Sex, drugs and music halls: The Glasgow Fair

TGSB00177Cartoon depicting Hogmanay in Glasgow in Northern Looking Glass 9 January 1826

The Glasgow Fair dates back to 1190 as a market to sell cattle, horses and produce alongside some entertainment. By the nineteenth century the market settled in other areas of the city and Glasgow Green was left with the ‘shows’. Many choose to escape the smog of Glasgow and headed ‘doon the watter’ to seaside towns for the Fair but this was an expensive pursuit. For much of the city’s population Glasgow Green was the centre of the festivities.

Attracting a large working class audience the Fair often skirted the boundaries of respectability with a commentator in 1865 claiming that it subjected ‘the youth of the country to corrupting influences, and increased the demoralisation of the country.’ The Fair was the time for workers to put down their tools and pick up a drink, attend shows, dance and gamble – a nefarious force indeed. 

TGSB00133.jpgCartoon of the Fair in Glasgow Looking Glass 23 July 1825

A song by Daniel Norris, an unworldly farmer, tells us that when he arrived in Glasgow the town was ‘in a terrible steer’ with the streets full of (presumably men!) drinking ‘cauld whiskey’. Drinking was an integral part of the imagined figure of Glasgow’s typical working class man – always portrayed as in the shipyards or the pub, rarely at home. However, the heavy drinking of working class women at the Fair was the cause of even more moral anxiety.

The young and financially independent Mill Girls were a corrupting force as they had no  man to anchor her down and into submission. It was bad enough that she existed unapologetically in the ‘man’s world’ of work but she also spent her hard earned wages on ‘frivolous’ purchases like clothes and alcohol – disgraceful!

An account of the Glasgow Fair reported ‘The ground was teeming with street girls…several mill-girls were under the influence of drink…scarcely distinguishable from prostitution in their conduct.’[1]

Being a working class women who was drunk and displaying her sexuality was morally dangerous. It was worried that she might seduce young men into a world that shunned ‘respectability’.

Another man, William Burns of East Kilbride, penned a song about the Fair:

Oh, never gang to the fair

Amang the scolding lassies,

For hundred’s of them’s gathered there,

An’ ‘mang them there’s ‘a’ classes.

Oh, kintra lads tak’ my advice,

And never, yon, gang near them,

Nae decent lads was speir their price,

Nae decent men could bear them.

With that attitude, I’m sure the lassies did not want much to do with Mr. Burns either.

The Glasgow Magdalene Institution petitioned the Lord Provost in 1865 to abolish the ‘moral nuisance’ of the Glasgow Fair. Luckily, their attempts were in vain as today in 2017 we celebrate the last day of another Fair fortnight.

Notes

Cited by Linda Mahood, The Magdalenes: Prostitution in the Nineteenth Century (1990), p. 71.

Blaming the Rise of Syphilis on Tinder is a Victorian Attitude in a Modern World

L0059461 'The easy girlfriend', poster, England, 1943-1944Admittedly not Victorian but it highlights the false narrative of progress – ‘The easy girlfriend’, poster, England, 1943-1944 (Wellcome Images)

Cases of syphilis have hit their highest level since 1949 after being nearly eliminated. The rise of dating apps such as Tinder and Grindr have been implemented in the rise which has echoes of our Victorian forbearers who often considered syphilis and other venereal diseases as a suitable punishment for the moral crime of ‘promiscuity’. In a time without antibiotics the treatment for syphilis was intensive moral reform coupled with mercury – if you were a women you were likely to be admitted to a Lock Hospital where you would receive religious instruction and often, heavy metal poisoning. If moral shaming was ineffective in the nineteenth century then it certainly is not effective now. We may be far past the days of mercury treatments but without effective testing and public awareness syphilis can be an insidious beast, sometimes remaining symptomless for decades by which time the damage has been done.

The first symptom of syphilis is generally a singular chancre which is most often painless and easily missed or dismissed as an ulcer if they appear in the mouth. Syphilis is often termed ‘the great imitator’ as symptoms can look like numerous other diseases. After the initial infection syphilis progresses into the secondary stage where the sufferer may experience a widespread skin rash and flu symptoms. If untreated, a third stage of the disease can manifest itself after as long as twenty years without symptoms.

