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Growing Up with Glasgow – Scottish Review of Books
by Private: Harry McGrath

Growing Up with Glasgow

March 21, 2016 | by Private: Harry McGrath

MY grandmother, Mary McGrath (née Dunn), lived much of her life on Saracen Street in Possilpark, Glasgow. She was married to John McGrath, a biscuit salesman, and they had a daughter and two sons. John’s parents were wed in the Catholic Chapel in Moy, County Tyrone and the marriage certificate describes him as a riveter living in Govan. His wife, Minnie Ferguson, was the daughter of a farmer in Dungannon.

Thomas Dunn, Mary McGrath’s father, took shares in ‘Celtic Football and Athletic Company’ when it was established in 1887. In a letter sent to his daughter after Dunn’s death, Company Secretary Willie Maley describes him, somewhat bizarrely, as ‘like many of others of our members, one of a Band of Catholics who knew each other in the East End [of Glasgow] in these days.’ The three McGrath siblings married a Carrigan from Lambhill, a Clarke from Knightswood and a Docherty from Yorkhill; thus extending the family mapping of Glasgow into areas beyond existing concentrations in Possil, the East End, Springburn and Harmony Row in Govan.

Mary McGrath took pride in the fact that Glasgow Council designated her house ‘intermediate’ which put it in a middle category between ‘Artisan’ – reserved for those who had a trade – and ‘slum clearance’ which was the label attached to the majority of the houses in Possil when she moved there. This undermining of class solidarity was, itself, subverted by religion. Mary’s tenement was next to St Teresa’s Church on Saracen Street which drew enough people from all categories of housing to run a mass every half hour from 7am on Sundays. Across the road, the Askit Laboratory mixed aspirin and caffeine into a powder to fight the miseries and periodically emitted a headache-inducing smell that stimulated the market for its own product. Nearby was the Blind Asylum where children were reputed to play football with a bell attached to the ball. It was originally intended as an extension to the Royal Glasgow Asylum for the Blind in Castle Street and was established in Possil in the 1930s where it continued to care for some of the poorest folk in the city.

As a child visiting Possilpark, this mix of Irish-connection, council housing, religion, football, poverty, health issues and industry seemed entirely random. But John Moore’s rather wonderful Glasgow: Mapping the City confirms subsequent suspicions that the various elements that made up the area – at least as my grandparent’s knew it – owed more to design than accident. For instance, a John Bartholomew map of 1897 charts the work of ‘Glasgow Corporation Improvements’. The population of Glasgow was rising rapidly – on the back of Irish immigration, among other factors – and housing stock was low, density high and life short. A trust had been established in 1866 to purchase and demolish slum properties. The map shows the lands and properties that were acquired but, as Moore points out, is unable to show ‘that diverse opinions existed on how far the municipality itself should engage in house building’.

The resolution to this proved to be both Glasgow’s blessing and its curse. The City Improvement Trust moved into house building when private developers demurred and ‘Commencing in about 1888, such activity was to change the face of what was left of Glasgow’s medieval core, removing much of the original street pattern and many of its historic houses. It also resulted in the Corporation becoming the largest landlord in the city and reflected a new, more radical faction within local politics.’ The work of the Trust formed the back story to virtually all the houses that the extended McGrath family lived in around Glasgow, but putting housing stock in the hands of the Corporation had its dangers. Few Glaswegians will regret the demise of the Baird plan, named for the City Engineer and reproduced here in spectacular reds, yellows and greens. It sought to address Glasgow’s post-World War Two problems by demolishing Central Station, the City Chambers, the Glasgow School of Art and a good chunk of the Merchant City, filling the spaces thus created with ‘new higher-standard inner city housing’.

It was well beyond my childish ken to figure out the system which produced my grandparents’ house. Nor did it strike me – at least not consciously – how many of the names of places my relations lived in contradicted the circumstances of their daily existence. Someone unacquainted with Glasgow might imagine that all the parks, lambs, hills, springs and burns that permeate the city’s nomenclature suggest rustication rather than, as was often the case, multiple-deprivation in challenging urban environments. However, there’s no great mystery to this disconnect. The earliest map here – dated 1596 and drawn by Timothy Pont – shows Glasgow as a linear settlement running from a bridge crossing the Clyde and terminating at the High Kirk. Camden’s Britannia described the city then as ‘the most famous town of merchandise in this tract: for pleasant site, and apple trees and other like fruit trees much commended, having also a verie faire bridge supported with eight arches’. In the early 1800s, the Gorbals was still a village south of the River Clyde and Glasgow’s western expansion was relatively slow, despite tobacco lord investment in land and buildings. The transformation of Glasgow when it arrived was as sudden as it was drastic and, again, Possilpark provides an instructive micro-study.

Moore reproduces details from two plans which are a ‘before and after’ picture of the Possil estate on the north side of Glasgow in the first decades of the nineteenth century. The estate had changed hands on several occasions but was sold in 1805 to Colonel Alexander Campbell who traded sugar in the West Indies ‘and certainly the family were, at one time, slave owners’. The first plan details ‘measurements for arable land, plantings, pasture, water, quarries and roads on the property’s more than 200 hectares’ as a basis for improvement. The degree of improvement can then be measured in the second plan drawn up more than twenty years later by which time the estate included a ‘melonry’, new ponds and a smithy. When coal and ironstone were found, however, the house and some of the lands were held in feu by Walter MacFarlane who established the Saracen Foundry and renamed the estate Possilpark. The foundry gave its name to my grandparents’ street, the population of the area grew from 10 to 10,000 and new tenements, one of which they later occupied, were designed on a grid plan.

