A journey through the old Glasgow workhouses


Paul Climie takes a look at the history of Glasgow’s poorhouses

AS Christmas approaches and we dust off Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for another read, I was left reflecting on what the arrangements in Glasgow were with regards to the workhouse, or as they were more commonly called in Scotland, the poorhouse or poor’s houses.

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843 and in it the themes he often comes back to are to the fore, particularly the need to provide for children in poverty, and the risks of them lacking education and falling into a life of crime.

When the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the two children huddled beneath his robe he tells him: “The boy is ignorance. This girl is want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is doom, unless the writing be erased.”

The ghost throws back Scrooge’s own words at him, as he earlier had ignored or failed to see the suffering of his fellow man. When he asks the ghost if they have no resources or refuge the ghost replies:”‘Are there no prisons?’ said the spirit turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses?’.”

The deserving and undeserving poor

With Scotland having a separate legal system from the rest of the UK, our arrangements were slightly different from those of the Dickensian workhouses of London and Manchester. Some of the earliest Scottish laws on poor relief were focused on a theme which the Conservative party of today still seems to be putting at the centre of its policies, dividing people into the deserving and undeserving poor.

A 1424 Act of the Scottish Parliament distinguished between able-bodied beggars and those not physically able to work for their living. The latter could be given a token by authorities allowing them to beg, while those deemed to be able-bodied beggars could be arrested and given 40 days to find work or face imprisonment. This seems rather chillingly like Iain Duncan Smith’s benefits regime .

The liability of each parish to look after their “deserving poor” was made more formal in an Act of 1535. At this time Glasgow was a town of only 3,000 people.

Each parish had to now make collections to support their own elderly and infirm poor residents. The 1579 Act For The Punischment of Strang and Idle Beggars, and Reliefe of the Pure and Impotent, and a further Act 20 years later, shifted responsibility for poor relief to the churches. They could raise money from donations, collections, fees and rents and support those deemed powerless to help themselves.

The “aged, impotent and pure people should have lodging and abiding places”. The “strong beggars and their bairns” should be employed in “common work”. The children of beggars could be taken by land-owners to do unpaid work until the age of 18 for girls and 24 for boys.

Unpaid work in return for meagre support was a tool used later in the poorhouses, too, and again, sadly, has been revived in our current system.

Town’s hospital and poorhouse

By 1672, the idea of forcing the poor to work in order to live was stiffened with an Act which made magistrates build “correction houses” or workhouses where beggars could be detained and made to work.

The Act of Union of 1707 joins Scotland to England but the Scottish legal system remained, and still remains, separate from the English system. Glasgow now had a population of around 15,000 people and was mainly centred around the High Street and cathedral area. In 1726, Daniel Defoe visited the city and described it as “the cleanest and best-built city in Britain”.

At this time, 400 students were attending the University of Glasgow on the High Street, a university which was almost 300 years old by this time. In 1756, James Watt would be working here when he develped his ideas for the steam engine.

During this period, Tennents open a new brewery in the city, the Foulis brothers begin printing here and John Smith’s bookshop opens. In 1731 it was decided that a workhouse was to be founded in the city.

Known as the Town’s Hospital and Poorhouse, it was built on the north bank of the River Clyde, near to where Ropework Lane meets Clyde Street today. St Andrew’s Cathedral was built at a site west of it in 1816.

The Town’s Hospital and Poorhouse in Glasgow was sited just to the right of St Andrews Cathedral in this photo.


Map from the 1700s showing location of the Town’s Hospital on the Clydeside.


Managed by directors representing in equal parts the local church parishes, the Trades Guild, the Merchants Guild and the elected town council it was designed to “aliment and educate upwards of 152 men, widows and orphans of the city”.

An infirmary block was later added at the rear with basement accommodation “for lunatics”. A year after opening there were 60 old people and 91 children living here.

Town’s Hospital, Glasgow.


A later director of the Town’s Hospital, Robert McNair, is credited with trying to improve the lot of the “insane folk” accommodated here. After he had raised the funding, a new “Glasgow Asylum for Lunatics” was built from 1810 and opened four years later.

An 1888 book on Glasgow medical institutions reports that “the heart of this good man was touched by the wretched condition of the insane folk, who at the beginning of the century, whatever their social condition, were kept in ‘the cells’ at the poorhouse at the banks of the Clyde; and, as improvement of the cells was impossible, he determined to procure for them better care and treatment elsewhere”.

1845 Scottish Poor Law Act

A Commission of Enquiry established in 1843 into the poor relief system in Scotland found that relief organised at a parish level was being provided mainly to the ill, the physically and mentally infirm and the elderly. This report led to the 1845 Scottish Poor Law Act which maintained this organisational arrangement and introduced a new tier of supervision.

Unlike the act in England, in Scotland the act allowed that relief could be given as cash or in kind. A poorhouse could be set up to shelter the sick and destitute, but those deemed able-bodied were excluded. After the new Act of 1845, provision of poor relief in Glasgow was divided into four parishes: City, Barony, Govan and Gorbals.


