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19 September 2014
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The Rise of Glasgow
Urban Growth in Victorian Scotland

Cholera PosterAs Scottish industry flourished and more people were drawn towards urban areas, overcrowding became a serious problem. In Dundee, the jute boom of the 1850s led to a sudden, huge increase in the population of the city, and the housing stock simply couldn't keep apace. The result was overcrowding and slum areas, which were to become the scourge of Scotland's cities for many years. Conditions in the slums were appalling - at one point there were only five water closets in the whole of Dundee, three of which were in hotels. In Glasgow the problem was just as acute. In the High Street, Gallowgate and Saltmarket an estimated 20,000 people were crammed into dilapidated housing where sanitation was virtually non-existent:

As one Victorian commentator put it, 'In the very centre of the city there was an accumulated mass of squalid wretchedness unequalled in any other town in the British Dominions. There was concentrated everything wretched, dissolute, loathsome and pestilential. Dunghills lie in the vicinity of dwellings, and from the extremely defective sewerage filth of every kind constantly accumulates.'

Overcrowding was only part of the problem - dirt bred disease. While Glasgow was no stranger to typhus and typhoid, the city's trade connections with the Empire soon brought a new plague: cholera. The first Cholera epidemic in 1832 killed 3000 in Glasgow alone, and two hundred years' worth of progress in public health went into free-fall as death rates spiralled back towards 17th century levels. Infectious disease spread easily and it knew no class boundaries - everyone was at risk. Although Glasgow's doctors had first demonstrated a link between dirt and disease in 1842, it wasn't until the cholera epidemics of 1848 and 1853 that minds were focused on the issue. In 1855 the government made the registration of births, deaths and marriages compulsory. Among the information gathered was the cause of death. James Burn Russell, one of Glasgow's pioneering medical health officers, realised that the filthy environment was promoting the spread of disease and he used the new registration information to help persuade Glasgow's City Fathers and reluctant rate-payers to fund an ambitious engineering scheme to bring a clean water supply into the city from Loch Katrine. This scheme combined with Glasgow's new sewage system, of which nearly 50 miles was laid between 1850 and 1875, began to ease the health and sanitation problem in Glasgow; however, other smaller Scottish towns were more reluctant to pay for such huge enterprises and were characterised by an overpowering stench for much of the 19th century. It was the cities who, through necessity, led the way in public health issues. Sanitary Departments and Medical Officers were appointed who forced a reluctant populace into vaccination and forcibly Loch Katrineremoved middens or dunghills from under people's noses.

The Victorians of urban Scotland did take a modicum of civic responsibility and searched out new ways to deal with these problems - refuse collection, the widening of dark and narrow streets, huge public buildings and parks were all genuine attempts to create a beautiful urban society. This was often done through local government, as in the City Improvement Acts of the 1860s, when a great deal of Scotland's worst slum areas were publicly bought and cleared. It became regular practice for public bodies to provide when the private sector failed to do so and, whether in water management, the creation of new housing, or the supply of gas and other fuel, Victorian Scotland did attempt to provide a basic standard of living through public bodies. The Glasgow Corporation, for example, took on much of this responsibility and, by the mid-20th century, owned over 80,000 houses, had 46,000 people on its payroll and had 33 departments watching over the city.

In Glasgow today much of the best and most durable housing was built during Victorian times - the legacy in city management and planning is ever-present.

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