Moore doesn’t make anything of this, but MacFarlane also knocked down many of the trees on the estate, took steps to ensure railway access and began the process of polluting the Possil area to the degree that he earned the nickname ‘The Laird of Fossiltown’. To be fair, he had competitors in Glasgow equally deserving of the title as foundries and factories polluted the air above ground and tunnels and shafts were dug below it. A fascinating map produced in 1870 shows the extent to which Glasgow is undermined, with the former Buchanan Street railway station built on the East Cowcaddens Quarry and Queen Street station perched atop Provanside Quarry. For all the talk of the Glasgow effect and the various attempts to explain health issues and low life expectancy in the city, residual pollution features far less often than diet, lifestyle, Vitamin D or psychology. Whatever the explanation, my father left Possil as a young man but couldn’t buck the local male habit of shuffling off this mortal coil in his fifties. His wife was a widow for twenty five years, two fewer than his mother in the previous generation.

You don’t have to be Glasgow connected to enjoy Glasgow: Mapping the City, though I suspect it helps. In the age of Google maps, books about mapping have, rather counter intuitively, become very popular. Glasgow: Mapping the City follows Scotland: Mapping the Nation and Edinburgh: Mapping the City by the same publisher, all of them drawing extensively on the map collection at the National Library. Some of this enthusiasm, I suspect is down to the aesthetics of mapping. For instance, a ‘perspective artist’ called Thomas Sulman produced a bird’s-eye view of Glasgow which unfolded from an edition of the Illustrated London News in 1864 and is reproduced here. It’s a thing of beauty even though it may have downplayed the extent of smoke and pollution across the city. There’s also, of course, a natural interest in how any city or country develops and how that development can be tracked through the history of its maps. Moore’s book contains maps that were intended to attract tourists, pipe water from reservoirs, promote exhibitions, track epidemics, ensure efficient policing and much more besides. Maps of the irregular development of Glasgow’s transport system are especially compelling: trams that came and went, rail lines that developed or disappeared. Almost the only still point, so to speak, is the Glasgow subway system. A map produced by Bartholomew’s in 1901 shows the subway system exactly as it is now, except for the closure of Merkland St. It survived a German bomb only to be replaced in 1980 by the new Partick station twenty-five yards away.

Previous books on mapping often concerned themselves with maps as value laden objects. Moore has less to say about this, perhaps because it’s been said before and, anyway, many of the mapping agendas are fairly obvious. It is interesting to note that both Edinburgh and Glasgow were mapped by enemies for the purpose of bombing them and by the Temperance Movement in the hope of frightening both drinkers and those who commanded the licensing trade. The 1884 Temperance map of Glasgow resembles a measles outbreak with public houses and licensed grocers marked with small red dots and salvation, in the form of churches, marked with small red crosses. Whether this discouraged drinking it is difficult to say, but it would certainly alert the authorities to how many licences they had granted and guide drinkers to their favourite howffs. If there’s a quibble it might be in the modern age where Moore’s relative neglect of the politics of mapping makes him too quick to accept Glasgow marketing’s guid conceit of itself and the Garden Festival/City of Culture/People Make Glasgow approach. Major cultural figures such as Tom Leonard and James Kelman detected a threat to Glasgow working-class culture in increased commodification and consumerism and some of their fears have come to pass.

All three Possilpark siblings ended up in new towns and off the map as far as Glasgow is concerned, though some familiar mapping features travelled with them. Moore reproduces a 1921 map outlining the transformation of farmland at Knightswood into the most extensive housing development in Scotland at the time. The Council, however, neglected to provide any facilities for the people who moved there; a mistake later replicated in outlying schemes like Drumchapel and echoed in the early days of new town planning. Misleading toponymy also moved beyond the city limits. The streets in the first area of Cumbernauld we lived in were sylvan themed; in the second they were named for Scott novels; and in the third after Hebridean islands. From these romantic locations, a new generation of McGraths leaked back into the city, though approaching it now from a different angle. My sister returned to Possil to teach and was among the first to move into Speirs Wharf in nearby Port Dundas when the former offices for the Forth and Clyde Navigation Company were converted into flats. The building overlooks the canal’s western terminus and is near the remnants of the Monkland Canal which was mapped in detail by George Pate in 1790. Almost two centuries later the canal was filled in and part of it disappeared under the M8 motorway. Incidentally, in an 1877 plan of Glasgow Corporation tramways the area around Speirs Wharf is clearly marked Rockvilla, indicative of local quarrying. This will be the name of the new headquarters of the National Theatre of Scotland, soon to be located there.

Glasgow continues to reinvent itself though, presumably, it will never be mapped in quite the same way again. All the more reason to cherish this precious, lovingly-presented, book which has so much to teach us about where the city has been and how it got to where it is.


Glasgow: Mapping the City
John Moore
Birlinn, £30, ISBN: 978 1780273198, PP304

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