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Book of the Month

March 2006

Thomas Annan

The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow

Sp Coll Dougan 64

The book of the month for March features the Glasgow photographer Thomas Annan's The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow. Created between 1868 and 1871 as part of a commission from the City of Glasgow Improvements Trust, this collection of images of the working class areas of old Glasgow helped document the impoverished living conditions of the working class at the time.

Born in 1829 in Dairsie, Fife, Thomas Annan was the fifth child of John Annan and Agnes Bell. The early years of his life were concerned with the family trades of farming and flax-spinning until, in his 16th year in 1845, he was accepted as an apprentice lithographic writer and engraver by the local Fife Herald newspaper. Annan acquitted himself with distinction during this time, completing his education in the fourth year of a projected seven year apprenticeship. With a glowing reference from the Herald, Annan moved to Glasgow and took a position in the prestigious lithographic establishment of Joseph Swan. Over the next six years Annan continued to develop his skills at Swan's, producing a variety of illustrations for maps, books and topographical works.

The mid 1850s and 1860s saw the rise of commercial photography and a corresponding drop off in the lithographic trade. This led Annan to set up business in 1855 with a partner as a 'collodion calotypist', the production of calotypes being an early form of photography. Two years later Annan founded his own firm which brought him sufficient success to set up his own photographic printing works in Hamilton in 1859. By 1860 Annan had acquired a large-scale camera to take photographs which echoed his feel for light, and his sense of emotion and power in landscape. He made a reputation for himself as an expert in copying works of art, which in turn led to his first notable commission in 1862 from the Glasgow Art Union. Through the following years Annan received praise for his work from respected publications such as the British Journal of Photography and the Photographic News. This recognition culminated in his first award in 1865 from the Photographic Society of Scotland for 'the best landscape in Scotland'. Annan was now established as one of the leading photographic artists in Scotland.

Image of plate 6 of Closes and Streets: Shows a narrow alley with overhanging washing and two onlookers
Plate 6: Close, No. 65 High Street. The tenements leaning in contributed to the claustrophobic nature of the closes.

Image of Plate 20 of Closes and Streets: Showing a staircase added on to an existing house
Plate 20: Close, No. 18 Saltmarket. A staircase has been added to provide access to two buildings.

In 1866, the City passed an act through Parliament which authorised it to destroy the appalling slums of the City Parish. When it was decided in 1868 to make an effort to document the character and conditions of the old town, Thomas Annan was the obvious choice.

Glasgow in 1868 was in the midst of the largest population boom in its history. The size of the city quadrupled between 1800 and 1850, and quadrupled again between 1850 and 1925 when its population peaked at 1,396,000. The influx of migrants, mainly from Ireland and the Highlands, caused the demand for housing to increase beyond all possible supply. Most new housing was in the suburbs and affluent areas in the west end of Glasgow. Unfortunately the new working class citizens were being crammed into the ever more crowded City Parish. There were two types of working class housing in this area: what were known as 'made down houses' and the classic Scottish tenement.

The 'made down houses' were former middle class houses whose occupants had joined the westward exodus. Each room in this type of dwelling was used as a separate house, frequently being subdivided by insubstantial partitions. Sometimes access to this kind of house was provided by a brick-built staircase tacked on to the back of the building.

The tenements were three or four storey stone buildings entered by a 'close' which gave access to the common stair and the back court. Off the stair were the apartments, and beneath them the cellars, in which the working class lived. Very few of these tenements had internal sanitation or water supplies; a privy in the back court and a hand pump for water in the street would often supply hundreds of occupants.

These houses became money making machines for their landlords, as there was practically no limit to the number of people who could be crammed into them. And the landlords did cram them in. Existing tenements became more and more over-crowded, subterranean earth floored cellars were pressed into service as accommodation, old houses were rapidly 'made down' and gerry-built tenements thrown up wherever there was space - even in the back courts of existing tenements. This maze of dwellings became the notorious 'Closes and Wynds' of Glasgow: damp, filthy, disease ridden warrens where the sun never shone. The unspeakable living conditions moved Frederick Engel's to include a quotation on them in his famous Conditions of the Working Class in England of 1844:-

Image of plate 28 of Closes and Streets showing a back court
Plate 28: Close, No. 46 Saltmarket. A building has been erected in this back court.

