During its Victorian heyday, Glasgow didn’t just build slums for the workers, it also built fine buildings for the city’s powerful elite, and there’s none finer than the Glasgow City Chambers.
As the city grew in size and importance, the original civic offices at the Tolbooth struggled to keep pace, and so a site was found at the east end of George Square to build a new City Hall. Designed by Paisley born architect William Young, this grand building was constructed in the Beaux Art style (a form of French neo-classicism), with an ornate pediment and sculptures being added by James Alexander Ewing.
Ewing’s intention was to symbolise Glasgow’s rise to prominence through its connection with the River Clyde, but in the end the design was amended to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee instead. Whoever was behind the change of heart I’m not sure, but it had the desired effect because on 22nd August 1888, it was Queen Victoria herself who cut the ribbon to open the new building.
It wouldn’t seem right to refer to these chambers as just council offices, because the interior is just as grand as the outside, and to be honest, I’ve been in stately homes that are less palatial than this.
As soon as you step over the threshold, you’ll find yourself walking over a mosaic of the city’s Coat of Arms with its motto “Let Glasgow Flourish”. If you take a look at my previous post about St. Mungo and Glasgow Cathedral, it’ll help you to understand what it all means – even if it doesn’t make any sense.
It’s not just the floors that are covered in mosaics but the ceilings too, and it’s believed that one and a half million tiles were laid by hand on the ceilings and domes alone.
I’ve often visited places such as Parliaments, High Courts and Town Halls, which to some people might not seem like a fun day out, but in a free and open society I honestly believe everyone should take a look at what goes on behind some of these closed doors – it’s quite enlightening. It should come as no surprise therefore to learn that I took one of the guided tours that are available twice a day during the week.
I have to admit that my timing could have been better (not that I had any choice) because the tour coincided with official business which meant that I was unable to visit the Council Chamber and the Lord Provost’s office. Even so, there was still plenty to see.
It’s worth pointing out to anybody thinking of following in my footsteps and aren’t too dapper on their feet, that there are three flights of stairs to climb – but these are no ordinary stairs. Made entirely from Carrara marble imported from Italy, those in the know claim that this is Western Europe’s largest marble staircase, but even if that wasn’t true, this is one mightily impressive introduction to the Chambers.
I suppose I was expecting a certain amount of Victorian splendour, but this exceeded my expectations. Taking one level at a time, we eventually arrived in the Upper Gallery where the walls are adorned by paintings of some of Glasgow’s finest. Unsurprisingly, they were nearly all men.
The highlight of the tour was undoubtedly the remarkable Banqueting Hall. If it doesn’t impress you that Sir Alex Ferguson and Nelson Mandela were awarded the Freedom of the City here, then surely the room itself will. Whilst you’re taking in all the elaborate surroundings try to remember to take a look at some of the paintings as well. They cover the history and culture of the city and are painted by some the city’s most famous artists such as Sir John Lavery, Alexander Roche and George Henry, collectively known as the Glasgow Boys.
The free tour lasts less than an hour, but it’s an hour well spent in my opinion. It gives an insight into how the city is run and why the city fathers thought it was worth spending half a million pounds on providing offices that it thought the councilors deserved. Whether the inhabitants of The Gorbals thought it was money well spent is another matter.
POSTED – SEPTEMBER 2021