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An Alternative History of Glasgow : The 20th Century

Updated on January 5, 2019
The Clyde-Built 'Queen Elizabeth 2' full of drunk tourists  (Photo by PhillipC @ Flickr Creative Commons)
The Clyde-Built 'Queen Elizabeth 2' full of drunk tourists (Photo by PhillipC @ Flickr Creative Commons)

Washed up in the Gorbals.

From the 1900s onwards there was large-scale immigration from Italy and Eastern Europe, especially Poland and Lithuania with many of the poorer settling in the Gorbals area of Glasgow. Some had wanted to go all the way to America but had run out of money.

It's even said that some folk believed they had reached the USA and the ship had sailed before they realised the mistake. The Italians opened chip shops mired in grease to suit the local taste but also made smashing ice-cream.

Many Jewish people came to escape the pogroms in the east as they saw a dirty, industrialised dump like Glasgow with its razor gangs and religious hatred as just the sort of quiet place to settle down. Any port in a storm but even the bubonic plague hit the Gorbals in 1900.

It wasn't all bad press for the Gorbals however. After all it was the birthplace of the original 'Private Eye' Allan Pinkerton in 1819 who fled Glasgow after being involved in the Chartist movement. In a classic case of poacher turned gamekeeper he set up the world's first private detective agency in 1850 in Chicago. He died in 1884 of an infected tongue which he bit after slipping on a pavement.

Steve Snodgrass @ Flickr
Steve Snodgrass @ Flickr

Also from the Gorbals was Sir Thomas Lipton, born there in 1848, who became famous in the world of tea.

He also won the trophy for 'best of all losers' for repeatedly failing to win the Americas Cup yacht race. Typical for a Scotsman to be hailed as glorious in defeat.

Guns, tanks and population explosions.

This period saw the population go over 3/4 million by 1914 but the First World War helped keep the numbers down. Things weren't very peaceful after the war and there was turbulence in George Square in 1919 by a huge workers demonstration.

The Glasgow Police got a bit of a doing so the next day the good folk of Glasgow awoke to find armed troops with machine guns, a large howitzer and tanks on the Square. It was a very quiet day indeed, they knew when they were beat.

Phil Parker @ Flickr
Phil Parker @ Flickr

The Depression Years in Melancholic Caledonia.

Unfortunately WW1 marked the decline of the heavy industries in Glasgow such as steel, coal and even shipbuilding.

The USA was becoming the world leader because it was so big.

Nevertheless, the Clyde was still the birthplace of those ocean-going gin-palaces the Queen Mary(1936), Queen Elizabeth(1938), and the QE2(1969), all built at John Brown's shipyard in Clydebank.

These were massive passenger liners for toffs and assorted stuck-up 'Hooray Henry's' to lord it up on the waves before they were sold to become floating casinos in California and Dubai for playboys, gangsters and Saudi sheikhs

In the 1920s the population travelled on the 1,100 trams on 200 miles of lines across the city. A popular and romantic form of transport until they were discontinued in the 1960s. The inter-war years were terrible times with a General Strike in 1926 where a lot of heads got bashed about and people marched on empty stomachs.

There was also an increasing population as TV hadn’t been widely introduced yet, even though it had been invented by a Scotsman, John Logie Baird. In 1931 Glasgow had over 1 million people, the second largest in Britain and the city began to creak under the weight of the bedsprings. If that wasn’t all bad enough we imported the Great Depression from America which knackered the situation even further.

Hitler ponders the Scots threat (Tallapragada @ Flickr)
Hitler ponders the Scots threat (Tallapragada @ Flickr)

The Second World War Menswear Boom.

At least another war came along to liven up the scene as the second leg of Great Britain v Germany commenced.

In 1941 Clydebank was bombed as the German aircraft blitzed the shipyards and factories. A special target was the 'Singer' sewing-machine plant, an act intended to drastically impede the British war effort.

The Nazis reckoned that a severe shortage of uniforms in the British forces could swing the war their way.

What followed was a Milliganesque scene at the subsequent briefing between Adolf and his generals:

"Mein Fuhrer! Vee haff hit ze sewing factory" cried Hermann Goering in triumph,

"Wunderbar! Wunderbar!" screamed Hitler, "Let's see ze Britishers fight wit no trousers"

"For zem ze War vill be over" chimed Joe Goebbels, "I vill announce it on ze radio tonight"

"Ja! Ja!" roared Hitler, "Tell zem Tommy's zey got no chance now"

"Zat is right Mein Fuhrer" said Goering, "Zey von't haff enuff needle und thread to make up for zis"

"I vouldn't be too hasty gentlemen" said a voice in the corner,

"Vot do yoo mean General Rommel?" asked Goebbels, "Ze British vill run out of clothes very soon, ja?"

