Glasgow has a reputation as a city of slums. The reality was far from this popular image. While there were substantial areas of poor housing the creation of fit housing was always to the fore in Glasgow. These are some of the measures taken to alleviate the problem.

Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, visited Glasgow in 1707 and had declared it ‘The cleanest and beautifullest, and best built city in Britain, London excepted’, by 1807 all this had changed. While there continued to be fine new developments, building in the City was generally uncontrolled, oblivious to sanitary engineering and was outstripping the ability of the fast growing population to be fed and watered.

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1896 photo by Thomas Annan of Glasgow city centre housing

The huge industrial expansion in Glasgow aided and abetted by harsh conditions in rural communities attracted Irish immigrants as well as those from the West Highlands. In 1750 the population was 32,000 but had risen to half million by 1870.

This growing population was housed in poorly designed and hastily constructed buildings that became squalid and overcrowded. This put pressure on the supply of drinking water and foodstuffs. Watercourses and wells became polluted. The city was choking in the thick smog from the vast factories, mills, workshops and foundries.

In these circumstances disease was rampant and infant mortality high. The period also saw rises in crime, drunkenness and juvenile delinquency. It was a situation if, left to continue, would probably see the city in economic decline and social disaster. This was a time for radical action. One of those who saw the problems and the likely outcomes was John Blackie Jnr. A publisher by trade, he went on to enable huge changes in the city, becoming a respected Lord Provost and churchman.

It was as a politician that John Blackie made his largest and most long lasting contribution to life in Glasgow. He was elected onto Glasgow Town Council in 1857 becoming Lord Provost in 1863. His major work in this time was the 1866 City Improvement Act which was a major programme of improving life in the squalid poorer areas of the City.

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City Improvement Trust Buildings, Saltmarket.

The 1866 Act gave Glasgow Town Council powers to set up a City Improvement Trust. This was to purchase slum property, demolish it and to widen and re-align narrow city centre streets. The areas targeted for slum clearance were mainly round about Glasgow Cross. The idea was to demolish the outdated buildings of the time and encourage private builders to build on the cleared areas.

However, building on the cleared land was very slow partly caused by the Collapse of the City of Glasgow Bank as well as a recession at the time. At one time the Improvement trust had to cease demolishing properties and found itself Glasgow’s biggest slum landlord.  It wasn’t till the 1890s that building got going again and soon the trust had built 34 tenements containing 1200 homes. By 1913, the Corporation, which took over responsibility for housing from the Trust, had built 2,199 tenement houses in the city.

Naturally there was no house building during the First World War. Following the War, rather than returning to a 'Land fit for heroes', the soldiers instead returned to unemployment 'the dole' and houses in a declining state.

In 1919 Government legislation made it compulsory for local authorities to plan housing schemes based on the 'garden city' principles and gave funding to do it. With this funding, Glasgow took this movement to heart and in Mosspark created the first garden suburb with two-thirds of the population housed in cottage type buildings.

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Houses in the Knightswood estate (Baldric Avenue)

In Knightswood was created one of Britain's largest such garden areas. From 1923, the City's Direct Labour squad built 6714 houses. At the same time, they catered for almost all denominations and eight churches were built along with shopping centres, a nine-hole golf course, tennis courts and football pitches. Even a cricket pitch was provided. It was also a 'dry' area, that is, with no public houses. It is still generally the case.

There was a general move away from stone to brick built and harled construction. The longevity of these buildings is proof of their quality. As part of Glasgow City housing stock they have been brought up to current modern standards on at least two occasions. Ironically, many of those bought under 'Right to buy' show signs of wear and the differences are testimonial to how well councils actually looked after housing stock.

Even as these garden suburbs were being created, they were becoming too expensive and by 1926 the standard had to be lowered. The differences in density and quality of build can be seen clearly between Knightswood and Upper Knightswood. Again, it was external influences which were preventing the building of the houses 'for heroes'. The depression of the time, not relieved until the Second World War stopped most social housing being built.

Of course, this was exactly the time houses were needed. Those 'slum' areas that were left had to be dealt with. But with the lack of funds to build, deprivation and the dole brought misery and violence which erupted in the streets, again not to be relieved until stopped by Percy Sillitoe's police and the Second World War.

It is this inter-war period which created the myth of Glasgow slums. However, in the totality of what was and is Glasgow, the Gorbals and these other areas could not be said to sum up the city. When you take into account the ever-expanding city areas including Kelvingrove, Hillhead and Queen's Park, there were plenty of fine and adequate buildings. When you then include the expanded burghs, taking into account Anniesland, Cathcart, Langside and so on, you would find that in fact, there were very few areas which would be called slums. Even the 85,000 people in the Gorbals and Hutchesontown areas could not be called to account for being slum dwellers. They were living in desperate conditions, but often making the best of it as the city prepared for rebuilding. Knightswood gives an idea of the very real attempts which were made to correct this.


Michael Meighan's new book Glasgow in 50 Buildings is available now.