A Short History of Glasgow's West End

The following text is extracted from The West End Conservation Manual, published by the Glasgow Conservation Trust West. The illustrations are selected from the Trust's Library and Archive, which is open daily to the public by appointment.

The Growth of Glasgow in the Nineteenth Century

The meteoric growth of Glasgow during the nineteenth century has been well documented. The transformation of a busy Georgian mercantile centre to a Victorian industrial powerhouse can best be viewed in terms of population. The remarkable rise from a small city of 77,385 inhabitants in 1801 to a sprawling metropolis of 784,496 in 1901 (excluding the adjacent but independent burghs of Partick and Govan) obviously had major implications for the area's building stock.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, the bulk of Glasgow's population resided near the medieval High Street. Most of the buildings between there and Buchanan Street were the mansions of the Tobacco Lords and other wealthy merchants. As Glasgow prospered, the city expanded westward with new terraced houses being built for the growing mercantile class. By 1820, the construction of gridded streets of Georgian terraces had reached today's Blythswood Square, and small villas dotted Garnethill.

Development of the West End

Following the slow but sustained success of the Blythswood and subsequent Woodlands Hill developments, building in the area west of the River Kelvin grew apace upon the completion in 1840 of a new turnpike, the Great Western Road, which provided for the first time a direct route from the city to the lands to the west. With the relocation of the Botanic Gardens to the Kelvinside estate in the early 1840s, the original character of the area -- isolated farms and the country houses of the very wealthy -- began to change rapidly.

The speculative developers of Hillhead, Kelvinside and Dowanhill sought to entice the burgeoning mercantile classes of Glasgow to grand new terraced and detached houses using the attractions of the fresh air and hilltop views, as well as the distance from the less salubrious sections of the city. Eventually, many of the great names in Glasgow commerce resided in the West End, and after the University of Glasgow moved to Gilmorehill in 1870, the area also became the home of the city's academic elite.

In order to attract the cream of Glasgow society, the developers of the West End had to offer the highest standard of suburban building. In the second half of the nineteenth century Glasgow had a plethora of gifted architects who were capable of providing designs for these superlative buildings. Among the most renowned were: Charles Wilson (designer of Kirklee Terrace but best known for the Park Circus area on Woodlands Hill); Alexander "Greek" Thomson (Great Western Terrace, Westbourne Terrace and Northpark Terrace); John T. Rochead (Buckingham Terrace, Buckingham Terrace West and Grosvenor Terrace); and James Thomson (Crown Circus, Crown Gardens, Ashton Terrace, Belhaven Terrace, Belhaven Terrace West and Devonshire Terrace). Other architects who built the West End, and also lived there, were James Miller, John Keppie, Sir John J. Burnet, and, of course, Charles Rennie Mackintosh (whose house at 78 Southpark Avenue was demolished in 1963 and the interior features stored away for nearly twenty years before being reconstructed to form part of the Hunterian Art Gallery at Glasgow University).

Tenemental Construction

Development in the West End first took the form of classical villas and imposing rows of terraced houses which catered for the needs of wealthy families with numerous servants. The terraces were built primarily of cream-coloured local sandstone in graceful crescents, often complemented by landscaped gardens and ornamental cast-iron railings.

In the early years, examples of tenemental construction were rare in the West End. By the 1870s, however, the city's building boom led to an increase in the demand for houses of a more modest nature, and the speculative builders were always eager to supply a ready market. The tenement building is a distinctive feature of traditional Glasgow architecture, and in parts of the West End the tenement is a major contributor to the townscape. In a number of cases, tenements built to very high standards had the external appearance of the more luxurious terraced houses, while others, designed for artisans and their families, were more utilitarian in style.

Elements of Style

Glasgow's Victorian and Edwardian architectural heritage is spread throughout the city, but nowhere is it as diverse and concentrated as in the West End. Pollokshields may have the greatest number of villas, Dennistoun and Govanhill may have greater densities of handsome middle-class tenements, but the West End has the finest of the city's terraced houses, in addition to having its own collection of impressive villas and superior tenement blocks. In fact, in the West End one may see the entire range of typical Glaswegian domestic architecture from 1830 to 1914, ranging from the humble working-class tenements of Partick to the ultimate in terraced homes in the Park Circus area atop Woodlands Hill.

Within the great diversity of building types in the West End is a fascinating variety of architectural styles. The earliest buildings in the West End date from the late Georgian period (c. 1830s), though most were constructed in several different phases of the Victorian era (c. 1840-1900). The culmination of the area's development came in the early part of this century, manifested in the Art Nouveau/Free or Glasgow Style red sandstone terraces and tenements of Dowanhill and Hyndland.

The solid tenements of Hillhead and Partick, the imposing terraces of Dowanhill and the villas of Kelvinside are a unique memorial to the architectural and social vigour of the city in its industrial heyday. Many of Glasgow's most prominent architects left their mark in the creation of the West End, and their work is complemented by vital townscape elements such as trees, communal and private gardens, stone walls and decorative gate piers, and ornamental cast iron gates and railings, all set in a picturesque setting of gently sloping hills and sylvan glades.

Decline of Traditional Buildings

During the postwar period, as whole districts and neighbourhoods of Victorian Glasgow were scheduled for redevelopment, much of the city's traditional housing stock was allowed to decay. In the West End, the pattern of neglect was variable. Some areas suffered greatly, particularly older districts such as Hillhead (which was blighted by the proposals for the expansion of the University), whereas the sturdy tenements in districts such as Hyndland were well maintained by their owners and factors over the years.

