Capturing History: The Story Behind "Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow"

In the mid-19th century, Glasgow was a city in transition. The industrial revolution had transformed it into a bustling urban centre, but with progress came challenges. The old parts of the city were plagued by overcrowding, poverty, and unsanitary living conditions.


6/30/20248 min read

Introduction to Glasgow in the Mid-19th Century

In the mid-19th century, Glasgow underwent a dramatic transformation, driven largely by the Industrial Revolution. The city, once a modest settlement, rapidly evolved into a bustling urban center. This era marked a significant period of growth and change, as Glasgow became a hub for industry, commerce, and innovation. Factories and mills sprang up, drawing workers from rural areas and beyond, eager to partake in the economic opportunities the city promised.

However, this rapid industrialization came at a cost. The influx of people seeking employment led to severe overcrowding. Housing was scarce, and the available accommodations were often substandard. Many families were crammed into small, dilapidated buildings known as tenements, situated in narrow, winding alleys or "closes." These living conditions were far from ideal, lacking basic amenities and proper sanitation. The streets of Glasgow's working-class districts were frequently strewn with refuse, contributing to unsanitary conditions that posed significant health risks.

Poverty was rampant, and the disparity between the wealthy industrialists and the working poor was stark. While some enjoyed the fruits of industrial prosperity, many more struggled to make ends meet. The dire living conditions, coupled with limited access to clean water and adequate healthcare, led to widespread illness and high mortality rates. Cholera outbreaks and other diseases were not uncommon, further exacerbating the plight of the city's impoverished residents.

It was against this backdrop of rapid industrial growth and its accompanying social challenges that Thomas Annan emerged. His work would come to document the stark realities of life in Glasgow's poorest quarters, capturing the essence of a city grappling with the consequences of unchecked industrialization. Annan's photographs would provide a poignant visual record, offering insights into the everyday lives of those who inhabited Glasgow's "old closes and streets" during this transformative period.

Thomas Annan: The Man Behind the Lens

Thomas Annan, born in 1829 in Dairsie, Fife, Scotland, is widely regarded as a pioneering figure in the realm of photographic documentation. Originally trained as a lithographic draftsman, Annan's transition into photography was marked by his establishment of a photographic studio in Glasgow in 1855. His meticulous attention to detail and technical proficiency soon earned him a reputation as a skilled photographer.

In 1866, Annan received a pivotal commission from the Glasgow City Improvement Trust. This commission was part of a broader urban redevelopment initiative aimed at addressing the city's overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions. The Trust sought to document the old closes and streets of Glasgow's inner city before their demolition and transformation. Annan was tasked with capturing the essence of these historic locales, a task that required both artistic vision and technical expertise.

Thomas Annan approached this project with a deep sense of purpose. His motivation was not merely to fulfill a contractual obligation, but to create a visual record of a vanishing way of life. He utilized the wet collodion process, a then-modern photographic method, to produce clear and detailed images. This technique involved coating a glass plate with a light-sensitive solution, exposing it in the camera while still wet, and developing it immediately after exposure.

Annan's work on this project was characterized by a blend of documentary precision and artistic sensitivity. He meticulously framed each shot to highlight the architectural features and the lived-in quality of the spaces. His photographs captured the narrow, winding alleys, the worn cobblestones, and the humble abodes that housed Glasgow's working-class population. Through Annan's lens, these images conveyed a poignant narrative of the city's social and economic landscape during a period of significant transformation.

Thomas Annan's contribution to the documentation of Glasgow's history remains invaluable. His photographs not only serve as a historical record but also as an artistic testament to the city's rich and complex past. His work continues to be celebrated for its technical excellence and its ability to evoke the spirit of a bygone era.

The Commission: Documenting Glasgow's Slums

The commission Charles Rennie Mackintosh received from the Glasgow City Improvement Trust was a pivotal moment in his career and in the preservation of Glasgow's history. The Trust aimed to document the slum areas of Glasgow with the goal of urban renewal and social improvement. This initiative sought to address the rampant poverty, overcrowding, and unsanitary living conditions that plagued parts of the city. By capturing visual evidence of these harsh realities, the Trust hoped to raise awareness and garner support for their ambitious urban improvement projects.

Annan's task was daunting. The slums were characterized by narrow, winding streets and densely packed tenements. Many buildings were in a state of severe disrepair, with crumbling facades and inadequate sanitation. The dimly lit alleys and confined spaces posed significant challenges for photography, especially given the technological limitations of the late 19th century. Annan had to navigate these treacherous environments, often working in poor lighting conditions and amidst the daily lives of the impoverished residents. His work required not only technical skill but also a deep sensitivity to the subjects he was documenting.

Despite these obstacles, Annan's photographs managed to capture the stark reality of Glasgow's slums with remarkable clarity and empathy. He used innovative techniques for the era, such as glass plate negatives and albumen prints, to produce detailed images that conveyed the textures and atmospheres of the streets and closes. These images were not only a testament to his technical prowess but also an enduring record of the social conditions that the Glasgow City Improvement Trust sought to change.

In executing this commission, Annan faced various limitations, from the physical constraints of the locations to the societal restrictions of photographing people living in abject poverty. Nonetheless, his work provided a crucial historical record and played a significant role in the subsequent urban renewal efforts. Annan's dedication to documenting Glasgow's slums stands as a powerful example of how art and social documentation can intersect to drive meaningful change.

