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27 Nov 2018

This Lad o’ Pairts

Written by Emma Inglis
Sir John Stirling Maxwell in the garden of Pollok House
Sir John Stirling Maxwell in the garden of Pollok House ©​ CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection
Sir John Stirling Maxwell is best known to us as a founder member of the National Trust for Scotland. However, his interests and influence stretched beyond the world of conservation.

In 1939 Sir John drew up a Conservation Agreement with the newly formed National Trust for Scotland with the aim of preserving the natural and built heritage of his Pollok estate. This was the result of his lifelong belief that open space for recreation was vital to everyone and it was the culmination of his gift, over many years, of parcels of land to benefit the communities around his Pollok estate. Land that Sir John gifted for playing fields, parks, allotments and sports clubs is still evident as you walk through Glasgow’s Southside today.

Sir John was born to a life of privilege but, as a wealthy man who was well connected to local and national government, he used his position to help ordinary people. He was particularly active during the 1920s and 1930s, times of difficult social and economic change for the city of Glasgow. Sir John spoke out publicly to influence debate on a range of local and national issues, and lent his assistance to many Scottish charitable organisations. A lifelong campaign was for better housing in Glasgow, which was struggling under the strain of an interwar housing crisis. He argued openly for new housing developments that could be attractive as well as fit for purpose. To support his ideals, he imposed strict conditions on houses built on land at the edge of his estate.

National Trust for Scotland volunteers have been gathering first-hand accounts from the relatives of people who lived and worked on the Pollok estate in the first half of the 20th century. These oral histories give us an amazing insight into life during the time of Sir John. They show us that he cared well for his workers and tenants, and was kind to everyone, no matter who they were.

Janice Summers, who grew up in The Square at Pollok
Janice Summers, who grew up in The Square at Pollok

Catherine Wilson remembered: My father died in October 1948 – and my sister died sixteen months later – 1950. We were allowed to stay in the house for sixteen months after my father died. Then this cottage at Damshot came up so my mother and I were put over there. We were very lucky we still had a roof over our head. There was no electricity and it had a dry toilet outside. The fact that my mother ended up in that cottage in Damshot for 21 years after my father died said something. He did look after his workers, there’s no doubt about it.You know if you met him he spoke to you quite the thing, there was nothing to be frightened about or anything like that.

Catherine Wilson sitting on Rush, who worked the land on the Pollok estate
Catherine Wilson sitting on Rush, who worked the land on the Pollok estate

Stories such as these give us an invaluable picture of life for working-class people in Glasgow’s Southside. Tales of coal deliveries, homegrown fruit and veg, heavy horses working the land, and long walks to school (with a stop on the way to use the toilet of a willing neighbour) reveal to us the everyday experience.

Staff dance held in 1905 for Pollok House and estate workers
Staff dance held in 1905 for Pollok House and estate workers

At a time before health & social care and recreational facilities were provided by local government, Sir John was frequently appealed to for help. He assisted many Scottish charities working in healthcare, sport and unemployment. Where he couldn’t give financial aid, he often gave his time, becoming chairman, president and honorary patron to many different organisations.

Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the oral history project and new exhibition at Pollok House shed light on Sir John’s generosity, his incredible range of interests and the impact of his involvement in Scotland’s interwar development. It helps us to understand more about the creation and preservation of the streets, buildings and open spaces that we see in Glasgow today.

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