Reminiscence Group Govan Reminiscence Group

Govan: A Brief History

Compiled by George Rountree


John (better known as Jack) Simpson‘s ’History of Govan‘ was a very condensed version of TCF Brotchie‘s 1905 publication The History of Govan, with additional updated information mainly about ships and changes in the shipbuilding and other industries. The works of both these authors were of major assistance in compiling this History. Jack, who lived in Renfrew for many years, died in 2004.

T.C.F. Brotchie author of History of Govan

In 1905 shipbuilding on the Clyde was at its maximum stage of expansion, from which it has declined almost to extinction by 2005. Brotchie (left), a son of the manse, was born in Ceylon in 1878 and was educated in Edinburgh. He joined the staff of the Edinburgh Evening News before coming to Glasgow to work on the Govan Press and the Glasgow Evening Citizen.

In 1919 he was appointed superintendent of Glasgow Corporation Art Galleries and Museums, and was a founding member of the Old Govan Club and editor of the club's Transactions. Brotchie, who lived at 49 Clifford Street, Ibrox, was very interested in Govan affairs and through his research, Govan and its history came to the notice of the general public. He died aged 59 in Montrose on the 4th of January 1937. The Old Govan Club arranged for a reprint of his History to be produced in 1938.

Jack Simpson‘s booklet includes interesting stories of old village life that takes us on to 1980. It portrays the changing face of Govan with about three-quarters of the original population dispersed, many to Erskine new town, most of its tenements pulled down, roads and streets obliterated or realigned, and shipyards and engineering works closed In 2005 much of the cleared land has been derelict for up to thirty years, but some new factories and warehouses and many new dwellings have been constructed. Perhaps in the 21st century Govan will once again become a town in its own right.

Senior Magistrates of Govan Burgh

The following are just a few of the local industries supplying the shipyards taken mainly from advertisements in the book, A Shipbuilding History, Alexander Stephens, 1750 -1932:

  • Anderson & Reid Ltd., Iron founders, Woodville Street, Govan
  • Gilbert Austin, Electrically Driven Auxiliaries, Cathcart
  • Babcock & Wilcox, Renfrew
  • British Polar Engines, Helen Street, Govan
  • Calender's Cables, Renfrew
  • Carbon Cement, Scotland Street
  • Cleland & Thorburn, Coppersmiths & Brass founders, Woodville Street
  • Cockburn's Valves, Cardonald
  • G. & A. Harvey, Drilling & Tapping Machines, Govan
  • James Howden, Scotland Street, Kingston
  • Archibald Low & Sons Ltd., Cooking Equipment
  • McAlpine & Co. Lead Piping, Govan
  • John McFarlane & McAlister, Sails & Tarpaulins, Shields Road
  • Charles McNeil, Scotland Street, Kinning Park
  • Robert Potter, Govan Foundry
  • Reid, McFarlane & Co. Ltd., Insulation, Maxwell Road, Govan
  • Ritchie's Laundry Machinery, Partick
  • Shanks Sanitary Equipment, Barrhead
  • Smith & McLean, Galvanisers, Plantation
  • Steel & Bennie, Tugs, Glasgow
  • Henry Stewart & Brothers, Clyde Sawmills, Shieldhall
  • Toffolo Jackson & Co., Granite & Marble, Pollokshields
  • Windsor Engineering, Ventilation Equipment, Pollokshaws
  • Wishart Boat builders, Uist Street, Govan
  • Yarrow Marine Boilers, Yoker


During the last ice age, the glacial cover over central Scotland was at one stage about a kilometre thick. At the end of the ice age, about ten thousand years ago, as the ice melted, the sea covered what became the Clyde Valley, the valley being what would be called today a sea loch.

Released from the weight of the ice the land gradually rose and the inlet became a river, the Clyde. Here, the retreating glacier left evidence of its presence in the form of low hills called Drumlins, material, mainly boulder clay, picked up by the ice in its passage over the land and deposited as it melted. Local examples of these are the Craigton/Hillington ridge, Bellahouston Park, Pollokshields, Pollokshaws, and Queen's Park. But millennia were to pass before the marshy low lying land of what became Govan dried out.