"Ja!" admitted Rommel, "But zey may have secret stockpiles"

"Secret stockpiles!!!" raged Hitler, "Secret stockpiles of vot?"



"Ja, ze kilts"

"Kilts!!! Kilts!!!!!! Kilts!!!!!!" screamed an apoplectic Hitler, "Goering!! Vy did yoo not zink of zis yoo dumpkopf"

"Mein Gott!!" moaned Goebbels, "Vee forgot zat ze Schottish haff ze kilts"

"Oh Nein!! Nein!! not ze Ladies from Hell" wailed Hitler, "Vee are doomed, doomed!!!!"

It was the turning point in the war and with a little help from the Yanks, the Russians as well as Herr Hitler going nuts, Britain won. Thankfully Glasgow suffered little from the Luftwaffe during WW2 but the City Council more than made up for it during their scorched earth approach to town-planning in the 50's and 60's.

Many of the wonderfully built and impressive looking tenements of the Victorian and Edwardian era were bulldozed and replaced by 20-storey prison camps. Many left Glasgow as 'New Towns' were built to take the overspill.

The first of these being a grey breeze-block graveyard called East Kilbride in 1947. This was followed in 1956 by Cumbernauld which was recently voted the worst town centre in Britain. I told you the architects got worse.

The Auld Firm in Bad Company

Popular culture was booming and an evening at the 'picture house' was extremely popular as Glasgow boasted over 200 cinemas after WW2. John Wayne would have been voted in as Lord Provost if they’d asked him.

Sport was dominated by football and of course the 'Big Two' the 'Auld Firm' of Rangers and Celtic, the former founded in 1873, named after an English rugby team and attracted many supporters from Highlanders who had moved south.

Celtic began as the Fenian counter attack in 1888 created by mad Irish monks led by Brother Walfrid as a charitable organisation to feed the poor Irish folk of the East-End. The rivalry of both these high churches of bladder and onion bag has endured for over a hundred years and kept the fans at each other’s throats ever since.

The New Universities.

There were breakthroughs in the post-WW2 period in the field of science and education. Ultrasound techniques were developed at Yorkhill Children's Hospital in the 50's by Dr Ian Donald.

He stole the idea from the Clyde yards where they used similar equipment to detect metal fatigue in the hulls of ships. The first pictures showed the foetus waving at the camera and mouthing the words "Hello Mum" according to lip-readers.

In 1964 the old Royal College of Science and Technology gained university status and the University of Strathclyde was born. Caledonian University followed 30 years later in 1993 raising the IQ level in Glasgow immeasurably as well as sales of acne cream.

Traffic cones appeared on the city statues almost daily and in 1974 the 'Glasgow Coma Scale' was introduced at the University of Glasgow to measure students level of intoxication.

Save Our Ships.

In 1970 the M8 Motorway and Kingston Bridge opened up, cutting a swathe through Glasgow introducing large scale traffic jams and pollution to the city centre as well as the odd 10-ton truck careering off the bridge.

In the 1960s five shipyards were amalgamated to form the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. But in 1971 it went into receivership which provoked action by the workers in the spirit of the old Red Clydesiders of the 1920s.

The workers led by Jimmy Reid along with Jimmy Airlie and Sammy Barr held a 'work-in' to stop the yards going bust and to finish the orders on the books.

"There will be no hooliganism!!!...." announced Jimmy Reid to the assembled workers,

"Yes, that's right" said men in the crowd, "Absolutely" said others,

"There will be no vandalism!!!..." said Jimmy,

"Sure thing" they agreed, "Nae bother" all nodding their heads,

"...and there will be no bevvying!!!"

"Eh? What the f....." they said, "Nae booze? He's aff his heid"

But the drink ban remained under the strong discipline of the shop stewards and in the end two yards were retained with one sold in injury time marking a success for the shipyard workers.

The bustling Glasgow subway
The bustling Glasgow subway | Source

The 70's and 80's

In 1975 the bin-men did go on strike so the army had to gingerly step in and clear the rubbish. This kind of stuff was never mentioned on the army recruiting posters but they did the job pretty well.

Much better than a crowd of squaddies in England during the 1977 firemen’s strike who saved a cat from a tree then ran over it on the way out.

Glasgow was getting cleaner as, to be fair, the City Council, in a massive cleanup operation, had the dark industrial soot removed that had covered thousands of buildings. Operation 'Morning Toast-Scrape' may have been costly but it changed the complexion if the city, if not that of the student population.

Glasgow was indeed flourishing and in 1980 the subway was re-opened by the Queen after a 3 year overhaul and was quickly nicknamed 'The Clockwork Orange' after its distinctive colour. It almost immediately closed down temporarily due to technical problems and was quickly re-baptised 'The Clockwork Lemon'.

