How capitalism ruined Glasgow

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From the tobacco trade to this year's Commonwealth Games, Nicky Patterson examines how bourgeois greed and ineptitude has condemned generations of Glaswegians to lives of misery and squalor.

Glasgow began as an episcopal centre based around the cult of Kentigern who established a monastery on an elevated site near the top of the Molendinar burn (stream) – on the site of the current Glasgow Cathedral – in the late sixth or early seventh century AD. It grew initially as the bishopric seat within the diocese of Strathclyde – itself territorially constituting the Brythonic Kingdom – north of a ford crossing on the river Clyde.

The main settlement developed on the north of the ford crossing, and a distance downhill and south from the site of Kentigern’s church – or “Glas-cu” which became the name of the overall settlement – into a traditional ecclesiastical base to the bishopric, with further monasteries, a college and schools, alongside various trading activities. Other contemporaneous local settlements of significance include Govan, a few miles west, and Dumbarton, located around 20 miles to the west in the Clyde firth (estuary). Glasgow became the predominant settlement in the ensuing millenium by virtue of Dumbarton’s vulnerability to sea raids – chiefly by Norse raiders – and by beating Govan as a rival ecclesiastical centre to the bishopric in the beginning.

In the late sixth or early seventh century, Kentigern established a monastry on the site of the Glasgow Cathedral, here depicted in a 1683 engraving by John Slezer

In the late sixth or early seventh century, Kentigern established a monastry on the site of the Glasgow Cathedral, here depicted in a 1683 engraving by John Slezer


Andrew Gibb (1983), highlights patterns and problems of urban density in medieval Glasgow:


Here we can clearly see an early realisation of Burgess’ Concentric Zone Model, with clear emphasis on bourgeois interests dictating the quality and locality of urban infrastructure. Gibb also refers to the great fire of June 1652, which destroyed the greater part of the built-up area of Saltmarket, Trongate and High Street. The fire destroyed 1000 homes and some 80 warehouses, the damage amounting to £100,000, reflecting both the problematic nature of rudimentary urban planning by expediency, and also perhaps the scale of mid-17th century Glasgow – the damage affecting around one third of the town.

Despite these issues, Glasgow around this time was regarded as a most excellent and picturesque example of European city developments; and this remained so for some 200 years, or until the perversions of urban industrialisation began to foul the city. Until the mid-19th century, Glasgow was esteemed as: clean, by virtue of her peripheral locating of industry; green – on account of an admirable retention of vegetation, park, and common land, and; an architectural delight – as attested by the High Street colonnades, and the “majestic spires” of the University.

Domestic expropriation and foreign plunder – the rise of the merchant bourgeoisie

The Reformation of Christian bureaucracy in 1560 saw the mass confiscation of Roman Church land and its subsequent appropriation by prominent town representatives. Rents and profits gained from this bourgeois consolidation propagated the expansion of mercantile practice that coincided with the complementary expansion of colonial acquisitions abroad by this same new merchant class. The expediency which dominated the socio-economic culture of the mercantile bourgeoisie in time dictated that new port and harbour facilities were constructed, and improvements made, initially along the Clyde firth, and then eventually up toward the town itself. Other towns such as Port Glasgow (a mercantile project initially named Newark), Renfrew, Govan, and Anderston became key centres of the bourgeois infrastructure, and great wealth was drawn through a global network of trade in tobacco, cotton, sugar, and slavery.

But the bourgeois princes of trade were soon hampered by the disaster in Darien (an attempt at establishing a Scottish colony in Latin America – thwarted by English competitors), and then choked by American Independence and the loss of sovereignty over resources. Recovery lay in the principles ensued by the French Revolution (and conversely at the same time also by the American) which favoured the new bourgeois classes; the paradox of newly gained access to English colonial assets; and in technological advances which favoured those who could capitalise on the virtues of the West of Scotland’s dampening climate, and highly skilled population.

In the 1770s Glasgow controlled over half of all the British trade in tobacco.

In the 1770s Glasgow controlled over half of all the British trade in tobacco.

