Govanhill; no single-ends by Ian R. Mitchell
Govanhill is almost certainly the most intact area of working-class tenement housing left in Glasgow. Apart from on its north-eastern fringes, very few of the four storey blocks dating from the later nineteenth century have been demolished, and the grid-plan of the streets remains exactly as it was laid out over 100 years ago.
Govanhill was a relatively late housing development, and toughening legislation about the quality of building meant that almost all of the housing was erected with internal santitation – in contrast, eg to the nearby Gorbals, and a minimum of two rooms was stipulated for the buildings; no single-ends in Govanhill. Also, town planning regulations by then meant that, as with Dennnistoun but unlike, say, Govan, Springburn and elsewhere, most of the local industry lay outwith the residential area, including factories such as Dub’s railway works in Polmadie which had 2,500 workers, and the Corporation Tramway across Pollokshaws Road. Population density was low. With 15,000 people in an area comparable in size to the Gorbals which held 50,000, Govanhill was – again like Dennistoun- an area inhabited by the skilled, respectable sections of the Glasgow working class; and thus it remained in the mid 1970s when I lived there.
In addition to good housing, the area had all the facilities a community needed; the wonderful Queen’s Park to the south, as well as Govanhill Park itself, a public library, a Corporation public baths and washouse – and four cinemas and a dance hall. Govanhill has had its ups and downs since it was laid out, and the best way to see how it is faring with the passing of time is to take a walkabout through the area, which is always a better way to appreciate and learn, rather than relying on second hand and often misrepresentative information.
Alight at Crosshill station at the southern periphery of Govanhill. Crosshill had briefly been an independent burgh till it was annexed to Glasgow in 1891, along with Govanhill itself.Walk north down the brae to Cathcart Road and you arrive at the Dixon Halls. William Dixon was the owner of the Dixon’s Blazes ironworks across the railway tracks in the Gorbals to the south of Govanhill, and he provided much of the employment in this area. He also owned much of the local land, feuing it for housing.He gifted Dixon Halls, designed by Frank Stirrat, to Govan and Crosshill in 1879 to serve as as town halls and courtrooms for both burghs. The building is in Scots Baronial style, with stepped gables and turrets, and is B-Listed. Separate entrances gave access to each section, and the building was built and divided across the actual burgh boundaries. Two for the price of one.
Moving down Cathcart Road you cross bustling Allison Street and soon off to the right at Bankhall Street is espied a buiding, in sad disrepair, that looks like a cross between a Hindu Temple and a Islamic Mosque. But even in multi-cultural Govanhill, it is neither. This fantasy building was the Govanhill Cinema dating from the 1920s, and the last to close its doors. It is sad to see its present state. Take a left after passing it, and cross Calder Street and amble south towards Aitkenhead Road. Herabouts are many very fine cottage style houses built by Glasgow Corporation in the mid 20th century. It is quiet and peaceful around these parts of Govanhill. At the foot of Aitkenhead Road you are looking towards the New Gorbals, but turn left back up Cathcart Road a wee bittie, and then take a right along Butterbiggins Road, the name possibly indicating that once a creamery or somesuch was located here.At the far end is the former Royal Samaritan Hospital for Women, now converted into flats.This is a very fine building in a successful marriage of Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts styles. Most of the building dates from the 1890s and 1900s, with later extensions.
Heading back southwards takes the walker along the fine broad boulevard of Victoria Road, with the gates of Queen’s Park forming its endpiece. Unlike many inner city working class areas, Victoria Road is lively and most of the shops, pubs and other facilities are open and busy. There are no shortage of pits stops here to suit every pocket and taste in food and drink. All human life is here. A left (east) turn along Calder Street brings you to the social, cultural and political heart of Govanhill; the Govanhill Baths. Built by Glasgow’s Office of Public Works and opened at the time of World War One, the B-Listed building has an impressive twin doored exterior and a lavish interior, and is the last more or less intact public baths from a century ago. Closed by Glasgow City Council in the 1990s after a bitter fight to save it by local residents, it was later gifted to the community and is now a trust and is in the process of gradually re-opening all its former swimming facilities and adding new ones in the form of various learning classes and performing arts events. (www.govanhillbaths.com) This project has been an enormous success agains the odds and played a major role in helping Govanhill’s very varied population to come together and raising the quality of life in the area.
Make a point of going inside the building and seeing around; (check 0141 433 2999 for availability). Govanhill’s demographics have changed and are changing. In the 1970s the area was overwhelmingly white working class, although many of the shops and businesses in Calder Street and Allison Street were still run by Glasgow’s Jewish community. Today the shops are in large number run by the Asian community who have relocated here in the last 30 years, and they have been followed by East Europeans, mainly Roma. It is difficult to give precise figures, but possibly each of these groups amounts to 2,000 out of a total population of around 10,000 in Govanhill – where there are over 40 nationalities and even more languages spoken. But Glasgow can be proud of the fact that there is more tolerance and more integration between these varied communities than in most- possibly any- other major city. Recently the community came together for a weekend festival of anti racist music, with and march and carnival in Queens Park attended by thousands of people, an event which passed almost unnoticed by the media.
Just next to the baths is the splendid B-Listed Govanhill Library, again a much used local social facility. It was constructed to designs by James R. Rhind in 1906, as were the libraries in Maryhill, Bridgeton and elsewhere, and it has Rhind’s usual inspiring sculpted figures representing learning and study on the roof. A former user of the library was R.D. Laing, the psychiatrist who achieved notoriety in the 1960s with his radical theories including drug therapy. Laing was born in Govanhill and there is a plaque on the block at 21 Ardbeg Street next to the library commemorating this. His father was a highly skilled electrical engineer with the mining equipment firm of Mavour and Coulson, and possibly typical of the Govanhill tenantry of that period. Head south along Langside road to Allison Street, then turn left (east). As you walk along Allison Street, and indeed, around a sizeable part of Govanhill it is hard not to notice that things have changed since Laing’s day. Many of the tenement properties have been bought by unscrupulous landlords, who have packed the immigrant tenants into overcrowded and often unsafe buildings which they have then allowed to fall into disrepair.
Nowhere is this more evident than further along Allison Street where at 265-9, an A-Listed tenement block carries a small plaque indicating that it was designed by no less than Alexander “Greek” Thomson in 1875. Thomson was an evangelist for good working class housing but he would despair to see the condition of his block today. Thankfully, Glasgow City Council with help from the Scottish Government has made compulsory purchase orders on four blocks of tenements in Govanhill, which are undergoing restoration as social housing, and established Enhanced Enforcement Areas in many more blocks, forcing landlords to bring the buildings up to tolerable levels, and meaning that it can be reasonably hoped that the housing situation will be improved in future. Soon we are back at the Cathcart Road, and a pech uphill brings you back to Crosshill Station. There is much more to see in Govanhill, but you have seen its heart. It beats!
Ian R Mitchell is the author of Walking through Glasgow’s Industrial Past (2015)
This section: Ian Mitchell, Walks in Glasgow
- Remembering the 40 hour strike – Walking Tour Glasgow
- Govanhill; no single-ends by Ian R. Mitchell
- Tarnished Jewels, U.S.A.’s Public Lands Under Trump by Ian R. Mitchell
- The Garngad: Heaven and Hell by Ian R. Mitchell
- West Texas Highs; Be In Your Own Movie by Ian R. Mitchell
- The Carbeth Clearances
- Guided Walking Tours of Glasgow’s music scene, past and present – from August, 2015