Ian R Mitchell.
photograph from http://www.pearceinstitute.org.uk/
The area around Govan Cross in Glasgow is dominated by the Pearce Institute, known to Govanites as "the PI". It is a magnificent building, category A listed, and is an eclectic mix of Scottish and Dutch Renaissance styles, with crow-step gables, oriel windows, external iron balconies, and sporting on its roof a sculpture of a fully-rigged sailing ship built by the workers in the local Fairfield shipyard. Designed by the architect Rowand Anderson, the PI celebrates its centenary this year, an anniversary which was officially marked by a lunch at the PI on 10 March. William Pearce was the chairman and owner of the Fairfield yard in Govan from 1869 until 1885, after becoming a partner in the firm, then owned by John Elder, in the 1860s. Born in Kent in 1833 he originally worked at Chatham Dockyard before coming north to the then far greater opportunities offered on the Clyde for shipbuilding. Under Pearce, Fairfields became the biggest and probably the most technically advanced shipyard in the world, and his success made him a millionaire by his early death at 55. Pearce became Govan's first M.P. in 1885, as a Conservative, and was created a baronet in 1887. His statue, known locally as The Black Man, stands opposite the Peace on Govan Road, and was erected in 1894. After his death the Pearce Institute was gifted to the people of Govan by his widow, with an endowment which amounted to about £1,000 a year to maintain it. In his marvellous History of Govan (1905), T C F Brotchie wrote, as the Pearce neared completion,
"The institute is designed primarily for the use of the working men and women of Govan, and so many and varied are its sections ?mens' reading room and club, womens' reading room and club, gymnasium, library cooking and laundry departments, that the greatest benefits ought to accrue to the population. Its usefulness is doubled by the fact that it is entirely unsectarian."
- (Govan Old Parish Church, photograph from www.govanold.org.uk/)
In addition to these facilities the PI also had a cafeteria, where no alcohol was served, as the Institute was "dry", as well as a theatre with a magnificent organ. The Macleod Hall as the theatre was called, was named after the Rev John Macleod. This Rev Macleod, who was minister of Govan Old Church from 1875-98, is not to be confused with the later incumbent of the same post from 1930 to 1938, George Macleod, a founder of the Iona Community. Under the latter, the PI became a centre of many initiatives to combat the effects of the Depression in Govan in the 1930s when over half the population was out of work, making a mockery of the town's motto, Nihil sine labore, Nothing without Labour.
The Pearce Institute is a significant expression of the philanthropy practised in the pre Welfare State days, by Victorian and Edwardian capitalists, those in Glasgow possibly pre-eminent in Scotland or even the U.K. in this respect. Think of the Mitchell Library, the Maclellan Galleries and other bequests from Glasgow businessmen to the city. Govan was littered with charitable endowments, from the Hills Trust dating from 1757 which eventually funded a school of the same name a century later, to the Elder Library and Park, named after the previous owners of the shipyard later bought by Pearce himself. Napier House is another building, sadly derelict as are so many in Govan, which commemorates another important nineteenth century industrialist with Govan connections. As well as ensuring immortality for the endowees, such institutions allowed the capitalist to exert social control; eg, over what games could be played in the park, what books could be placed in the libraries, what activities could be allowed in the institution . In the case of the Pearce this meant no alcohol -and sexual segregation - and in its early days the building certainly would not have been available from trades union meetings, for example.
The PI was unsectarian, but it was owned by Trustees who were heavily dominated by representatives of the Church of Scotland , as well as others from Fairfields itself and Glasgow University, and the management was in the hands of the minister and kirk session of Govan old Kirk. In the Greater Govan Press *(December 2005), an assistant minister of Govan Old in the 1960s, Rev John Harvey felt obliged to re-emphasise that, "contrary to some people's beliefs, it (the PI) was never run as a purely Protestant place." These chords with the Church were cut by the 1980s when the PI became a charitable trust, and an initial attempt at restoring the building then raised about a million pounds, much in need for essential repairs which Lady Pearce's bequest could no longer cover.
But the savage economic collapse of Govan in the 1980s and 1990s led to the closure of the Pearce in 2000, just as it had led to the closure of most of the Govan shipyards (though not the Fairfield yard itself , which still operates.) As in the 1930s, today less than half of the population of Govan of working age is in employment, even though an exodus of people has reduced that population to less than half its level a century ago. Many, ignorant rather than malevolent, might suggest that the best thing to do with Govan would be to flatten it and build again; indeed over the last 30 years 70% of Govan's tenements have been demolished. The general image of Govan is a negative one, and hardly helped by the Rab C Nesbit "Wine Alley" caricatures which have graced (or disgraced) our television screens. T. C. Smout in his Century of the Scottish People, has an aerial view of Rangers F.C.'s Ibrox Stadium in Govan in 1921 which he captions, "Ibrox in its Urban Desert." But Govan is not an urban desert, was not in 1921, and certainly was not when the PI was built a century ago. Did Smout ever set foot in Govan? Not many bar Govanites ever do, sadly.
At that time Govan had three theatres; that in the PI, another in the Govan Town Hall built in 1901, and the Lyceum Theatre which opened in 1899 with a performance of Carmen before 3,000 Govanites. It had, and still has, the Govan Gaelic Choir, one of the best amateur choirs in Scotland, and it had and has the Govan Fair, established by the Govan Weavers back in 1756. In addition it had Burns Clubs, political associations, and in the Reform Club one of the oldest debating societies in Scotland. Govan had its own newspaper, the Govan Press which collapsed in 1983 as Govan imploded. The Govan Press published books as well, including Brotchie's History of Govan, and in the Old Govan Club one of the most active and learned of Scottish local history societies.
