HE WAS a larger than life character, who kept cows on Bath Street and created strawberry fields in Garnethill, when both areas were part of his sprawling Blythswood estate.

But William Harley’s biggest claim to fame is as the founder of the city’s first public baths, in 1804, paving the way for steamies and swimming pools across Glasgow.

Documents and photographs held by Glasgow City Archives at the Mitchell Library reveal the rags-to-riches-to-rags story of this man.

Senior archivist Dr Irene O’Brien explains: “A manufacturer of turkey-red gingham, Harley purchased Sauchy Hall (renamed Willowbank House) and its estate in Blythswood in 1802. He began to collect water from springs in his grounds to meet the demands of a growing population for fresh drinking water. The water was sold at a halfpenny a stoup, and is said to have brought him a revenue of several thousand pounds a year.”

A few years later, Harley created pleasure gardens on his estate, complete with strawberry fields, and opened public baths on the road now known as Bath Street. Then, he turned his attention to providing his fellow citizens with milk.

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The book, The History of Glasgow, explains: “Harley’s Byres housed 260 cows, with numerous calves and pigs, all scrupulously groomed, tended, and fed.

“The public paid a fee to see the establishment, and its fame spread through Europe. From these byres the milk was distributed throughout the city in well-appointed carts, with harness and brass shining, and every detail in perfect order; the visitors ... included the future Emperor Nicholas of Russia...and the charge for public admission is said to have realised as much as £200 a year.”

Glasgow’s public baths and steamies have become a crucial part of Glasgow’s history, says Dr O’Brien.

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“They evoke strong memories for many Glasgow people today,” she adds. “They are part of the lived experience of Glasgow’s women, in particular, and the children who accompanied their mothers on their weekly visit to the steamies.”

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As for Harley, sadly he went bankrupt, and he died in London in 1829, on his way to Russia where the Tsar had invited him to establish a dairy herd.

In 1876 the old public washing-house on Glasgow Green was removed to make way for the erection of the first public baths. The Greenhead Baths and Wash-house opened in 1878, with two swimming pools and 27 private baths for gentlemen, seven for ladies. Similar establishments followed at Woodside, Cranstonhill, Townhead and Gorbals and by 1914, there were 23.

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Dr O’Brien adds: “There were several private baths in the city too - Arlington Baths, founded 1870, is the oldest in the UK. “

One interesting baths concept never did materialise, sadly.

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“After the demise of the Harley baths in 1816, the Council agreed public baths should be established for the working classes, as well as the more affluent,” says Dr O’Brien. “The superintendent of public works constructed a model for floating baths to be placed on the river, similar to the Thames and the Seine.”

She smiles: “Sadly, these baths were never built...”

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