Industrialisation and urbanisation

Thus innovations especially in steam-technology (from Clyde-born Watt, 1765 onward) negated the dependency on water for mechanical production, and those merchants who profited from English offers of compensation in return for acquiescence in political union (1707), and subsequent shares in trade from the Indies, were able to build mass factories and dormitories located (as per the principle of capital expediency) very close to their warehouse stocks, i.e. in Glasgow itself, and along the subsidiary villages and towns of the Clyde river. Between 1750 and 1821 Glasgow’s population grew fivefold from 32,000 to over 147,000.

The industrial revolution swelled the population of Glasgow, where conditions became cramped and insanitary. Here, Thomas Annan captures an wynd off High St., c. 1968

The industrial revolution swelled the population of Glasgow, where conditions became cramped and insanitary. Here, Thomas Annan captures a wynd off High St., c. 1868

The environmental holocaust that followed found its human counterpart in the squalid living and working conditions created in the city. Glasgow became synonymous with the industry borne by the British imperial project, and this included the perverse benefit drawn from the destabilsation of lowland rural culture, and the destruction of highland clan culture. Such glory presented a mass pool of displaced labour, drawn to the city in desperation of economic security, and Glasgow’s new industrial bourgeoisie were quick to exploit these ‘backward’ droves with the promise of work, wages, and accommodation. The result was an obscene concentration of squalor and pollution for the city’s worker population (the proletariat) in tandem with bourgeois civic philanthropy which engendered an ostentation of architecture and leisure space as a celebration of the city’s economic and imperial success. Eventually competition for space became saturated around the mid 19th century and urban sprawl developed outward (upon the already rapid growth of previous decades), primarily to the west, but also latterly to the south and to the east.

Working class stratification 

Initially the proletariat were housed in warehouse fashion as close to the industry centres as possible – the case of multiple families living in single room accommodation being commonplace. The fabric of the housing was as poor as the haste of expediency dictates; key examples of hastily built schemes including those in the Gorbals (south), Anderston (west), and Calton (east). These areas absorbed the immigrant populations from the rural lowlands, the Gaelic highlands, Ulster-Scots, and Irish Catholics coming to the city throughout the 19th century, and became fertile breeding ground for diseases such as cholera (killing 3,000 in 1832) as per inadequate planning, lack of sanitation, and forced crowding.

Eventually the higher-skilled elite among the proletariat were offered more comfortable accommodation in appended estates such as Govanhill (south), Partick (west), and Bridgeton (east). These benefited from some degree of prior planning: spacious streets with inbuilt commercial and amenity units; transport links via the omnibus, or by the new passenger train lines being constructed; access to recreation grounds at Queen’s Park (south), Kelvin Grove (west) Glasgow Green (east); access to primary educational facilities (from 1872); and crucially, access to running water from the Loch Katrine municipal acquisition of 1859. These developments were generally accompanied by accommodation which was purpose-built for (and sold to) the emerging managerial class – these townhouses would generally have priority of access to local amenities as well as private gardens, spacious room design, and more ornate architecture.

At the same time smaller satellite settlements were emerging as urban centres based around local industrial pursuits, notably Govan (ship building), and Springburn (railway engineering). In time too, the mining villages toward the east in the Clyde valley such as Carmyle, Shettleston, Garthamlock, and Springboig would grow in smaller but similar styles to Glasgow in terms of class segregation and amenity priorities for the bosses and managers. All of these grew to become part of an adjoining conurbation which would amalgamate with other industrial villages closer to the city centre, such as Dalmarnock (dye works), and spread as far east as Motherwell and Airdrie, and everywhere the perpetual absorption of immigrants. From the 1870s onward the greater Glasgow area began to see Russian Jews, Lithuanians (initially misrepresented as Poles), and Italians settle alongside the perpetual flow from rural Scotland, from Ireland, and from England.

