In Search of John Maclean—part 2

John Maclean’s Glasgow

A couple of weeks before I was due to head off to Glasgow in search of the ghost of John Maclean, I stumbled across a couple of articles online, both of which resonated strongly with me.

The first was a feature about the Glasgow-based writer Ian R. Mitchell, ‘Following in the footsteps of Maclean and Maxwell’ by Russell Leadbetter, published in the Glasgow Herald magazine on 11 July 2015. An extract:

Has there been an unwillingness to recognise (John) Maclean? Mitchell ponders his answer. ‘In some ways I’m surprised, in the centenary of the First World War, that there’s been less attention paid to the people who opposed the war. Most of the stuff I’ve seen has been about the combat and the home front … but we’re a century away from the year when Maclean was sacked from his school job and his evening class for his opposition to the war. Hopefully, as time goes by … he’s an important historical figure whom I would like not to see being airbrushed out of the whole picture.’

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

The second was a 2013 piece by Mitchell, ‘Glasgow—Cinema City Re-born?’ on the Pat’s Guide: Glasgow West End website, in which he wrote:

I would make my first plea for film makers to use Glasgow’s past more than they have as a future subject for their works. The Covenanting and Jacobite periods, the Tobacco Lords, the Industrial Revolution, blockade running during the US Civil War, the wars of the 20th century—the choice of topics is almost endless!

And one especial omission, given that Glasgow is and has been a working class city and the crucible of the Scottish labour movement, is that the working class and its struggles have not featured on film, either in historical or contemporary times—apart from in documentaries. An obvious choice for a film that would be really worthwhile would be the Red Clydeside period around the First World War and the life of the great Glasgow socialist John Maclean.


I immediately wrote to Mitchell, explaining that I was attempting to write a screenplay based on the life and times of John Maclean and would be in Glasgow the following month to scout locations and do some research in various archives and libraries. I asked if he might have time to meet with me.

Ian replied promptly with a very generous offer:

‘I think the main way I could help you would be to act as your guide to the physical locations behind the political story. Many locations are still there e.g. the Weirs Cathcart factory where the 1915 anti-dilution strike took place and (some of) the tenements of Govan, location of the Rent Strikes. Other locations have gone. We can hopefully do some walking around but between locations we could use my car.’

My cousin Roddy, who had just retired as a union organiser for the Scottish Fireman’s Union, had offered to be my contact and guide during my visit so a couple of days after I arrived the two of us met up with Ian near Glasgow’s main library, the Mitchell Library. Ian had a walking route mapped out for us through the city centre, Merchant City, Glasgow Cross, Glasgow Green and into the East End, and so off we went, with Ian pointing out Maclean landmarks and other sights of interest along the way.

Cousin Roddy and Ian Mitchell

On a walk through Glasgow with cousin Roddy and Ian Mitchell

Ian, an author, mountaineer, hill walker and retired history lecturer, was a delightful and very knowledgeable guide. He has written numerous books, including four about ‘forgotten or neglected areas and aspects of Glasgow’s and wider Clydeside’s history—especially working class history’.

Highlights of the day’s walk included George Square and the magnificent interiors of the City Chambers, the former Sheriff’s Court on Ingram Street—site of the triumphant conclusion of the 1915 rent strike campaign; the City Halls and Glasgow Green—both scenes of many of Maclean’s speeches; and the rejuvenated Bridgeton Cross, where Maclean’s protégé and fellow anti-war campaigner James Maxton was returned as a member of parliament for the Independent Labour Party from 1922 until his death in 1946.

The following day, Roddy picked me up early and we headed north to Peterhead. The notorious Peterhead Prison—where Maclean was interred twice during the First World War—had recently been decommissioned and acquired by the Score Group, a Peterhead-based company providing services to the oil and gas industry.

Roddy had conjured up a name at Score and I’d sent a hopeful email before I left Sydney. On my stopover in Dubai I finally got a response—the Facilities Development Coordinator said he would be happy to give us a tour and would meet us at the main gate.

The weather was bright and sunny and Roddy and I made good time as we motored past Stirling and into Dundee for lunch. We ate at the hotel where Winston Churchill used to stay between 1908 and 1922 (when he was the local member of parliament). We went for a stroll around the city centre and I was delighted to stumble upon large statues of characters from my childhood comics the Beano and Dandy (a larger-than-life Desperate Dan was particularly impressive). I didn’t know that the comics had been produced in Dundee (by publisher D. C. Thomson).

Having never been to the north-east of Scotland, I was somewhat surprised at the miles and miles of rolling meadows and good looking farmland between Dundee and Aberdeen. Unlike the spectacularly rugged coast of the Western Highlands, there was not a mountain in sight.