There is evidence of raised beaches on the hills around the Clyde valley where the water lapped against the Renfrewshire heights, reaching Johnstone and Paisley, the Kilpatrick and Campsie Hills and as far eastwards as the Cathkin. The higher ground of the projecting Ibrox and Pollokshields ridge in the south and Yorkhill to the north narrowed the inlet. Shells and other marine organisms have been found all over this area, indicating that the sediment was deposited by marine conditions. Dumbarton Rock, which has scouring marks caused by the movement of glaciers from a succession of ice ages, and Dumgoyne, are the plugs of long extinct volcanoes. This was probably the condition of the land when early man began to occupy it, because traces of their presence have been found over twenty feet below the surface in the sediment layers. Remains of primitive canoes were found at Pointhouse, Kingston Dock (at what was Windmillcroft Quay), Stockwell, Castlemilk and elsewhere. One canoe was found lying at an angle with one end uppermost, as if it had foundered in a storm.

The first humans in the area were probably hunter-gatherers. Evidence of their presence has been found in ground undisturbed by later farming and industrial activity and mining all over Scotland. The land in central Scotland has been so intensively worked over that many traces of early occupation by man has been obliterated, while other areas of comparatively undisturbed ground contains this evidence, in particular the Western and the Northern Isles. The first identifiable race of people to occupy the land is the Picts, who probably had their own primitive religious beliefs and ceremonies. They were displaced by the far more powerful Romans who, moving up from the south and displacing the Picts, failed to occupy more than half of the land that became Scotland before having to retreat. They established the border of their occupation in the form of the Roman Wall some miles to the north of the river from Govan. Initially, the Romans, then Celts who came from Ireland, were responsible for the complete elimination of the Picts; the only traces of them remaining are a few stones with enigmatic carvings in northeast Scotland.


The composition of the land is irregular. In early times the river was wide and shallow and could be forded at many places, one of which was the Marlin ford near where the Braehead Shopping Centre is today. Along the riverside in the Govan area it is low and flat, between 19 and 24 feet (6 & 8 meters) above mean sea level. To the north above Partick it rises to an average of 214 feet (65m), and at Ibrox and Dumbreck in the south, 165 feet (48m), 170 feet (50m) at Haggbows near Nithsdale Road, and 137 feet (12m) at Titwood. There are beds of fine clay and sand at different depths around the area, and at Balshagray and Gartnavel, at a height of about 90 feet (28m), marine shells were found, of which 10% were of types which today live in colder conditions. Bleau's map of 1662 shows many islands, the smaller of which were know as Inches, in the tidal reaches of the Clyde. Downstream from Govan there was Water Inch, Whyt Inch, Buck Inch, and Kings Inch. Others were Sand Inch at Renfrew and Newshott Isle off Inch. Upstream there was another island between Little Govan in the Gorbals area and Barony Parish in Glasgow.


Earliest known map of Govan - Dated 1641

Constantine, once King of Cornubia (Cornwall) who according to legend murdered his two sons, travelled to Wales and joined a monastic settlement at Menevia, where he became a working monk under David, who was later canonised. Also there at this time was Kentigern, who in later years founded the Cathedral at what became Glasgow beside the Molendinar Burn. Constantine moved from Wales to Ireland, to a monastery in the charge of Columba, then he travelled to Strathclyde, coming later to the south bank of the Clyde where Kentigern appointed him Abbot, and where he established a monastery and church, probably built of wood, near what became Water Row. The name 'Govan' does not appear in historical records until some centuries later, and when it does it is referred to as 'Gouen', just one of its many variations of rendering.

From in the 11th century, a succession of stone built churches were erected on the site of Constantine's church, the first of which was a Norman building. He was canonised after his death and the new church was named after him. At the time of the reformation, in the 16th century, the structure existing at that time was pulled down.

The next two building were put up in 1762 and 1826, the tower of the latter of which was copied from one in Stratford-on-Avon. In 1884 this building was carefully dismantled stone-by-stone and re-erected at the southwest corner of White (Golspie) Street and Logie Street. The erection of the present Parish Church, designed by architect Rowand Anderson (later Sir), and modelled on the lines of Pluscardine Priory near Elgin, commenced at this time. It was completed at a cost of £27.000 (not including furnishings), and dedicated in May 1888. To the west of the main door there is reputed to be a foundation for a tower that was never built.

The building of the first church on the site of Glasgow Cathedral, part of which can be seen in the undercroft of the building today, commenced in the 12th century, before King David I succeeded to the throne of Scotland on the death of his brother, Alexander I. Until the Reformation the early churches in Govan were associated with the cathedral as a prebend (branch). Ecclesiastical records tell us that 'David granted the lands and Church of Govan to the See of St. Kentigern of Glasgow in pure alms, the rights and privileges being granted by bulls from various Popes before the year 1147'.


