Govan’s Glories: Central Govan Walk Ian R. Mitchell
In one of his biographies, Alex Ferguson expressed pride in his origins when he stated that “to call Govan a district of Glasgow was an insult.” Most Govanites would agree and the area is without doubt the one with the strongest sense of identity amongst the older working class districts of the city. Many people would know that Govan was the former World Capital of shipbuilding where at its height in the distance of “Three Yairds” (Stephen’s, Fairfield’s and Harland and Wolff) 15,000 men produced about a quarter of the world’s tonnage of ships. They might also know that Govan was one of the cradles of the labour movement, with the emergence of trades unions, the co-operative organisations and the Labour Party, with a strong tradition of struggle from the Rent Strikes of World War One, through to the occupation of the shipyards in the early 1970s with the UCS work-in. And would be aware that with the decline of shipbuilding in the last 50 years, Govan has fallen on hard times, its population reduced to less than 30,000 from the figure of 98,000 when the burgh was annexed by Glasgow in 1912.
But would they know that Govan is considerably older than Glasgow which annexed it? And that for centuries, as an ecclesiastical centre of the ancient Kingdom of Strathclyde, it was more important than the city? Would they know anything about Govan’s collection of early Christian incised stones, one of the finest in Scotland and indeed the UK?. Possibly not and it might well surprise more than a few that Govan can claim to have the finest collection of A-listed buildings and public sculpture outside the city centre and West End of Glasgow, dating from the time of its economic prosperity and industrial greatness. Those yet ignorant- and even those in the know, since Govan is changing and developing after decades of stagnation – should hop on that clockwork orange and disembark at Govan Cross subway station – or ride the free ferry in summertime from the Riverside Museum – and take the following walkabout round Central Govan as an introduction to hopefully further personal explorations.
1. Around Govan Cross you see the beneficial effects of the Town Centre Action Plan, which at a cost of £1.5 million – a banker’s bonus – made a recent improvement to the area, providing paving, seating, signage- and a restoration of the Aitken Fountain. This was an 1884 memorial to Govan’s first Medical Officer of Health whose sanitary improvements massively reduced the area’s death rate in the mid nineteenth century. As well as many other insignia the fountain sports the coat of arms of the burgh of Govan, established in 1864, which shows varying icons but always a ship’s engineer and a ship’s carpenter. See how many such emblems you can spot on your ramble – and whether you can spot a single Glasgow one! There is much to see around here but the jewel in the crown is undoubtedly the recently refurbished former British Linen Bank by Salmon & Gillespie , an A -listed tenement building from 1900, with a delightful open-crown metal roof. Its sculptures are especially fine; look at the one above the door showing two male angels driving a sailing boat by blowing their conches. Here you stand on Water Row, once a Roman road to a Clyde crossing, later the centre of Govan’s fishing and weaving community.
2. Moving west along the Govan Road, on your left is a statue of William Pearce, owner of the Fairfield yard and Govan MP in the 1880s. Coming from the Chatham naval dockyard he brought war work and massive prosperity to Fairfields, and to himself, dying worth a present day fortune of £500 million. He stands beside Brechin’s Bar, a mock baronial building from over a century ago, which was originally Cardell’s Temperance Institute. Once when in there the punter next me at the bar turned unannounced and stated, “See that Noam Chomsky, we had him in here in the Year of Culture.”I have never investigated the truth or otherwise of this, nor of the claim of the regulars of Brechin’s that, at chucking out time, the Black Man, as they call the statue, takes a few steps. Opposite Brechin’s is located the Pearce Institute or PI, known as the Heart of Govan. Lady Pearce gave the money for its foundation in memory of her husband and it opened in 1906 as a cultural and social centre for Govan, with a theatre, library, billiard room- and washing and cooking facilities for the majority who then lacked adequate such facilities at home. These were located in the Women’s area, entered by a separate door which had no access to the main building. Times change, and females can enter the front door nowadays. The A-Listed PI was designed by top Edinburgh architect Rowand Anderson in an eclectic style; one half Dutch Renaissance, the other Scottish Vernacular. Atop the latter part sits a metal galleon made by the workers of Fairfields, who also contributed much free labour to helping build the. PI.(www.pearceinstitute.org.uk).
