When the Clyde Ran Red paints a vivid picture of the heady days when revolution was in the air of Glasgow and surrounding areas along the River Clyde. Through the bitter strike at the Singer Sewing machine plant in Clydebank in 1911, Bloody Friday in Glasgow’s George Square in 1919, the General Strike of 1926 and on through the Spanish Civil War to the Clydebank Blitz of 1941, the people fought for the right to work, the dignity of labor, and a fairer society for everyone.
The Red Clydeside movement took hold in a Glasgow where overcrowded tenements stood no distance from elegant tea rooms, dance halls, and art galleries. The River Clyde was also home to the famous artists of the Glasgow Style and exhibitions showcasing the wonders of the age. Political idealism and artistic creativity were matched by industrial productivity—especially in ship and locomotive building. In this book Maggie Craig situates the politics of the time in the broader historical context, telling a story of social change and human drama.
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Rebels, Reformers & Revolutionaries
'Distorted and destroyed by poverty.'
James Maxton was one of the great personalities of Red Clydeside. Known as Jimmy (or Jim) by friends and family, he was a man of great warmth, compassion and charisma. An inspiring public speaker, he could hold huge audiences in the palm of his hand, moving them to tears one moment and making them laugh out loud the next. His sense of humour was legendary, sometimes sardonic and cynical, but never cruel. Born in 1885, Maxton served for more than 20 years as a Labour MP at Westminster, where he also shone as an orator. Loved by his friends and respected by his political foes, he was described by Sir Winston Churchill as the greatest gentleman in the House of Commons. Former UK prime minister Gordon Brown wrote an engaging biography of him, entitled simply Maxton.
Maxton was born into a family which, while not wealthy, was quite comfortably off. Both his parents were teachers. His mother had to give up her career when she married, as female teachers of that time were obliged to do. Young Jimmy grew up as one of five children in a pleasant villa on a sunny ridge overlooking Barrhead near Paisley at the back of the Gleniffer Braes. He is remembered there today in the names of surrounding streets and the Maxton Memorial Garden.
Tragedy struck the Maxtons when Jimmy was 17 years old. After a swim during a family holiday at Millport on the Isle of Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde, his father had a heart attack and died. Left in strained circumstances though she was, Melvina Maxton was determined her two sons and three daughters were going to be educated as far as their brains would take them. Her determination paid off. All five became teachers.
His tongue firmly in his cheek, James Maxton was later to observe that his mother should really have sent him and his older siblings out to work. With typically cheerful sarcasm, he recalled that the family lived during those years after his father's death in 'the poverty that is sometimes called genteel'. It was a real struggle, although it helped that Maxton had won a scholarship at the age of 12 to the highly regarded Hutchesons' Grammar School, known more informally as 'Hutchie'. He did well, though he wore his learning and intelligence lightly, awarding himself some tongue-in-cheek distinctions. Honours in tomfoolery, first class honours for cheek, failure in intellectuality and honours advanced in winching. Unlike wench, this word could apply to both sexes, allowing grinning west of Scotland uncles to thoroughly embarrass both teenage nieces and nephews by asking, 'Are ye winchin' yet?'
Although nobody would have called James Maxton handsome, his dark and saturnine looks were undeniably striking. His tall frame and long, lantern-jawed face were framed by straight black hair which he wore much longer than was then fashionable or even acceptable. Curling onto his collar, it gave him a rather theatrical air. You could easily have taken him for an actor.
When he first went to Glasgow University his long hair was as far as any youthful rebellion went. He met Tom Johnston there. Later a highly respected Secretary of State for Scotland and prime mover behind the creation of the hydro-electric dams and power stations of the Highlands, Johnston was a young political firebrand from Kirkintilloch who took great delight in scaring the lieges through the pages of the Forward, the weekly socialist newspaper he founded in 1906. When he first got to know James Maxton, Tom Johnston described him as a 'harum scarum' who just wanted to get his MA so he could make his living as a teacher. Maxton himself said the only activities in which he excelled at university were swimming, fencing and PE. He was a good runner too.
