ISABELLA Elder, wife of famous shipping magnate John Elder, used her wealth to leave a lasting legacy to Govan. She became known affectionately as ‘Lady’ Elder by locals, despite not having an official title.

Her husband had served an apprenticeship with local shipbuilder and engineer Robert Napier, and later became a partner in Randolph, Elder and Co. He designed an innovative compound steam engine in 1854 that boosted the fuel efficiency of steam ships and sealed his company’s success. They began building ships in 1860, eventually moving to the Fairfield yard in 1868, as John Elder & Co.

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After John’s death in 1869, Isabella successfully managed the company for several months until other partners took over. The firm was renamed Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Company and went on to dominate shipbuilding on the Clyde for many years. Isabella then devoted herself to numerous charitable causes.

She made many donations to Glasgow University and in 1901 was one of the first women to receive an honorary degree there. She also donated to Queen Margaret College, a higher education college for women.

Within Govan she established a School of Domestic Economy, and the Elder Cottage Hospital which specialised in treating industrial injuries, and she set up a training school for nurses.

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Perhaps her most well-known gift to Govan is the 37 acres of land that became Elder Park in 1885. A memorial to her husband, she wished it to be used for “healthful recreation by music and amusement”, and ball games were not permitted. The park was designed as a green space for the working-class community, in an area full of industry, located just along from the Fairfield company headquarters on Govan Road. Created on the site of Fairfield Farm, it was a place where the workers could relax and exercise with their families. Despite bye-laws, now in the City Archives, stating that “no person shall wade, bathe or fish in the lake”, many children have enjoyed paddling in the boating pond.

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Standing within the park, Elder Park Library was officially opened 1903. Isabella gave the massive sum of £10,000 towards the building cost and purchase of books. She also provided additional money for the maintenance of the library, insisting it opened on Sundays to allow working people to have more access time.

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After her death in 1905, a fund for a memorial was set up (the Govan Burgh archives include a whole minute book dedicated to meetings arranging it). Donations, totalling £2000, came mostly from local people, evidence of Govan’s high regard for Isabella and her generosity. A statue of Isabella was erected at Elder Park, one of the first statues of a woman in Glasgow.