The Photographic Process and Techniques

Thomas Annan's photographic documentation of Glasgow's old closes and streets stands as a testament to both his technical prowess and innovative spirit. During the mid-19th century, the technology available to photographers was relatively primitive by today's standards, yet Annan's methods demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the medium. His primary technique involved the use of the wet collodion process, a popular method during that era. This process required a glass plate to be coated with a collodion solution, sensitized in a silver nitrate bath, and exposed in the camera while still wet. This meticulous procedure demanded a portable darkroom, which Annan ingeniously adapted to his needs.

Annan's approach was distinctive in its dedication to capturing the essence of Glasgow's ancient architecture and urban life. Unlike many of his contemporaries who focused on portraits or staged compositions, Annan ventured into the less glamorous, often neglected areas of the city. His choice of subject matter was not merely a technical challenge but also a social commentary, aiming to document the living conditions of the working class. The wet collodion process, known for its fine detail and clarity, allowed Annan to produce highly detailed images that revealed the textures and nuances of the aged buildings and narrow streets.

One of the innovative techniques employed by Annan was the strategic use of natural light. Given the narrow and dimly lit conditions of the closes, he often had to work with long exposure times, which required a steady hand and patience. Annan's ability to manage light and shadow effectively enhanced the atmospheric quality of his photographs, lending them an almost ethereal quality. Additionally, his use of large-format cameras enabled him to capture wide-angle views of the urban landscape, providing a comprehensive visual record that was both artistic and documentary.

Thomas Annan's dedication to his craft and his innovative use of available photographic techniques not only set him apart from his peers but also ensured that his work would endure as a significant historical record. His photographs of Glasgow's old closes and streets offer a poignant glimpse into the past, preserving the city's heritage for future generations.

Impact and Legacy of "Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow"

The photographic series "Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow" by Thomas Annan holds a profound impact on both historical documentation and social reform. Captured between 1868 and 1877, Annan's work provided a vivid portrayal of the living conditions in Glasgow's slums, shedding light on the stark realities faced by the city's poor. This series not only served as a powerful visual record but also acted as a catalyst for urban reform in Glasgow. The images highlighted the urgent need for improved living conditions, contributing to the eventual implementation of the Glasgow City Improvement Act of 1866, which aimed to address the squalor and overcrowding in the city.

From an artistic standpoint, Annan's series is celebrated for its pioneering approach to documentary photography. His meticulous attention to detail and commitment to capturing the essence of Glasgow's streets and closes set a benchmark for future generations of photographers. The series is often regarded as one of the earliest examples of social documentary photography, a genre that seeks to capture and comment on societal issues through the lens of the camera. Annan's work paved the way for future photographers to use their craft as a medium for social commentary and change.

The historical significance of "Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow" extends beyond its immediate impact. The series has become an invaluable resource for historians studying urban life in the 19th century. It offers a rare glimpse into the daily lives of Glasgow's working class, preserving the architectural and social heritage of a bygone era. The detailed images allow historians to analyze aspects of urban development, housing, and social structures that written records alone cannot convey.

Moreover, Annan's influence can be seen in the works of subsequent generations of photographers and social reformers. His ability to combine artistry with social consciousness inspired many to use their talents to advocate for the marginalized and to document the human condition. The legacy of "Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow" is a testament to the enduring power of photography as a tool for historical documentation and social change.

Preserving and Accessing Annan's Work Today

Thomas Annan's remarkable photographs, encapsulating the essence of 19th-century Glasgow, continue to be preserved and accessed through various esteemed institutions and initiatives. Key among these is the Glasgow City Archives, which houses a significant collection of Annan's work. These photographs have undergone meticulous restoration efforts to maintain their integrity and ensure they remain a valuable resource for future generations. Institutions like the National Galleries of Scotland and the University of Glasgow Library also boast substantial archives of Annan's work, contributing to the scholarly study and public appreciation of his photographic legacy.

Restoration efforts have been pivotal in preserving Annan's photographs. Specialists have employed advanced techniques to repair damage and enhance the clarity of these historical images. This ongoing work ensures that Annan's visual documentation of the old closes and streets of Glasgow is preserved in its original form as much as possible, allowing contemporary audiences to gain a genuine connection to Glasgow's past.

In contemporary studies of Glasgow’s history, Annan’s series continues to be highly influential. His photographs are frequently featured in exhibitions and publications that explore the city's socio-economic transformations. For instance, the Mitchell Library in Glasgow has hosted exhibitions showcasing Annan's work, providing context and commentary on the urban landscape and living conditions during the 19th century. Moreover, academic publications often reference Annan's photographs to illustrate discussions on urban development, public health, and social history.

Digital archives have further enhanced the accessibility of Annan's photographs. Institutions have digitized these historical images, making them available online for researchers, historians, and the general public. This digitization not only preserves the photographs but also democratizes access, allowing a global audience to explore Glasgow's history through Annan's lens. Websites like the Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network (SCRAN) and the Digital Library of the University of Glasgow offer extensive digital collections of Annan’s work.

Thus, through careful preservation, restoration, and digital dissemination, Thomas Annan's photographs continue to serve as a vital resource in understanding and appreciating the rich history of Glasgow.