How many of us would even consider syphilis as a possibility?

The majority of syphilitic patients seeking treatment in the nineteenth century would be well in the grips of the disease. Those who could afford it would be treated privately in their home and it was the lower classes that could be confined to institutions that did not treat them kindly. Men were more likely to be admitted to general hospitals but women were for the most part turned away due to their ‘depravity’ or required to provide a character reference. Poorer women were admitted to Lock Hospitals, named after the earlier leprosy hospitals – ‘fallen’ women with VD were very much the social lepers of the day.

The Glasgow Lock Hospital admitted over 32,000 patients from its establishment in 1805 until 1900.[1] The hospital’s exterior was wholly unremarkable, resembling a tenement far more than the grand architecture of most Victorian hospitals.

lock-hospitalThe Glasgow Lock Hospital (Glasgow City Archives)
vs.
The Deaf and Dumb Institute, Glasgow (Wellcome Library)greenlees

This was a testament to its stigma as it was hidden away on Rottenrow in the East End of the city. The Lock Hospital was a complex institution which isolated patients, subjecting them to intense religious instruction as well as medical treatment, before referring them for further reform in a Magdalene Home. It was not until 1910 did the hospital consider dispensary treatment, as this impeded on the moral aspect of the regime. Until then you were very much confined to the institution with the Matron reflecting in 1914 that it had the atmosphere ‘of a prison (with its ward doors all locked), instead of a hospital’.

It was officially denied but patients were subject to a compulsory examination using the speculum which could be so painful that younger patients were given chloroform in order to endure it.[2] Hospital officials were so quick to deny the use of a compulsory examination as they attempted to distance themselves from the strategies of the Contagious Diseases Acts in use in certain port and garrison towns in England. Yet, in practise the treatment in Glasgow, once considered a good candidate for the CD acts, was hardly voluntary but punitive in character.

In terms of medical treatment, mercury was the order of the day and its overzealous use could result in poisoning which was often worse than the disease itself. By the early twentieth century the chemotherapeutic agent Salvarsan was in widespread use in the treatment of early syphilis. It was expected to replace mercury but it was standard practice to use both treatments until the mid 1920s. For those suffering with neurosyphilis they could be infected with malaria which effectively induced a seriously high fever to burn out the disease.

Syphilis_Photo_4.pngBottle of Salvarsan treatment for syphilis, 1909-1914, London (Wellcome Images)

The moral agenda still underpinned medical treatments with patients being instructed to abstain from alcohol, dancing and even masturbation. Penicillin was introduced for the treatment of syphilis in 1943 and was found to be highly effective but public health campaigns upheld the view that the disease was an erosion of family life. The rhetorical shift from the nineteenth century moved from that of the ‘prostitute’ to ‘risky behaviour’ continued to demonise female sexuality.

Treatment was only effective once health campaigners moved away from moral culpability as a strategy and instead focused on awareness, prevention and accessible care.

The social response to syphilis in Britain was characterised by moral anxiety with the fear of ‘promiscuity’ impacting on its medical treatment. We must not let the moralisation of sex inform our current strategies in dealing with this sexual health crisis. Data from Health Protection Scotland showed that in 2015 cases of infectious syphilis were almost double that of 2014 with 96% being men and the vast majority men who have sex with men. There are stark parallels between the moral responsibility projected onto Victorian women and the ‘risky lifestyles’ discourses informing much of the response today which veers dangerously close to blame. Narrating the rise of syphilis with the rise of Tinder and Grindr does exactly this. Policy makers must address the challenge of reaching those most at risk without fostering stigma.

A public awareness campaign that does not rely moral shaming and implementing effective and confidential testing is what will combat this sexual health crisis. Early stage syphilis is easily treatable with a short course of antibiotics but increasing stigma will do nothing to encourage people to go to a clinic. As a disease it is certainly not confined to the history books and we must take seriously the lessons that its history has taught us.

