ITS historic reputation included spells of extreme poverty and slums, but that is only a small part of this famous Glasgow neighbourhood’s story.

Did you know, for example, that the Gorbals once had its own police force, and was known for gun manufacture and shoemaking?

Or that its name could be linked to the clappers used by lepers from the nearby hospital to warn others of their existence?

The Gorbals originated as a small, mostly pastoral settlement named Brigend, so called as it lay just south of a wooden bridge over the Clyde from what is now Stockwell Street.

Its lands stretched down to the modern day Govanhill and were owned by the church.  A stone bridge paid for by local Bishop Rae replaced the wooden one in 1345.

Glasgow Times: Main Street in the Gorbals in 1868Main Street in the Gorbals in 1868 (Image: Glasgow City Archives)

There are several theories about the meaning of the placename Gorbals. Some say that it’s related to the Latin term ‘garbale’ for sheaf, and the Scots Gaelic term ‘garbal teind’ referring to payment to the church in the form of sheaves of grain.

More fanciful, perhaps, is the idea it refers to the clappers used by lepers to warn others of their presence, or the ‘glory bells’ rung at the lepers’ hospital in remembrance of wealthy donors.

A leprosy hospital and chapel were established at the southern end of Brigend in 1350, dedicated to St Ninian and operating until the 1600s. Records show that King James IV gave alms to the hospital in 1491. The chapel remained standing near to today’s Citizen Theatre until it was demolished in the 19th century.

Post Reformation, the Brigend village and the lands of Gorbals were acquired by the Glasgow merchant and Lord Provost George Elphinstone who built a grand tower house on Main Street (now Gorbals Street).

Glasgow Times: Elphinstone MansionElphinstone Mansion (Image: Glasgow City Archives)

Elphinstone died in poverty, however, and his ‘old mansion house’ later became a prison and courthouse, falling into ruin by the 1870s and torn down for redevelopment.

Before his death, Elphinstone sold his lands jointly to Glasgow Town Council, the Trades House and Hutcheson’s Hospital around 1650.

The village, now more commonly known as Gorbals, remained technically separate from Glasgow as a burgh in its own right. However, a Glasgow bailie was installed to oversee the lands with powers to punish wrongdoers.

Industry grew in the area with records showing Glasgow Town Council giving several Gorbals inhabitants rights for coal mining as early as 1655. The village was also known for weaving, brewing and malting, gun manufacture and shoe making.

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In 1790, the lands of the Gorbals were officially divided, with the old village exclusively owned by the Town Council. Other lands under the ownership of the Trades House became Tradeston, and the remaining lands owned by Hutcheson’s Hospital becoming the new suburb Hutchesontown.

The Hutcheson’s Trustees envisioned creating a upmarket residential area, as did James Laurie who purchased some of the grounds now named Laurieston.

Glasgow Times: Crown Street in 1912Crown Street in 1912 (Image: Glasgow City Archives)

Laurie planned out several streets named after nobility including Cumberland, Norfolk and Bedford Streets. However, the growing industry in Tradeston, and close vicinity to works like Dixon’s Blazes (Govan Ironworks) gave rise to an influx of working-class settlers and to heavy pollution deterring the intended middle-class market.

The Gorbals set up its own dedicated police force in 1808 but it wasn’t long before its independence from the city was formally ended.

In 1846, Glasgow’s boundaries were extended and the Gorbals administration and police force were merged into the city’s.

The Gorbals population was now about 40,000 and Glasgow City Improvement Trust set about trying to tackle the serious overcrowding of the old village’s buildings, replacing these with new tenements. The population continued to rise, with immigrants from the Highlands and Ireland, and Jews fleeing persecution from Europe all attracted by the cheap housing and employment opportunities.

By 1885, half of the pupils at Gorbals Primary School were Jewish.

Glasgow Times: The Hebrew Christian SynagogueThe Hebrew Christian Synagogue (Image: Glasgow City Archives)

Many Gorbals families were squeezed into one or two-roomed dwellings as tenements were sub-divided, and many tenements were poorly maintained.

In 1957 the council attempted to address overcrowding again, with the Gorbals becoming the first comprehensive redevelopment area (CDA). The following widespread demolition is still controversial, and more regeneration has taken place since.

The story of the Gorbals is one of change and growth, from a small village to a busy city district.