The changing face of Dumbarton town
To any old Dumbartonian returning to the town after a prolonged absence, the town’s layout must seem strange.
Some of the old streets, including the best known, College Street or the Vennel, have disappeared, the banks of the Leven are easily accessible from the High Street, and large, pleasantly laid-out housing estates surround the town.
So wrote Dumbarton historian Dr Ian MacPhail in a book to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the granting of Royal Burgh status to the town.
The last part of that may have been gilding the lily a bit, but it is not unsurprising given that the late Dr MacPhail had been commissioned by the Town Council to write “Dumbarton Through the Centuries”.
Generally speaking however Dumbarton did look better than it does now.
Age has taken its toll on the Ancient Capital of Strathclyde.
Great fortitude and faith were its motto in those days 40 long years ago but that motto, along with its elephant and castle coat of arms, has been consigned to the past.
Just as the Municipal Buildings is currently undergoing a face-lift, the whole town requires a makeover.
Over the past few weeks, I have been putting Dr MacPhail’s research to good use, listing the changes that took place here in the first three quarters of the 20th century.
And to round this off, it will be helpful to future scholars with an interest in Dumbarton’s past to know that there have been other significant changes since the Second World War.
The model yachting pond at the Common, which in winter became a skating pond and was known as the Goosedubs, was filled up and became the playing fields of Dumbarton Academy, which was still located at Braehead, in the 1950s.
When electrification of the railways was introduced in 1960 and Dumbarton waved goodbye to steam trains, the old North British or LNER line through the town was closed.
Trouble with transformers on the newly-introduced “blue trains” led to breakdowns and withdrawal of services after just a few weeks.
But nine months later they returned to operate successfully and included what became known as “the bowler hat express” from Helensburgh which called at Dumbarton Central only at 8.25am each morning.
The setting up of the Scottish Gas Board in Dumbarton in 1948 meant that Dumbarton lost its own gasworks, with only meagre compensation.
A large new gasworks was then erected at Castlegreen Street in the Newtown but that was itself rendered superfluous by the introduction of natural gas in 1971.
Who remembers the men and boys of poor families in the town, who could not afford coal, going out to the gasworks with an old barrow or pram to collect charcoal to keep their home fire burning on cold winter nights?
Up to 1949 the Burgh of Dumbarton had its own police force housed in the Municipal Buildings, but it was merged with the County Constabulary, which was housed up the pend in the Old Academy building in the Burgh Hall in Church Street.
Superintendent Bert Gunn was in charge at Dumbarton and Chief Constable William Kerr, one of the detectives who investigated the theft of the Stone of Destiny from Westminster, was the Chief Constable.
Sadly, Mr Kerr was seriously injured when he accidentally walked into the rear rotor blades of a helicopter at the “new” police headquarters at Crosslet.
He was replaced by Chief Constable David McNee, who became Chief Constable of Strathclyde and was later knighted when he was promoted to become Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London.
The Dumbarton Fire Brigade, which was enlarged during the Second World War because of the danger of air-raids on the shipyards and factories, was brought under the control of the Central Area Fire Brigade in 1948.
Firemaster Sam Park took charge of a number of big fire operations, including the one that destroyed the Burgh Hall and the one that swept through Denny’s offices in Castle Street.
Firemaster Sam was injured that night as he and his men fought to save the old building.
In 1968 the burgh’s water undertaking was taken over by the Lower Clyde Water Board.
This brought an end to the annual “water trip,” which was the junket to end all council junkets in that era. This was an inspection of reservoirs, which was supposed to involve walking about eight miles in all over Dumbarton Muir and down into the filters at Garshake.
Dr MacPhail wrote that it was “reminiscent of the traditional perambulation of the marches”.
Believe me, it was the whisky drinking session of the year when copious amounts of Scotch, some of which was donated by the local distilleries, was consumed by the participants.
These were councillors and officials and others who were deemed to have given significant public service over the year.
They staggered from reservoir to reservoir.
It was a time when a free dram was greatly appreciated and an invitation to the Water Trip was an indication that you had “made it” in Dumbarton society.
The surrender of control of fire and water services, the fire brigade and the police force heralded the beginning of the “economies of scale” approach in local government.
Instead of subsidiarity – local decisions being taken by local people at local level – a system of regional government was being prepared for Scotland.
It was the beginning of a reorganisation which resulted in the least important functions in Dumbarton being governed by a District Council.
The Town and County Council’s most important functions, Education, Social Work, Highways and Transportation and others passed into the hands of Strathclyde Regional Council, which came into being in 1974.
Out with the old, in with the new Dumbarton’s changing skyline
All change Municipal buildings in Dumbarton