Notes

[1] Roger Davidson, Dangerous liaisons: A social history of venereal disease in twentieth-century Scotland (2000)

[2] A. Patterson, Statistics of Glasgow Lock Hospital since its foundation in 1805 : with remarks on the Contagious Diseases Acts, and on syphilis (1882)

Resources

NHS information

Sexual Health & Wellbeing for Under 25s

Syphilis Test

Constructing the ‘prostitute’

johnleech1857John Leech, Punch 33 (10 January 1857): 114

By the mid nineteenth century the ‘Great Social Evil’ was a major concern for moralists and an explosion of commentators offered suggestions on how to tackle this vice. The sin was believed to manifest itself in the form of Venereal Diseases (VD) with women as vectors and men as victims. It was a suitable punishment for committing such a sin but once VD began to pose a serious problem for the armed forces drastic measures were rolled out.

In England and Wales the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866 and 1869 were enforced in certain port and garrison towns. The acts intended to suppress VD in the armed forces through the compulsory registration and examination of ‘prostitutes’. Glasgow was considered a good candidate for the acts but they established their own, and they argued superior, system of repression. Linda Mahood termed this the ‘Glasgow System’ which comprised of the key institutions of the Glasgow Lock Hospital, the Magdalene Institution and the Police Act 1866 which gave extensive powers including being able to enter private property and arrest ‘prostitutes’ and brothel keepers. [1]

However, the history is not as straightforward as it seems. Not all women who were targeted by this system of repression were sex workers and thus the word ‘prostitute’ requires historical interrogation. It is written in inverted commas for these reasons:

  1. it is the most appropriate word in its historical context but one which has a lot of stigma attached to it – in contemporary terms sex worker would be a better term as ‘prostitute’ is used as a slur
  2. the women who were profiled and targeted were often not engaging in sex work at all so we cannot accurately exchange the term for sex worker without losing its historical meaning

For the Victorians, a ‘prostitute’ was a working class women who in some way subverted middle class norms of respectability. This understanding left a considerable demographic of women (and adolescents) wide open to being institutionalised as ‘prostitutes’.

Working class sexual practises were often indistinguishable from ‘prostitution’ in the discourses of middle class philanthropists. A women need not be sexually active to be branded this way as defying middle class standards of femininity – swearing, drinking and flirting with boys – could all earn her this label from moralists. Working class adolescents were often considered a threat as they occupied the ‘public sphere’ by hanging out in the streets, the backcourts and close stairs. As adolescents these young women could instead be branded as ‘juvenile delinquents’ which for all intents and purposes made them politically ‘prostitutes’ – landing them in institutions intended to reform ‘fallen’ women or juvenile reformatories with a similar functionality. [2]

1890Glasgow Magdalene Institution for the Repression of Vice and for the Reformation of Penitent Females, c. 1890

The term was in many ways an ambiguous one yet authorities insisted on their ability to identify a ‘prostitute’ simply by looking at her. Police Constable and anti-‘social evil’ crusader, Alexander McCall insisted that:

You might as well know a prostitute as you would know a sweep; a man with a black face may not be a sweep, but at the same time you would say he was a sweep.

Any woman suspected of prostitution who could not give an adequate description of how she earned her ‘livelihood’ might be prosecuted on a police officer’s testimony alone under the Glasgow Police Acts.

McCall described his test of a ‘prostitute’:

the woman is known to be going about the streets by the police, following no other occupation, and earning her livelihood in that way

The acts enabled intensive policing of working class areas in a period when women’s employment was often seasonal, inconsistent and generally sparse so many women would have passed this ‘test’.

The ‘prostitute’ was constructed in the discourses and literature of middle class moralists; in Evangelical rhetoric, in medical literature and in law. This figure came to symbolise the moral degeneration of the industrial era and was applied to working class women in order to justify their ‘reform’. The details of this reform and how successful or not it was is far too big a question to tackle in this post.

Thoughts on historical best practice

We must interrogate the definition of ‘prostitute’ and find out who she was in practise not in discourse. If we do not then we fail to define women in their own terms and instead understand them exclusively through the eyes of the moralising patriarch. We face numerous source difficulties as the women categorised as ‘prostitutes’ rarely left diaries, memoirs or any other method of us accessing their worldview. Instead, we must read their lives through the narration of their oppressors which poses significant challenges. We must work to approach these sources with the view that these women were not merely victims of the ‘social evil’ but full historical agents. 