In 1983 it was 'Glasgow's Miles Better' the new city slogan proclaimed and the Queen was back opening up something. This time the Burrell Collection in Pollok Country Park. It houses the collection of shipping magnate Sir William Burrell who died in 1958 after a lifetime of acquiring precious articles of fine art and grotty tat.

The Auld Firm fight it out.

Fine Art, Sport and Popular Culture figured prominently during these years. The 'Auld Firm' enjoyed great success throughout the second half of the 20th century despite their fans wanting to kill each other whilst regaling themselves with sectarian ditties.

In 1967 Celtic won the European Cup in Lisbon winning 2-1 against Inter Milan. Many Rangers fans complained that Stevie Chalmer's winning goal was offside. This was complete nonsense as it was Tommy Gemmell's first goal that was offside.

Not to be outdone, in 1972 Rangers won the European Cup Winners Cup, beating Moscow Dynamo 3-2 in Barcelona. Captain John Greig was proudly presented with the trophy in a sweaty dressing room while the Rangers fans recreated the battle of Guernica with Spanish Police out on the pitch.

In 1980 nutters from both sides fought a pitched barney after the Scottish Cup Final and the Mounted Police were called in as horses were used for the first time on football fans. The cavalry charge was delayed whilst the stand-side linesmen checked their hooves and the chief groundsman had a nervous breakdown.

But this debacle meant a complete booze-ban being introduced by Jimmy Reid so that fans had to suffer watching their teams completely sober.

Celtic won the league championship 9 times in a row from 1967-75. Not to be outdone Rangers won it 9 times in a row from 1989-1997. In 2003 Celtic reached the UEFA Cup Final in Seville only to lose 3-2 to FC Porto but over 80,000 Celtic fans made many friends in Spain with their good nature and fun-filled party atmosphere.

Not to be outdone Rangers reached the final of the UEFA Cup in 2008 losing 2-0 to Zenit St Petersburg. However this time there was no trouble in the stadium since the Rangers fans trashed the streets of Manchester instead.

Glasgow Garden Festival 1988
Glasgow Garden Festival 1988 | Source

Slowly Developing a Culture.

Glasgow had indeed been re-invented as a post-industrial city.

It enjoyed being awarded the 1988 Garden Festival, being crowned 1990 European City of Culture, although hell knows why when you look at Edinburgh only 50 miles up the road.

Then in 1999 Glasgow was the UK City of Architecture and Design, especially awarded for municipal vandalism and dreadful housing.

The most famous Glaswegian in the world was undoubtedly comedian and actor Billy Connolly who took out a world patent on the 'jobbie weecha' and jokes about farting. A musical man he has had hits with a Glasgow version of Tammy Wynette's 'D.I.V.O.R.C.E', also 'The Welly Boot Song' and 'In the Brownies'.

He has carved out a long and illustrious career on stage and screen as well as being chief jester to the House of Windsor for a while.

In music there were many great artists, like Frankie Miller, Maggie Bell, Alex Harvey, Texas, Amy McDonald, Travis, KT Tunstall, The Waterboys, Franz Ferdinand and The Fratellis, even Lulu at a stretch. Perhaps the most successful being Simple Minds who stormed the music world with hits such as 'Alive and Kicking', 'Waterfront' and 'Don't You Forget About me' (from the hit Hollywood movie 'The Breakfast Club').

And for over 20 years the popular TV detective series 'Taggart' enjoyed huge popularity and introduced the term "There's been a murrdurr!" into the lexicon of the English language.

The famous Simple Minds in concert (Photo by bbp @ Flickr Creative Commons)
The famous Simple Minds in concert (Photo by bbp @ Flickr Creative Commons)

A Good, Hard Kick in the Noughties

In 2007 two doctors gave up the Hippocratic Oath and tried to bomb Glasgow Airport. These normally intelligent medico-terrorists hadn't checked that their Range Rover could actually fit through the doorway and ended up barbecuing themselves. For good measure, as opposed to their bad measure, one got a boot in the chuckies from a baggage handler.

Even worse was to come as in the same year Glasgow won the bid to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games just a year before the banks almost went bust. The city museums could have sold a couple of Rembrandts or a Van Gogh to pay for it.

...and in conclusion

We have now sadly run out of history for this essay on the City of Glasgow. More history is gathering as we speak for future publication and ridicule. So watch out for more which will be published when there is enough new material. This should be around the year 2050 or thereabouts.

In the meantime, as the song says 'I Belong tae Glasgow, Dear old Glasgow Toon' a refrain which will bear heavily on my mind as I fill out my application for a new passport. To finance my foreign travel ambitions I intend to live and work in Aberdeen.

Anyway! The buffet is now open and tea and coffee is available during which there will be a short question and answer session.

Thank you.


Billy Connolly at a seminar on Glasgow Culture and Society


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