Was the Second City of Empire the First City of the carbon economy? Ewan Gibbs takes a tour through history and across civic space to show us the special sites of interest in ‘Glasgow’s role in the making of a fossil burning world’
It would be trite to claim the global carbon economy originated in one time or one place, but if it did, Glasgow Green would have a good claim to the title. Glasgow City Council’s official People Make Glasgow website, refers to James Watt’s famous 1765 ‘eureka’ moment when he began devising a separate condenser for steam engines which ‘is said to have kick-started the industrial revolution.’ Watt stands tall in the pantheon of philosophers, inventors and scientists who populate congratulatory versions of Scottish history.
In recent years, his reputation has been revised in a way which reveals more about the context in which the steam engine spread. Stephen Mullen, a pioneering scholar of Scotland’s role in Atlantic slavery, has published research which reveals Watt engaged in slave trading. Watt’s involvement in slavery offers a glimpse on the interwoven human and environmental injustices through which fossil fuels developed, and Glasgow’s centrality to that history.
We’re going to go on a tour of the city and its surroundings to better understand Glasgow’s role in the making of a fossil burning world. Our stops will illuminate how the economic effects and political power and conflicts associated with coal and then oil transformed the city during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
From Glasgow Green, we only need to take a short walk west along the Clyde to pass further significant locations related to the age of coal. Watt’s modified steam engine came to power Clydeside’s textile factories that were supplied with slave-picked cotton from North America.
Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital persuasively details the debates between industrialists that led them to abandon the fast-flowing water of the Clyde in favour of the coal seams of Lanarkshire and Ayrshire. Opting for coal was, as all energy choices are, a politicised decision. Investment in coal-fired engines was motivated by the opportunity it presented to discipline labour and safeguard private property which was preferable to the collectivist imperatives that harnessing water energy necessitated.
The former customs house is a stone’s throw from the Green on the Broomielaw. It is a reminder of the raw materials that were brought to the city and the industrial goods that were exported from it as well as the people that accompanied them. Appropriately, James Watt Street, which adjoins the Broomeilaw from the north, houses one of Glasgow’s best-preserved former tobacco warehouses, symbolising his connection to the slave economy. Its continued usage as a storage site also makes us aware of long continuities in the city’s infrastructure.
Black West African and Chinese sailors were among those brought to Glasgow by sojourning, and conversely, Scots left the city on coal-powered steamships destined for the United States. These liners were a speciality of Clydeside’s shipyards that mushroomed during the nineteenth century. Yet high rates of emigration from the Lowlands was evidence of the injustices embedded in Scotland’s industrial economy, which was under-capitalised by the early twentieth century and reliant on relatively low-waged but skilled craft labour.
As we continue to walk west, we come across an imposing site. The Finnieston Crane (‘Cran’ to the locals!) has become an icon of the industrial era as Glasgow markets itself as a creative centre with a gritty past. It also played a crucial role in one of Glaswegian comedian Limmy’s most memorable and surreal sketches.
On first sight, an onlooker may assume it was connected to shipbuilding, as the crane further west along the river at the former Connell’s yard in Scotstoun is. The cran has a different past but one no less embedded in coal technologies. It was used to haul exports on to ships destined for distant shores. Most famously, it loaded locomotives and railway rolling stock, often bound for colonial territories. Glasgow-made locomotives were a signature of the British administered railways in India and South Africa that apologists for empire make so much play of. As ‘second city of the Empire’, Victorian Glasgow’s civic identity readily combined imperialism and industrialism. Both were sustained by coal.
Next, we catch the bus north to Springburn to view the impressive former headquarters of the North British Locomotive Company (NBLC), Flemington House. The outside of the building is decorated with steam train themed ornaments. Inside, a stain glass window commemorates the NBLC workers who fell in the First World War. The display includes fifty-two-unit badges, demonstrating the scale of enlistment by the firm’s workforce. A grand staircase leads to a large former boardroom where T.E. Lawrence took the recently crowned King Faisal of Iraq to order locomotives for his newly formed British protectorate shortly after the conflict ended.
NBLC’s board members were among the ‘old fashioned tycoons’ who the historian Christopher Harvie identified as the dominant class in Scottish society during the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. They stood at the head of an integrated economic structure that stretched from coal mining, steelmaking and heavy engineering through to banking and the management of investment funds whose interests spanned the globe. These were often highly related to the extraction of minerals and the building of carbon infrastructures such as new railways. NBLC’s executives were hostile to organised labour and committed to an intensely patriarchal and hierarchical industrial order. Conversely, and unlike the multinational owners that followed, their paternalism and investment in Glasgow maintained large-scale employment and stabilised communities which prospered around building locomotives and exporting coal-based technologies.
Upon returning to the city centre from Springburn, we could walk down High Street, Glasgow’s historic centre, and head along George Street where we are surrounded by the buildings of Strathclyde University. In its previous life, the university was the Royal Technical College, which was an important centre for the study of mining engineering. Its graduates staffed Scottish coal mines, but they also fanned out across the world, working for instance in the Zambian copper belt as the privileged overseers of exploited black labourers.
It was not only mines but also oil wells that led Scots to prospect around the world during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As we walk west along George Street and through George Square, we come on to West George Street, which historically hosted the headquarters of the Burmah Oil Company. Burmah was incorporated in the late nineteenth century. Its name alluded to the company’s principal interest in the Rangoon oilfields where it maintained a presence until the 1960s.