Notes

[1] Linda Mahood, The Magdalenes: Prostitution in the Nineteenth Century (1990)

[2] I have argued this in ‘The Casualties of Industrialisation in Glasgow: Juvenile Delinquents and Magdalene Girls’ which is forthcoming and I will link to it when it is available.

Further Reading

Barbara Littlewood, Linda Mahood, ‘Prostitutes, Magdalenes and Wayward Girls: Dangerous Sexualities of Working Class Women in Victorian Scotland’, Gender & History 3:2 (1991)

Judith Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society Women, Class and the State (1983)

Tales From ‘ticketed’ Houses

TGSE00783A staged photograph showing a ticketed house in Kinning Park c. 1892

In the midst of a crippling housing crisis compounded by the collapse of the City of Glasgow Bank in 1878 that paralysed the building industry what would seem like a reasonable solution? Who should we blame?

Glasgow Corporation (two decades after Chadwick’s damning report on housing conditions) passed the City Improvement Act 1866 and began the task of clearing the slums. The flaw in their plan was their blind faith in laissez faire economics – the belief that once they cleared the slums then private investors would come. They didn’t. Instead they turned to place the blame on tenants themselves in the form of ‘ticketing’.

Houses were ‘ticketed’ meaning a small metal plate was attached to the door stating the size of the flat and the number of adults legally allowed to occupy, with children counting as half. During the 1880s there were reportedly 23,000 ticketed houses in the city meaning nearly 15 percent of the population lived in them. The corporation were aware of the deathly consequences of overcrowding with Chadwick considering tenants ‘worse off than wild animals’.

An inspector reported to the North British Daily mail:

In a small attic dwelling in the Back Wynd, ticketed to contain two-and-a-half-adults, we found no less than fourteen men, women, and children all packed together…There was no room for a bed, and the floor was literally covered with human beings.

Ticketing was enforced by raids in the middle of the night by sanitary inspectors.

Middle class invasion

We could criticise this as a huge invasion of privacy but we must remember that privacy was a privilege seldom found in Glasgow’s slums and the bigger invasion was that of the middle classes into the spaces of the working classes. William Gairdner, the first Medical Officer of Health, dismissed criticisms that this was an invasion of privacy but there was no doubt that this was an invasion. Reports from inspectors reveal a huge amount of resistance from tenants to these visits.

Working class resistance

It was reported in 1904 that:

…the night inspectors find the occupants of overcrowded houses, in their attempts to avoid detection, concealed in every conceivable corner – hidden in cupboards, in presses, under beds, and even on the house tops. In the worst case of overcrowding quoted, the officers took in seven persons off an adjoining roof

Tenants had clear strategies of resistance and even versed children on where to go and what to do when inspectors arrived as this reported printed in the North British Daily Mail in 1870 states:

…a young girl… in her night-dress…crept breathlessly out of this hole, where she had taken refuge on our entrance, in order to diminish the appearance of overcrowding. 

The same 1904 housing report considered these tenants ‘the most degraded and reckless class’ with ‘the poverty, the filth, the misery that prevailed being directly due to the drinking habit of the tenants.’

This discourse of the ‘deserving’ poor is reflected in the strategy of ticketing houses as it punishes the ‘choice’ of living in an overcrowded single-end. The reformers opinion was often that if only they would stop drinking their money then they could afford a better place to live.

The painful precarity of Glasgow’s job market forced people into the cheapest possible housing for a modicum of security when the next bout of unemployment hit. Families moved up and down the housing scale and were acutely aware that they were only an accident, or a bout of illness away from destitution. Drinking was a symptom of the anxiety of poverty not the cause. The categorisation of the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor meant those who were able to leave ticketed houses did so but those who were left behind were considered to have personally failed.

