Skip Navigation / Jump to Content



No Mean City: 1914 to 1950s

Stockwell Street 1914 War, economic depression and social change characterised Glasgow between 1914 and 1950. The outbreak of the First World War took most Glaswegians by surprise but there were signs prior to this time that conflict was coming. In July 1914 King George V had visited the city during a high-profile tour of Scotland's industrial communities. Forming part of the itinerary was Fairfield's shipyard in Govan, where he saw the super-Dreadnought battleship, Valiant, under construction. That the Govan shipyard served as a showpiece for Glaswegian enterprise was significant. Only two years previously, in 1912, the Burgh of Govan had been formally incorporated into the city's boundaries. Along with other added areas, such as Cathcart, Partick and Pollokshaws, Govan had substantially boosted the number of Glasgow's inhabitants to over 1 million, making the extended city the most populous in the British Isles after London.

First World War

Highland Light Infantry Less than a month after the royal visit, on 4 August 1914, Great Britain and the Empire were at war with Germany. Tensions in the Balkans had undermined the fragile balance of European power, with the result that alliances and counter-alliances were invoked to protect strategic interests. The fast pace of mobilisation immediately transformed Glasgow into a major military recruitment centre, and the dual appeal of civic duty and defence of Empire engendered an enthusiastic response from volunteers for active service. Over 200,000 Glasgow men joined the armed forces between 1914 and 1918, either as volunteers, or, from January 1916, as conscripts.

Girls' football team On the home front it was inevitable that the productive capacity of Clydeside industry, especially shipbuilding, steel and engineering, should be directed overwhelmingly towards the war effort. Glasgow became the centre of massive munitions output and the workforce was placed under extraordinary pressure to ensure that the steady flow of armaments and military equipment was maintained. During 1915 and 1916 the drive to boost manufacturing provoked industrial unrest. In particular, engineering trade unionists viewed "dilution" of labour as a conscious attempt to deskill the workforce and thus reduce wage rates. Yet labour shortages meant that women were increasingly recruited, especially for shell-making and the eventual female predominance in production indicated how far conventional work patterns were temporarily reshaped by war.

Peace and Unrest

Bloody Friday The Armistice of 11 November 1918 did not herald an immediate return to peacetime conditions as the process of demobilisation was prolonged and elements of the war economy still survived. Nevertheless, the wartime dislocation of global markets aroused fears of mass unemployment, a factor that contributed to a brief resurgence of strike activity in January 1919. The city's inter-war reputation as the heart of radical "Red Clydeside" was defined in the violent climax to a demonstration called by the engineers, when police and protesters clashed outside the City Chambers in George Square. For the first time in fifty years the Riot Act was read in Glasgow, the army was summoned to restore order and strike leaders were arrested and imprisoned on incitement charges.

Clarion Van The Coalition Government's alarmist reaction to the events of "Bloody Friday" was based on the belief that there was a revolutionary dimension to the strike, an assumption that was exaggerated but which nevertheless reflected the polarised political climate in Glasgow. From 1918 allegiances were starkly divided between "socialist" and "anti-socialist" and although the labels masked a diversity of opinion, they came to dominate inter-war election campaigns at both civic and parliamentary levels. Left-wing organisational strength had been consolidated during the war, particularly within the Independent Labour Party. The ILP benefited from the 1918 franchise reforms which substantially extended the electorate, even though women under thirty years of age could not vote for Westminster MPs until 1928.


Labour Group c1929 Glasgow's political reorientation became apparent in the 1922 general election when Labour won ten out of the fifteen parliamentary seats. Outspoken ILP-ers like James Maxton (1885-1946) and John Wheatley (1869-1930) ardently promoted welfare issues at a time of bitter controversy over the city's deteriorating living standards. Labour also made significant inroads at the municipal level, becoming the majority party on Glasgow Corporation for the first time in 1933. However, the left was by no means politically dominant and Glasgow voters still returned influential figures from the Conservatives and Unionists. For instance, Andrew Bonar Law (1858-1923) was Conservative Prime Minister between 1922 and 1923. From the 1920s the decline of Glasgow's once influential Liberal Party meant that politics became particularly fluid and new parties emerged, such as the Communists and Scottish Nationalists, which attracted considerable minority support.