As his contemporary at Glasgow University, Johnston's first memory of him was indeed a theatrical one. A group of students had gone together to the Pavilion Theatre, where the evening grew lively with 'the throwing of light missiles to and fro among the unruly audience'. Young gentlemen and scholars indulging in some youthful high jinks. Throwing the well-educated hooligans out failed to dampen their enthusiasm. Maxton and his co-conspirators managed to get back in through the stage door and onto the stage, where they 'appeared from one of the wings, dancing with arms akimbo to the footlights'.
It wasn't long before the light-hearted young Mr Maxton began to think seriously about politics. Tom Johnston was an influence. So was John Maclean, the tragic icon of Scottish socialism. When Maxton was at Glasgow University in the early 1900s Maclean was four years older than him and had already got his MA degree. They often met by chance on the train, travelling into Glasgow from Pollokshaws, where they both then lived. A teacher by vocation as well as training, Maclean used these railway journeys to tell Maxton about Karl Marx.
Glasgow taught Maxton about life, especially when he began working as a teacher and saw the effects of poverty on his young pupils and their families. Later in life, in a 1935 BBC radio broadcast called Our Children's Scotland, he spoke about how his experiences had influenced his thinking: 'As a very young teacher, I discovered how individualism and their individualities were cramped, distorted and destroyed by poverty conditions before the child was able to react to its environment. That was the deciding factor in bringing me into the socialist and Labour movement.'
Maxton was 19 when he made the decision in 1904 to join the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Founded by Keir Hardie, Robert Cunninghame Graham and others who saw that the Liberal Party was not going to solve the problems of the poor, the ILP was particularly strong in Glasgow and the west of Scotland, one of the engines which powered Red Clydeside. Although later a component part of what is now the modern Labour Party, it was always a more radical group. As one of the ILP's most influential members, James Maxton devoted the rest of his life to politics, one of the band of Labour MPs which swept to power in the pivotal general election of 1922. Tom Johnston was also in that group.
Only once did a heckler get the better of James Maxton, as Tom Johnston recalled. Not long after he graduated from Glasgow University, Maxton returned to address a meeting at the Students' Union.
That meeting remains in my memory for an interruption which, for once, left Maxton speechless and retortless. Maxton by that time had grown his long tradition-like actors' hair, and during his speeches he would continually and with dramatic effect weave a lock away from his brow. At this Students' Union gathering he was set agoing at his most impressive oratory ... 'Three millions unemployed (pause). Three millions unemployed (pause). Three millions unemployed (pause).' Amid the tense silence came a voice from the back: 'Aye, Jimmy, and every second yin a barber!'
James Maxton's friend John Maclean comes across as a more sombre character. He was only eight when his father died, the catastrophe plunging his mother and her four surviving children into a poverty which was not at all genteel. Like Melvina Maxton, however, Anne Maclean was a woman determined that her children should be educated.
Both John Maclean and James Maxton lost their jobs as schoolteachers because of their political activities, which particularly aggravated their employers when they spoke out against the First World War and conscription. Maclean remained a teacher but outside the system, devoting himself to public speaking, writing articles, running the Scottish Labour College which he founded, and imparting the theory of Marxist economics in night and weekend classes. He advocated revolution rather than reform, his self-appointed mission being to convince the working classes the only solution to their ills was socialism, and that the only way to get that would be by seizing power. The ruling classes were never going to give it away.
Tom Johnston was a rebel rather than a revolutionary. Passionate, romantic and idealistic, he too could be cheerfully sarcastic, as when he described the decisions taken at the start-up of the Forward. 'We would have no alcoholic advertisements: no gambling news, and my own stipulation after a month's experience, no amateur poetry; every second reader at that time appearing to be bursting into vers libre.'
Johnston's sarcasm grew savage when he researched and wrote The History of the Working Classes of Scotland and Our Scots Noble Families. Often more simply referred to as Our Noble Families, this was published in 1909, when Johnston was 28 years old. One of his targets was the Sutherland family, notorious for the role they played in the Highland Clearances. He fired his first shot at one of their forebears.
I began to be interested in this Hugo. He floats about in the dawn of the land history of Scotland, murdering, massacring, laying waste and settling the conquered lands on his offspring.
