A whirlwind history of the Glasgow Athenaeum since its establishment

By Dr. Karen Malley-Watt


What links Charles Dickens, women’s rights activists, dressmaking and the Glasgow Chess Club? No, this isn’t a bad Christmas cracker joke but an important piece of Glasgow history. The Glasgow Athenaeum, now The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, has played an important role in helping to shape Glasgow’s cultural training and commercial output. It is noted that the Glasgow Athenaeum’s origins lie with James Provan who was handed a leaflet for the ‘Glasgow Educational Association’ after attending a chemistry lecture (James Lauder, ‘The Glasgow Athenaeum: A Sketch of Fifty Years’ Work (1847-1897)). Through this interaction the Glasgow Commercial College (later the Glasgow Athenaeum) was born, holding its first public meeting on the 3rd December 1845 where they appointed 12 (all-male) Directors with Robert Reid as President.

Figure 1: Artist’s sketch of the Inaugural Soiree, 28th December 1847, reproduced from “The Illustrated London News”. Image courtesy of The Royal Scottish Conservatoire Archives & Collections.


Over the next few years the Board raised funds to secure rooms at the Robert Adam designed Assembly Rooms in Ingram Street and celebrated by holding a ‘first soiree’ in December 1847 with nearly 3000 people in attendance. The halls were richly decorated with banners, floral wreaths, evergreens and painted ‘devices’ which included a suspended emblematic painting representing Time showing to Britannia science, art, fame and literature. The evening was accompanied by music, drinks and speeches. Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was the main event of the night. The Fife Herald noted that the demand to hear Mr Dickens was so great that the Directors were forced to create a temporary gallery the length of the north side of the hall to accommodate 500 people! 

By the 1880s the demand for classes and an increase in space to house training facilities and classrooms had grown. The new Athenaeum building, designed by Messrs John Burnet, Son & Campbell, opened on the 25th January 1888. Located between the Faculty Hall and the Liberal Club, the building was designed in a ‘classic style of architecture’ and was described in amazingly vivid detail by The Glasgow Herald  just one day after the opening. The article on the 26th January 1888 takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of the building providing floor dimensions, departments, facilities and investigations of the rooms held over the three storeys. It even highlights where the lavatories were situated (at the ‘entresol’ at each end of the building if you’re curious). Other features mentioned include electric lighting, two sets of statues by John Mossman, and heated water throughout for the radiators. The article even claims that the building was designed to be ‘practically fireproof’. What a claim!

Figure 2: Artists sketch of the centralised library, The Glasgow Athenaeum Calendar 1898-1899. Image courtesy of The Royal Scottish Conservatoire Archives & Collections.


The new building housed separate ladies and gentlemen’s departments, a centralised library, writing rooms, a restaurant, a newsroom, several recreation rooms (one of which was often occupied by The Glasgow Chess Club) and a college which consisted of eight classrooms which were ‘all large airy, and well ventilated’. The institution offered a variety of classes available for both men and women including languages, painting, drawing, dramatics, music and composition and dressmaking. The new building also allowed for recreational activities to take place and the space was used by a ladies’ choir, a dramatic club, a Spanish club and a gymnastics club.  


Between 1891 and 1893, there was a further addition to the Glasgow Athenaeum facilities via a new theatre building being added. The Category A listed building (now the Hard Rock Cafe) was again designed by the practice of John Burnet, Son & Campbell, and included state of the art facilities such as an Otis Passenger lift which is still there today! The theatre itself has a rich and important history and was utilised by a variety of dramatic groups, singers, actors and speakers. Several speakers in support of women’s suffrage graced the Glasgow Athenaeum’s podium to voice their support for the cause. As early as 1870, Miss Emily Faithfull (1835-1895) spoke to a crowded audience in the large hall of the institution on the subject of the ‘Movement relating to women – the vexed question, and how to solve it’. Faithfull was an English women’s rights activist who in 1860 founded a printing company for women called The Victoria Press – very radical for the time! Even the leading suffragist, Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929) spoke as part of the Athenaeum’s lecture series (on the ‘Female Characters of George Elliot’ if you’re interested).

Another event connected with the women’s suffrage movement was a Dramatic Tableaux which was held in 1912 at the Athenaeum Theatre. This event involved several of the artists, now commonly referred to as ‘Glasgow Girls’, including Helen Paxton Brown (1876-1956), De Courcy Lewthwaite Dewar (1878 – 1959) and Dorothy Carleton Smyth (1880-1933). Each of these women rightly deserve a whole blog post dedicated to their own individual outputs, achievements and impact. The Dramatic Tableaux was advertised in various suffrage publications including the Common Cause, and The Vote provides detailed information regarding what took place in the Athenaeum Theatre on the 11th and 12th December of that year. The programme detailed a ‘TABLEAUX of Famous Women’ arranged by De Courcy Lewthwaite Dewar and featuring figures such as Joan of Arc, Queen Isabella of Spain, the philanthropist Elizabeth Fry, and a ‘TABLEAUX ‘Devolution of Man’, arranged by Carleton Smyth.

Figure 3: Photograph of the building which housed the Glasgow Athenaeum Theatre, The Glasgow Athenaeum Calendar 1903-1904. Image courtesy of The Royal Scottish Conservatoire Archives & Collections.

Organisations could book space to use the various rooms associated with the Athenaeum including the theatre. As such, more research is required to discover how deep the support for the suffrage cause ran in regards to the Glasgow Athenaeum. However, the building’s active connection with providing a platform for the women’s movement, via speakers and events, has been greatly overlooked. 

This has been a very short and brief tour of the spaces and associated events which took place in the spaces associated with the Glasgow Athenaeum. There is still so much more to discover regarding these important Glasgow buildings and the people associated with them!

Dr Karen Mailley-Watt is a Glaswegian historian who has a passion for rediscovering Glasgow’s radical and cultural histories in relation to the built environment. She is one half of the History Girls Frae Scotland.

Twitter: @mailley_watt

Instagram: @scottishwomenartists


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