Where the sun never shines
Photographer, Thomas Annan’s task was a simple one. He was commissioned by the City Fathers of Glasgow to enter the disease ridden slums which had grown up in what today roughly equates to the High Street and Saltmarket district and record in photographs what he found there. Between the years 1868-72 Annan photographed a world of poverty, disease and despair in the maze like Closes and Wynds of that other Glasgow, a crime ridden cesspit where the sun never shone and a world away from the leafy mansions of the west end. In those days it was called District 14 and was notorious for crime, vice and all the ailments which deprivation brings. The world Annan photographed was inhabited in the main, though not exclusively, by Irish migrants and their offspring who had fled famine and oppression at home to come and look for work and bread in the industrial heartlands of Scotland. John Burrowes in his excellent history of the Irish in Glasgow; Irish: The Remarkable Saga of a Nation and a City,’ states that…‘District 14 was a human cesspit, a concentration camp of filth and disease.’ Into this ‘cesspit’ poured more migrant Irish in the late Victorian era. There was no welcoming committee, no welfare state or NHS, no council housing and precious little sympathy for the new arrivals who poured off cattle boats at the Broomielaw. Rapacious landlords threw up slums to accommodate them and then, eyeing even more profit, sub divided them until several families were inhabiting the same tenement flat. In some closes the inhabitants slept on every available foot of floor space.
Fredrich Engels, German social theorist and writer said of the slums of Glasgow…
"I have seen human degradation in some of its worst phases, both in England and abroad, but I can advisedly say, that I did not believe, until I visited the wynds of Glasgow, that so large an amount of filth, crime, misery, and disease existed in one spot in any civilised country. The wynds consist of long lanes, so narrow that a cart could with difficulty pass along them; out of these open the 'closes', which are courts about fifteen or twenty feet square, round which the houses, mostly three or four storeys high, are built; the centre of the court is the dunghill, which probably is the most lucrative part of the estate to the laird in most instances, and which it would consequently be esteemed an invasion of the rights of property to remove. In the lower lodging houses, ten, twelve, or sometimes twenty persons, of both sexes and all ages, sleep promiscuously on the floor in different degrees of nakedness. These places are generally, as regards dirt, damp, and decay, such as no person of common humanity would stable his horse in."
The experience of the Glasgow Irish was mirrored in other major British cities of the industrial revolution. Indeed London and Liverpool had larger Irish communities than Glasgow. Engels had also lived for some years in Manchester and noted there too that the Irish Immigrant community were stuck on the lowest rung of the social ladder, trapped by poverty, prejudice and lack of education. He said of the 40,000 Manchester Irish who lived in squalor off the Oxford Road…
"The race that lives in these ruinous cottages, behind broken windows, mended with oilskin, sprung doors, and rotten door-posts, or in dark, wet cellars, in measureless filth and stench, in this atmosphere penned in as if with a purpose, this race must really have reached the lowest stage of humanity."
It is difficult for the modern reader to comprehend the harshness of life in Victorian Glasgow for the poorer sections of society. Of course they were not all Irish and many indigenous Scots suffered too in those times of heartless exploitation. The 1872 Education Act saw some hope as all children of Primary age were required to attend school. The teaching orders of the Catholic Church fought valiantly to educate and in some cases civilise the children of these ghettoes. The Marists, Notre Dame Sisters and others often paid a high price for choosing to do their work in the squalid conditions they found in Glasgow. The diseases which plagued their people often debilitated or even killed them too. Indeed the crypt of St Mary’s Church in the Calton contains the remains of Marist brothers who often died in their 30s or 40s due to disease and chronic overwork.
In the mid 1850s, long before Thomas Annan photographed and recorded the squalor of District 14, a coal ship docked at the Broomielaw. From that ship stepped an Irish lad by the name of Andrew Kerins. After some years in Glasgow he was determined to become a Marist Brother and try to help those he saw suffering around him in poor districts such as area 14. Education was the weapon he would bring to help fight poverty and ignorance among the poor of Glasgow. After his training in Scotland and France, he took up a position in St Mary’s School in the Calton district of Glasgow and within a few years was Head Master of Sacred Heart. The magnitude of the task faced by the Church in those days was huge. Their flock was growing rapidly and it was in need of education, food and some hope for their children. Some of the soup kitchens set up among the poor by evangelical groups sought to entice them away from the faith of their fathers. Others, to their credit, simply helped their fellow citizens and asked nothing in return. Andrew Kerins, or Brother Walfrid as he was known better, saw this need all around him and used various tactics to try to make life more bearable for his flock. It is of course a matter of historical record that one of Walfrid’s great schemes for aiding the poor and giving them positive role models was the founding of the Celtic Football Club in November 1887 with the immortal words…
‘A Football club will be formed for the maintenance of dinner tables for the children and the unemployed’
The club began life in that late Victorian era when many football clubs were being founded only to disappear with a year or two. Football was growing in popularity and some could see its potential to raise funds. Walfrid saw his club not only as a charity and a beacon of hope, but also as a vehicle to help the Irish community better assimilate into Scottish life. He rejected the more exclusive and insular model the Edinburgh Irish had adopted for Hibernian FC and this caused a small and unhappy minority to form ‘Glasgow Hibernian,’ a club which lasted little more than a year. Celtic, however began their inexorable climb to dominance in the Scottish game playing a brand of quick passing, attacking football which quickly became known as the ‘Celtic way.’
The club did indeed live up to Walfrid’s hopes in the early years and much was gifted to the poor particularly through the Penny Dinner Tables. Moreover, their success on the field also gave huge pride to the community which gave the club birth and sustained it. The rise of Celtic mirrored and continues to mirror, the rise of those impoverished migrants who started life in a new country with nothing. Today we see their progeny rightly take their place in every sector of Scottish society. The poverty of Glasgow lingers yet but the utter degradation of District 14 is gone forever. Celtic Football Club though remains. It is a living monument, a memorial to those of that first generation who struggled against prejudice and poverty and in the end succeeded in making a better life, if not for them, then for their children and grandchildren.
Walfrid was sent to work in the slums of the East end of London in the early 1890s and the Club he founded became a limited company. There was, for a while a shameful forgetting of why the club was founded in the first place as professionalism and profit blinded some for a while. However, their charitable ethos was restored and remains strong to this day. There was a poignant episode when Walfrid met a Celtic party in London as they returned from a foreign tour. Tom Maley recounted that Walfrid was very pleased to see some of his old Glasgow friends again. He accepted the direction Celtic were going in was probably necessary if the club was to grow and thrive in the professional era. As he left Maley and the rest of the party to continue the journey north to Glasgow, he said wistfully to him…
‘Well, well, Time has brought changes. Outside ourselves there are few of the old brigade left. It’s good to see you all so well and I feel younger with meeting you. Goodbye and God Bless you.’
The photographs of Thomas Annan remain and show the ghosts of things past in stark reality. They remain as a condemnation of the type of social system which saw people as mere factory fodder to be used and discarded as the owners saw fit. It is hard to view those pictures with modern eyes and not condemn the ‘elite’ of a society which allowed so many to live and die in such misery. Brother Walfrid and his kind did not stand idly by and for that we all owe him our thanks. We who follow Celtic continue to keep his spirit alive today by continuing his good work. District 14 may be long gone but there are many who need our assistance still.
Victor Hugo wrote in his masterpiece ‘Les Miserables,’ these withering words….
‘The guilty one is not the one who commits the sin but the one who creates the darkness, there is always more misery among the poorer class than there is humanity among the higher classes.’
That remains as true today as it did when Thomas Annan was asked to go photograph the misery of District 14.