Let me introduce you to Govan, a historic area of Glasgow on the south side of the River Clyde. According to medieval legend, a monastery was founded here in the seventh century and during the Middle Ages, Govan was the site of a ferry which linked the area with Partick for seasonal cattle drovers. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, textile mills and coal mining were important; in the nineteenth century, shipbuilding emerged as Govan’s principal industry and brought prosperity. In 1864, Govan gained burgh status, and was the fifth-largest burgh in Scotland. It was incorporated into the City of Glasgow in 1912.
So what’s all this got to do with my family ramblings you may ask? Well, Govan is an important character in this blog because it became home to John and Ellen MacFarlane, John and Nellie, when they bought a room and kitchen here at 31 Rathlin Street in around 1956. It was to be our family home until 1963, when our parents sold the little flat to a certain R McCaig for the princely sum of £275. This was a private arrangement and my Dad would cross the river once a month to go and collect the instalments in cash. We even still have the receipts…
The last time I was in Govan, quite a few years ago, I went to have a look at Rathlin Street and was not surprised to find that the old tenement had been demolished and the space occupied by a playpark. I found this picture from the 80’s on the web, obviously before the playpark was built. Our home would have been just where the empty space is.
There are some rather smart looking modern flats on that site now (some of which seem to be selling at upwards of £100,000 nowadays!) and some nice little houses along the street where I used to walk to school, past what was still Fairfields Shipyard, on to McKechnie Street where there was a cinema on the corner and across Govan Road with the lollipop lady. St Anthony’s Primary was right there at the corner of Harmony Row; we were so near it would only take me about 5 minutes to walk to school, which I seem to remember I was trusted to do on my own from a fairly early age. If you were a wee bit late leaving the house and the school bell rang, all you had to do was run and you’d still be on time. I still have my two class photographs from that time, 1960 and 1962. I’m third from the left, age 6, in the middle row in the top one and third from the right, age 8, in the second row of the bottom one.
I can remember a few names – Gemma Corr, Paul Mellon, Anthony, Susan, Gerard, Rita, Annemarie, Sarah… and Alec, I will always remember Alec. He’s in the back row of both photos, third from the left in the top one and second left in the other. One time in class the teacher was filling in some information for the register – mother’s and father’s names, date of birth and so on. He was going round the class and we were telling him our dates of birth. He got to Alec, who just looked blank. Teacher got a bit impatient and said “Come on boy, your date of birth – when is your birthday?” Poor Alec looked even blanker and said “What’s that? I don’t have one.” That was the first time in my life I realised that there were children in the world who didn’t get presents or blow out the candles on their birthday cake every year, as I did. Alec was one of the “rough” boys, usually in trouble for fighting, and normally someone to be avoided. But ever after that – and to this day – I had a little soft spot in my heart for him, and looked at him less disapprovingly.
Govan seems to be enjoying something of a revival of fortunes these days (hence the desirable flats), but in the 1950’s the tide of its history was at a low ebb. Govan had a reputation as a deprived area of Glasgow with high unemployment and poor housing, including the notorious “Wine Alley”, an estate which had been built in the 30’s. During the war the shipyards made the area a target for enemy bombers and there were frequent reconnaissance missions overhead, and long hours spent in Anderston shelters, for those who had them, for the inhabitants. Not as badly hit as Clydebank, a short distance further down the river, nonetheless Govan also suffered bombing raids, the worst of which completely destroyed a tenement building on Govan Road, killing 69 souls.
So this was the post-war Govan where John and Nellie, Mum and Dad, fetched up in the mid-1950’s, neither of them with any connection to or knowledge of the area or its social mores – they just bought a flat somewhere they could afford. I’m pretty sure in my Mum’s mind anyway she would have looked upon this as somewhere she was just passing through – as indeed it turned out to be. She never really saw herself as part of, or understood, the culture of this very Glaswegian lower working class area.
I don’t think Dad did either, especially as for the first few years he was away at sea for large chunks of time. He had been a radio officer in the Merchant Navy since 1952 and continued in that career right up until 1958, by which time there were three of us. I’m told that when I was little I used to call this person who would occasionally come and stay in our house “the man”. I’m sure that must have been upsetting for someone who set such great store by the family.
It’s hard enough for any wife whose husband works away from home, but I am also very conscious that my Mum had no family in Glasgow, no network of friends. Our flat was modest to say the least. For example we had a curtained off “potty corner”, which potty had to be taken downstairs to the outside toilet on the landing below to be emptied. I remember mum bathing the babies in the big ceramic sink in the corner of the kitchen.
For us older children the big tin bath would be got out – taking up practically the whole kitchen – kettles boiled for hot water and the weekly bath undertaken with much arguing about whose turn it was to get in first and who would have to make do with someone else’s used water – or maybe we would all get in together (“she’s got more room than me!”). It’s no wonder it was only once a week, it was such a palaver boiling up all those kettles, and there was usually a lot of spillage while the damn thing was being emptied with pots and basins and other receptacles. Once my Dad had left the sea and became a landlubber (or maybe when he was on leave) it was much easier – he could just lift the whole thing up and empty it down the sink.
Times were tough for John and Nellie, they had to endure long separations and money was tight. Dad didn’t always appreciate that although he always left carefully calculated amounts of housekeeping money for Mum, this was too inflexible to allow for price fluctuations or emergency purchases and would sometimes leave her short. Many lessons had to be learnt, probably painfully, as their family grew and developed. Eventually the life at sea could no longer be sustained, John found a good job as a bus driver with Glasgow Corporation and came home for good. In later years he would very occasionally talk about the sacrifices he made for his family, as he had loved his life as the onboard “Sparks”, but it didn’t take much to remind him how much he loved Mum and us. If there was a choice to be made there was no contest, even if it did take rather a few years to make it! I think it took all that time for John and Nellie to finally accept that much though he tried, Dad wasn’t going to be able to continue his radio career on land; there just weren’t any opportunities in those austere days.
But, you know, my memories of Govan are not of deprivation. I’m not one of those children in the school photographs whose wee faces stare out at you with poverty and hardship written all over them. I’m one of the ones who is well fed, well dressed, clean and shiny. Maybe Mum wasn’t always as patient as you might have wished (this is the pot calling the kettle black!) and Dad had a tendency to keep harking back to the past, but they made a home for us where we were safe and warm, where we could rely on being fed and clothed, have your hair done up in a ribbon (“ouch, that hurts!”), toys to play with, books to read, be made a fuss of on your birthday, be taken for walks in the park, be bought comics. It was everything you needed and seemed abundant. Or perhaps I just had very low expectations! I’ll probably come back to this topic another time…
I realised when I was writing this that I have never thought of myself as coming from Govan. When asked, I say “Glasgow” or “Hillhead”, which is indeed where I feel my roots are. Thinking about it now, there ARE some deep Govan roots in there too – you just have to dig a bit deeper to find them, and I find myself happy to do so. Here are some of the things I can remember when I try:
I wonder if I subliminally imbibed that feeling of not quite belonging from my parents – I would never have described them as coming from Govan, or even Glasgow. I would say that Mum was Irish, and Dad came from Fort William. They settled in a place that was essentially foreign to both of them and in many ways had to invent our family mythology from scratch. Which perhaps meant that although we were IN Govan, we weren’t OF it.