Memories of the Jewish Gorbals

Gorbals history is notoriously synonymous with tenement slums, over-spilling sectarian tensions, and razor gangs. Harvey Kaplan, Director of the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre, chipped away at this mythic façade, in his talk at Gorbals Public Library on 24th May, to present a nuanced perspective on the Jewish experience of this area. Childhood recollections of the area –where his parents and grandparents lived and owned businesses – combined with abundant historical knowledge to enable Harvey to detail the specific individuals, organisations and enterprises which characterised the Gorbals, and to contextualise them within the wider framework of immigration and social mobility which influenced patterns of settlement.

The majority of Glasgow’s Jews resided in the Gorbals amidst a diverse population of Highlanders, Irish, Lithuanians, Poles. In 1901, there were just 5000 Jews, yet by the 1940s, there were approximately 10,000 Jews living in close-knit community operating its own welfare centres, synagogues, cultural and charitable societies. From this lecture, an evocative picture of Victorian sandstone tenements, kosher butchers, and grocers awash with barrels of pickled herring emerged. The main shul was purpose-built in 1901 and situated in South Portland Street; there were also synagogues in Buchan Street, Hospital Street and Oxford Street. Eight Primary Schools served the local community, in addition to the Talmud Torah religious school in Clyde Place and latterly Turiff Street.

The Jewish Institute in South Portland Street was the main social centre organising dances, debates, outings and amateur dramatics. Geneen’s Hotel and Restaurant in Abbotsford Place was another vibrant community hub until its 1965 closure. A popular informal rendezvous where, in fine weather, men in cloth caps met to smoke and talk (frequented by local schnorrer Soap) was the Gorbals Cross, marked by a granite monument bearing the city’s coat of arms. Nearby the Worker’s Circle provided a library, active forum for political debate and even boasted its own football team.

The Jewish Board of Guardians in Thistle Street was forward-thinking in its pre-welfare state medical provision. The Benevolent Loan Society, Boot and Clothing Guild, and the plethora of Friendly Societies Lodges, were just some of the many organisations offering financial assistance to destitute or struggling Jews. Many Jews found work as tailors, cabinet makers and wholesalers. Others became travelling salesmen, peddling goods to outlying mining villages.

Harvey drew upon two contrasting autobiographical narratives to explore the extent to which gang violence was integral to the Gorbals experience: Evelyn Cowan’s nostalgic Spring Remembered, categorically affirms that she never witnessed a gang fight or a razor wielded in attack; Ralph Glasser’s far grittier account insists street fighting was rife. Cowan’s observation that, despite the poverty, her Gorbals upbringing was “not misery, but rich and happy” concluded an enlightening talk. A lively questions and answer session followed.

Members of the Jewish Institute at a Golf Outing.  Supplied courtesy of Scottish Jewish Archives Centre ©

Members of the Jewish Institute at a Golf Outing. Supplied courtesy of Scottish Jewish Archives Centre ©

Scott Chase, developer of the Gorbals Neighbourhood App, welcomed the gathering to attend the New Gorbals History Group which meets regularly in the Library. Scott will lead a Gorbals walking tour, commencing at Gorbals Public Library at 11am on Sunday 26 June 2016. To find out more about the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre please visit

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