Child Labour in the Second City of Empire

TGSE01011Image Credit

 

The prevalence of child labour in industrial cities coexisted uncomfortably with the middle classes’ idea of the sanctity of childhood. Projecting our current concept of childhood onto the Victorian and Edwardian child risks anachronism. For many working-class children a childhood without labour was not possible – Glasgow was no exception. Little hands, disposable workers and low wages were integral to many industries and child labour provided all of these. In 1856 the law stated that any child over the age of 9 could work 60 hours a week and this was not raised until 1901 and then it was deemed that 12 was a more acceptable age. The true disruption to child labour would come in the form of the 1872 Education Scotland Act that made primary schooling compulsory with poverty no longer an excuse for truancy.

After this working class children often spent their out of school hours trying to earn some money. Social reformers reported that children in Glasgow, referred to as ‘City Arabs’, frequently sold matches and newspapers on the streets. A boy of seven was reported as crying, standing bare-footed in melting snow attempting to sell newspapers at night. When approached he told the reporter “My mither tellt me I was tae bring hame seevenpence” and when asked about his father he replied “He’s deed” (1871). Although taken from a rather sensationalist report this was typical for many working-class families in Glasgow. Widowhood was almost inevitable for all classes of women but for the working classes the burden of support often fell as much on the children as the mother. Compulsory schooling undoubtedly meant that many working-class families felt both a loss of control and an economic loss in the form of their children’s wages.

Industrial schools

IMG_4820Glasgow City Archives, Industrial School Register (photograph my own)

Many were placed in industrial schools which became known as ‘feeding schools’ but it is unclear whether the comfort of a guaranteed meal for your child offset the financial loss of their labour. Rather than parents getting any meagre earnings from their child the school profited from their labour. For example, the Mossbank Boys’ Industrial School had both a tailors and a shoemakers and the girls of the Green Street Day Industrial school worked for two hours each Saturday in the laundry. The reports for the Boys’ House of Refuge in Glasgow were printed and bound by the boys themselves.

Working-class women in Glasgow’s experience of waged labour was often at home which contradicts the contention that industrialisation separated home and work so we must not consider the period as dramatic discontinuity. Children were integral to these operations as a huge number of items had to be produced to even break even. In November 2016 the BBC aired the reality show The Victorian Slum which painfully recreated these working conditions in a sort of ‘living history’. The reality would have been far tougher than the BBC could reproduce legally!

Sweated Work

Needlework was the biggest sector, followed by paper-bag and box making; workers had to buy their own paste, needles and thread which cut overheads for their employers.The work was low skilled but required considerable practise to ensure rapid production as workers were paid by piece. There was a conception that home-workers were supplementing their income and factory workers often blamed them for keeping wages low. However, for many women this was their livelihood and with the average wage for 50 hours finishing collars in Glasgow a mere 5s. 3d. it was poorly paid. Many women would have relied on their children’s help, with small fingers particularly suited to some of the most fiddly tasks.

There is still much work to be done on the reality of child labour in a Victorian Glasgow* but from what we know it was piecework and precarious and most often vital to their survival rather than truly supplementary. A scribble from a shocked teacher in the margins of the Glasgow Industrial School Register (Glasgow City Archives) noted that a 6 year old girl had left the school in order to ‘work at the bleach fields!!’ So perhaps we could start there.

Further Reading

Alice J. Albert, ‘Fit Work for Women: Sweated Home-workers in Glasgow c. 1875-1914’ in The World is Ill Divided (1990)

T. C. Smout, A History of the Scottish People: 1830-1950 (2010)

*This is perhaps a huge understatement as the above reading is although excellent, not really on child labour at all! There is very little written about child labour in Glasgow and certainly nothing comprehensive. This was mostly pieced together from many titbits from trips to the archives.

Life in Glasgow’s Single-Ends

TGSA00809
Glasgow City Archives P-665, c. 1910

‘I have seen human degradation in some of its worst phases…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.’ – Frederick Engels (1844)

Engels was not the first to comment on the slums of Glasgow, he followed social reformer, Edwin Chadwick who published a damning report in 1842 declaring the poor housing conditions, in particular the over crowding, as the primary factor in the high mortality rate of the city. By the mid nineteenth century Glasgow had earned itself a reputation for the worst slums in Europe. Did they really deserve their reputation? Why did so many resist the slum clearances?

