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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

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Christian Auer

XVII. Economic and social conditions

117. Glasgow in the 1900s

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1Harry McShane (1891-1988) was first a member of the British Socialist Party before joining the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1922. In the 1930s he became involved with the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement and took part in several Hunger Marches to London.

2In 1933 McShane published Three Days that Shook Edinburgh, a pamphlet about the famous 1933 Hunger March from Glasgow to Edinburgh. He resigned from the Communist Party in the early 1950s and returned to work as an engineer until he retired at the age of 69. He published his autobiography Harry McShane No Mean Fighter in 1978.

3Harry McShane, Joan Smith, Harry McShane No Mean Fighter, London: Pluto Press, 1978, p. 7-9.

The tenement where I lived had a ground floor and three storeys above that. Each separate entrance, or close as we called it, had several one-and two-room dwellings on each floor. The toilet at the stairhead of each close served the purposes of three or four families. In the back court of each tenement was a washhouse with a boiler and a place for a fire. The women did their washing in these boilers and it was hard, hard work. There were lots of fights about whose turn it was for the washhouse key, and it was a common topic of jokes at the music-hall.

Here and there in some of the back courts were little workshops. There were two where I lived and one in the next block. They were often owned by blacksmiths who got their living from making sparables (nails) for shoes. All the shoes were nailed in those days and the blacksmith simply put a rod in the fire and knocked off sparables galore. One of my relatives, a temperance socialist, worked as a baker in a back court and did well out of making rolls. In later years when some comrades and I were working late for the movement, we would go and get fresh rolls from him at midnight and take them back to the party rooms to have with some tea–others did the same. You can still see remains of these little buildings in some of the back courts of Glasgow.

Old people had a lot of trouble before the first world war. Old-age pensions started in 1908 and even then amounted to only five bob at seventy. Most people didn’t reach that age–they were lucky if they got to fifty. If they were too old or too ill to work they had to go to the parish council. It was always difficult to get anything out of them; the Poor Laws were designed to stop people getting anything. At the most they were given two or three shillings. If you were able-bodied and unemployed, you had to go into the workhouse to get even that for your wife and family.

All the old people in our close depended on the few shillings they had from the parish council and on the help their neighbours gave them. They couldn’t get much help from their families because their children were mostly married, had big families and had their own problems. There wasn’t the same attachment within families as there is now. But many of the neighbours helped out, even with money occasionally, and we lived pretty well together. There wasn’t the crime and vandalism that exists today because nobody wanted to get a ‘bad name’. We kept each other in good behaviour but there was an awful lot of poverty.

Food was cheap and it was possible to get through with a few shillings a week. Fish and chips cost twopence, rolls were three a penny, and it was quite common for herring to be sold at three for a penny. Rent was three or four shillings a week and coal eight pence a hundredweight. But if anyone was ill the doctor had to be paid: a doctor’s visit cost two shillings and sixpence (half a crown).

We ate a lot of fish, brought round on barrows. Sometimes when I was a child a herd of nanny-goats was brought round and we took our tins out to the street for the milk. We also drank sour milk and put it on our porridge because, at 1 ½ d a pint, it was cheaper than fresh milk. Of course for the elderly it was nearly all they could afford. They didn’t get much food and one of their biggest problems was clothing: parish clothing was allowed once in years–‘once in a blue moon’!

Prices kept rising before the first world war, and because of the terrible poverty a lot of people died very young. Those who didn’t worked for as long as they could. There was no compulsory retirement then, and even skilled men worked until they were well on in years; my wife’s father was a cooper and he was in nearly constant employment until he was seventy. Nobody wanted to go to the parish. The parish councils gave as little as they could in order to force people to go to the churches and get alms. The worst people on the parish council were always the clergymen, and especially the catholic priests.

Thousands of people never went outside Glasgow in their lives. Some of the skilled men got away for a holiday now and again; very rarely you heard of somebody going to Blackpool, or occasionally, Ireland. Sometimes you heard of someone spending the night at Millport. Rothesay was a popular cruise for those who could afford it. On Saturday and Sunday nights there would be a crowd of ships facing the Broomielaw that were going to Rothesay. You could get a cup of tea on the boat, go down and look at the engines, or listen to the band playing. There were always a lot of songs about sailing down the Clyde. Occasionally someone in the workshop would organise a trip—I went when I was an apprentice. The socialist movement also organised trips and I went with them later on.

The New Year and the Glasgow Fair in July were the big holidays in Glasgow. Everybody got ten days off work at each, but as they received no wages it was more like ten days’ unemployment. Whisky was three shillings and sixpence a bottle, and nearly everybody drank beer and whisky together. Parents would often, if they could, help out the younger people with some money to let them enjoy themselves and this was particularly true of the Fair holidays.

New Year was the really important holiday in Glasgow. Most people worked over Christmas and Christ wasn’t much in the picture–about the only people to celebrate Christmas in Glasgow were the catholics, who went to midnight mass. The kids used to hang their stockings up and get some wee present, something like a stick of rock, but that was all. What money there was bought whisky for New Year’s Eve, which people celebrated in their own homes singing songs until two or three in the morning. But before the holiday was up, most people were having a real struggle to live. The only ones who managed were those who had been exceptionally careful and saved a little bit all the year. But they were the minority; the ordinary worker was quite glad when the holiday was over even though he had enjoyed himself.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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