The Story of a House

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As I’ve been exploring the history of my kinsfolk in this blog, a prominent feature of each tale has always been the family home –  Spean Cottage, 50 High Street, 56 Logan Street, dwellings in Blackpool, Inverness, Cleckheaton…

whole buildingAnd of course there’s also the house at 8 Kersland Street in Hillhead, Glasgow, the ‘front door’ (i.e. ground floor) tenement flat, which played such an important part in my childhood and was our family’s address for 50 years. So for this, my 50th post, I thought I’d have a go at tracing the history and character of this house of ours, right from the latter part of the 19th century when it first appeared on a map, until the present day.

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At the beginning of the 19th century the area of Hillhead, to the west of Glasgow City, was still an undeveloped rural district nestling in the curve of the River Kelvin. If you look at the above map you can see that the most prominent feature was a house in wooded grounds on the brow of the hill leading down to the river. This was Hillhead House, a long, pavilion style villa which dated back at least to 1680. Here is a picture of the house as it was in 1875.

Old_Hillhead_House

Hillhead House came into the possession of one Andrew Gibson in 1707, and a few generations of the Gibson family seem to have lived there in prosperity and tranquility for the next 100 years and more. To the east, throughout the 1700’s, Glasgow itself grew and prospered at an unprecedented rate, largely due to the enormous fortunes being made at the time out of the tobacco trade with the colonies of America. By the beginning of the 1800’s the industrial revolution was taking hold and over the years the city became increasingly overcrowded and subject to poor air quality due to the factories which were springing up within its bounds.

Enter one James Gibson, last of the Gibson dynasty to live at Hillhead House and inheritor of the house and of the “twenty shilling land of old extent of Byres of Partick and Hillhead” which his forebear Andrew had acquired. James must have recognised that the time was ripe for development of the land, for the following notice appeared in the Glasgow Herald on the 31st of August 1827, with, you’ll notice, instructions to apply to Mr Gibson at Hillhead…

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There was a plan! And as part of that plan, James Gibson had instigated works which would result in Hillhead becoming much more accessible from the city; namely a turnpike road (Great Western Road) and a bridge over the river Kelvin at the bottom end of what is now Gibson Street.

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The ‘King’s Bridge’ erected by James Gibson in 1822 was replaced in 1895 by Eldon Street Bridge, still in use today.

Gibson’s plots proved popular and were soon snapped up by eager developers who paid top dollar for some of the best architects of the day, including Alexander ‘Greek’ Thompson, to design handsome villas, terraces and tenements, in order to attract those wealthy Glaswegians who were keen to move upwind of the increasingly unwholesome city to more salubrious surroundings. Although Byres Road is today the hub of the West End, tenements and shops didn’t start appearing there until 1870. The original development centred on Hillhead Street, which was built to connect Hillhead House with Great Western Road, and it spread out from there.

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1858 map showing the first completed terraces. Victoria Street would later be renamed Byres Road, and I think the single small building at the bottom of the hill must be the Curler’s Tavern, the oldest building on that road.
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The earliest development of the suburb, when building land was plentiful, was for villas with gardens, rather than terraces and tenements.
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Granby Terrace, one of the earliest terraces, is still standing today.

Development continued apace and the West End grew rapidly; by the late 1860’s Hillhead’s population had increased from a few hundred to over 3,000 and burgh status was awarded in 1869. Having set the whole enterprise in motion, James Gibson JP retired to Dunoon in 1861 and died there the following year. I wish I knew more about the man who was so instrumental in the creation of Hillhead, whether he was a great visionary or just an entrepreneur with family land who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Probably a bit of both. Hillhead House had a few more tenants, including a period of four years when it became Hillhead House School, before it was finally demolished in 1878.

So where, I hear you asking, does Kersland Street come into all this? Follow me to the Mitchell Library, repository of Glasgow’s municipal records, and many hours spent trawling through old maps, Post Office Directories, Valuation and Electoral Rolls. If it sounds long and tedious, let me assure you it is! It’s easy enough to find information about the fine red and blond sandstone villas and terraces of Hillhead; about notable churches and halls; new roads and bridges; famous inhabitants and institutions such as the University of Glasgow or Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

mitchell reading room
Glaswegians have always made good use of ‘the Mitchell’ – this is the reading room, c. 1931

But the more modest Kersland Street does not feature in any of those accounts. The origin of Kersland Street is to be found by a process of elimination! The 1979-80 Post Office Directory gives us the first clue, where we find one ‘Madame Stewart’ living at our address. This is the first mention of 8 Kersland Street in the directory, but it doesn’t mean that no-one lived there before that – you had to pay to be included! But each edition comes with an associated map – great big laminated sheets stored in an old map chest.

So off we go to the map chest and out they come, one by one – 1879, ’78, ’77, and so on. And there it is. 1873 shows Kersland Street; 1872 shows an open space! This was quite exciting, as you can imagine – I kept jabbing my finger at the two maps, just to make sure I wasn’t imagining it. But we’re in a library; my whoopee moment had to be internalised. All the same, all those years of doing those stupid ‘spot the difference’ puzzles with the children have finally paid off, yippee!