King George V Dock Glasgow's economy dominated political debate from the 1920s as unpredictable international markets precipitated a downswing in the shipbuilding industry. This, in turn, affected other key sectors such as steel. The world depression from 1929 cut across hopes of recovery as output collapsed and unemployment levels soared. By 1931, in contrast with buoyant attitudes immediately before the war, one official civic publication was decrying the negativity that undermined industrial confidence. However, motivational encouragement to proclaim Glasgow's "value and virtues" was not enough to halt the crisis. At the height of the depression, in 1933, some 30 per cent of the city's insured population was out of work. By this time practical measures of regeneration were identified as beyond local solutions, with state intervention and economic planning actively promoted to help investment in new industries.

Social Problems

50 Crown Street Inevitably the depression exacerbated social problems, especially housing shortages and overcrowding. Certain communities experienced the disproportionate weight of congestion, the most notorious being Hutchesontown and the Gorbals, to the south of the River Clyde. In 1931 almost 85,000 people inhabited the area, which covered only 2 per cent of the city's total territory. It had long been a magnet for immigrants, particularly from Ireland and eastern Europe, and thus demonstrated an unusual cosmopolitan quality for Glasgow. Yet sensationalist journalism embellished the "facts" of inter-war slum life and perpetuated an unsavoury image of the city that survived for decades. A favourite literary device was the metaphor of infestation, whether by rats, street gangs, immigrants or socialists, to illustrate Glasgow's crowded and corrosive slum environment.


Linn Park Despite the media fixation with the slums, there were sustained efforts to improve living standards, especially in the politically sensitive sphere of housing. Post-war legislation provided state subsidies for building, leading directly to the creation of a municipal housing department in 1919. A target of 57,000 new dwellings was identified, to relieve congestion and provide for future needs. The quest to find suitable land for housing had a major impact on the city's territorial expansion. Between 1926 and 1938 Glasgow more than doubled in size, from 5,251 to 12,159 hectares. The Corporation acquired green-field sites in Castlemilk, Drumchapel and Easterhouse, although it was not until after 1945 that these were fully developed. By this time the 1919 building objectives were met, although not without difficulty, as inter-war economic crises had persistently restricted available funding.

Ascot Cinema Of course, the slum districts and new residential estates represented only part of Glasgow's diverse landscape. The substantial terraces and villas of west-end and south-side communities like Kelvingrove and Pollokshields were still impressive examples of Victorian opulence. The influence of the past remained pervasive, but Glaswegians also embraced modernity during the inter-war years. For instance, electronic technology stimulated the rise of new recreational activities, notably the radio, which came to Glasgow in 1923. While enthusiasm for social dancing was nothing new, the popular dancehalls were made all the more glamorous by their sophisticated (and seductive) lighting systems. Moving pictures became a mass social phenomenon; by 1939 there were 114 cinemas in the city, with a total seating capacity of 175,000.

Second World War

WWII decorated tram The 1938 Empire Exhibition strikingly represented hopes for Glasgow's future, its stylish architectural design and emphasis on physical fitness providing a conscious contrast with the depressed stereotype of the city. By this time the worst of the depression was over, but industrial revival was dependent on military rearmament, as a second war with Germany became increasingly likely. Civil defence planning predated the outbreak of hostilities in September 1939 and the dislocating consequences were best exemplified by the wartime evacuation of over 100,000 school-age children from Glasgow. At the start of the conflict, Lord Provost Patrick Dollan (1885-1963) urged citizens to maintain their unity and determination, and not to 'grouse' about the strict regulations that would govern everyday life. Rationing and the black-out affected the entire community, and food control, especially, continued beyond the war into the 1950s.

Barrowfield Housing To maintain wartime morale, the Government promoted a sweeping programme of social change. The emphasis was on planning for a better future and Glasgow featured prominently in reconstruction strategy. In particular, the Clyde Valley Plan of 1946 reflected hopes to drastically reduce the population by a quarter, largely through relocation outside the city's boundaries. The proposals were controversial, with civic leaders reluctant to erode the million-strong population base, but despite a massive housing drive from the late 1940s there was still a serious shortfall of new homes. The 1951 Census revealed that the city's living standards had improved over twenty years, with considerable movement away from the older, central districts, but that 44 per cent of dwellings were still classed as overcrowded. As the decade progressed, solutions to Glasgow's deeply entrenched environmental problems were radically to reshape the city.

Quick Search

Photo Album

You have 0 images in your photo album.

View Photo Album

Log-In (Optional)

Not a user? Register now for FREE!

Other Options