In 1868, Glasgow’s population – which had quadrupled in fifty years – was growing far faster than the city could accommodate. Poor working-class immigrants, most of them from Ireland or the Highlands, were crammed into the squalid, crowded central area of City Parish, converted for quick cash from the apartments of the middle classes who had sold up and moved out west.
Conditions were appalling. Frederick Engels (1820–1895), writing in 1844, said he ‘did not believe, until I visited the wynds [side alleys] of Glasgow, that so large an amount of filth, crime, misery and disease existed in one spot in any civilised country’.
In 1868, the City Improvements Trust began to replace these slums with more adequate social housing (though this resulted mostly in shifting the poor elsewhere in the city). Thomas Annan (1829–1887) was commissioned to document the rapidly changing urban landscape.
Annan, an accomplished figure in photographic reportage, art and technology, produced less than three dozen photographs of the area between 1866 and 1871, but his dispassionate and clear pictures of The Closes and Wynds of Glasgow – produced in the technically challenging low-light conditions of the sunless back alleys – have become classics of social documentary.