It is a hot Saturday afternoon in early June when my mother-in-law, daughter and I make our way to the site of the former Royal Maternity Hospital in Rottenrow for a Women of the Merchant City Heritage Walk run by Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL). The library, based on Landressy Street close to Bridgeton Cross in the East End of Glasgow, is the only accredited museum dedicated to women’s history in the UK and has an impressive collection recognised as of national significance. Volunteers (or ‘history detectives’ as they call themselves), research and deliver a range of Women’s Heritage Walks in Glasgow. The most recent one in May 2023 was a new walk through the Gorbals and there are also a range of Suffrage Walks as part of the programme. The aim is to make Glasgow’s women’s history visible, and to tell the stories of women who have had an impact on the city and beyond.
In Where are the Women? (2021), Sara Sheridan claims that our sense of self and where we come from is not confined to history books (2021: 7) arguing that if women don’t see themselves represented in the world around them, the message that girls and women receive is that ‘their stories, and indeed achievements, don’t matter’ (ibid.). Sheridan notes that in her home city of Edinburgh there are more statues of animals than there are of women, and she embarks on an imagining of a Scotland that maps the achievements of women, celebrating their lives and making them visible. In The Feminist City (2021), Leslie Kern argues that ‘physical places like cities matter when we want to think about social change’ (2021: 14), but as Rebecca Solnit reminds us, walking the city streets is not equal: ‘Women have routinely been punished and intimidated for attempting that most simple of freedoms, taking a walk’ (Solnit, 2001: 234). These two elements; of accessing women’s invisible histories, and the act of taking a walk in the city which has for women often been constructed as ‘performance rather than transport’ (ibid.) come together in this women’s history heritage walk through Glasgow’s Merchant City.
Three generations of women in my family stand looking over the foliage of the Rottenrow gardens where the old hospital used to loom over the city. I point out to my daughter that the portico we are in was the entrance to the hospital. Huge green leaves fill the windows and she asks: ‘are they real?’ I assure her they are. While I am on a walk with my family, I am also undertaking what David Overend describes as ‘creative fieldwork’ (2023: 6), acknowledging the ways in which our presence and engagement with a site becomes part of it. Once everyone has gathered, we walk a short distance to find some shade and learn about the now demolished hospital, commemorated by a 7m high sculpture of a safety pin with a bird on top called Mhtpothta/Maternity created by George Wylie and installed on the site in 2004 by the University of Strathclyde. Our guides tell us that we are on the edge of the Merchant City, but that this area would have been populated by the poorer classes, who lived in the shadow of the smoking factories while the wealthy merchants lived further down the hill. Everyone laughs when the guide tells of the famous tobacco lord John Glassford (the namesake of Glassford Street) who had a portrait of his wife repainted with the face of his new spouse: ‘This piece of 18th century editing deems women to be replaceable, almost ghostly; there in spirit but not important to the story’ (GWL heritage walk).
The artist Joan Eardley painted the children in this area and was notorious for walking around with her paints and canvases in a pram. Her Three Children at a Tenement Window provides the cover of the map for the walk. Our tour guide tells a story about how Eardley painted her male friend nude, and after a Glasgow newspaper printed her address in the paper she was inundated with offers from men to take their clothes off for her. She was known to say that Glasgow has ‘a living thing. While Glasgow has this I’ll always want to paint.’ Joan died of breast cancer in 1963 aged 42 but her depictions of Glasgow children live on in galleries across Scotland and the world.
Our guide says, ‘If you hiked up the hill, imagine doing it whilst nearly 9 months pregnant; the incline was known by some as Induction Brae or Hill’ (GWL heritage walk). As well as a maternity hospital, it was also a midwifery training centre and pioneered ultrasound (used at Glasgow shipyards) and risky caesarean-sections. We learn from the tour guides that women who suffered from poor diet and no sunlight (referred to in the medical literature of the time as having ‘rickety dwarfism’) had deformed pelvises and became pioneers of the surgery. The first woman, a 27-year-old who had the operation in April 1888, called her son Caesar Cameron, after the procedure and Dr Cameron who delivered her baby.
Figure 4: Image of women who underwent caesarean sections at the hospital
Figure 5: Nurses at Rottenrow
My own daughter was born by emergency-c-section, and I think about the lineage of women who had this surgery in the 1880s, who would stay in bed for 18 days after the surgery (we were out the hospital less than 24hours later). Now aged four my daughter sits in her pram and draws while the women talk. I am not sure how much she is taking in but when I ask her what she is drawing she says it is the ‘green ladies’, the names given to the nurses due to their green uniforms and strong sense of sisterhood. The Lock Hospital for Unfortunate Females was also on this site, a treatment centre for women and children with venereal diseases which opened in 1805 and was based in Rottenrow in 1845-6, designed to look like the surrounding tenements, presumably to hide what were seen as morally objectionable diseases.
As we walk deeper into the Merchant City on to George Street, the tour guides battle against the traffic noise to be heard. We stand on the site of the home of the former Strickland Press, where The Word (a Socialist paper which ran from 1938-1962) was published. Ethel Macdonald and Jenny Patrick were two of the key figures in the paper ensuring issues such as family planning and equality for women were covered. They travelled to Spain during the civil war and Ethel earned the name ‘the Scots Scarlet Pimpernel’ due to her role at an anarchist radio station in Barcelona and supporting comrades in prison.
Figure 6: Ethel MacDonald
Figure 7: News article about The Scots Scarlet Pimpernel, Ethel MacDonald (taken outside the Press Bar).