In 1841 the Glasgow Asylum for Lunatics was requiring more space, no longer able to expand in the rapidly growing city. They chose a new site, three miles west of the city, and built a new hospital which opened in 1843 as the Royal Asylum at Gartnavel. This consisted of “two separate houses, for the higher and lower class of patients respectively”.

The Town’s Hospital on the Clydeside was closed in 1845 and the city poorhouse was relocated to the vacated Glasgow Asylum building in the city centre. This became known as The Glasgow City Poorhouse (although as is always the way, it was also known to many still as the Town’s Hospital).

This meant that the City Poorhouse now had 1,500 beds and was one of the largest institutions in Britain. Although it offered food and shelter for those with nowhere else to go, living conditions were maintained at a level that discouraged all but the most desperate.

Anyone with living family was expected to seek support from them firstly. Males and females were separated, children were separated from their parents. Reports in the 1880s criticised the poor sanitation and the overcrowding at the institution.

One report found that the 290 male residents shared just two baths for their weekly wash, a process that took 12 hours to complete. You really wouldn’t want to be near the end of the queue, would you? Disability of some type, mental or physical, was usually a requirement for admission to these institutions, so they were fitted with infirmary wings and a degree of medical support.

1882 Glasgow map showing location of the City Poorhouse.


The City Poorhouse was on the north side of Parliamentary Road , which no longer exists. The alignment of roads around here has changed quite a bit, but this site, south-west of Dobbies Loan, is now roughly where Glasgow Caledonian University sits.

Glasgow Caledonian University now occupies the site of the Glasgow City Poorhouse.



The Barony parish of Glasgow was one of the most densely populated, although the City area had more prevalent poverty. It was located to the north and east of the city centre. Extending over an area of 14 square miles it had a population of almost 300,000 in 1845. In 1853 the poor board built Barnhill Poorhouse in Springburn which had beds for 160 people.

It had hospital facilities on the site, which were extended in time with a nearby hospital built, which later was developed to become Stobhill Hospital. A report in 1885 at Barnhill Poorhouse found that “the women in the washhouse still receive tea and bread in addition to class C diet – an unnecessary, and in some respects mischievous indulgence”.

Able-bodied inmates here were obliged to make up to 350 bundles of firewood per day, or break 5cwt. of stones per day. Those not achieving this were put in solitary confinement and given a bread and water diet.

Site of Barnhill Poorhouse, Springburn.


Under the 1845 Act, like other parishes, Barony was obliged to provide care and treatment for “lunatics” (as these people were called at the time). As they were no longer able to accommodate the increasing numbers requiring treatment in Barnhill Poorhouse, in 1871 Barony parish bought land at Woodilee, near Lenzie to build Barony Parochial Asylum, later known as Woodilee Hospital.

Plans for Woodilee Hospital, Lenzie.


Govan and Gorbals

The Gorbals as an area with high deprivation struggled to raise adequate funds for poor relief and never established a poorhouse. In 1873 it was combined with Govan parish for this purpose.

Prior to this they had been accommodating some of the poor of the Gorbals in Govan Poorhouse, which was built in 1852. This lay on the west side of Eglinton Street, on the site of the former cavalry barracks , which lies roughly underneath the M74 extension now.

Prior to that, Govan had a poorhouse on Dale Street (now Tradeston Street). With demand rising, a new site was found in Merryflatts. Built between 1867- 1872 this consisted initially of a poorhouse, a hospital for 240 beds for medical, surgical and obstetric cases and a lunatic asylum for 180 people.

As in other poorhouses, the nurses were often unpaid and selected from the female residents of the poorhouse.

1912 map showing site of Govan Poorhouse.


The map above shows the lay out of the Govan Poorhouse and asylum, which later was to become the Southern General Hospital. From 1902 major extensions added space for 700 more beds at Govan Poorhouse and in 1912 Govan became part of the Glasgow parish.

In recent years the old wards at the Southern General Hospital have finally been closed down, with the building of the (so-called) Queen Elizabeth University Hospital here. The main poorhouse building can still be seen on the eastern side of the new hospital site.

Govan Poorhouse, Glasgow, with male and female wings either side of the central entrance. Later it became the Southern General Hospital.


New Queen Elizabeth University Hospital looming over the old poorhouse/Southern General wards.


With the new hospital now open, most of the old buildings are being demolished.


The excellent workhouses.org.uk website have trawled the 1881 census to find the names, ages and occupations of the residents of all the Glasgow poorhouses in that year. Follow the link here to see the names of the Govan Poorhouse inmates that year.

The 20th century

In 1898 the City and Barony parishes merged to pull their resources. The new single poor law authority of Glasgow commissioned the building of three new establishments: Stobhill Hospital, the Eastern District Hospital and the Western District Hospital.

In 1905, the City Poorhouse was closed and residents transferred to Barnhill Poorhouse. The hospital accommodation was now separate from the poorhouse facilities. In 1912, the Govan parish was also merged with Glasgow.

Stobhill Hospital was the largest of the new poor law hospitals, with nearly 1,800 beds, 200 of which were for the management of patients with psychiatric problems.

It consisted of 28 two-storey red brick blocks, many of which were linked by corridors over time. It was used to treat the chronically ill, needy children and the residents of the City and Barony areas with tuberculosis.