At its greatest extent the parish stretched from Braehead and Cardonald in the west to Gorbals and Polmadie in the east, and Anniesland Toll and Maryhill in the north to Pollokshields and Dumbreck in the south. In 1771 Gorbals was disjoined from Govan by the Lords Commissioners of Tiends (parish boundaries), and became a parish on its own. In 1800 the population of Govan was 4,389.


When Drumoyne Pit closed, part of the branch line was retained to service a number of factories at the southern end of Drumoyne Road, and in the early 1930s, when Shieldhall Road was laid out, it terminated there at a massive bufferstop. At that time there was George Benny's foundry, a coffin works, a wood-yard and other industrial businesses that used the railway goods service. Before then a significant proportion of the people were fishermen But as the population grew and fishing grew with it, disputes arose between the fishers in nearby areas who accused each other of making catches in places they considered to be theirs.

Salmon Fishing on River Clyde at Govan c1838

Salmon were plentiful in the river until the middle of the 19th century when industrial pollution caused them to die out. Before then a significant proportion of the people were fishermen But as the population grew and fishing grew with it, disputes arose between the fishers in nearby areas who accused each other of making catches in places they considered to be theirs.

To settle these disputes, the river had to be divided up into sections that came to be regarded as belonging to the adjacent community, with stones set up on the riverbanks marking the boundaries established. In the 1990s, when work started on the Braehead Center, there was a stone nearby, probably the last one to survive, which is marked on the OS map as the 'Fisher's Stone'. Despite efforts by the writer to alert the contractors who were working on the site, and the museums concerned, to make an effort to rescue and preserve it, it appears to have been lost.


Before the 1750s the river was navigable by boats of only a few tons burden. As commerce in the upper reaches tried to expand, it was severely restricted by the inability of ships above this size to pass up beyond Dumbarton. The nearest ports where large ships could be accommodated were Dumbarton, Greenock and Irvine, but the expense of transporting goods between these towns and the city was restricting trade.

In an attempt to reduce the excessive charges incurred, the authorities of the time tried to come to an agreement with first Dumbarton and then Greenock to develop their facilities, without success. In what turned out to be a temporary measure, the merchants of the city built their own accommodation a mile upstream from Greenock, at Newark, and named it Port Glasgow.

A major landowner in the Irvine area, the Earl of Eglinton, who depended on the Port for part of his income, was the instigator of a plan to build a canal between there and the southern outskirts of Glasgow. Building it proceeded from where Eglinton Street is today as far as Johnston before the money ran out and it was never completed. The Paisley Canal railway line now runs along most of its route.

Boats on the River Clyde at Govan c1838

Meanwhile, work on the river to deepen it during the second half of the 18th century by successive experts, including John Smeaton and John Golborne, were successful. Their work enabled boats of up to 100 tons and maximum draught of 8 feet to reach the Broomielaw, weather and tide permitting. But even the Comet of 40 tons and drawing only 4 feet of water, in 1812 the first paddle steamer to carry passengers on the river, was liable to be grounded if the state of the tide was misjudged. Passengers sometimes had to go into the water to help members of the crew push it over the shoals.

Sailing ships depended on wind, and the direction it came from was critical. In calm conditions nothing could move until it was above a certain strength or blowing from a suitable direction. A westerly wind for a prolonged period caused a buildup in the number of vessels in the city harbour waiting to move downstream. It was soon realised that an authority would have to be set up to control their movements. To do this and look after harbour developments in general, the Clyde Navigation Trust (CNT) was set up in 1858. A towpath was laid along the south bank so that boats could be moved with men and teams of horses, but this could be done in one direction only at any one time. However, this had problems of its own, because if a wind began to blow boats could ground, and there was the risk of the horses being dragged into the river.

What was probably the most effective measure to increase the depth of the river was undertaken by John Golbome; building lateral dykes at regular intervals. These were walls of loose stones which stretched out over the shallows from both banks opposite each other. These confined the tidal ebb and flow to a narrow channel in the centre, which caused a scouring action that proved to be the cheapest and most effective way to deepen the river over long distances. In time the spaces between the dykes were filled in and consolidated, the reclaimed land was then handed over to the riparian owners. Then the banks themselves were lined with stones laid at an angle with flat surfaces flush, so that wind and ship generated waves did not erode them. This work created most of the banks we see today. The remains of some lateral dykes might still be seen in the Erskine - Bowling reach. But mechanical dredging by specially designed ships was a constant requirement thereafter.

