Getting to Kelvingrove Art Gallery in 2014 is easy, Kelvinhall Subway station is just a few hundred yards away. But how did Glaswegians get around the city 300 years ago?
That’s what we asked Glasgow Museum curator Anthony Lewis when he gave us a tour of the Kelvingrove’s fascinating exhibition The Georgians: How Glasgow Flourished.
The period officially runs from 1714 to 1837 – when Queen Victoria became monarch. It was a time of dramatic expansion in Glasgow’s horizons, its boundaries and its ambition. Much of the foundation of the city we know today was laid then. But it came before many of the things we currently take for granted: the car, train, even the bicycle and 59 years before the Subway opened its doors.
Even the horse drawn omnibus was an innovation that happened later in the 19th century. So things were a lot more… pedestrian.
“The common man would have walked to work,” says Anthony.
“The guys getting out in the morning to go for a 6 o’clock shift were walking it. People lived near to the factory to limit the number of strides you had to take.
“Very few people would have owned a horse and carriage. They are the Lamborghini of the day – and how many times do you see a Lamborghini in Partick?
“I have been through the tax reports for people who owned horses and saddles. In a city with thousands and thousands of people in it there were very few who could afford horses and stabling. A tiny elite band.”
Anthony explains that it was only at the very end of the Georgian period that the railways arrive in the city. One painting featured in the show depicts the opening of a line adjacent to a factory.
The little train’s carriages is packed with top hatted merchants celebrating this technological breakthrough – but Anthony says the line would have been primarily there for freight. “It is the proximity of the line to the factory that is interesting,” he says.
Glasgow, he explains, was a trading city. The most important aspect of its transport superstructure was its river and the ships – first sail, later steam – which connected it with Africa and America. The exhibition makes clear how important the tobacco and sugar was to Glasgow’s merchants, and the role of slavery in those trades.
“Slaves weren’t common in Glasgow itself,” Anthony says. “But they did exist here in small numbers, and the merchants were fully aware of conditions slaves suffered on the American plantations.”
How Glasgow Flourished is free to enter and runs until August 17.