A near-permanent housing shortage

Records suggest that there was a near permanent housing shortage from the early 1800s; as the First World War drew to a close in 1918, terse demands were made by a burgeoning labour movement for the municipality to build tens of thousands of new homes which would be clean, dry, and amenable. In turn estates such as Mosspark (south), Knightswood (west), Riddrie (east), and Possilpark (north) were established, knitting together the conurbation further, and providing families with garden space and clean air in the new format of “2-up-2-down” (or “4-in-a-block”) housing. These projects coincided with intense slum-clearance from the original town peripheries; thus meeting the demands of the working class for better housing, but naturally in the meantime providing the rentier landowning class with vast speculative opportunities.

Ultimately these projects established a precedent for the pattern of urban and housing development in Glasgow over the next century. The bourgeois “city-fathers” were able to maintain the social housing crisis by simultaneously building below demand levels, and allowing existing housing to fall into dilapidation, thus creating a perpetual cycle of demand-demolition-development.

The post-war period witnessed the continuation of slum demolition and new development of peripheral estates, most notably Castlemilk (south-east), Pollok (south-west), Drumchapel (north-west), and Easterhouse (north-east). These estates were instigated again by the demands of the now war-weary working class still living in appalling conditions of overcrowding – 514 persons per acre in Gorbals against the city average of 163 – and sanitation. Projects such as these were produced nationally under the auspices of a “socialist” Labour government – in Glasgow these were implemented via the Bruce Plan.

Overcrowding and poor conditions earned earned the Gorbals notoriety as Europe's worst slum. Pictured - a kickabout in 1948

Overcrowding and poor conditions earned earned the Gorbals notoriety as Europe’s worst slum. Pictured – a kickabout in 1948

The Bruce Plan

The Bruce Plan presented an enormous civic project of urban renewal, including new industrial facilities, new commercial centres, new motorway and transport infrastructure, and of course new housing, devised to meet the demands of modernisation, and expanding populations. The numbers for housing are staggering: Bruce believed that 316,000 new houses could be built by 1987 within the existing city boundaries (extended at various points in the previous decades). However by 1961 the local authority had built only 62,000 of these whilst the number of families requiring housing was growing exponentially from the figure of 90,000 in 1949. Overcrowding in 1961 remained high at almost 35% in Glasgow, compared with Birmingham’s 11% and Manchester’s 6%.

De-population became key to managing dissent in an era of labour movement consolidation. Clydeside industry was becoming a deeper red once more, and galvanised by the (mainly false) apparition of Soviet success in eastern Europe. Such circumstances prompted the re-intensification of slum-clearance as a peremptory means of both placating and dispersing the latent militancy of the organised proletariat: in time the concept of overspill became the favoured strategy of the city-fathers, who would be sacrificing enormous labour resources – forecast initially to be between 200,00-300,000, and then revised to 400,000-500,000 persons. The result was the construction of New Towns based on the English civic model for Garden Cities. These included Cumbernauld (well to the north-east toward Stirling), East Kilbride (to the south-east a few miles out from Cambuslang), Irvine (far south on the Ayrshire-Plain coast), Glenrothes (far east in Fife), which all became in time large towns with tens of thousands of residents. Other smaller towns such as Linwood and Erskine were also established and all of these were almost entirely populated initially by Glasgow families, and offered new industry to centre around – Rolls Royce engineering in East Kilbride, and Chrysler car manufacturing in Linwood being two of the more famous examples.

Deserts wae windaes

Before long the cycle of dilapidation-demand-demolition-development began to make obvious the errors in planning, and subsequent social disorders on a mass scale. By the 1970s motorway construction had divided large swathes of the city and communities such as Anderston, Kingston, and Cowcaddens had lost social cohesion through the destruction of main-street culture. Developments such as Castlemilk, Drumchapel, Easterhouse, and Pollok had transgressed into bleak Orwellian dystopias, famously saluted by Glasgow comedian Billy Connolly as “deserts wae windaes”. Planners had failed to account adequately for social amenities and cultural denigration into unemployment, violence, and various forms of abuse became normal in the city.

