Old Town Glasgow: Squalor, Agitation and City Improvements

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    In 1862, Glasgow Corporation initiated the first of a series of three legislative acts which would become known collectively as the City Improvements Acts. Despite having some influence on the nature of the built fabric on the expanding city as a whole, the most extensive consequences of these acts was reserved for one specific area of the city, the remnants of the medieval Old Town. As the city had expanded towards all points of the compass in a regular, grid-iron structure throughout the nineteenth century, the Old Town remained singularly as a densely wrought fabric of medieval wynds, vennels, oblique passageways and accelerated tenementalisation. Here, as the rest of the city began to assume the form of an ordered entity, visible and classifiable, one could still find and addresses such as ‘Bridgegate, No. 29, backland, stair first left, three up, right lobby, door facing’ (quoted in Pacione, 1995).

    Unsurprisingly, this place, where proximity to the midden (dung-heap) was considered an enviable position, was seen by the authorities as a major health hazard and a source not only of cholera, but also of the more alarming typhoid epidemic of 1842. Accordingly, the demolitions which occurred in the backlands of the Old Town under the first of the acts, the Glasgow Police Act of 1862, were justified on health and medical grounds. But disease was not the only social problem thought to issue from this district. Reports from social reformers including Fredrick Engels suggested that the decay of the area’s physical fabric could be extended to the moral profile of its inhabitants. This was in such a state of degeneracy that there were calls for a nearby military barracks to be relocated to more salubrious climes because troops were routinely coming into contact ‘with the most dissolute and profligate portion of the population’ (Peter Clonston, Lord Provost, June 1861). Perhaps more worrying for the city fathers, however, was that the barracks’ arsenal was seen as a potential source of arms for the militant and often illegal cotton workers’ unions and organisations who inhabited the Old Town as well as the districts to the east. In fact, the Old Town and East End had been the site of numerous working class actions and riots since 1787, including a strike of 60,000 workers in 1820, 100,000 in 1838, and the so-called Bread Riots of 1848 where shouts of ‘Vive La Revolution’ were reported in the Gallowgate.

    The events in Paris in 1848 precipitated Baron Hausmann’s interventions into that city. The boulevards were in turn visited by members of Glasgow Corporation and ultimately, it can be argued, provided an example for Old Town Glasgow. This paper suggests that the city improvement acts carried a similarly complex and pervasive agenda, one which embodied not only health, class conflict and sexual morality but also the more local condition of sectarianism. And, like in Paris, these were played out spatially in a extensive reconfiguration of the urban fabric of the Old Town which, through the creation of new streets and a railway yard, not only made it more amenable to large scale military manoeuvres but also, opened up the area to capitalist accumulation. By the end of the works, the medieval heritage of the Old Town had been almost completely razed, the working class and Catholic East End had, through the insertion of the railway yard, been isolated from the city centre and approximately 70,000 people had been made homeless.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages10
    Publication statusUnpublished - Sep 2006
    EventEuropean Association of Urban Historians - Stockholm, Stockholm, Sweden
    Duration: 31 Aug 200602 Sep 2006


    ConferenceEuropean Association of Urban Historians

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