The worst of the slums were concentrated in Glasgow’s East End where workers lived next to industry, at the same time the middle classes and the aspiring escaped the pollution and headed mainly for the West End. The pollution or as the Victorians called it the miasma was the worst in the East where you were far more likely to die of one of the many lung diseases that plagued Glasgow. This lead to industrial schools sending children to places such as Millport for ‘fresh air fortnights’. However, you were lucky to survive long enough to attend school as 1 in 5 babies born in the slums would die before the age of one. J.B. Russell, the appointed Medical Officer of Health, reported that children played amongst the dead bodies of their brothers and sisters due to the prevalence of child mortality and the expense of a funeral. The surviving children more often than not suffered a myriad of health problems. Whooping cough was chronic and it thrived in the damp and crowded environments of the back-land tenements. Those who survived it were often left with hearing damage with 40% of school children in Glasgow in 1903-4 reportedly suffering hearing loss.

The stifling darkness and airlessness of the slums earned them the nickname ‘coffin closes’. The lack of ventilation no doubt aiding the ravages of many contagious diseases. You were lucky if you had a single toilet per landing if you had one inside at all. The backyards of the tenements would often have ‘dung heaps’ that could be sold to farmers as manure – for this very reason the installation of new toilets was met with great resistance from many tenants. William Gairdner, Russel’s predecessor as MOH, described the close stairs as ‘evil smelling, water closets are constantly choked, and foul water running down the stairs, sickly cats everywhere spreading diseases.’ Visitors continually commented on the overwhelming stench of these stairs as the toilets were often so filthy that it was preferable to defecate in the close instead. Yet, single ends continued to be built and people chose to live in them over some of the newer housing.

It has been suggested that they were easier to heat than the new cottages and that the dampness they were famed for was not as bad in the higher floors. However, we must consider the networks that slum communities fostered and how the mass exodus to the newly created working class suburbs disrupted these. A good relationship with the local pawn shop, the ability to purchase on tick were all key to survival and a little comfort. Knowing the right person could be the difference between eating or not. The overcrowding of the tenements also fostered a strong street culture; especially important for adolescents and women, who were excluded from the pubs. For men, the pub was the heart of your social life, serving as the equivalent of a sitting room that the slums could not offer. They could be the key to finding work, almost a prototype Jobcentre but with bartenders rather than civil servants.

TGSE00671Mrs McGowan on the backstairs at 105 Green Street in the Calton, c. 1900

The closes of slum tenements were never quiet, always filled with neighbours chattering and often enjoying a drink. These spaces served as a small escape from the tensions of family life in such cramped conditions and often non family members too as streams of young male lodgers were commonplace. In the single ends themselves there was little space to think, breathe or relax so this part of life spilled over into the stairs, streets and other public spaces. The inner city could also offer the titillating entertainment of the music hall or the cheap drink of a ‘shebeen’, illicit pubs operating outside of licensing laws, often serving home-brew. Much of the new working class housing just could not compete with such a rich culture and social life that the inner city offered. So, despite the indisputably poor conditions many chose to stay.

Further Reading

W. Hamish Fraser and Irene Maver, ‘The Social Problems of the City’ in Glasgow, Volume II: 1830-1912 (1996)

W. Hamish Fraser, ‘The Working Class’ in Glasgow, Volume II: 1830-1912 (1996)

The Project

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 22.30.18I am a recent history graduate who has vowed not to let local histories sit gathering dust. I hope that my research will be helpful and interesting to those looking for the more hidden side of Victorian Glasgow’s history.

The city fathers tend to dominate the historiography so my research takes a ‘bottom up’ approach and has focused on working class women and children who are in many ways still excluded from the historical narrative of Glasgow. Expect posts within the broader themes of gender, sexuality, social control and public health.

My undergraduate dissertation covered industrial and reformatory schools, Magdalene Homes and the Glasgow Lock Hospital. Most of these institutions have little readily available information online but in my searches I continually found people researching their family’s history looking for information on these as they often show up in census reports. If anyone has wound up here because of this please contact me and maybe I can help!

– Subversive Histories

Image credit: Glasgow Museums, PP.1990.62.2 ‘Children on Glasgow Green’, c. 1900