Glasgow was a place of exceptional economic buoyancy and urban growth. There was a prosperous middle class, dominated by businessmen and many well-paid skilled workers in engineering and shipbuilding. And yet everyday life for the mass of the population was one of poverty and uncertainty. Those who might be relatively prosperous at one stage of the life cycle could find themselves in circumstances of extreme deprivation in times of sickness, in widowhood and especially in old age. Rising living standards in the later 19th century seemed to by-pass the poorest and in 1914, despite the best efforts of philanthropists and reformers, Glasgow was still a byword for intractable human misery.
Everyday experience, regardless of income, was shaped by ill-health. Life for the poor in overcrowded, industrial cities such as Glasgow was especially likely to be influenced by sickness and early death. Indeed, between the 1820s and 1830s the average age of death in Glasgow, already low at about 42 years for men and 45 for women, fell by about five years. It only recovered to early 19th century levels in the 1880s, when killer diseases such as typhus were finally brought under control.
Poor nutrition led to chronic states of physical inefficiency among the working population. A School Board survey of 1906 revealed that a 14 year-old boy living in a poor area of Glasgow was, on average, 4 inches shorter than a similar-aged child from the city's West End. If you walked through the busy streets of this teeming city, the rich were easily differentiated from the poor because they were tall. Standards of living improved gradually in the later decades of the century but nutrition-related ill-health remained pervasive and visible in such conditions as rickets - causing bone damage to up to a third of Glasgow's children - and consumption, a chronic and debilitating respiratory condition.
The working lives of ordinary Glaswegians inevitably affected their health. Hours of work were long; much work involved hard physical labour and many people still worked out-of-doors. Work-related injuries were commonplace and many workers in manufacturing suffered the effects of the noxious substances with which they had daily contact. All of these circumstances took a massive toll on physical well-being, and left men and women in broken health and old before their time.
Simply living in the city was damaging to health. The 1830s witnessed major cholera outbreaks in Glasgow as elsewhere, affecting rich and poor alike. Air quality was bad due to industrial pollution and coal fires, which is why the middle classes migrated up-wind to the West End. The young and the old, the vulnerable in society, suffered most from the effects of poor living conditions. Even in the 1890s one in seven babies died in Glasgow, mainly from the common diseases of childhood such as measles and diarrhoea. Most families, be they rich or poor, experienced tragedy and grief arising from the death of children or the loss of a parent while children were still young. In an age that recognised death through elaborate funerals and complex mourning rituals, the death of a loved one could impose a major financial burden on a family and the shame of a pauper burial was keenly felt.
A national survey of 1902 revealed that Glasgow was the most overcrowded city in Britain and the situation actually got worse in the first decade of the new century as slum clearance was not matched with new house building. Inevitably, therefore, domestic and family life was a constant struggle to keep tidy and well-organised when there was no space for clothing or possessions and when furniture used for seating during the day had to be converted into sleeping accommodation at night. Housewives were constantly "picking-up" and "putting-away" simply to keep themselves and their families functioning in the limited space they had available. Maintaining basic cleanliness was an endless struggle when flats were overcrowded and plumbing was primitive. The pressure on working class mothers was considerable and it is not surprising that men found the pub a welcome refuge from the daily chaos of domestic life. The middle class woman found life much easier but even in this privileged group ideals of domesticity were not always possible in tenement dwellings where privacy was compromised and space was at a premium.
With high birth rates throughout the century Glasgow was a youthful place and childhood underwent a dramatic transition during these years. In 1830 it was usual for children to work to supplement the family economy and the exploitation of child labour was rife. But this was increasingly seen as detrimental to health and welfare. Legislation was slowly introduced to exclude children from dangerous areas of employment and the introduction of state-funded compulsory schooling in 1872 reinforced the philosophy that children should be protected from the market place. Many still worked, of course, but the middle-class ideal of innocence and education in childhood was gradually absorbed as the norm in all classes. Along with the emergence of modern ideas of childhood, the ideals of motherhood were refined. As certain groups of middle class women sought entry to professional employment in the later 19th century, working class wives and mothers were gradually pushed out of the workplace in the interests of family and home. Gender relationships and identities were shaped by these dynamics, in Glasgow as elsewhere.
Glasgow was an exceptional city in the 19th century. It was a place of contrasts, with the spectacularly rich living side-by-side with some of the poorest in Britain. Life in the city could be dangerous and uncertain: conflicts existed, often between the most disadvantaged of inner-city migrants. But it was also exciting, full of opportunity and optimism, youthful and characterised by a rich and vibrant popular culture that made ordinary Glaswegians proud of who they were.
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