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No Mean City: 1914 to 1950s

Learning and Beliefs

By Archbishop Conti

First World War poster "Your country needs you": with these words General Kitchener summoned a generation of young Glaswegians to offer themselves for military service against the might of the Kaiser's armies. In common with their colleagues from all over the country, Glasgow's youth were caught up in a wave of patriotic fervour and rallied to the flag. The Highland Light Infantry, or HLI, was Glasgow's regiment. Young men from very different backgrounds suddenly found themselves forced together to face a common enemy. The sectarian tensions which had already begun to cool before the war seemed unimportant as solidarity replaced bigotry on the front line.


Lourdes Secondary School Besides marking an end to the Great War, 1918 was the year of the Education Act which saw the transfer of Catholic schools to the state system. In return for handing over the infrastructure already built by Catholics themselves, the Church was given key rights over teacher appointments and the curriculum in Catholic schools. This change was to have a profound impact on the future of Glasgow. The improved links to the educational mainstream and more secure funding arrangements allowed the Catholic population to participate fully in the life of the city, enabling their children to gain entry into the higher education system (especially the "Uni" at Gilmorehill) and subsequently gain key positions in the city.


Roslin Place and Burnside Street In the 1920s, poverty and social unrest returned to scar the face of Glasgow. The escalating unemployment figures led to new tensions as religion rather than ability became the main qualification for getting a job. Many Catholics of an older generation recall being refused employment for which they were amply qualified simply and specifically on grounds of religion. Politically, the city's beliefs became polarised in the inter-war period. As Fascism and Communism thrived around Europe, in Glasgow too, a new politicisation arose.

Speeches on Glasgow Green The MPs elected in 1922, characterised as the "Red Clydesiders" were, in these early days, an impressive contingent, representative of working class aspirations not only to power but to dignity, culture and respect. Men like John Wheatley and Tom Johnstone were to prove themselves in Cabinet office. James Maxton, though never holding any executive responsibility, was a loved and admired orator throughout his career.

Bridgeton Library The Catholic population of the city quickly identified itself as the natural, though not exclusive, home of the Labour vote - a pattern which was to persist for seventy years. Many working-class Protestants, meanwhile, perhaps threatened by what they saw as "swamping" by Irish immigrants with the attendant threat to prosperity, rallied behind the Conservative and Unionist banner. Emblematic of the fear which characterised the time was the now infamous report, in 1923, of the Church and Nation committee of the Church of Scotland: "The Menace of the Irish Race to Our Scottish Nationality". This document advocated deporting Irish natives receiving poor relief and job discrimination in public works in favour of native Scots because Scotland was "over-gorged with Irishmen".

They died in Spain The breeding ground for such religious and political extremism was the over-crowded and poverty-stricken streets of Glasgow's poor quarters. Global depression had hit hard in the high-density tenements. Relief payments, given as "National Assistance" or "dole", were grudging and ungenerous. Dole payments were attended by the harsh and demeaning ritual of the "Means Test", whereby inspectors entered homes, checking the circumstances (and even the cooking pots) of the unemployed to ensure that their dependence upon relief was genuine and total. Such conditions politicised many, leading to Glasgow's reputation as a socialist stronghold. Indeed many young Glaswegians were so intoxicated by political idealism that they left the closes of the "dear green place" to fight the Spanish Civil War in the International Brigades.

Second World War

HMS Sussex ablaze Soon, however, the call went out to all young Glaswegians to fight Fascism. Once more in 1939 they responded generously to the appeal and joined up in large numbers. Women took over many of the jobs in industry vacated by their menfolk and Glasgow factories, yards and foundries made a massive contribution to the British war effort. A proud national spirit seized the city - once more a common enemy was the vital factor in restoring unity in a divided city. Unity in adversity was further evidenced when German bomber raids in March and in May, 1941, caused terror in Glasgow and virtually destroyed neighbouring Clydebank. The spirit of the Bankies and Glaswegians in general was resolute, proud and determined.

Post-War World

Castlemilk from Cathkin Braes Labour came to power at the end of the war. By introducing the National Health Service it revolutionised the life of many Glaswegians by offering, for the first time, health care based on need rather than ability to pay. The post-war period also saw expansion, an improvement in living conditions for many, and a period of emigration from the old city neighbourhoods to new towns such as East Kilbride and Cumbernauld, and to new housing schemes such as Castlemilk, Drumchapel and Easterhouse. For the first time in generations, working-class Glaswegians could breathe clean air and see green fields from their windows.

May Day demonstration As a social experiment it was a brave one, and promised much for a short period. Soon however it became clear that while the new town developments would thrive, the creation of large housing estates on the periphery of the city, unsupported by shopping, leisure and community facilities was a mistake. The Churches did their best to adapt to this changing physical and social landscape and the 1950s saw organised religion in the city peak. Both the Catholic Church and the Church of Scotland opened dozens of new parishes to cater for the new communities, and church halls became the focal point of social life in the 1950s. The tradition of marrying within one's own community remained strong, and many a marital match was made at parish dances.

Politically, Labour remained the dominant party in Glasgow, forging ever closer links with the Catholic community whose votes it depended upon, while, at the same time, luring working-class Protestants away from the Conservative and Unionist cause. Questions of social justice, at last, seemed to be overturning Irish constitutional politics as the main issue for voters both Catholic and Protestant in the 1950s.

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