None of this even takes into account the role of Govan as one of the cradles of the Scottish labour movement, the early formation of trades unions in the shipyards being followed by its location as the centre of the Co-operative movement, when 6,000 people worked for the SCWS at Shieldhall in Govan. The area was a centre of the rent strike in 1915 and the only Glasgow constituency to elect a Labour M.P. in the Khaki Election of 1918, the I.L.P.'s Niel Maclean. This militant working class politics continued until the U.C.S. struggle of the early 1970s, where the Govan shipyards again played a leading role.
This wealth of cultural activity was built on the enormous propsperity of the shipyards in Govan, which had seen its population rise from just over 2,000 in 1830 to almost 100,000 by the time of its annexation by Glasgow in 1912. Then Govan was the fifth biggest town in Scotland, after the four cities. But Govan's Glories are not just in its industrial past, unrivalled though that is. Next to the PI, also built by Rowand Anderson, is the Govan Old Parish Church, one of the many which have stood on that site, dating back at least 1500 years, to the monastery founded by St. Constantine around 565 AD. There is a case for arguing that Govan is a more important ecclesiastical site than Glasgow Cathedral, based amongst other things on Govan Old's unrivalled collection of early Christian and pre-Christian incised stones, including the Govan Sarcophagus. Govan Old is also A Listed and since 2003 scheduled as an Ancient Monument. Current archeological thinking is putting early medieval Govan up there beside Iona, St Andrews and Whithorn in is religious and political importance.
Under its Board of Trustees the PI reopened three years ago, and a programme of restoration work was undertaken. Grants from various organisations, including £335,000 from Communities Scotland, led to essential work being carried out on the roof, on windows and to the restoration to working order of the clock on the front of the PI, a symbolic event. Since then money from Glasgow City Council for repair of the boilers and £105,000 from NHS Glasgow towards the regeneration of a community caf?, which will hopefully open later in 2006, have progressed the restoration. This has led to the growing re-use of the building by various community groups and commercial tenants. The PI is also increasingly becoming a location for arts-based activities. Income from these sources has allowed the PI to operate at a modest surplus in 2004 and 2005. At present owned by its Trustees on behalf of the people of Govan, discussions are underway to transfer ownership of the Pearce to a new charitable company representing the various stake-holders. The reaction of local Govanites to the re-opening of the Pearce has been overwhelming. In the issue of Greater Govan Press cited above, there is a collection of memories of the PI by various older local residents, and summed up in the words of one, "I can never remember a time when the PI was not part of my life". The Pearce is a thread which runs through the fabric of Govan's rich history over the last 100 years.
The work at the Pearce is one of the building blocks in a wider attempt to restore central Govan, envisaging around £65 million investment over five years under the Central Govan Action Plan. It is not widely known that central Govan has the greatest concentration of listed buildings in Glasgow outside the City Centre and West End, many in a poor state of disrepair. These include the grade A listed Govan Old Parish Church, Salmond's grade A listed British Linen Bank at Govan Cross and the grade A listed Aitken Memorial Fountain. A little further afield within Greater Govan lies the similarly A graded Govan Graving Docks and Alexander "Greek" Thomson's Walmer Crescent, a site of international significance. Even Smout's despised Ibrox stadium, with its wonderful South Stand by Archibald Leitch, is B listed. Indeed the central Govan area with its mainly intact tenement streets and historic Water Row, is the most likely candidate for Glasgow's next Conservation Area, a recognition which the City Council, the Glasgow Buildings Preservation Trust, Govan Initiative, Govan Workspcace and the Great Govan Social Inclusion Project are all working towards. Such a move, currently under appraisal, would establish a benchmark for the quality of conversion of old buildings to new use and also for the quality of the new build that is planned for Govan, where there are schemes for a massive expansion of its housing sector.
While welcoming overall the committment and cash that is coming into Govan,
it will all be of little benefit to local people, unless efforts are made to
ensure that a share of the new jobs are occupied by Govanites, and that
social housing is expanded alongside private developments, which elsewhere
in Glasgow have created middle class enclaves alongside working class
ghettoes. The Govan-based Braedam Link, in its report Wine Alley Revisited,
has warned of such dangers, unless local people are fully involved in the
planning of Govan's renaissance. There is a chance in Govan to get it
right, and the Central Govan Action Plan has expressed its commitment to
expanding the housing association rented sector alongside other
developments. Conservation needs to be allied to social regeneration and
social inclusion. This the Peace Institute is striving to do, thus
fulfilling the words above its entrance,
THIS IS A HOUSE OF FRIENDSHIP. THIS IS A HOUSE OF SERVICE. FOR FAMILIES. FOR LONELY FOLK. FOR THE PEOPLE OF GOVAN. FOR THE STRANGERS OF THE WORLD. WELCOME.
The Pearce Institute has an important role to play in a Govan which values its past and can possibly once more, after decades of despair, have hope in its future.
For further information on the Pearce Institute contact
For information on wider regeneration/conservation see
For Govan Old Church see
There is a fine pamphlet, The Govan Heritage Trail, illustrating a guided walk round some of Govan's most notable monuments, and available from the Elder Park Library in Govan. (0141 445 1047).
*The Greater Govan Press is a recently-appeared freesheet, and not the newspaper which folded in 1983.
Ian R Mitchell lives in Glasgow, and is the author of This City Now; Glasgow and its Working Class Past (Luath Press) 2005. Chapter 4 is entitled "The Glories of Govan".
Copyright I.R. Mitchell