The Empire Exhibition, 1938

This was the last of the great exhibitions of Empire. It was a spectacular showcase of the power and ingenuity of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, presenting a modern and united image of the British Empire to the world. This is particularly significant when the exhibition is considered in the context of contemporary current affairs. By 1936 when exhibition planning began, German re-armament was well underway (in violation of the Treaty of Versailles). By 1938 Hitler had successfully expanded into Austria without firing a shot. And by the time of the opening ceremony in May 1938, Hitler had moved his army to the Czech border, intimidating Czech President Benes, and underlining his expansionist intentions in Europe. The speed at which the 1938 Empire Exhibition was put together, along with its scale and modernity, could be viewed as a response to Nazi Germany’s threatening behaviour – a message to Hitler perhaps, illustrating the unity of the British Empire and demonstrating the UK’s resources and progress

Alternatively, when viewed in a local context, the Empire Exhibition was a beacon of light and hope in an otherwise dark and grimy city. The interwar years in Glasgow, and Govan in particular, had been marred by economic depression. The once prosperous shipyards saw fewer contracts; and strikes meant that work often ground to a halt. Unemployment was rife and many Glaswegians had spent years on the dole without reasonable opportunity for employment. The 1938 Exhibition presented new opportunities; it sent a message that Scotland was modernising and cutting edge – it gave Glaswegians a view into a brighter future.

Whatever your view on the motivations behind this significant event, it must be regarded as just that – significant. The Exhibition was a symbol of the determination of a very large number of Scots to restore prosperity and employment to Scotland. It was a showcase of cutting edge architecture and the talented architects working in Scotland in the 1930s. To the visitor, the 1938 Empire Exhibition provided an escape from the dark, grimy streets of Glasgow. About 75% of Glasgow in the 1930s was lit by flickering gas lamps, and many buildings were coated in the soot of industrial chimneys; whereas the Exhibition was brand new, clean and modern. The cascading fountains, the clean cut, white and colourful buildings, electric light shows, and diverse representations of world culture was in stark contrast to the city left behind at the gates.

There were 80 Pavilions on the 175 acre site of Bellahouston Park and the whole Exhibition was put together very quickly given its ambition and scale. This led to the decision that rather than run a design competition to win the opportunity to design a pavilion, an architect-in-chief should be appointed to expedite the process. The unanimous choice for this role was Scottish architect, Thomas S. Tait, of the firm Sir John Burnet, Tait and Lorne. Tait chose a team of nine preeminent Scottish architects to assist him in planning the elaborate layout and organising the design. Thus, Basil Spence, Jack Coia, Thomas Marwick, Margaret Brodie, A. D. Bryce, A. Esme Gordon, Launcelot Ross, Gordon Tait, and James Taylor Thomson were brought together.

Tait also had to meet a variety of architectural challenges in the organisation of the 1938 Empire Exhibition. The buildings had to be inexpensive; they had to be rapidly and easily constructed; and the 80 pavilions visually, had to form a homogenous whole. The buildings could be divided into 3 types: pavilions of the dominions and colonies; buildings representing life and culture in the British Isles; and buildings which demonstrated British achievement in engineering and manufacturing. By adopting a design system based on standard components e.g. materials, component sizes, and colours, Tait was able to meet these challenges. For example, he opted to use asbestos-cement cladding on all the buildings as it was light, strong, weather-resistant and usable on both timber and steel frames. It had the added benefit of being easily painted – so Tait’s designs could be coloured in a uniform manner.

The Exhibition was opened by King George VI on the 3rdMay 1938 at Ibrox Stadium; and in its 6 month run attracted over 12.5 million visitors from around the world. Below is a picture of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth walking around Bellahouston Park following the Kings speech at Ibrox; and an aerial photograph of the Exhibition to give an idea of the enormous feat of engineering required to stage it.

Doomster Hill

This week in the Heritage Centre we have been researching Early Medieval Govan.

In particular, we have been looking at Doomster Hill – an early medieval court hill, which is believed to have been located somewhere between Govan Old Parish Church and Water Row. A court hill is a designated place where legal proceedings were conducted. Indeed, the term ‘Doomster’ is believed to derive from ‘Dempster’ – the name given to the legal officer who pronounced sentence, whose origin is in Celtic law.  Its height and prominence in the small early medieval village of Govan marked it out as a place of public assembly, where public business may have been conducted; and lends credence to the view that the site would have been appropriated by the Kings of Strathclyde as the chosen spot to hold court between c.900-1100 AD, following the sack of Dumbarton Rock by the Vikings in 870.

As Govan experienced enormous economic and physical development in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the birth of shipbuilding and industry, much of the physical evidence of the parish’s early medieval history was destroyed. However, recent archaeological excavations coupled with historic art and maps has enabled us to build a picture of what Doomster Hill looked like and postulate as to its role in the community. Below is an engraving by Robert Paul dating to 1758 in which you can see Govan Old Parish Church and part of Water Row. To the left of the picture you can see Doomster Hill. Paul has detailed two important features: first the large stepped feature at the base of the hill, which at other sites is indicative of a link to royalty; and secondly the proximity of the hill to other Govan landmarks. The engraving is also useful as it shows the size of the Hill, and its dominance over the surrounding residences. The size of the Hill has led archaeologists to believe that Doomster Hill played an important role in early medieval community life, and also to link the name of Govan directly to this landmark. It is believed that the name ‘Govan’ has its origins in an early British dialect. The hypothesis states that gwo/go means ‘small’ and ban ‘hill’. Given Govan’s relatively flat topography, it seems reasonable to suggest that the parish could have taken its name from this ancient, manmade landmark.

During the industrial development of the area, a dye works came to exist around Doomster Hill, which led to a reservoir being dug into it to provide a water source. Writing in 1845 shortly before the Hill was leveled completely, Reverend Leishman of Govan Old Parish Church noted that during the digging of the reservoir fragments of human bone and shards of oak had been discovered. This led him to hypothesise that the Hill had once been the burial site of an ancient and long forgotten hero - an account which has captured the minds of modern historians and archaeologists and provided added impetus to locating the Hill once and for all.

Robert Paul, 1758. Section showing a view from the North bank of the Clyde looking South.