By Dr Fiona Skillen, Ingrid Shearer and Ged O’Brien
THE OLDEST PARK IN THE CITY
Nestled in the bottom right of Sulman’s map of Glasgow is a vast expanse of open land, encroached on three sides by Glasgow’s urban sprawl and on its final side bounded by the River Clyde. The open land is better known as Glasgow Green, which is the oldest park in the city of Glasgow, established in 1450 when King James II granted 56 acres of Parkland to Bishop William Turnbull and the people of Glasgow. Glasgow Green is one of the most significant parks in Scotland, being one of, if not the oldest urban parkland space in continuous use. This green space, which was increased to its current size of 136 acres in 1792, has never been an ornamental park given over to formal gardens, rather it has been a place of activity, being an important site of leisure and sport for the citizens of Glasgow. As one journalist noted in 1893 when giving a history of the early Green, ‘a property which is common to all the citizens for the grazing of their cattle and for the less lucrative but not less needful purpose of washing and drying clothes it is to be expected that little interest would be taken in the ornamentation and beautifying of such a tract of land’ Glasgow Herald Oct 1893
In this blog, and our two subsequent blogs, we will be exploring various sporting uses of the Green and the river alongside the Green during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Over the course of its history the Green has had many practical functions, its large open air spaces provided important space in an otherwise overcrowded city, for drying fishing nets, for bleaching linen, drying washing and for public gatherings. It also provided an important space for public events.
A SPACE FOR ENTERTAINMENT AND EVENTS
We often think of Glasgow Green now as a space for entertainment and events but has it always been like this? The best known event held at the Green was the Glasgow Fair, yearly week-long celebrations in July when the Green would play host to traders eager to sell their wares and animals. But the Green would also be filled with many types of entertainment from circuses and curiosity shows to boxing booths and theatres, alongside stalls selling all sorts of goods, as well as food and alcohol. For that week the Green became the focus of entertainment and escapism for the city. But the space was also used for other types of events such as sports events, military parades and training and political meetings. Records of the Glasgow City Corporation show that Glasgow citizens often complained that the Green was being used for public events such as the fair days and that the use of the grounds for those purposes was to the detriment of other citizens because of the disruption or damage caused by hosting these events. This is something that we see mirrored in the contemporary use of the Green for events such as the TRNSMT music festival.
But it is the Green’s rich sporting heritage that we will be exploring in our next few blogs. Let’s start by briefly exploring some of the popular activities that were played during the early history of the Green.
GOLF, SHINTY, AND AN OUTDOOR GYMNASIUM
Glasgow’s earliest known, and oldest surviving, golf club was formed on Glasgow Green in 1787. The game is likely to have been played on the Green for many years before this, but it was formalised with the establishment of a club in 1787. The members of this early club are likely to have been merchants and other well regarded men in the city. Research suggests that by 1800 membership included solicitors, tailors and even the City Chamberlain (Played in Glasgow p28). By 1870 the club had relocated to Queens Park (Played in Glasgow p28) beginning it’s nomadic existence moving around various open spaces in and around the city. It’s likely that the club moved away from the Green due to a number of factors such as having to compete for space against other events and recreations, whilst the increased pollution generated by rapid industrialisation within the city, would all have made the Green less appealing.
Open space within the city was limited so the open space of the Green provided the ideal playing area for a number of sports. Highlanders were often seen playing games such as shinty on the grass. The Glasgow Cowal Shinty Club is one of the best known shinty clubs to have played on Glasgow Green. The Club was formed in 1876 by players originating from the Cowal peninsula in the Highlands. The club was one of the most successful in Glasgow, winning the Glasgow Celtic Society Cup four times. The club was disbanded in the mid-1920s.
Another interesting sporting feature of the Green is the outside gymnasium. The gym was presented to the city by Glaswegian D.G. Fleming at a cost of £300 in 1860. The gym was introduced to provide ‘much amusement and healthful recreation to large numbers of boys and young men’ and was only outside gym of its type in Glasgow. The opening of the gym was a magnificent affair with local dignitaries in attendance for speeches and a display of the equipment. The structures itself was complex as this description highlights.
The frame of the gymnasium can still be seen on the Green today.
NO BALL GAMES?
In 1814 a ranger was appointed to attempt to stop the use of the green for games and sports and 1819 because it introduced the complete ban all golf, cricket, shinty, football and any other ball games. The introduction of the Glasgow Public Parks Act in 1878 saw funding increased for the Green which in turn led to improvements in its layout and maintenance. Over the years as the space became more formalised various local regulations were introduced to try and limit how the Green was used, with varying success. In the 1890s when cycling had become hugely popular across the country Glasgow’s cyclists were so frustrated by the Glasgow Green regulations that they regularly complained in the press.
‘Our city fathers seem dead set against cycling … they have decided we can only mount our machines at the Humane Society House, and ride from that to Montieth Row. Now, I consider this a great hardship on Glasgow Cyclists that are trying to get into form’ Glasgow Evening Post, Aug 1889
Of course the introduction of such bye laws were rarely successful at stopping people from playing their sports on the Green and it continues to be an important site for sport and leisure today.
G O’Brien, Played in Glasgow, (Malavan Media, 2010).
MacGregor, George, The History of Glasgow from the Earliest Period to the Present Time. (Thomas D. Morison, 1881)
Hugh Dan McLennan, Shinty’s Place in the World, https://www.ed.ac.uk/files/atoms/files/maclennan_shintysplace.pdf
Dr Fiona Skillen is a senior lecturer in History in the Department of Social Sciences, in the School for Business and Society at Glasgow Caledonian University. Her research interests concern modern history, in particular aspects of sport, gender and popular culture. She is particularly interested in women’s sport during the late 19th and 20th centuries and has published extensively in this area including her monograph Sport, Women and Modernity in Interwar Britain (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2013). She is a former Chair of British Society of Sport History, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and an editor of the International Journal of the History of Sport.
Ingrid Shearer is Heritage Engagement Officer for Glasgow Building Preservation Trust, a charity that rescues, repairs and repurposes historic buildings for the benefit of their communities. A former archaeologist, she has worked in the heritage sector for over 25 years. Her practice is embedded in the principle that heritage matters and has the potential to change people’s lives in a positive way.
Ged O’Brien is the founder of the Scottish Football Museum at Hampden Park. He is the discoverer of Andrew Watson: the world’s most influential player of colour. He is the author of ‘Played in Glasgow’ and is currently writing ‘The Scottish Game: How Scotland invented Modern World Football’.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
- Part two of this series explores the important role the Green played in the development of football in Scotland.
- Join us for our online talk, ‘Glasgow: The Home of Modern World Football’ by Ged O’Brien on Wednesday 16th March
- Check out our Gallus Glasgow map and explore more stories of the Victorian city. Once there, why not add a few stories of your own?
- Prints of the map are available to buy in our online shop