High Street (Glasgow)

Glasgow High Street is the city’s oldest and historically most significant street that formed a direct north-south artery between the Cathedral of St Mungo (patron saint of the city – later: Glasgow Cathedral) in the north, to Glasgow Cross (location of the Tolbooth Steeple where the public hangings in the city took place) and the banks of the River Clyde. East of the Cathedral is the Necropolis, one of Britain’s largest Victorian cemeteries – some 3,500 monuments – which one enters by crossing the Bridge of Sighs (named after its Venetian predecessor). Built at the time (1831) that Glasgow was the second city of the Empire, it is a memorial to the merchant patriarchs of the city and contains the remnants of almost every eminent Glaswegian of its day.

Predating the cemetery by a handful of years is the statue of John Knox who, sitting on a column on top of the hill, keeps a Presbyterian eye over the Cathedral and High Street. From 1460 to 1864, the original buildings of the University of Glasgow (established on 4 January 1450 with a Bull granted to Bishop William Turnbull by Pope Nicholas) were located at the junction of High Street and Duke Street, before moving to the West End. The old college buildings and grounds were sold to the City Union Railway Company and the proceedings used for new premises at Gilmorehill. The remains of the old gateway and the gilded arms of Charles II are incorporated into the gatehouse of the new university campus. With industrialization and the massive expansion of the city, the importance of High Street and the medieval heart of Old Glasgow diminished as the administrative functions of the city moved westwards into what is now known as the Merchant City area.

The old town soon fell into neglect. After the city passed an act through Parliament to demolish the run-down districts of central Glasgow in 1866, Fife-born photographer Thomas Annan was asked to record the buildings that were coming down. The area had become one of the worst urban slums in Britain and Annan worked in dark and dank conditions as bad for photography as they were for human beings. Between 1868 and 1871 he produced thirty-five photographs of the closes and wynds (Scots word for a narrow path) of old Glasgow.

The series is the first record of slum housing in the history of photography. Most of the images show dark, narrow passages between damp and dirty buildings in overpopulated streets of extreme deprivation. Annan initially printed his wet-plate collodion negatives onto albumen and carbon paper, but in 1900 issued them as photogravures (a technique to make prints that would not fade, by creating photographic images on plates that could then be etched and printed using a traditional press) in The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow on which his posthumous reputation rests. Through his dispassionate attention to visual detail, Annan initiated what later came to be known as the documentary tradition. He recorded various shots of the old High Street.

Early ballads were narrative songs derived from folk culture that predated printing. Originally perpetuated by word of mouth, many ballads survive because they were recorded on broadsides. Gallows songs, printed for sale at public executions, were a popular form of broadside. There were hundreds of such songs in circulation telling the stories of murderers, pirates, traitors and other felons. Musical notation was rarely printed, as tunes were usually established favourites. The term ‘ballad’ applied broadly to any kind of topical or popular verse. In London, the Seven Dials area was the major centre for broadside production in the nineteenth century.

Glasgow’s equivalent was the Saltmarket which had long been a centre of the cheap print trade, whether for chapbooks, speeches, religious tracts, garlands or broadside ballads. At the end of the eighteenth-century chapbooks seem to have been the most popular production, but by the middle of the nineteenth century broadsides (known as ‘slips’) had taken over in public demand. Broadside printers were in the wholesale market. Many people were involved in the trade: the poet who composed the ballad, the wood-engraver who illustrated it, and the printer. The retail side was handled by the pedlars who bought ballads in the Saltmarket to sing in the Trongate and Gallowgate, or to carry to markets and fairs in the other towns of Scotland. Pedlars, as evidenced by Hieronymus Bosch’s painting of a ‘Marskramer’, usually travelled on foot, carrying their wares.

To sell a ballad one had to create an audience. Successful pedlars were adept at street theatre. They were orators and comedians, selling themselves as much as their products. They were often rag-pickers as well. Rags were collected for the making of paper used in the production of cheap print. Of all the nineteenth-century Glasgow pedlars the most famous was William Cameron, better known by his nickname ‘Hawkie’. He was born near Saint Ninians, Stirlingshire, around 1790. Lame through a childhood accident, he was first apprenticed to the tailor’s trade, but he gave this up to become an evangelical field preacher. It was on his return journey from a preaching trip to Newcastle miners in 1815 that Cameron first begged for a living, and thus started his career as a ‘gangrel’ (Scots word for a drifter). Despite his decrepit appearance (as caught on the 1913 tipped-in halftone print of Hawkie), he became a well-known character on the streets of Glasgow and in the High Street in particular.

Cameron began to sell ‘speeches’ and other cheap print after his arrival in Glasgow in 1818. He was inspired by the success of Glaswegian street character ‘Jamie Blue’ McIndoe. Hawkie either bought ready-made stock at Saltmarket printers or wrote his own pieces. It was from one of the latter, a satirical response to the prophecy of the destruction of Glasgow made by a tailor called Ross, that he earned his nickname. It was written in the character of ‘Hawkie, a twa-year-auld quey [cow] frae Aberdour’ who prophesied the destruction of the Briggate area of Glasgow under a tide of whisky. The name ‘Hawkie’ stuck to the author ever after. He travelled to sell his wares in other towns of Scotland such as Paisley and Edinburgh, but his home patch (after an agreement with Jamie Blue, who worked the Saltmarket and Gallowgate) was Glasgow High Street and the Trongate. He clearly made a success of this trade, largely through his talents as a showman. Examples of his wit and street ‘patter’ feature in many memoirs of the city, including Glasgow Characters (1875) by the editor of the Reformer’s Gazette, Peter Mackenzie (known as ‘Loyal Peter’).

In the 1840s Hawkie spent increasing amounts of time in prison or hospital, both occasioned by his chronic alcoholism. He died in Glasgow City Poorhouse in September 1851. A lively insight into Hawkie’s life is supplied by his own autobiography. Although he wrote the story of his life at the request of David Robertson, a Glasgow bookseller, while he was a winter inmate of the Glasgow Town’s Hospital between 1840 and 1850, the text was not to reach the general public till 1888, when John Strathesk (real name: John Tod) edited it. This meant that the manuscript inevitably underwent editorial (linguistic) interventions. Nevertheless, the Autobiography of a Gangrel is both a rich source of information on the production and selling of street literature and a detailed guide of how to survive in a condition of extreme urban poverty.

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