After struggling through the sprawling outskirts of Aberdeen, we made it to Peterhead by mid-afternoon. The man from Score was there to meet us at the imposing entrance of the former prison. He explained that work was well underway to create a museum about life in the prison (it opened for visitors in summer 2016) with surplus space to be converted to training facilities for the Score Group.

John Maclean served two sentences at Peterhead—fourteen months of a three year sentence in 1916-17 and just six months of a five year sentence in 1918. In both cases sustained agitation from the labour movement and members of parliament led to his early release. In an article published in 1919 he gave an account of the conditions in the prison.

The cell in Peterhead is about four feet broad, eight feet long, and less than seven feet high—just a little box. The cell window is very small and broad spars outside prevent much light entering the cell. The glass is so twisted that the prisoner cannot see out. The purpose is to make him brood and fret. Imagine, if you can, how dreary a Sunday must be to a man who cannot read or to whom reading is a difficulty and not a pleasure! And many convicts are illiterate. The only relief on a Sunday is twenty minutes exercise, service at the chapel and Sunday School for Protestants if they care to attend. Each cell is heated by warmed air from the hall. The air in the hall is heated by American stoves burning coal, and enters the cell by two slits or openings at the foot of the door. Most cells are very cold in winter as the method of heating is of no use, and to wrap oneself round with blankets is a crime the governor can punish by sending a man to the ‘separate’ cells, each more miserable than the others. In all the small cells the bed consists of a hammock, a mattress, two sheets, two blankets (three in winter) and a cover. It is very comfortable, but one can only use it between 8.30 pm and 5 a.m. unless the doctor gives special permission to use it at other times.

At some stage, all the cells Maclean describes were doubled in size by knocking two cells into one. Even now, they are not what you would call large. In both the main cell blocks, the walls are thick and the windows small, with glass that is barely translucent.

Peterhead Prison yard

Peterhead Prison yard

Initially, Maclean adapted reasonably well to prison life. He worked outside in a nearby granite quarry (prisoners travelled to and fro each day on a small railway) and appreciated the fresh air and exercise. As the weather turned cold however he suffered a sore throat and then worked inside. In the above article he actually said, ‘I enjoyed my first stay in Peterhead—until the ‘fun’ began, and then it was an intractable hell through the drugging of the food’.

In the winter of 1916-17 Maclean fell ill and was convinced it was because his food was being drugged. While his illness was more likely to have been caused by the appalling diet that prisoners endured—a diet that was poor to start with and deteriorated as the war went on and food shortages started to bite—it was sufficiently serious in March for him to be transferred to the prison hospital in Perth, where he spent the next three months.

In his speech to the jury in his 1918 trial, he repeated the accusation of drugged food at length and declared whatever was done to him, he would ‘take no food inside your prisons, absolutely no food; because of the treatment that was meted out to me. If food is forced upon me, and if I am forcibly fed …. , I am not responsible for the consequences but the British Government.’

At the start of his second stint in Peterhead, Maclean was allowed the unprecedented privilege of having his food prepared by friends outside the prison. This however proved unsatisfactory and after refusing to take the prison food, he went on hunger strike and from July to November was forcibly fed. A letter from his wife Agnes calling it an ‘atrocity’ and ‘slow murder’ was published in all the socialist papers to increase the pressure for his early release, but in retrospect, Maclean himself seemed quite sanguine. ‘ I felt very well all the time, getting out twice a day for exercise and sitting the rest of the day reading or looking out of the hospital cell window (large and plain glass) into Peterhead harbour,’ he wrote.

Indeed, the hospital wing of the prison, the final leg of our visit, was by far the most civilised, with much larger rooms and as Maclean says, views of the harbour.

Peterhead Harbour from the prison hospital

View of Peterhead Harbour from the prison hospital

While the physical effect of prison on Maclean was obvious, the effect on his mental stability continues to be a contentious subject. When Maclean objected in 1920 to the way the Communist Party of Great Britain was being put together, many of those who went into the CPGB said Peterhead had rendered him mentally unbalanced. Other commentators have said the allegations of psychological disorder ‘were merely a convenient way of evading the real and rational arguments which Maclean brought forward to justify his opposition to the formation of the CPGB.’

A number of film and television companies, including the BBC, had already expressed interest in using Peterhead Prison as a location we were told, and Score was very amenable to this use. In any film or television treatment of Maclean’s story, I thought, Peterhead would be a striking and authentic location.

Back in Glasgow on the Monday, Roddy and I hooked up with Ian Mitchell again for part two of his guided tour of key Maclean locations—this time by car and looking at places on the south side of the Clyde. First stop was Govan, scene of the 1915 rent strikes and a number of schools where Maclean worked as a teacher. Then Pollokshaws, where Maclean was born and grew up. And finally the original Weirs’ factory at Cathcart, where Maclean’s nemesis William Weir ran his engineering business

Shipbuilding was Glasgow’s preeminent heavy industry in Maclean’s time, but there is only one active shipbuilder left now—BAE Systems, which operates at the former Fairfield’s yard in Govan and the former Yarrows yard at Scotstoun on the north bank of the Clyde.

