nothing else, except at its southern end a pub which brazenly states its alliegances to Celtic F.C. (unsurprising given the fact that Celtic greats Pat Crerand and Charlie Gallacher hailed from the Gorbals though its most famous sporting son was the boxer Benny Lynch, now commemorated in Benny Lynch Court in Hutchiesontown), and the shell of the former Citizens Theatre, which has had its exterior in the form of a set of statues, moved inside for safe keeping! The Citz was originally the Princess Theatre, more in the music hall tradition, till it was taken over by James Bridie the playright in 1945. Now, under Giles Havergal it is one of Europes most renowned theatre companies.
To the north of the Citz, across what once was Gorbals Cross and is now a windy, littered set of traffic lights, lies the Glasgow Central Mosque. Though you will see few Asian faces in the Gorbals today, it was initially the main area of Asian settlement in Scotland, with up to 10,000 living there, and it even boasted a newspaper, The Young Muslim. When the tenements were demolished the Asians had little claim on, or desire to live in, the new council housing, and, like the Jews before them, moved out. Nevertheless, the new mosque was built here and opened in 1984. One inadvertant side-effect of redevelopment in the Gorbals has been to turn what was once Glasgows most cosmopolitan inner city area, into now what is probably its least.
From the former Gorbals Cross, Ballater Street leads into Hutchesontown. Although this too was begun as a prestige development, it appears to have gone down market long before Laurieston, despite its facing Glasgow Green. Possibly the opening of Dixons Blazes iron works in 1839 on the southern edge of Hutchesonstown, on the site of Dixons existing coal mines, had something to do with this. Although we should remember that the Victorians didn’t have our anti-industrial bias, and indeed Dixons Blazes was something of a tourist attraction. Tweed comments,
The stranger who wishes to see in full operation one of the most extensive and important of local industries, should spend an hour or two in visiting the works, admission to which will readily be granted on application.
Certainly Hutchesontown became much more industrialised than Laurieston, with low paid unskilled and semi-skilled work predominating. (Dixons higher paid workers lived in Govanhill, an area of better quality working class housing to the south of the Blazes.) By 1900 this poverty, allied to overcrowding which was phenomenal even by Glasgow standards, meant that the area had infant mortality and premature death rates many times the city average. Even in 1951, the Gorbals had a population of 50,000 in what one writer described as the area of an average dairy farm.
Hutchesontown area was carpet bombed by the developments in the 1960s and 70s, and there was hardly a single historical building left standing. Little more than the odd public building – such as the public library, and the predominantly Catholic Churches for this was the heart of Glasgow’s Irish community – remained amidst the tower blocks erected at that time. The old tenements were replaced by experiments in social engineering which were of limited success. The notorious Hutchie E maze of precast concrete wind tunnels was rendered rubble as early as 1987, while the knighthood – winning Basil Spences Queen Elizabeth Court tower blocks followed in 1993. In consequence the population of the Gorbals has been reduced to 10,000 by 2001- 20% of what it had been half a century before. It is Hutchesontown which is undergoing the most intensive redevelopment of mixed housing association and private housing, and walking around the area is an uplifting experience, showing of the advantages of coherent and human scale town planning. There is even a new hotel in the area, taking advantage of the Gorbals proximity to the town centre.
It is worth taking a sidetrail off Ballater Street to Adelphi Street and the St Andrews Suspension Bridge over the Clyde; amongst the tree lined river banks one could almost imagine oneself by the Seine. Crossing Ballater Street again into McNeill Street there lies a mix of renovated and new build housing, with imaginative street furniture. The remaining high rise blocks here (not everyone hated the high life) are being re-clad to soften their look and blend with the new buildings. You can wander for ages around Hutchesontown with profit, but eventually you should emerge onto Caledonia Road, beside the Southern Necropolis, which thankfully appears to be getting better maintenance than formerly. Here in lair 3971 lies the vault of Thomas Lipton, the Gorbals boy, born of poor Irish immigrant parents, who became a millionaire by the time he was 30 with his chain of grocery shops.
On the north side of Caledonia Road are found some of the larger new houses, built in a stunning style that gives the lie to those who think modern architecture is worthless; these buildings would grace any European city. Across from them, next the Necropolis, is the site of Dixons Blazes, closed in 1962, now a rather unlovely trading estate. But just adjacent, like something out of Athens or Rome, stands the shell of Alexander Thomsons Caledonia Road Church (the tenements he built flanking it are long gone.) When this church lost its congregation, it was bought by Glasgow Council with a view to restoration. This never took place, and instead the building became a target for vandals, and now all that remains are the walls and spire. So little survives in the Gorbals of the historical built environment that the salvation of this church must be a priority: indeed, given Thomson’s status, it must be a national and international priority. This will give Glasgow Council the chance to atone for its other Thomson sins, and the church could be the focal point of the new Gorbals itself, if and as re-generation spreads westwards from Hutchesontown, towards central Gorbals and Laurieston.
Walking along Cumberland Street, however, there is little sign of this, and we are back in the planning blight of the 1970s. There is not a single house in this part of the former bustling thoroughfare; the abolition of the street was probably the greatest crime of 60s70s redevelopment: its rediscovery a main virtue of new architecture. At the end of Cumberland Street we are back on Eglinton St, and once again near to the Subway or one can walk a little further to Carlton Place, and view Laurieston House, and see what George IV missed. Crossing the river by the suspension bridge reminds you that, however hard life was in the Gorbals, it was always only 10 minutes from the city centre, and 10 minutes from the Green. And maybe this time, after Regency suburb, Victorian tenement slum and Concrete Jungle, the planners have got it right in the Gorbals.
Copyright I.R. Mitchell
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