By the 1990s Thatcher had consolidated these problems through the intensely divisive Right-to-Buy policy and the annihilation of British industries. The entire city of Glasgow was now in a condition of extreme social distress. Documentary films such as “Green Flutes” from Govan in 1984, “The Frustration Game” from Drumchapel in 1989, and “People and Power” from Easterhouse in 1984 demonstrate fully the extent and the normality of such social-deprivation as caused by preposterously poor planning and policy. Even in relatively better-off areas such as the New Towns of East Kilbride, where industry was maintained to a degree, Right-to-Buy had served to sufficiently corrode community relations.


The 1984 documentary ‘Easterhouse: People and Power’ examined the bitterness engendered by recurrent failures of planning and development.

Culturally then, Glasgow became synonymous with decline and disorder. The middle-classes were relieved to escape to the peripheral outskirts, and could commute to their workplace in their cars where they needn’t witness, engage with, or consider the reality of the working-class condition. In working-class areas the blights of racism, sectarianism, and gang-violence became so normal as to seem permanent.

Territorial Stigmatisation

As in the “banlieue” districts of Paris, this has naturally led to what Loic Wacquant calls Territorial Stigmatisation, whereby residents suffering in the phase of Dilapidation, chose physically and cognitively to disassociate themselves from their own neighbourhoods. Wacquant highlights two key phenomena: firstly the physical near-permanent withdrawal of persons from their community into their homes and secondly the cognitive shift of denying or excusing places of residence to those outwith, such as when dating, or applying for work.

Thus through the twin props of neoliberalisation and stigmatisation, the people of Glasgow became almost completely atomised. Social solidarity was practically non-existent except in small militant-political groups, and in the ever transient centres of immigration, such as Govanhill in the south, where such cohesion was a foreign import galvanised by the threat of an indigenous population ever-ready to find someone or something to blame for its situation. The spectre of “No Mean City” was resurrected and reproduced in the “schemes” of “Methadone Valley”, such as a vast swathe of Pollok came to be called.

Today Glasgow is still vastly retarded by the experiences of the past two centuries’ underdevelopment. General wealth increased from the late 1990s due to the artificial creation of a housing boom. Home ownership and car ownership became more common and social solidarity continued to decrease, except again in the enclaves of immigrant populations, sectarian divides, and scheme gangs. After the financial crash of 2008, the superficiality of wealth based on asset-price inflation became apparent, and Glasgow today finds itself as ever in the stewardship of corrupt city-fathers, and suffering the generational legacy of drug abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, sectarianism, racism, depression, and collective-psychoses.

Commonwealth Shame

The strategy of dilapidation-demand-demolition-development is etched painfully on the face of nearly every Glaswegian today and is sadly no more evident than in the preparation for the Commonwealth games later this year, where Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) have been deployed upon long suffering communities. CPOs have enabled the forced demolition of homes and high streets, accompanied by a narrative of ‘regeneration’ necessitated by the the dilapidation of local housing.

The reality is revealed by the experience of the  the “legacy” developments in Dalmarnock, site of the well-documented Jaconelli family eviction in 2011. Here, regeneration entailing the demolition of the local high school and hundreds of homes to make way for athletic facilities, has, as ever, destroyed the local community and made way for cynical speculation from private interests. Since 1991, Glasgow has lost 60,000 social houses, while the Commonwealth developments promise the building of only 103 social houses in phase 1, there being uncertainty whether phase 2 will even proceed. CPOs have been delivered to families at around 30% of value, whilst land bought speculatively nearby in recent years has fetched millions of pounds profit for the owners, without the use of CPOs. The pattern of development set by the original merchant wealth of Glasgow in the 1800s continues unabated today.

Margaret Jaconelli Eviction Dalmarnock

Margaret Jaconelli and family fought a long battle against the demolition of their home in Ardenlea St, Dalmarnock, having been offered a paltry £30,000 in compensation.

Thanks to bourgeois greed and ineptitude, there are still areas of the city crippled by infant-mortality, disease, low life expectancy and murder rates unparalleled anywhere else in Europe (except perhaps in Romania and Bulgaria), and which are equivalent to many cities within the “developing world”.

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