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No Mean City: 1914 to 1950s

Everyday Life

By Joe Fisher

Calton women In many ways, the daily lives of Glaswegians changed only slowly during the years between the beginning of the First World War and the advent of the 1950s. In other ways, change came rapidly.


Tram to Cathcart Most streets in our city were lined from end to end with tenements - south and west lay red sandstone tenements with "wally" (tiled) closes for the middle class, north and east were blackened grey sandstone tenements for the working class. Quite simply, the way most people lived was the way they expected to live: eight to ten families up the one stair (with sixteen or more children between them) sharing a communal backcourt and with the three families on each landing sharing each stair-head water closet. Between the tenement rows, on the street cobbles, ran the ubiquitous tramcars, their garish coloured sides brightening up the gloom - green for Shettleston, blue for Riddrie, white for the "Uni" (the University of Glasgow). All classes used them, the women and children snug on the lower deck, the men swathed in clouds of thick black tobacco smoke on the upper. They took you to work, to distant Corporation parks, to music halls, to burying grounds, to relatives' houses, to the infirmary - the doctor had exchanged his gig for a motor car, but cars were still seen as exotic visitors from another world.


13 Hospital Street Until the 1930s, the lives people led were not very different from those of their forefathers. Society set unvarying roles for all men, women and children. Children most often started life in the parental bed and in their early years ran a gamut of childish diseases - mumps, measles, scarlet fever - for which nursing was the only available treatment. On the doctor's "Panel" (as most of the working class were) meant free medical care and an ample supply of bottles of differently coloured "tonics". As the children grew up, there was no lack of play areas for them. Most secluded was the grassy backcourt where girls played at "shops" and "houses" while boys climbed on to the flat topped washing houses and dreeped (hung down) from the court's boundary walls. Older children made every street a playground with nothing to discommode them other than an occasional slow-moving horse and cart. There was an extensive repertoire of street-games - from "kick-the-can" to "leavo". If it rained then the tenement closes became the haunts of cigarette card games and "wee heiders" - heady football.

Hyde Park School School was as unchanging as the stars in the sky. Pupils' seats, two to a desk and in rigid lines, were bolted to the raked floor - boys with boys, girls with girls - and the weekly marks put the best top left and the worst bottom right.. The exam system was as unchanging, efficient and unfeeling as a machine. At the age of twelve the "Qualy" (Qualifying Exam) sent the sheep off to Senior Secondaries and the goats into establishments which taught metalwork and domestic science. The next divide was staying on for your "Highers" or leaving at fourteen, and the last was going to the "Uni" to become ministers, lawyers, teachers, or to the "Tech" (the Royal Technical College, now the University of Strathclyde) to be made into shipbuilders, mine managers, bridge builders, or textile makers.


Mr and Mrs Smith Women were, before everything else, full-time homemakers. From morning to evening they laboured to feed and dress their families and to keep them clean and warm. Each morning the coal fire had to be cleaned and lit and the ashes carried down to the backcourt middens. Lacking freezers or fridges, the wives had to go with laden "message" bags from small shop to small shop, buying portions of meat, fish, vegetables, bread and milk. All the food had to be laboriously prepared by hand and was usually cooked over the old-fashioned black-leaded kitchen range. When your mother's turn for the key came round, after lighting the wash-house boiler she would boil clothes, bedding, and curtains, thump and wring them and hang them up in the communal drying green in the midst of the children's play "houses" and "shops". Holes were darned, sheets were turned, socks were knitted, boots were strengthened with "tackets" (your Dad's job, this) and carefully hoarded sixpences, shillings and half-crowns were put into the close's communal savings fund known as the menage and pronounced "menodge".


Drilling strip metal It might appear that the men were being treated as the lords of creation. However, when most work was manual, when hours were long, when "safety at work" was very low on the list of most employers' priorities, then the family's very existence depended on the father being maintained and serviced, as one would a powerful and necessary engine. Until the introduction of welfare legislation by the Liberal government in the early 1900s, if a man became sick or was injured then more often than not the whole family fell to the very bottom of society - to the poorhouse. Not until the introduction of the Welfare State in the 1940s was a system of benefits introduced which offered every family protection from the catastrophe of the loss of its breadwinner. And so, pragmatically, to the man went the best dishes, the warmest seat, the thickest jacket and the stoutest boots.

Social Life

Possilpark Depot FC Until well into the 1920s, entertainment was almost invariably local. "Going into town" was something of an adventure, and for many families the local church supplied almost all their non-material needs. These needs were not only spiritual - the church hall was a venue for Band of Hope lantern lectures, Sunday School trips, amateur musical shows, choir recitals. The church also served as a place where girl could safely meet boy, and many marriages were forged there. Age-old customs such as Hallowe'en (filling the dark streets with almost the entire child population) and Hogmanay (bringing walkers in thousands from the suburbs to Glasgow Cross to hear "The Bells") were scrupulously and widely observed. Local football teams were vigorously supported, while local and national politics, with their rowdy hustings filled a surprisingly large part of ordinary living.

Cinema and Radio

Toledo Cinema However, in the 1920s two inventions began increasingly to break up this strong sense of "place" - wireless and cinema. Technical progress enabled the first to move on from the era of crystal sets and individual earphones and the whole family could group themselves round the new-fangled loudspeakers of their radios and eavesdrop on the wide world. Meanwhile, the cinema created fantasy worlds to suit all tastes. Each district would have up to four or five cinemas within half a mile of each other. Each changed its programme three times a week, admission was cheap and the long evening-time queues, in rain or shine, witnessed to their immense popularity.

Social Change

Bayne & Duckett In many ways the 1920s and 1930s marked a watershed. The city's dependency on heavy engineering, which had carried it gainfully through the First World War, now became its bane -unemployment in Glasgow doubled from 1928 to 1939. The demands of the Second World War brought some respite but the return of peace saw the terminal withering of its old traditional prosperity base. More and more women began to go out to work, mainly as clerical workers (the era of the male clerk was over), shop assistants and domestic servants, and the family rapidly became less coherent and self-sufficient. The rigid strata of class began to slip somewhat, no doubt helped by thriving newspaper sales. The Daily Record, Glasgow Herald, Bulletin, Evening Citizen, Evening Times and Evening News (all local) were supplemented by popular nationals all intent on bringing news and scandal to the ordinary man and, increasingly, woman. This new "popular press" opened windows on persons, places and things previously unknown.

Modern Homes Exhibition, 1956 Thus beleaguered, Glasgow's twenty or so separate villages and the vigorous local societies they had for so many years sustained faded away almost unnoticed - willy-nilly they were all becoming members of a new global village.

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