Once Proud Burghs: Community and the Politics of Autonomy, Annexation and Assimilation - Govan and Partick, c. 1850-1925

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


This thesis seeks to provide a qualitative and comparative account of politics and power in two densely-populated Scottish suburban communities: the former Police Burghs of Partick and Govan. These are communities whose rich urban history has been relatively underexplored by dint of their proximity to Glasgow and the fact that they were formally outside the city boundaries until 1912. The study aims to redress the balance in the burghs’ favour, making a substantial qualitative, analytical contribution to the wider historiography of political change in the British Isles, while simultaneously adding a comparative empirical case study to the conceptual debate over centralism versus localism. Foremost among the historiographical concerns addressed are civic nationalism and local self-government, class politics, the rise of Labour, including ‘Red Clydeside’, and the interlinked electoral demise of Liberalism. This qualitative study of political change in two populous and pioneering ‘locally self-governed’ communities therefore goes beyond merely chronicling Partick’s and Govan’s creation as burghs, their subsequent development and annexation to Glasgow. Rather, it examines the dynamics of ideological and party-political change in two significant urban localities from the mid-Victorian period up to the arrival of near-democratic electoral politics after the First World War. Close attention is therefore paid throughout to political rhetoric in relation to the local experience of ideological, institutional and electoral change. The central contention of this work is as follows. Partick’s and Govan’s political and administrative development from the 1850s to the 1920s is best understood within the wider ideological context of the rise and fall of ‘local self-government’. ‘Local self-government’ was a mid-nineteenth century bourgeois Liberal solution to the myriad problems associated with urban industrial life in the Scottish context. In Govan’s and Partick’s cases, ‘local self-government’ was in large part sustained by the promotion of local civic nationalism, albeit this phenomenon persisted in the Scottish context until at least the 1975 local government reorganisation: long after the burghs and the legislative framework that allowed their creation were extinguished. By 1912, when the burghs were absorbed into Greater Glasgow, the ideology of ‘local self-government’ had been gradually eroded by large-scale ‘municipal socialism’ combined with ‘national efficiency’. In broad-brush terms, it is argued here that the transition between these dominant ideals mirrored, and in some ways pre-figured, the rise of Victorian Liberalism and its eventual eclipse by independent Labour. These developments and the political conflict which accompanied them are traced throughout the study with careful analysis of the political discourse from various ‘players’ in both communities from the formation of the burghs until their annexation, and even beyond, to the electoral politics of the early post-1918 period. It is shown that notwithstanding its intrinsic merits in theory, ‘local self-government’ as practised in Partick and Govan was often undermined by hypocrisy and self-interest from the burghs’ civic leaders. Analysis of the political culture and traditions of anti-landlordism in the former burghs also sheds new light on the phenomenon of ‘Red Clydeside’. Partick and Govan were shipbuilding boom towns from the mid-nineteenth century and throughout the years examined in this study. While both communities experienced rapid industrialisation and demographic growth in the mid-nineteenth century, the latter burgh was more populous and proletarian than the former. The implications of this for their comparative political development were significant, as is outlined below. Both communities’ rapid rise in the mid-nineteenth century prompted them to adopt the ‘populous place’ provisions of the 1850 and 1862 General Police Acts (respectively) to become quasi-autonomous police burghs, a distinctively Scottish form of municipality. Both communities jealously maintained their independence from the neighbouring city of Glasgow through several aggressive ‘annexation’ attempts until they finally amalgamated with the city in 1912. By 1904, the burghs had grown so fast that they were two of only nine Scottish towns and cities (including Glasgow and Edinburgh) whose population exceeded 50,000. As major urban centres by the 1900s, their political development clearly merits more than parochial interest. The thesis is divided into two complementary sections. The first considers the development of key themes in the burghs’ civic life, including the Liberal ethos of local self-government, industrial paternalism and the emergence of class-based politics. This begins with an examination of the reasons why Partick and Govan adopted the General Police Acts in 1852 and 1864 respectively, followed by an appraisal of the municipal policies pursued in both burghs’ formative years. There is especial focus on Partick, as one of Scotland’s first ‘populous place’ burghs. The focus then moves on chronologically to consider the ways in which both burghs responded to a number of critical episodes in the late 1860s and 1870s, with reference to what the community leaders perceived as threats to their existence emanating from outside and inside the burgh boundaries. From the mid 1880s until the 1912 annexation, the Burgh Halls became theatres of partisan and ideological conflict. The 1886 Home Rule crisis triggered a split in the ranks of the local Liberal Party, which among other things had the effect of introducing openly party politics to the municipal scene. The later municipal chapters examine the competing visions of the nature, purpose and extent of municipal power proffered by Liberal, Liberal Unionist, Conservative and Labour councillors, in addition to identifying tensions regarding temperance and sectarianism. This is followed by a longer term analysis of the reasons why both communities amalgamated with Glasgow in 1912, including discussion of annexation in the context of wider ideological debates about ‘municipal socialism’ and ‘national efficiency’ against the formerly prevailing ethos of local self-government. The second and final section of the thesis considers parliamentary politics from the burghs’ 1885 formation into county divisions of Lanarkshire, each returning one MP to Westminster. This includes scrutiny of the extent to which both communities deserved their reputation as ‘strongholds’ of Liberalism in the period before 1914. Consideration is given to the Home Rule split and its implications, and to the extent to which Labour was able to dent the dominance of the Liberals and Unionists before the war. Here, as with the earlier municipal analysis, much consideration is given to paternalism and sectarianism. Neil Maclean’s precocious victory in Govan in 1918 owed much to the community’s more proletarian character than Partick, and to Labour’s emerging ability to transcend sectarian boundaries there; an ability which had been evidenced in local municipal and parliamentary politics since the 1880s, well before the upheaval of annexation and the cataclysm of war. The specific focus of this study does not detract from its general contribution to historiography as outlined above. Nevertheless, it is conceded that the emphasis on municipal and parliamentary politics, especially electoral discourse, is overwhelmingly and necessarily qualitative in approach. In consequence, the war years are discussed only briefly, due to the associated abeyance of municipal and parliamentary contests from 1911 until 1918. And as this is not a social or economic history of the former burghs, it is not intended to be read as either, still less to substitute for them. Rather, the thesis forms a substantial contribution to academic historiography by remedying the near invisibility, certainly obscurity, of two populous Clydeside communities, whose experiences from the 1850s until the 1920s, reveal much about the dynamics and discourse of political change, not just in Scotland but more generally.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University of Glasgow
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 1 Jun 2011


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