Rooted in theft (for as every legal authority admits, the clan, or children of the soil, were the only proprietors), casting every canon of morality to the winds, this family has waxed fat on misery, and, finally, less than 100 years ago, perpetrated such abominable cruelties on the tenantry as aroused the disgust and anger of the whole civilised world.
The Forward soon attracted an impressive array of writers. H.G. Wells allowed the paper to carry one of his novels as a serial. Ramsay MacDonald wrote for it, as did suffragette leader Mrs Pankhurst. James Connolly was also a contributor. Born in Edinburgh of Irish parents, Connolly was a revolutionary socialist and Irish nationalist, shot by firing squad after the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. The socialist newspaper also benefited from the skill of artist J. Robins Millar, who drew many cartoons for it. A man of many talents, Millar went on to become a playwright and the doyen of Glasgow's theatre critics.
Trying to cover all bases, the young editor was sincere in his views but very astute. Committed socialist and devout Catholic John Wheatley attracted readers with the same deep religious faith as himself, helping many of them realise it was possible to be both a Catholic and a socialist. That had taken some doing. When Wheatley first declared himself to be a socialist his local priest and some members of the congregation were so horrified they made an effigy of him and burned it at his front gate. Wheatley opened the door of his house, stood there with his wife and smiled at them. The next Sunday morning he went to mass as he usually did and the fuss soon died down.
The eldest of ten children, John Wheatley was born in County Waterford in Ireland in 1869. Taking the path of many with Irish roots who feature in the story of Red Clydeside, his family came to Scotland when John was eight or nine years old. The Wheatleys settled in Bargeddie, then known as Braehead, at Coatbridge. At 14 John followed in his father's footsteps and started working as a coal miner in a pit in Baillieston.
Wheatley was a miner for well over 20 years, during which time he educated himself and became involved in politics, another path many Red Clydesiders followed. In his late 30s Wheatley set up a printing firm and joined the ILP. Two years later he was elected a county councillor. He was in his early 50s when he too became one of the 1922 intake of Labour MPs, sitting for Shettleston.
Wheatley was much respected by his younger colleagues, especially James Maxton, who admired his intellect and organising ability. Ramsay MacDonald, Britain's first Labour prime minister, saw Wheatley's abilities too, appointing him Minister for Health in the first Labour government of 1924.
Another writer in the Forward stable was a coal miner from Baillieston who, under a pseudonym, specialised in laying into the coal owners and the vast profits they made at the expense of the miners who worked for them. Patrick Joseph Dollan later became Lord Provost of Glasgow.
The Red Clydesiders were always passionate about children, education, health and housing. Look at the Glasgow of the early 1900s and it is not hard to see why.
Yet this was a city which presented many different faces to the world.
The Tokio of Tea Rooms
'Very Kate Cranstonish.'
In the early years of the twentieth century Glasgow was the Second City of the Empire and the Workshop of the World. Scotland's largest city and its surrounding towns of Clydebank, Motherwell, Paisley and Greenock blazed with foundries and factories, locomotive works, shipyards, steel mills, textile mills, rope works and sugar refineries. This was the time when the North British Locomotive Works at Springburn produced railway engines which were exported to every continent on earth and shipbuilding on the Clyde was at its peak. The proud boast was that over half the world's merchant fleet was Clydebuilt.
In 1907 John Brown's at Clydebank launched the Lusitania, a Cunard liner destined for the North Atlantic run. The Aquitania was to follow in 1914. Before the Second World War came two of the most famous ocean liners of all, the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth. The names of these Cunarders are redolent with the elegance of a bygone age.
Glasgow was elegant too. Talented architects such as Alexander 'Greek' Thomson and John Thomas Rochead, who also designed the Wallace Monument at Stirling, had fashioned a cityscape of infinite variety. The Mossmans, a family of sculptors, had adorned a huge number of Glasgow's buildings with beautiful life-size stone figures often inspired by the mythology of Ancient Greece and Rome. These included the caryatids which decorate what is now the entrance to the Mitchell Theatre and Library in Granville Street, formerly the entrance to St Andrew's Halls. When they burned down in 1962, only the façade was saved. So many of the dramas of Red Clydeside were played out here, in what is now the Mitchell Library's café and computer hall.