The imposing Fairfield’s office building on Govan Road is now the Fairfield Heritage Centre, a shipbuilding museum. At its entrance are two fine statues by James Macgillivray, an engineer in an open necked shirt and smock and a ship’s carpenter in his waistcoat and cravat. In the era of wooden ships, the carpenter was the leading tradesman and was often called a shipwright. As metal replaced wood and engines replaced sail, the engineer came to the fore.

Fairfield's entrance

The entrance to the Fairfield Heritage Centre, Govan.

Inside, alongside the photos of the shipbuilders at work and the ships they built, is a remarkable chart dating from 1907. Prepared by the Clyde Navigation Trust engineer’s office, it shows the shipyards and associated infrastructure on the upper reaches of the Clyde (from Clydebank to the Broomielaw). At the peak, just before the First World War, there were over forty shipyards on the Clyde. Including those at the numerous marine engineering works, the shipbuilding industry employed over a hundred thousand people. The workers tenements close by the Fairfield yard are mainly intact, but with most of the industry long gone, the area has sunk into a depressed state.

If Govan was depressed, Maclean’s birthplace of Pollokshaws was positively terminal. A village on the outskirts of Glasgow until the city absorbed it in 1912, it never had tenements like the central area, but the housing was of such poor quality it was pretty much swept away and replaced by tower blocks in the 1960s. These tower blocks are themselves being progressively demolished giving Pollokshaws the feel of a doughnut with a hole in the middle.

Scottish writer and comedian Frankie Boyle, in his autobiography, My Shit Life So Far, describes the Pollokshaws he grew up in as an ‘aching cement void, a slap in the face to Childhood.’ And to rub it in: ‘… a lot like Bladerunner without the special effects.’ Ouch. And it seems not much has changed.

Sir John Maxwell School

Sir John Maxwell School, Pollokshaws

One of the few buildings left from Maclean’s time is the Sir John Maxwell School. Here in the period 1908-16, Maclean gave evening lectures to workers on economics, with Marx’s Capital as the main text, all paid for by the Eastwood School Board. The lectures only ceased after Maclean was sent to prison in Peterhead. Still a fine looking red sandstone building, the Maxwell school closed its doors a few years ago and barring some unlikely restoration may soon go the way of the tower blocks.

On to Cathcart, the last leg of Ian’s tour, and to the original factory site of G & J Weir (now the head office of ClydeUnion Pumps). Weirs, a family business, was a marine engineering firm that had developed a series of innovative marine pumps in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. These pumps were critical to the process of feeding water into the steam engines that powered ships and the Weir Group worked closely with the British Admiralty to refine their application in naval vessels. They were widely used outside Britain as well, including in the battleships of the German navy.

Weir's of Cathcart

The entrance gates of the former Weir’s of Cathcart

When the First World War began, William Weir was in his mid-thirties (around the same age as John Maclean) and had been chairman of the company for two years. Strongly patriotic, he was quick to see the need for an increase in the production of shells and set about converting some of his factory for this purpose. A fan of the American factory system and its production line, his attempt to streamline munitions production prompted a confrontation with the radical shop stewards movement that had renounced the suspension of union rights proposed by the established unions and had constituted itself as the Clyde Workers Committee. The strike that ensued at Weirs in early 1915 convinced Weir that labour had to be tamed if Britain was to win the war.

Impressed by the energetic public campaign he mounted on the issue, David Lloyd George, then Minister of Munitions, appointed Weir to a government post as Director of Munitions for Scotland. Weir saw dilution—the introduction of unskilled men and women—as the key to increased production. Fearing the erosion of wages, the Clyde Workers’ Committee resisted strongly and disputes and strikes raged through the Clyde in the winter of 1915-16, fanned by incendiary speeches by Maclean and other socialists.

Operating out of the public eye, Weir’s tactics to smash the industrial resistance ultimately prevailed and Maclean and the leaders of the CWC were arrested and convicted of breaches of the Defence of the Realm Act. Maclean got the most severe sentence, while others got lesser prison terms or were deported from Glasgow.

John Maclean held many a meeting outside the work gates of Weir’s factory to denounce Weir’s proposals and I envisaged a scene that depicted the coming together of these two protagonists, Weir driving up to the factory gates in his car while Maclean harangued his workers on the road outside.

Auldhouse Road

John and Anges Maclean’s house in Auldhouse Road, Pollokshaws.