These activities had a ripple effect on Clydeside, stimulating production based on the new fuel source that transformed the world in the twentieth century within the industrial apparatus that had developed around coal. For instance, Motherwell Bridge Engineering, a company located in the Lanarkshire steelmaking town to the east of Glasgow from which it takes its name, manufactured tanks for the oil industry that were shipped to Rangoon.
In our earlier journey between the customs house and the cran we walked under a large road bridge that symbolises how the movement from a coal to oil economy permanently changed Glasgow’s built environment. The Kingston Bridge was opened in 1970 in a pivotal episode during the development of Glasgow’s ring road system. These developments were accompanied by the demolition of swathes of the city, including the industrial working-class district of Anderston which neighbours the bridge to the north. Populations moved to new houses, new jobs and new industries on the periphery of or outside of the city.
If we made the short walk to Glasgow Central station and boarded a train headed west for Johnston we would be taken to an emblematic example. Some of the new cars on the ring road were built nearby, at Linwood, between 1963 and 1981. Its workforce was swelled by men who had been employed in the shipyards. They took the opportunity to relocate to specially built modernised housing schemes, often leaving poor conditions in the city’s tenements behind. Clydeside shipbuilding suffered from the effects of increased competition as the coal-fired ships of the past gave way to oil fuelled vessels and the construction of tankers to move crude around the globe.
Linwood was managed by English, American and French headquartered companies over its relatively short life. It symbolised the demise of the Scottish tycoons during the oil era. When we think about Scotland and oil, we usually think about this time period and men in Stetson hats inaugurating an age of big money and high economic and physical risks in the North Sea. These were years when Glasgow’s population declined and Scotland’s economic centre of gravity moved east, to the oil city of Aberdeen and Edinburgh’s growing financial sector.
Yet Glasgow was affected by the finds in the North Sea too. Two minutes around the corner of the old Burmah Oil Company offices lies 150 St Vincent Street. During the late 1970s and early 1980s this building housed the corporate headquarters of the British National Oil Corporation (BNOC). BNOC was a publicly owned company formed to ensure a just reward was enjoyed from the discovery of black gold in British territorial waters.
The ownership of these resources was hotly contested. Hervey Gibson, the former chief economist at BNOC recalled enjoying some ‘very good lunches’ at St Vincent Street when I interviewed him earlier this year. He also remembered the tensions between the ‘Scandinavian’ impulses of staff like himself who supported the social democratic objectives of public enterprises and the individualist short-term profit-driven ‘American’ culture of his colleagues who had worked in the private oil industry.
It was the latter that won out following BNOC’s privatisation by the Thatcher government in the 1980s. BNOC was located in Glasgow with political motivations, following the pressure applied to the 1974-9 Labour governments by the electoral advance of the SNP in the preceding years. As the SNP’s petro-nationalist economic vision reshaped Scottish politics 1973, Margo MacDonald caused a severe shock at a byelection in Govan, a shipbuilding community on Glasgow’s Southside. Her election came in the midst of the SNP’s ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ campaign, when the Nationalists starkly posed the question of whether voters would rather be ‘Rich Scots or Poor Britons?’. Shortly after her election, MacDonald contrasted the potential of oil wealth with her constituents’ experience of ‘demolition and dereliction in Govan’.
As BNOC was privatised over the 1980s, another transformation in Glasgow’s economic base was developing. Not far from the St Vincent Street offices, Buchannan Street was becoming the centre of a new retail hub at the centre of the city’s growing services economy which is perhaps now itself facing decline in the face of online shopping. Goods brought to Britain on large container ships from East and South Asia came to predominate on the shelves of Glasgow’s shopping centres, reversing the earlier pattern of exports we discussed earlier.
Coal and oil fundamentally transformed Glasgow during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the city was a key location in the making of a global carbon economy. Our tour has taken us round some of the important sites in that story, demonstrating the economic expansion, social injustices and ongoing political conflicts associated with fuel sources that attached Glasgow to international exchanges of people, goods and ideas.
COP26 could be understood as a confirmation that the city is turning its back on the world that flowed from James Watt’s epiphany on the Green. Coal and oil improved lives and made people wealthier and more secure to contrasting extents. Glasgow often played a leading role in contributing to the causes of climate change that is being disproportionately born in poorer and less industrially developed nations, whilst also participating in economic relations that exploited them both formally and informally as colonies.
Renewable technologies, and the Scottish Government’s ambitions for the nation to play a leading role in developing, harnessing and spreading them around the world, perhaps have a redemptive or compensatory implication. In this vision, Scotland is a good global citizen, realising the potential for cleaner, fairer and sustainable energy production. Wind, wave and solar are also held out as a means, just as oil was in the 1970s, to achieve social justice within Scotland, especially in its former industrial regions. Yet the scars of deprivation and deindustrialization are not the aftereffects of the late twentieth century but in fact an ongoing experience.
I stood and watched the last train leave the historic site of St Rollox railway works in Springburn, in the vicinity of the former NBLC headquarters, during 2019, after a German multinational owner pulled the plug on a century and a half of railways engineering in North Glasgow. Both localised and global hopes for change will be dependent on decisions made during and after COP26 in the context of the conflicts and inequalities that the fossil fuel world created, even as we strive to bring it to an end.