GLASGOW started the nineteenth century with a reputation for being one of the cleanest and most attractive cities in Britain.

Very quickly, however, its image changed completely.

Serious problems arose from smoke, inadequate water supply, polluted burns and rivers, broken down and overcrowded houses, filthy streets and dirty closes.

These were the results of industrialisation and a rapidly growing population. This assault on the city’s environment was unpleasant, but it was also unhealthy and dangerous.

This led to widespread epidemic diseases, which were commonplace until the 1860s. The city authorities began to analyse the environment of its citizens in its quest to resolve the serious public health issues. It built up an organisation, including environmental, housing and cleansing departments, to make the city cleaner and safer.

At the beginning of the 19th century, local councils had very little power over citizens. If you had an overflowing dung heap beside your house, or the house itself was dangerous and falling down, or you killed pigs and put the waste into the burn, or installed a steam engine which belched out smoke, it was all right - so long as your neighbours did not object.

As Glasgow became more crowded with people and factories, these things all became more common, and they were seen as a normal part of city life for the poorest in society. As the city spread, those who could afford to moved away from the worst overcrowding and pollution in the old city centre.

The traditional method of sewage disposal did not involve the sewers. Each house or tenement had its own midden or dung heap where all household waste would be put. This was mostly ashes and the contents of the chamber pots used inside the houses.

This system became a serious public health hazard and a pollutant of the immediate environment as the density of the city’s population and housing increased. Even when the city council began to clean and inspect middens with its own staff on a regular basis, the system remained dangerous.

Public concern about the back courts and their middens was so great that they were cleaned up by the Corporation scavengers at least daily and in some cases up to three times a day.

Glasgow Times: A Glasgow Corporation scavengerA Glasgow Corporation scavenger (Image: Glasgow City Archives)

The middens were emptied, the courts swept out and special hydrants were installed so that they could be hosed down.

Middens also attracted ‘midgie-rakers’, who scoured the rubbish for discarded ‘treasure’.

Other powers allowed the authorities to insist that landlords provided ‘adequate dungstead, ashpit or privy accommodation’. The sanitary department was able to force the construction of properly built middens with privies in most tenements.

These were enclosed with brick walls and were kept clear of house walls so that the back court could be kept reasonably clean. Some were pail privies which could be emptied. Sanitary reformers had hoped that the privies in these more decent back courts would be more widely used. 

Legislation in 1890 forced landlords to add towers to the back walls to fit a toilet for each landing.

Glasgow Times: The 'WC towers' built at the back of tenementsThe 'WC towers' built at the back of tenements (Image: Glasgow City Archives)


By this time the river was in an appalling state, although there was some dispute over the effect of the stink on the health of the population.

The corporation had considered the sewage problem in the 1860s and many schemes had been proposed. All of them would have involved the city in great expense.

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In 1888 the Council took advantage of an opportunity to change things. The Caledonian Railway Company applied to Parliament for permission to build low level railway lines out of the Central Station. The Council objected to the Railway Bill as underground tunnels would interfere with the existing sewers.

A deal was struck that the new railway could go ahead if the railway company built a new system of sewers, and the first sewage treatment works at Dalmarnock. By 1894 the city had a new department of local government — the Sewage Purification Department.

In 1910 there were three treatment works at Dalmarnock, Dalmuir (1904) and Shieldhall (1910).

Glasgow Times: Dalmuir sewage worksDalmuir sewage works (Image: Glasgow City Archive)

The sewage, instead of going straight into the river, was pumped from all over the city (and a wider area) to one of these works.