A few days later, Roddy drove me down to Pollokshaws again to see the house where Maclean and his family lived—and where he died on St Andrews Day 1923. Forty-two Auldhouse Road is an unprepossessing early 20th century two storey stone terrace with bay windows upstairs and down. Quite suburban really.

The funeral procession that accompanied Maclean’s body from his home for the one and a quarter miles to the Eastwood New Cemetery in Thorniebank was estimated at over twenty thousand and was described as the largest ever seen in Glasgow to that time. It’s something of a conundrum—how does one reconcile the massive show of respect with the paucity of friends and supporters around Maclean in his last days?

Just less than two miles south of the cemetery is Eastwood House, the home from 1914 onwards of William Weir, later Sir William Weir, after that Lord Weir and after that Viscount Weir. Built in the 1850s in a mock baronial style, it played host to many famous visitors included King George V and Queen Mary, British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, South African Prime Minister General Jan Smuts, the Aga Khan, the comedians Laurel and Hardy and Scottish singer Sir Harry Lauder. But not John Maclean, I think.

Eastwood House

Eastwood House, Giffnock

These days it is a wedding and reception venue run by East Renfrewshire Council, but wherever you look the craftsmanship still shines through—from the mock Grecian friezes to the marble fireplaces and the magnificent main staircase. Truly, a grand home.

There is one final location exercise to mention—a ‘guided walk and action’ around Govan titled Strong Women of Clydeside. The walk was lead by tara s Beall and the Women’s History Team, and focussed on the rent strikes of 1915. It was a hot, sunny Saturday—yes, in Glasgow!—and I had spent the morning with Roddy and his wife Carol soaking up the sights and sounds of the World Pipe Band Championship at Glasgow Green. After strolling around Govan for about two hours with the posse of about thirty, I was actually a bit sunburnt. Yes—in Glasgow.

Highlights were rent strike leader Mary Barbour’s otherwise unremarkable tenement house at 43 Uist Street and 10 Hutton Drive, scene of an anti-eviction protest in October 1915 that was extensively reported in the Daily Record. We also stopped outside 68 Shaw St, site of the Morris Hall, where many rent strike meetings were organised. John Maclean also spoke there and at his 1916 trial it was alleged that in January of that year he told his audience that if the government was to enforce the Military Service (conscription) and Munitions Acts, ‘the Clyde workers should down tools, but do it discreetly.’ Furthermore ‘that if the British soldiers in all parts would lay down their arms he was certain that the Germans … would also lay down their arms as they were all tired of the war long ago.’ Maclean denied making both statements, numerous witnesses backed him up, but the jury found him guilty of the charge of causing ‘mutiny, sedition and disaffection among the civilian population’ anyway.

As we gathered round to listen to one of the History Team tell us about Morris Hall, a couple of skinny local boys, about fourteen, one in a cap the other in a hoodie, were skittering around the outside of the group. ‘Whit’s gaun on here?’ they asked. Someone said in response, ‘We’re remembering things that happened here a hundred years ago. The history of this place.’ ‘Ah don’t know anything aboot that,’ Hoodie said, hopping from foot to foot.

Shaw Street, Govan

On the ‘Strong Women of Clydeside Walk’, Shaw St, Govan

A young woman in the team then whipped out a pre-prepared stencil and a can of black spray paint and marked the pavement with the slogan, ‘Barbour Squad St’. Hoodie’s eyes nearly bugged out of his head. ‘Hey—ye canny do that!’ ‘We’re just remembering Mary Barbour— the woman who led the rent strikes here,’ came the smooth, measured reply. ‘If ah did that the polis wud have me fur sure,’ he said. I’m sure he was right. But it did beg the deeper question—what relevance did the events of a hundred years ago have to that young boy and his generation?

Thanks to Ian Mitchell, Roddy, Carol and others, I had got a good sense of what was left of the landscape of Red Clydeside. I came home and wrote a couple of episodes of a docudrama series based on what I’d read and seen. Showed them to a few friends. Even pitched them to BBC Scotland. What I distilled from the feedback was that while they came over as historically authentic, the characters were a bit wooden, a bit two-dimensional, and the story lacked drama.

And in reflecting myself on what I’d done, I felt I hadn’t really shown why people like Maclean and his fellow socialists were so passionate about changing society—and so convinced that it was just about to happen. I hadn’t really gotten inside their heads.

So—why was Scotland the way it was when the First World War was declared? What sort of society shaped Maclean and his contemporaries? Did the revolution that never was ever have a chance? Time for more research.

Photo By: Clyde Navigation Trust engineer’s office
1 Discussion on “In Search of John Maclean—part 2”
  • Interesting read. I would think that people of my generation (auld) would be well aware of who John McLean was. I think if you research the sentiment behind the desire for an independent Scotland that McLean, Maxton, Reid etc. are all still alive in the minds of the people.

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