Demographic changes in the postwar decades have also caused major changes to the West End's traditional building stock. The large villas and terraced houses from the Victorian and Edwardian era were no longer suited to the modern needs of smaller families without domestic servants. As the families from the Gilded Age died out or moved on, these grand buildings were often bought up for institutional use (most frequently for schools and nursing homes), or taken over by speculative builders and converted into flats. In the worst cases, houses and large flats were ruthlessly subdivided into numerous bedsits in order to provide maximum rents for absentee landlords. The transient tenant populations and general lack of maintenance by unconscientious owners have no doubt exacerbated the decline of these handsome buildings over recent decades.

The Early Years of Glasgow's Conservation Movement

The advent of architectural conservation in Glasgow can easily be dated from the start of statutory town planning in Scotland, emanating from the Town & Country Planning (Scotland) Act of 1947 which gave the Secretary of State for Scotland the authority to prepare lists of buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest. Later legislation in the 1950s and 1960s provided for grant-aid of listed buildings and the designation of entire streets, neighbourhoods, districts and villages as "Conservation Areas," of special architectural or historic interest.

Road Plans Threaten the West End

During the postwar period, the historic architecture and streetscape of Glasgow's West End was threatened by the plans to upgrade Great Western Road to an expressway, widening it to dual carriageway standard, closing off side streets and constructing under- and overpasses for pedestrians. The plans for the Great Western Road Expressway galvanised the nascent conservation movement in the West End. For many reasons, progress on the project was slow. It was eventually cancelled in the mid-1970s (though not before there were major alterations to many of the front gardens along Great Western Road).

Initiating the campaign against the Highway Plan was the New Glasgow Society, which mobilised representatives of all the terraces. An ad hoc group of local residents formed the Great Western Road Defence Committee to fight the road scheme and this committee eventually relaunched itself in 1970 as the Glasgow West Conservation Society. The GWCS continued to take an active role in the promotion of the area's special character, and generally kept a watchful eye over the West End's architectural heritage for some twenty years.

Other Conservation Milestones in the West End

In 1970, the Statutory List of protected buildings in Glasgow increased dramatically with some 101 buildings added from the West End alone. That year also saw the first three Conservation Areas designated under the 1967 Civic Amenities Act. These were: Park, Royal Exchange Square and Blythswood Square. Not until after the publication of Lord Esher's landmark report, Conservation in Glasgow, was the West End designated as a Conservation Area under the new Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act of 1972.

The amount of conservation work in Glasgow and in the West End increased during the 1970s, supported financially by programmes such as the "Facelift Glasgow" campaign to promote the cleaning and restoration of the city's older properties. The biggest boon to the Glasgow conservation movement was no doubt the Housing Repair grants scheme instituted in the mid-1970s. Organised by the new Glasgow District Council Housing Department and mostly underwritten by funding from the central government (through the Housing (Scotland) Act 1974), the programme paid grants of up to 90% for comprehensive repair and stonecleaning of tenements and terraces.

Formation of a West End Initiative

Though progress on refurbishment and conservation work continued in the West End through the 1970s and early '80s, by the mid-1980s there was concern that the scope of repair work was not keeping pace with the degree of deterioration. In June 1986, the Planning Committee of the District Council approved in principle the establishment of a "West End Conservation Advisory Committee" as the catalyst for the new West End Conservation Initiative (WECI). The remit of the new initiative as adopted at this meeting comprised the following:

In order to attract appropriate levels of funding from private sector sources, it was decided that WECI should seek charitable trust status. To this end, in March 1990 the Glasgow West Conservation Trust was established as a registered company limited by guarantee, thereby taking on the assets and liabilities of WECI as well as assuming the latter's remit and objectives. The new Trust appointed a full-time staff, and opened new office premises in Hillhead Baptist Church near Byres Road. Since 1990, the Trust has expanded its staff and has been successful in multiplying the level of project grant aid from its supporting agencies. In 1999 the Trust was relaunched with a new name, the Glasgow Conservation Trust West, and a renewed commitment to safeguarding the architectural heritage of Glasgow's West End into the new millennium. This occasion also marked the launch of the completed West End Conservation Manual, a comprehensive guide to the maintenance and repair of historic buildings which comprises thirteen sections and extends to over 700 pages in total with more than 1,000 illustrations.

Sources for Local Study

In addition to background historical information and bibliographical sources located in each section of the West End Conservation Manual, analysis of the architecture of the West End and of the city as a whole may be found in the Buildings of Scotland: Glasgow (Elizabeth Williamson et al., 1990) which provides the most comprehensive look at individual buildings, while Glasgow: The Forming of the City (Peter Reed, ed., 1993) provides a valuable overview of the city's architectural development by astutely examining the building cycles in the context of the city's economic and social evolution. The seminal work on the city's architecture, Architecture of Glasgow (Andor Gomme & David Walker, reprinted in 1987), was first published in the late '60s and has been widely credited with bringing the architectural glories of Glasgow to a wide audience. The most recent publication on the history of the West End is Along Great Western Road (Gordon R. Urquhart, 2000) which charts the architectural and social development of the area with over 300 historic photographs. A website devoted to this new publication can be found at www.gordonurquhart.com.

Also, remember to search the World Wide Web for sources of local history. The best new addition to Glasgow's web-based local history collection is TheGlasgowStory, a combined effort of the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde (plus an impressive list of sponsors and contributors).
A fine example of a local area site is the Hyndland Local History Project. A list of Scottish Archive-related websites has also been compiled by the Scottish Records Association. Fascinating material is added to the web on a regular basis, and the Trust welcomes notice of links to any new or improved local history sites.

The history of the West End is examined in depth every autumn during the West End Lectures at the University of Glasgow.

Back to Glasgow Conservation Trust West GCTW Home Page

This is the official website of the

Glasgow Conservation Trust West
30 Cranworth Street
Glasgow G12 8AG
(0141) 339 0092

updated March 2004.

Comments or queries are welcome. Please eMail to: mail@glasgowwest.org