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No Mean City: 1914 to 1950s

Culture and Leisure

By Joe Fisher

The Weekly Pilgrimage The first half of the 20th century opened with one world war and closed with another. Glasgow, once the workshop of the world, found her fortunes opportunely revived by the demands of modern warfare, for everything from tanks and aeroplanes to warships and munitions. However, between these two events the city went through the Valley of Despair. Although many of the world's cities suffered during the Great Slump of the 1920s and 1930s few endured such widespread, lengthy and grim distress. And yet through it all the Glaswegians snatched what pleasures they could and enjoyed themselves as best they might.

The Stage

Alhambra Theatre In many ways this half-century said farewell to the old world and welcomed the new - music halls gave way to cinemas, church soirees gave place to the "wireless", holidays at home to trips abroad. Glasgow was always fond of its theatres and music halls. From the 1850s they provided the one leisure activity which could be enjoyed by all social classes, from the "shawlies" in the "Gods" to the "stiff shirts" in the boxes. The city centre had some fifteen theatres, all within easy reach of the suburbs by means of the ubiquitous tramcar.

Queen's Theatre Although the "legitimate" theatre had its place in the city, most notably at the Citizen's Theatre which opened in 1943, what occupied the boards and the hearts of Glaswegians was more properly the music hall. During the inter-war period in particular "Variety" and "Panto" ruled the roost, and a long series of "Scotch" comedians such as Harry Lauder, Will Fyffe, Tommy Morgan, Harry Gordon and Dave Willis filled every theatre in which they appeared. The Alhambra and the Metropole specialised in pantomime; in the latter Tommy Morgan held the record with nineteen successive summer pantos. But the quintessence of the Glasgow stage was to be found at the Queen's Theatre at Glasgow Cross, proudly proclaiming it was "specially organised for the working classes." Its productions are believed to have escaped the censure of the Lord Chancellor, who acted as censor for Britain's theatre productions, because he could not understand the language!

Doon the Watter

Rothesay Entertainers 1924 Most of the world's great cities are founded on a river, and Glasgow is no exception. However, she has few equals, for her river opens out into a wide and sheltered firth, ringed with many little seaside towns. From the middle of the 19th century fleets of well-appointed paddle-steamers ran what was almost a shuttle service from the Broomielaw Quay in the centre of the city calling at, amongst others, Ayr, Ardrossan, Girvan, Campbeltown, Arran, Bute and Dunoon. During Fair Week (later to become the Fair Fortnight) Glasgow closed down almost completely and much of the population went "Doon the Watter" for their annual (and only) holiday. Wicker hampers were packed with changes of clothing and other necessaries, to be "Collected, Conveyed, Delivered" by the then efficient railway, and a few days later Paw, Maw and the Weans enjoyed a sightseeing trip down the river to their choice of resort. There they would spend a week digging in the sand, paddling in the sea, rowing "oary" boats, walking along the promenade and looking through tea-room windows at the rain. Those with higher aspirations would travel to distant St Andrews and other far-off east coast havens.

The Pictures

Kelvin Cinema Like the rest of the world, Glasgow took the cinema very much to its heart. The first custom-built "picture houses" appeared in the city centre in the early years of the 20th century, and "going to the pictures" became almost an addiction. In the 1920s Glasgow could be called Cinema City. It had 160 "picture houses" - one for every 600 inhabitants (more than any other city outside the United States). Predominantly a working class entertainment, the cinema spread particularly quickly in the suburbs to the east and south. Here, for a short time, Means-Tested unfortunates could exchange an unheated tenement house, a half-empty larder, hungry ill-clad children and scolding wives for a well-heated "Palace" with soft, relaxing seats, and be regaled with a sight of a fantasy world of gangsters, cowboys, lovers and derring-do, with an animated cartoon thrown in!

Advertisement The cinemas presented four or five showings each day and the entire programme changed every two days. The "A" picture displayed the talent of the Hollywood greats, while the "B" picture was a kind of makeweight. There was also the Movietone newsreel, a mixter-maxter of world-wide disasters, sport and politics. Even in a small city suburb there was often the choice of three or four cinemas, all within a mile of each other, each with its extravagantly garbed commissionaire and its attendant queue. For many people it was the only leisure resource they knew or could afford. One could surmise that but for the tranquillising effect of the silver screen ... our country's politics might have been fiercer, more destructive.

Advertisement The Cosmo, Britain's largest art and repertory cinema, opened in Glasgow in 1939. In many ways a cinematic partner of the Citizens Theatre, it showed avant-garde films and masterpieces of past cinematic art to a discerning Glasgow public and continues to do so today under its new name, the Glasgow Film Theatre.


Firhill Stadium, 1958 While the cinema was enjoyed by all, the spectator sport of football was almost entirely a masculine pursuit. Even more restrictively, the terraces of the football grounds were seas of flat-topped "bunnets" with the accompanying "grauvit" or neck scarf (with a very few somewhat self-conscious bowlers scattered amongst them). Parking was no problem for there were no cars - the tramcar network, the Underground and the Corporation buses could easily fill the biggest ground and away games were catered for by frequent stopping trains and railway specials. Although the "Auld Firm" games attracted almost as much loyalty as they do now, the many smaller teams enjoyed a deal of local support.

The Wireless

BB membership card The impact of radio, widely known simply as "the wireless," was revolutionary and permanent. For the first time, events and entertainment from around the world could be brought directly and instantly into every Glasgow home. Once the crystal set and earphones gave way to electric loudspeakers the whole family could gather around the radio set. Together they could enjoy comedy, music, discussion and news programmes supplied by personalities such as the "uncles" and "aunts" of Children's Hour, the learned professors of the Brains Trust, the McFlannels and others. The radio not only put ordinary Glaswegians in closer touch with events in the wider world, but permitted them to learn about and share in the leisure activities of the wider world.

The Kirk

We think quite correctly of the Church as being concerned with worship. But in furthering this purpose, it helps to bring people together to form a little community and enables many shared interests and activities to flourish. During the first half of the 20th century organised religion was still strong and the worshipping churches offered their congregations access to a wide range of leisure activities. Men's Guilds, Women's Guilds, badminton clubs, flower circles, choirs, magic lantern shows, kinderspiels, soirées, the Boys' Brigade - a multiplicity of pleasureful activities for a mainly middle and upper working-class clientele.

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