In 1909 Charles Rennie Mackintosh finished the second phase of the project which gave the city and the world the Glasgow School of Art in Renfrew Street. Five years before that, he and his wife and artistic partner Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh created the Willow Tea Rooms in Sauchiehall Street for Mackintosh's patron, highly successful Glasgow businesswoman Miss Kate Cranston.
Along in the West End stood the extravagant red sandstone of the new Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery. Completed in 1901, it has been known and loved by generations of Glaswegians ever since simply as the Art Galleries, even if the young man about town who wrote it up in a guidebook called Glasgow in 1901 had fun describing it as 'architecture looking worried in a hundred different ways'. In 1911 the builders were once again busy at Kelvingrove. Glasgow was looking forward to the third great exhibition to be held there. The Scottish Exhibition of National History, Art and Industry was scheduled to open at the beginning of May.
The gorgeously Italianate City Chambers dominated George Square, a physical manifestation of Glasgow's good conceit of itself. John Mossman created some of the figures which decorate it in his studio on the corner of North Frederick Street and Cathedral Street. On the other side of the square rose the dignified and rather more subtly ornamented Merchants' House. Designed by John Burnet senior, it had additions by his son and namesake. John Burnet junior crowned the highest point of the building with a model of the globe on top of which a sailing ship still rides the waves.
The Bonny Nancy belonged to Mr Glassford, one of Glasgow's powerful eighteenth-century Tobacco Lords. She's a reminder that the city's fortunes were founded on trade and the enterprise of her traders. Those convivial gentlemen used to raise their glasses of Glasgow Punch – take about a dozen lemons, add sugar, Jamaica rum, ice-cold spring water and the juice of a few cut limes – in a confident and cheerful toast: 'The trade of Glasgow and the outward bound!'
Work had to be done on Glasgow's route to the sea before that trade could develop. People had first settled by the Clyde because the shallow river gave them fresh water and abundant fish, and was easy to ford. As ships grew larger the lack of depth became a problem. Goods had to be brought overland from Port Glasgow, causing delays and extra expense. Early civil engineering works such as the Lang Dyke off Langbank forced the Clyde into a narrower channel. Routine dredging also began, rendering the river navigable all the way up from Port Glasgow and the Tail of the Bank to the heart of Glasgow.
The 'cleanest and beautifullest and best built city in Britain, London excepted', which Daniel Defoe had so admired in the eighteenth century, could now grow into one of the world's busiest ports. The deepened river also made shipbuilding possible. The Clyde made Glasgow, and Glasgow made the Clyde.
Excerpted from "When the Clyde Ran Red"
Copyright © 2018 Maggie Craig.
Excerpted by permission of Birlinn Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
1 Rebels, Reformers & Revolutionaries,
2 The Tokio of Tea Rooms,
3 Earth's Nearest Suburb to Hell,
4 Sewing Machines & Scientific Management,
5 An Injury to One Is an Injury to All: The Singer Strike of 1911,
6 No Vote, No Census,
7 The Picturesque & Historic Past: The Scottish Exhibition of 1911,
8 Radicals, Reformers & Martyrs: The Roots of Red Clydeside,
9 Halloween at the High Court,
10 Not in My Name,
11 A Woman's Place,
12 Death of a Hero: The Funeral of Keir Hardie,
13 Mrs Barbour's Army: The Rent Strike of 1915,
14 Christmas Day Uproar: Red Clydeside Takes on the Government,
15 Dawn Raids, Midnight Arrests & a Zeppelin over Edinburgh: The Deportation of the Clyde Shop Stewards,
16 Prison Cells & Luxury Hotels,
17 John Maclean,
18 Bloody Friday, 1919: The Battle of George Square,
19 The Red Clydesiders Sweep into Westminster,
20 The Zinoviev Letter,
21 Nine Days' Wonder: The General Strike of 1926,
22 Ten Cents a Dance,
23 Sex, Socialism & Glasgow's First Birth Control Clinic,
24 The Flag in the Wind,
25 Socialism, Self-Improvement & Fun,
26 The Hungry '30s,
27 Pride of the Clyde: The Launch of the Queen Mary,
28 The Spanish Civil War,
29 On the Eve of War: The Empire Exhibition of 1938,
30 The Clydebank Blitz,