Armed with this information, I think we can pinpoint 1870-72 as the critical period when our tenement building came into being, round about the same time as Byres Road, just around the corner, was undergoing development (mainly shops with flats above) and Glasgow University was moving to nearby Gilmorehill from the site on the High Street which it had occupied since 1451. By the way, if you’re wondering why so many of Glasgow’s streets and districts include the word ‘hill’ it’s because the whole city is built on a series of drumlins (small hills) which were left behind by glacial action after the last ice age. So, yes, Glasgow is a very hilly place!

Here’s another map for you (our location indicated by the blue arrow), an interesting contrast to the one above for it shows the whole area between Hillhead Street down the hill to Byres Road now more or less completely developed into the configuration which it still has to this day.

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So, Madame Stewart, our tenant – what do we know about her? Her entry in the PO directory is given as ‘Stewart, Madam’. Oh my goodness, I thought, the house is just built and already it’s a house of ill repute! But I will quickly apologise for this speculation as further research indicates that this Madame Stewart was the Lady Superintendent of English and French at an Institution for young ladies, an altogether more gentile and respectable occupation. I’d love to know brought this lady to Kersland Street. I think that there maybe wasn’t a Mr Stewart or surely he’d have been mentioned. Perhaps Madame was a widow, and came to live in Kersland Street along with a ladies’ maid or a cook – there’s plenty of room to accommodate both – and worked in some nearby establishment educating the daughters of the wealthy.

I’m going to take an imaginary walk around the block with this Victorian lady – let’s call her Eliza – and try to imagine what she might have been like. The year is 1886. (You can easily follow this walk on the map above.)

We cross the lane at the side of the house, and I see that number 6 is occupied by an office of some sort. I tell her how, when we first came to live in Kersland Street, this was a small newsagents, Brown’s, where we used to spend our pennies on sweets – penny caramels, blackjacks, rhubarb rock. Eliza smiles rather gravely, I can’t tell whether she disapproves or not.

We round the corner onto Great Western Road, and head towards Kelvinside Parish Church, on the corner with Byres Road. It strikes me that the church would be very convenient if Eliza wished to attend services there; she just nods politely when I make the suggestion, so I refrain from telling her that the building’s 21st century manifestion is as a popular venue and drinking establishment named Oran Mor.

oran mor
Kelvinside Parish Church, built 1862, with funds raised by a group headed by John Blackie, the publisher.

A  tram goes by and Eliza indicates that yes, she sometimes travels by tram. She’s not forthcoming about where she goes and I find I can’t inquire. Instead I tell her than in a few short years, a railway station would be built at Botanic Gardens and would open in 1896, as would the Glasgow Underground. I start sensing that Eliza doesn’t really want to know about things that haven’t happened in her world yet, so we turn to the Gardens themselves and the wonderful Kibble Palace glasshouse, where, she is happy to tell me, she occasionally takes her young charges when they are becoming bored with French and English lessons.

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A tram on Great Western Road, passing Botanic Gardens Station, build in 1894 during the heyday of Victorian rail travel.
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The Kibble Palace, erected in 1873, is one of the outstanding features of the Botanic Gardens, which were opened on the 1st April 1842.
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Adjacent to the Botanic Gardens, perhaps Madame Stewart might have pointed out Queen Margaret College to her pupils. North Park House was taken over by the University of Glasgow in 1883 to answer the growing demand for education for women.

As we turn another corner and head down Byres Road, we pass Hillhead Burgh Hall, built in 1872 to provide accommodation for the Burgh Court Hall, Fiscal’s Office and Police Office, with ample cells for local miscreants. The Council Chambers housed various municipal officers. I definitely choose not to tell Eliza that this fine building was rather regrettably demolished in 1970 at a time when it wasn’t considered necessary or important to preserve Glasgow’s Victorian heritage. An also rather regrettable modern library was built on the site.

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We continue strolling and turn into Cresswell Street, where Hillhead Baptist Church is a prominent feature. I look into Eliza’s face to see if there’s any hint to tell me if this might be her place of worship, but, as ever, she’s giving nothing away. So I tell her how I used to take my little ones to playgroup in this very church hall.

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Hillhead Baptist Church, built 1883. Have had to use a modern picture as I can’t find a Victorian one!

Another corner and we find ourselves in Cranworth Street, location of the Western Swimming Baths, a private – and rather exclusive – swimming and leisure club. I think I detect a twinkle in Eliza’s eye as we walk past, but she doesn’t say anything and I start to think I’ve imagined it.

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At the back of the Burgh Hall, we find the Western Swimming Baths, built as a private swimming and leisure club in the late 1870’s.

We turn right into Vinicombe Street, up the hill, then left into Kersland Street where we are soon back at number 8. Eliza gives my arm a gentle squeeze before she softly fades back into the past, leaving me with many questions, and the feeling that she has found out far more about me than I did about her. But I still think it’s not impossible that she could have attended the social evening and display of ‘natation’ at the Western Baths, as depicted in this cartoon from October 1886.

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The audience at the poolside and in the gallery enjoying the gentlemen members as they carry out their tricks with the apparatus over the pool. From the ‘Bailie’ magazine, October 1896.

Next time, we’ll explore the fate of the house and its inhabitants in the 20th century.

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