Nick Hedges was born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, 1943. He studied photography at Birmingham College of Art 1965-1968, and as a final project he worked with Birmingham Housing Trust on an exhibition about the city’s badly housed.
He spent three years visiting areas of deprivation throughout the UK to create this seminal body of work for Shelter. He photographed slum housing in major cities such as Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Bradford and London, documenting the distressing conditions faced by more than three million people.
This is Nick's account of photographing the people of Glasgow during the 1970's
Most cities in Britain manage, or try, to hide away any tragedy that is endemic to them. But in Glasgow the tragedy is apparent as you roll slowly thought what remains of the Gorbals towards Central Station. It is apparent in the number of times disaster hits the city, every year some tragic event reinforced its reputation upon the rest of the country. A tenement fire, a gas mains explosion, a football crowd disaster, the shipyard crisis, the unemployment rate, another fire disaster; the list is endless.
The explanation is not just the housing, but looking at the housing; either the massive sandstone tenements of the 19 th century, or the colossal high rise project of the late 20 th century, one is tempted to see in it the evidence of minds desperate for a solution, yet unable to disentangle the knot of the Industrial Revolution.
As if I needed reminding of my first evening, having looked around the remnants of the Gorbals, I was walking up the main shopping street near the city centre; a flurry of commotion, two small boys aged 8 and 5 had just robbed a blind man of his day’s begging. I chased them but lost them. Then fifteen minutes later, letter out a stream of oaths and screaming at the top of his voice, the younger boy reappeared chasing the eight year old who was making off with all the proceeds of their robbery. Glasgow is a devastating city.
We had two tasks in Glasgow. Maggie and Pam were to spend all their time in East Kilbride, building up a portrait of a new town. I remained in Glasgow picking up more material about families living in bad housing conditions.
I went back to the Gorbals although I realised that most of the tenements there were now empty. In a few places I found blocks which were still lived in, and I photographed the exteriors and the courtyards. These type of tenements are found only in Scotland. They were built as cheap housing in the 19th century. The number of them in Glasgow show how fast the city developed around the Clyde. They are the grimmest environment that I’ve encountered. This has something to do with the size of the stone used in their construction, the entry to them through the cave like entrances, the deep and dark stairwells and the relentless pattern of streets. The tenements are built around a courtyard which becomes a battlefield and refuse dump. The environment has a cumulative effect as you walk for a mile, from one yard to another (Maryhill). Because of the great stones which form the outside walls, the blocks begin to look like the outer defences of a besieged and beleaguered city. Not one growing thing can be seen, no tree, no garden. 19th century monuments crumbling to pieces, undermined with their own bad drainage.
At the end of one such block which seemed completely empty I found evidence of life. A baby in a pram, I looked up and saw his mother at a window two floors; I waved and we shouted greetings. Mrs Harley, her husband and baby son were the sole occupants of a block of tenements that at one time must have housed 150 families. Over the eighteen months that they had been there, families had been moved out to a new flats by the corporation, but they’d been left even though they were on the council waiting list. Mr Harley had had to change jobs from working on the buses to being a labourer. This was necessitated by the irregular hours on the buses. He couldn’t leave his wife and child alone at night in that empty tenement. One morning they’d been woken up by the sound of a demolition gang’s ball and chain smashing into the end of the block in which they lived. They’d stopped the demolition but had still to be rehoused. I called back in November and they were still there, despite frequent visits to the council offices. I spent more time photographing Mrs Harley, she was expecting another child and had to drag the pram up two flights of stairs because it was not safe to leave it anywhere. I was moved by her good humour and her love for her son. All this in the most adverse conditions.
To the north-west of Glasgow city centre I discovered Maryhill. The tenement blocks here were thickly populated, and the courtyards ankle deep in rotting garbage. I just photographed exteriors, we returned later for ‘Happy Christmas’ and ‘Condemned’ to do case history studies. The tenements face onto Maryhill Road, and this side of the block was made up of fairly prosperous shops, chain stores like ‘Boots’, but you just dived through a passage way and in ten paces you were in another world. Children playing amongst the cinders and refuse of several hundred tenement flats. I’ve never seem slums quite like this – in such number.
Back in the Gorbals at dusk I happened upon a gas lighter doing his rounds. Lighting the gas lamps on the tenement staircases – a ladder over his shoulder, a gas jet in one hand, a Victorian figure alive and necessary in 1970.
One day I travelled around Glasgow’s charming, ancient underground railway to Cessnock, and walked down to the Govan shipyards. I found a children’s playground in the shadow of cranes, running down to the edge of the Clyde. Here the tenements seemed in better condition, the community a little more structured and alive. I took some romantic pictures of children on swings and playing football, the shipyards behind them. It didn’t seem to be dishonest to picture this, for Glasgow has, its tragic flaws apart, some great heroic themes in its culture.
In contrast East Kilbride, where Maggie and Pam were working, had an absence of tragedy or heroism and a surfeit of pleasant ordinariness. Some of the photographs in the archive are Maggie’s. In particular a fine set of portraits of a young couple sitting in the sun outside a pub, a rooftop shot of the car part and the highrise block, a photograph of a padding pool and grassy slope covered with people, and a picture of the matron of the old people’s club. I spent a couple of days there photographing the different housing styles.
East Kilbride was fortunate in that it had grown slowly and encompassed a variety of architecture. It was a balanced community in that all ages were well represented. Its shopping precinct seemed well used, a banner for a drive in church hung across the main parade, stretched between supermarkets. It was very hot, lawns were being mown, children lay in front of their houses reading comics, someone tried to push some drugs to me, Ko-op Krazy Kats were doing good business, the car parks were full, what more could you ask? The library was a cool retreat, the Olympic swimming pool another. People walked under subways, cars drove above. Everyone we talked to liked living there, it was a relaxed and untroubled community.
One thing I couldn’t find was soul, identity, character – but you cannot plan for this, it happens by chance, it grows through shared experience and by necessity through shared hardship as well as happiness. That’s how I see it. I could well be wrong; I could well be wrong to bother about identity or character. East Kilbride had many virtues which I found lacking in other new developments I visited, but I couldn’t live there it would have been so dull. I do know that most of Glasgow families I’d seen would have moved there as soon as they were able, and that’s the most important judgement.
We returned to London, I processed film and printed as fast as I could. Maggie took some more pictures of suburban Bromley and Pam gathered the material together.
This was the last time at Shelter that I had such a free and wide brief, the last time that I had the opportunity to work by myself at any length. It was a period of time rich in experiences of many different cultures. I appreciated the chance it gave me to discover parts of Britain that I’d dreamed of discovering. My chief regret is that so many parts of our work remained unused. And it is my continuing regret that there is no institution in this country which is prepared to sponsor a long term documentation of our society. It would cost less than a half hour T.V. programme to fund such a project for several years.