"I have seen human degradation in some of its worst phases, both in England and abroad, but I can advisedly say, that I did not believe, until I visited the wynds of Glasgow, that so large an amount of filth, crime, misery, and disease existed in one spot in any civilised country. The wynds consist of long lanes, so narrow that a cart could with difficulty pass along them; out of these open the 'closes', which are courts about fifteen or twenty feet square, round which the houses, mostly three or four storeys high, are built; the centre of the court is the dunghill, which probably is the most lucrative part of the estate to the laird in most instances, and which it would consequently be esteemed an invasion of the rights of property to remove. In the lower lodging houses, ten, twelve, or sometimes twenty persons, of both sexes and all ages, sleep promiscuously on the floor in different degrees of nakedness. These places are generally, as regards dirt, damp, and decay, such as no person of common humanity would stable his horse in."
Image of plate 15 of Closes and Streets: A crowd of women and children gather to observe Thomas Annan
Plate 15: Close, No. 118 High Street. A group of women and children gather to observe Thomas Annan at work.
Image of plate 13 of Closes and Streets: people loitering in an alley where the gutter overflows with sewage
Plate 13: Close, No. 80 High Street. Children loiter in an alley close to an overflowing gutter.

Image of plate 8 of Closes and Streets: Shows struts being used to support an unsafe building
Plate 8: Close, No. 83 High Street. A tenement is supported by struts from a house built in a back court.

The City Improvement Trust bought up and demolished tracts of congested slums on a scale greater than any other British or European city. The Trust constructed a limited number of new tenemental streets containing houses of not less than two rooms, with running water and an inside toilet, as well as 'model' houses for single men and women. Unfortunately there was never any real possibility of re-housing all of the poor in these areas. Thousands of the 'casual poor' and 'criminal classes' rendered homeless by the clearances simply fled to the adjacent neighbourhoods in search of cheap accommodation and reproduced the overcrowding problem there. The public health gains from the clearance, however, were obvious: death rates plummeted in the cleared areas and the worst forms of epidemic disease - cholera and typhus - were all but eradicated.
Annan did not approach his subject as a social reformer or investigator with a camera. It is likely that he regarded the commission from the Trustees as just another he received as a result of his increasing reputation and success. Annan had previously photographed some of the busier thoroughfares of Glasgow, providing us with some historic record of the city's more populous streets. When his focus was shifted to the confining closes, he provided us with another kind of record: the earliest comprehensive series of photographs of an urban slum - the very slum which was considered to be the worst in Britain. The closes were dark and narrow, requiring him to use the sensitive wet collodion process in order to create negatives of sufficient quality despite low light level conditions. The procedure to create even one negative was time and labour intensive, requiring careful preparation and execution. This meant carrying all the chemicals and materials necessary through the wynds, setting up a large camera on uneven ground, and coating the photographic plates on the spot to produce the negatives. The difficulty of this exercise is highlighted by the occasional faults in the negatives which are visible in the final prints.

Image of plate 7 of Closes and Streets: Shows washing hanging above a back court
Plate 7: Close, No. 75 High Street. Washing was hung to dry in back courts which also contained gutters for sewage.

Plate 18 of Closes and Streets: Bystanders observe Annan at work
Plate 18: Close, No. 29 Gallowgate. Bystanders observe Annan as he captures a shadowed alley.

Thirty to thirty five photographs were taken in the three year period between 1868 and 1871. The photographs transcended their remit of a simple record of the buildings of the slums, forming a curiously moving account of the closes. We can see that Annan's focus is on capturing the tenements themselves, rather than the tenement dwellers. No descriptive text concerning the people in the prints was included in any edition published in Annan's lifetime. He did not interview the citizens who crowded the narrow alleys, or stopped in the courtyards to stare. Nor did he require them to remain motionless while the negatives were captured, resulting in the blurred figures in many of them. Their presence in his photographs, while evidently not unwelcome, does not seem to have been sought, and was probably occasioned by the unfamiliar sight of this tall man and his cumbersome photographic apparatus from the world outside the closes.
An exploration of the wynds by Annan must have preceded any actual photography. Taking note of the times of day when sufficient light would penetrate the back courts to allow him to capture his chosen images would have been essential. His knowledge and expertise with the collodion process brought the same quality of subtle light and detail to these darker images as it brought to his landscapes. These prints are undeniably comparable in beauty to his best landscape pieces. In some the sky is visible allowing the full gutters to mark lines of reflected light into the distance; in others the hanging washing blocks out the light contributing to the sense of claustrophobia. The low angle of most shots emphasise the oppressive, grim nature of these dead end streets. In many cases the photographs seem to be more about these details - the flapping work clothes hung out to dry or a single gas lamp in a long street - than about the buildings he was paid to photograph. His attention to light and composition is evident throughout.