The Old Kirk
3. Moving further west we reach the War Memorial to the Men of Govan killed in the first World War, behind which lies another of Govan’s Glories, the Old Kirk (A-Listed again). Space prohibits more than mentioning that this – also by Rowan Anderson- stands on a site that has probably been one of Christian worship for almost 1500 years and a pagan one beforehand, and that it contains one of the finest collections of incised early Christian stones in Scotland, over 30 in number- crosses, grave slabs and the famous Govan Hogbacks as well as the (wrongly it seems) reputed sargophacus of St Constantine. The church’s connections with the Reformation (Melville was a minister) and the Iona Community, add further fascination. (www.govanold.org.uk). Between here and the next stop, Fairfields, there stands a variety of tenement buildings, some in good repair, some in less -and examples of the new tenements built in the last 20 years or so. The very closed Lyceum, a former art-deco palace of a cinema is also passed and high up on it is an illustration of the original Lyceum Music Hall, destroyed in a fire. When it opened in 1885, a packed audience heard a performance of Bizet’s Carmen. See Govan, see Kulcher.
Elder Street – Fairfield Yard
4. On reaching Elder Street on the right, the gates of the former Fairfield Yard, now BAE Systems, loom into view; no longer do 5000 men stream in and out of here twice a day; the old tramlines which formerly brought goods into the yards are still visible amongst the cobbles. A further walk along Govan Road brings you to the impressive front door of the former offices of the yard, now Fairfield Heritage, hosting a fine display on the history of Govan shipbuilding housed in a building to match. The offices were designed by Keppie and Honeyman, the firm Macintosh later worked for, and though splendid inside, their finest feature is the door way itself where amongst the usual icons of nymphs and Neptune, stand two life size sandstone scultures of working men done by Pittendreich Macgillivray; we will make this one easy, one worker is a carpenter, the other is an engineer, so the doorway itself is yet another Govan c…. .. a…. This building need we say, is also A-Listed.(www.fairfieldgovan.org.uk).
Though achieving its maximum size under Pearce, the yard became a world leader under the previous owners, the Elders. Crossing the road gives a good view of the office building and also allows entrance to Elder Park, the only piece of ground in central Govan formerly not covered by tenements or industry. The park contains a varied collection of sculptures relating to Govan’s history and a boating pond. Previously there was also a dairy farm- and a small zoo! ( “They wid poach the animals noo,”observed a cynical local to me.) Just south of the park gates stands a statue of John Elder, leaning on the compound steam engine he invented, which gave Clyde shipbuilding a competitive edge and made him a fortune. The statue was executed by Boehm, who also did the Balmoral statues of Broon and Albert for Victoria, and is complemented by one of Isabella Elder herself further over in the park. Despite the importance of this place it was shocking refused a Heritage Lottery grant some years ago- while many less worthy were not.
Exiting the park is done from behind the Govan Library, with its splendid cast iron railings, and very fine frontage. The building was designed by another top Glasgow architect, J.J Burnet and Govanites are very proud of the fact they they had a public library in 1903 some years before Glasgow built their various examples. Inside the building are busts of the Elders, and an interesting painting of pre-industrial Govan by Brotchie. It is getting tedious, but this building is also A -Listed.
Back at Govan Cross
5. Moving back east along pedestrianised Langlands Road through an assortment of housing built to replace demolished tenements, brings us to Golspie Street, with its stunning “Amsterdam”-style new tenement, and then past the car park for the Govan Shopping Centre till we emerge back at Brechin’s and the Black Man with a very clear view of the PI. Back at Govan Cross, before entraining again, visit the excellent Cafe 13.Opposite stands the recently erected statue to Mary Barbour, leader of the Govan Rent Strikes during the First World War.Rest and reflect that you have only scraped the surface of central Govan, never mind Greater Govan…and if you leave unimpressed, there is no hope for you.
( Ian is the author of Walking through Glasgow’s Industrial Past (Luath Press).
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