(For a very comprehensive account of this work up to the 1970s, consult the book Clyde Navigation, a History of the Development and Deepening of the River Clyde by John F. Riddell published by John Donald, 1979.)


The hill was a flat topped mound of earth to the east of Water Row which dated from prehistoric times. It was 17ft. high, 150ft in diameter Ancient Doomster Hill in Govan 1767at its base and 102ft at its rim. In the 1830s a section of the centre of the top was dug away to create a pond to be used by a dye works. Records of the time state that some bones and pieces of charred wood were found during the digging.

Later before its archeological importance was realised, it had been completely cleared away by people ignorant of its significance who were laying out shipbuilding facilities. It was probably a Barrow, or burial mound raised by early inhabitants which archeologists in a later age would have been keen to investigate.


In 1840 most of the Govan area was farmland and the country estates and houses of the better off. From the east, estates and mansions identified on old maps were Plantation, Mavisbank and Haughhead, Cessnock, Miln Park, Craigiehall, Broomloan, Moorepark, Hillock House (named after the nearby Doomster Hill), and Merrylands.

Beyond the parish church there were Teucharhill, Craigton, Cardonell, Bern/know, Greenfield, Fairfield, Merryflats, Linthouse, Rowan Family Linthouse Mansion House c1825Greenhead, and Shieldhall. Farms were Whitefield, Ibrox, Broomloan, Craigton, Greenside, Langlands, Drumoyne East, Mid Drumoyne and West Drumoyne, Holmfauldhead, Moss, and Hardga The writer remembers seeing the buildings of West Drumoyne, Shieldhall and Hardgate farms in the 1930s. The latter farm stood in Renfrew Road opposite the SCWS complex of factories. Shieldhall Farm occupied the land between Hardgate Road and the Southern General Hospital, and behind the Clyde Sawmill & Wood Storage Go's yard. Holmfauldhead Farm buildings survived in Elder Park until the late 1990s by being used for the storage of Glasgow City Council Parks Department equipment.


The first shipyard on the river, Scott's, was established at Greenock in the mid 1750s, after which work to deepen it allowed yards to be set up in the upper reaches, the first of which was in Govan. The following is a list companies, in date order as far as possible, of shipyards established in the area: MacArthur & Alexander east of Water Row in 1840, the site of which was taken over two years later by Robert Napier & Son. In 1900 it was acquired by the Beardmore Steel Company, who then transferred to Dalmuir.

Smith & Rodgers yard was set up in 1843 just upstream from Napiers. Randolph & Elder's yard too was set up on this now cramped site in 1858, before moving to a more spacious location downstream, where it later became the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company. The London & Glasgow Company was established in the area upstream from Water Row in 1864, where it remained in business until 1911.

Alexander Stephen & Sons came from the east coast and set up on the Clyde at Kelvinhaugh in 1850. But they were forced to move in 1870 because CNT planned to extend the quays from the Broomielaw to Yorkhill. They set up the yard on the estate of Linthouse in 1868 that survived until 1968. By the early 1900s much of the land to the east of Water Row was vacant and the Belfast company Harland & Wolff set up a subsidiary yard here in 1911. They established a foundry in Helen Street housed in a building mainly of glass that was the largest of its kind in Europe, which was known locally as 'the glass house'.


In 1824 Morris Pollok constructed the first factory for 'throwing silk' in Scotland. It was built on the riverside on ground that became the easternmost slip of the Fairfield shipyard in line with Howat Street. It employed around 250 people and lasted until the early years of the 20th century. The only other industries in Govan in these early times were of the cottage type, weaving and blacksmiths. In 1839 there were around 340 weavers in the village, working extensive hours on looms in their own homes and earning from 12/- to 16/- a week. In season they supplemented their income fishing for salmon, and there is a story that the fish were so plentiful that certain workers, who were paid for their labour with salmon, had to petition their employers to restrict this to not more than three days a week. In areas where rivers and burns could be harnessed to provide power, the weaving industry expanded, and mills were built in which large numbers of employees could produce cloth at a much lower cost than individuals working at home. There being no such facility in Govan to produce inexpensive power, other than the silk mill, no mills were built here and the numbers of domestic weavers slowly died out. The last weaver stopped work around 1905.