The smart green tiles of The Press Bar are a legacy of the news heritage of these streets and on this sunny day, people enjoy a cold pint of lager on the outdoor tables, Glasgow passing for European in the sunshine. We stand outside the Herald building on Albion Street (1980-1995) as our guides focus on women in news, charting the histories of those writers and the occasional rare editor who ‘made it beyond the women’s pages’. They evoke the sounds and atmosphere of the street when at midnight the presses would be fired up and the sound of machinery would be followed by the noise of bundles of newspapers smacking on to the pavement. A picture is passed around of Dorothy Grace Elder, a features editor within the worker’s co-operative which created The Scottish Daily News.
As we enter the gates of the St David’s Ramshorn Church the street noise fades away and the stillness of the green leafy graveyard settles over the group. We are here to hear the story of the story of Pierre Emile L’Angelier who died in 1857 and rests in the Fleming family tomb. When his body was exhumed two days after his death, he was found to have enough arsenic to kill 20 men in his system. Miss Madeline Smith’s love letters were found at his home and her murder trial became one of the most famous Victorian cases. ‘Why is there only one boy?’ my daughter asks, nodding to the man who has accompanied his wife for the day (and who ends up playing the judge in the short re-enactment of Madeline Smith’s trial – the verdict of not proven saw her walking free). I explain to my daughter that we are on a women’s history walk so it is mainly women here, but that everyone is welcome. She nods, seemingly satisfied, and returns to doodling on the map with her favourite pink pen.
Figure 8: Images of Blythswood Square and rendering of Madeline Smith in Ramshorn churchyard
Figure 9: Exterior of the Ramshorn Church, Ingram Street
Returning to the bustling streets with people sitting outside enjoying beers and a late lunch, we hear about women’s involvement in the temperance movement, as 19th century Glasgow became a haven for tearooms to try to move away from the problems caused by the ‘demon drink’ (GWL heritage walk). Carrie A. Nation, known as the bar-room smasher came from Kentucky armed with a hatchet to smash bars in the city. Her newspaper The Hatchet was part of the highly active Glasgow temperance movement which aimed in politicising women and making visible the effects on families, such as domestic abuse, as one of the women detectives tells us ‘A nation never rises higher than its mothers’ (GWL heritage walk).
As the tour is running late, the route is diverted to a final stop, on Brunswick Street where we learn of Miss Catherine Cranston, one of the most important businesswomen of the Victorian era, famous for her tearooms. At a time when women stayed home, her father George Cranston was a supporter of women’s suffrage and wanted to educate his daughters. She cannily listed herself as C. Cranston in the phone book as women came after their husbands, and she also decided to keep her maiden name after she got married, something that was unheard of at the time. She walked up Sauchiehall street, named as the street ‘where the willows grow’ to make herself visible on the streets, a businesswoman amongst the flaneurs at a time when women’s place was in the home.
Figure 10: Detail of entrance, Brunswick Street, final stop on the tour
Figure 11: My daughter holding a cartoon image of Dorothy Grace Elder: Women Make History
I was inspired to come on this walk after reading Where are the Women? By Sara Sheridan which my mother-in-law gifted to me for Christmas last year and it felt fitting to come with her as she has a keen interest in history. My daughter also attended, and I was glad, as I want her to know of the women that shaped this city, invisible compared to the men who are monumentalised and celebrated through the statues, street names and buildings. There are some who should not be celebrated, Glasgow’s role in the history of slavery more evidently traced in the Merchant City than any other part of the city. Geographer Gillian Rose argues that one way in which identity is connected to a particular place is by a feeling that you belong to this place. Can you feel like you belong if you don’t see yourself represented or monumentalised or even acknowledged? Kern also writes about the ‘geography of fear’ (2021: 149) that many women experience (often more acutely for women of colour, transwomen and queer women) as they walk through the city streets, especially at night, the threat of sexual violence never far away. As Kathleen Jamie writes: ‘It doesn’t seem too much to ask, to be able to walk outdoors, even in daylight without fear’ (2021: 9).
Sheridan’s book opens with Solnit’s reflection that she couldn’t imagine how she might have conceived of herself and her possibilities if she had moved through a city where most things were named after women. Glasgow, like many other cities, was built and historicised by men, as the dominant gender. So where are the women? They live on in the stories that are told on the streets of the city, not often visibly monumentalised, but traced through the oral histories of those pioneers and rebels, mothers, wives, and daughters who made their mark on Glasgow. This is walking the feminist city.
Andrews, Kerri. 2021. Wanderers: A History of Women Walking. London: Reaktion Books.
Glasgow Women's Library Heritage Walk 3rd June at 2:00 pm - 4:00 pm Women of the Merchant City Heritage Walk
Holme, Chris. 2015. https://historycompany.co.uk/2015/11/16/the-wee-glasgow-women-and-the-birth-of-caesarian/ accessed 0/06/23.
Jamie, Kathleen. 2021. Foreword to Andrews, Kerri. 2021. Wanderers: A History of Women Walking. London: Reaktion Books.
Kern, Leslie. 2020. The Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World. London: Verso.
Massey, Doreen and Pat Jess. 1995. A Place in the World? Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Overend, David. 2023. Performance in the Field: Interdisciplinary Practice-as-Research. Palgrave Macmillan.
Sheridan, Sara. 2021. Where are the Women?: A Guide to an Imagined Scotland. Edinburgh: Historic Environment Scotland.
Solnit, Rebecca. 2001. Wanderlust: A History of Walking. London: Verso.