Stobhill Hospital was used during the First World War for wounded servicemen, who arrived by train on a specially built platform in the hospital grounds.

Stobhill Hospital today, with its B-listed clock tower.


There are still psychiatric wards at Stobhill Hospital today, and day care and out-patient facilities. The rest of the in-patient services have been transferred to other Glasgow hospitals.

The smaller Western District Hospital built from 1902-04 was also known as Oakbank Hospital. It was used for the treatment of acute medical and surgical cases. They also had a labour suite. It has now been demolished but lay at Garscube Cross, on a triangle of land between Possil Road, Garscube Road and the Forth and Clyde Canal.

Oakbank Hospital, Glasgow.


It too was used by the military during the First World War. Bizarrely, Muhammad Ali seems to have visited patients in Oakbank Hospital and signed autographs while he was in Glasgow in 1965 (then named Cassius Clay). It was closed in 1971 and demolished. This bit of land contains some shabby, modern industrial units now, some of them derelict.

Site today of the old Western District Hospital/Oakbank Hospital.


Built at the same time was the Eastern District Hospital, usually referred to as Duke Street Hospital. It’s grand sandstone entrance block on Duke Street is all that remains, most of the rest of the hospital site now being a car park for a branch of Lidl. When it opened in 1904 it was a 240-bed hospital, with some beds specifically for psychiatric assessment.

1912 map showing site of Eastern District Hospital on Duke Street.


On the left, the remaining block of Duke Street Hospital.


All of these poor law hospitals came under control of the municipal authorities in 1930, and were incorporated into the National Health Service, when it was formed in 1948. All services at Duke Street Hospital finally came to an end in 1996.

Requesting poor relief

The Mitchell Library in Glasgow has the records of all those who made a claim from the city under the poor law. I recently went there to look for any of my ancestors who had got into a position of having to claim poor relief.

The records kept there show that the enquiries made into their claims went into a great deal of detail at times. They tried to establish the circumstances of the individual, and sought a lot of detail about family members, parentage, marriage and the income of relatives.

To undertake a search here, look for the names that you are interested in on the computers of the library’s archive department on the fifth floor. The archivists can then retrieve the records of the individual’s application for you to read.

I looked up the records on four of my relatives and on only one case were they judged to merit any assistance. The first relative that I found, Johanna, was 23 years old in 1891 when she was requesting help, as she had no means to support herself and her one-year-old son.

The interview recorded that her husband had left her two weeks before and she had left Kilmarnock to reside with her parents in Govan. She was refused any relief on the grounds that she “left husband”. No matter the details of her situation, she was still expected to be supported by him or her parents.

Her family situation obviously did not improve as 19 years later in 1910 her son John, living with her in a flat in Ibrox, made a claim for poor relief. His claim was also rejected, as they found that a year previously he had been resident in Kyle Union Poorhouse in Ayr. It was therefore deemed that poorhouse liability for him lay with Ayr and he was advised to seek their support.

Next, I looked at a claim by a 75-year-old relative of mine in 1905. Margaret was living in Balshagray Avenue. Her husband had died five years earlier in the asylum in Ayr. Despite her age, the interview recorded her parents’ occupations and the occupations of her deceased husband and of his parents.

Fleshers, pithead enginemen and carriers, their job titles evoke the times they lived in. Her children and their occupations were documented too and her claim was rejected as she was expected to seek support from her nearest son, who lived and worked in Lenzie.

Lastly, I looked at the claim for support from William, aged 31, in November 1923. He was a “furniture packer” who, it was reported, without much detail, had been unable to work for five weeks.

His father, an engineer was dead and he was living with his mother, who had no other support, on Delburn Street, Parkhead. It was noted that he had been in the army for three and a half years (during the First World War) and when working was earning 20 shillings a week.

He was granted eight shillings a week but also referred to the Eastern District Hospital. A copy of a letter by the doctor who assessed him at the Eastern District Hospital was included in the file.

In this brief letter which led to his detention in hospital, the doctor who signed it declared that “William… is mental and is requiring hospital treatment”. Not really the way doctors would describe someone today, I hope, and no further details of William’s illness are recorded.

Detained in 1923 for psychiatric treatment.


He was treated in the Eastern District Hospital (Duke Street Hospital) for four weeks, before being transferred on Boxing Day 1923 to Woodilee Hospital. He was detained there for five more months before being released in May 1924, the case closed with the single word “recovered”.

It is impossible to know what led to his illness, whether it was due to his war service or to other problems that he had, but these cases illustrate the hoops that people without means had to jump through to get help.

I would like to say that we live in more enlightened times, but sadly reading about this and the way the poor were assessed and judged over the past 500 years does seem uncomfortably close to the language and system which we have in place today. Scrooge today can walk past those asking that we help the poor and demand, “Are there no foodbanks? Are there no fitness for work tests?”

NB. Can I heartily recommend that if you want to find out about old Glasgow hospitals a great place to start would be to read “The Medical Institutions of Glasgow. A Handbook”, written in 1888, which is reproduced here .

Pictures courtesy of Paul Climie