Image of plate 10 of Closes and Streets: wet and dry clothes hang above a narrow alley
Plate 10: Close, No. 101 High Street. Damp trousers hang motionless while dry clothes are moved by a breeze during an exposure.

Image of plate 26 of Closes and Streets: Tenements and made down housing side by side
Plate 26: Close, No. 30 Saltmarket. Tenements and made down housing side by side.

Two editions of these photographs were produced from the collodion negatives in the years following the completion of the commission. The original series of prints used the albumen process and were created in limited numbers. This process offers the photographs in their very best state. The images for this feature are taken from the Special Collections copy of this edition, produced in 1872, which has been exceptionally well preserved in its original binding. These reproductions display a depth of field and a level of detail which is astonishing. The subtle gradations of light levels and sheer amount of visual information available in even the darkest areas of the prints is a testament to Annan's skill and patience. A later edition produced in 1877 used Joseph Swan's carbon print process for which Annan had secured exclusive usage rights for Scotland in 1866. This less time consuming process allowed for prints to be produced in sufficient numbers to make the production of volumes of photographs for larger public consumption a reality. The carbon process prints were less expensive to produce and more resilient than their albumen predecessors, but sacrificed a great amount of clarity and warmth of tone. These two editions were the only ones created in Thomas Annan's lifetime. A later photogravure edition, a process for printing engravings from a plate prepared by photographic methods, was produced in 1900 by his son James Craig Annan.
Image of plate 27 of Closes and Streets: showing an exceedingly narrow wynd
Plate 27: Close, No. 61 Saltmarket. Many of the wynds were exceedingly narrow.
Image of plate 30 of Closes and Streets: showing more made down housing
Plate 30: Close, No. 157 Bridgegate. An example of made down housing facing onto tenement housing.
The appreciation of this work has grown only recently. At his death, Annan was chiefly remembered for his landscapes and as a copier of paintings. In the photographic world his introduction of permanent processes of printing was lauded above his artistic achievements. It was only afterwards, as the wynds disappeared, that Annan's skill in capturing them came to be recognised. Successful beyond the terms of the commission, Annan's Closes and Streets is now rightly regarded as one of the finest photographic works of the nineteenth century.

Thomas Annan The painted windows of Glasgow cathedral : a series of forty-three photographs. Glasgow : 1867 Sp Coll Dougan Add. 106

Thomas Annan The old country houses of the old Glasgow gentry : one hundred photographs by Annan of well known places in the neighbourhood of Glasgow, with descriptive notices of the houses and the families.  Glasgow : 1870 Sp Coll Dougan Add. 73

Thomas Annan Photographs of the old closes and streets of Glasgow. Glasgow : 1877 Sp Coll Photo B29 ( Carbon Process Edition )

Thomas Annan The old closes & streets of Glasgow / engraved by Annan from photographs taken for the City of Glasgow Improvement Trust ; with an introduction by William Young. Glasgow : 1900 Sp Coll Dougan Add. 56 ( Photogravure Edition )

T & R Annan & Sons Glasgow in panorama : eight magnificent photographs taken from the octagonal spire of the University Tower on July 19th, 1905 / by Messrs. T. & R. Annan & Sons, forming a complete and unique bird's eye view of Glasgow. Glasgow : 1907 Sp Coll Mu Add. e15

Photographs of the old closes and streets of Glasgow, 1868-1877 : with a supplement of 15 related views / Thomas Annan. New York : 1977  History qDX203 ANN  

George Fairfull-Smith.  Thomas & James Craig Annan of Glasgow : photographers and publishers. London : 1999 Sp Coll Mu Add. 204

Sara Stevenson.  Thomas Annan, 1829-1887.  Edinburgh : 1990 Fine Arts TA209 1990

Sen Damer. Glasgow : going for a song. London : 1990 History DX207 DAM


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Sonny Maley March 2006