Canal Boatmen's Institute

M053 Canal Boatmen's Institute

Address: 162, Port Dundas Road, Glasgow
Date: 1891–3
Client: Canal Boatmen's Society of Scotland; Leonard Gow, president of Glasgow branch
Authorship: Authorship category 2 (Mackintosh and Office) (Mackintosh and Office)


Port Dundas was an industrial district north of Glasgow city centre at the terminus of a branch of the Forth and Clyde canal. A Canal Boatmen's Mission had existed there for over 20 years when, at the beginning of the 1890s, the Canal Boatmen's Friend Society recognised the need for larger premises. The aim of the new Institute was to provide 'other attractions necessary to neutralise the influences of the many public houses in the district', through a coffee room, library, committee room, classroom and large assembly and recreation halls. These would accommodate church services, children's religious education and a large number of organised group activities. 1

The cost of the building was raised by subscription from members of the Society committee and the local community, and boosted by a donation of £500 from the Bellahouston Bequest Fund. The Society's president was keen for the new building to open free of debt, and by January 1894, £5044 of the anticipated £5900 cost of land, construction and furnishing had been raised. 2 The formal opening took place on 20 June 1893, although the Institute was not fully operational until late November 1893. 3 A silver trowel with Celtic motifs was designed by John Keppie and made by silversmiths R. & W. Sorley to mark the laying of the foundation stone in October 1892, and was presented to the Lord Provost, Sir John Muir, who performed the ceremony. 4

Growing demand for the services provided by the Institute necessitated the expansion of the building. In 1929–31, Keppie & Henderson considerably extended the assembly and recreation halls, reorientating the roof and removing the half-timbering from the exterior.


The three-storey building with its prominent clock tower and timber spire in late-17th-century Scottish style would have been a striking addition to the Port Dundas landscape of industrial and canal buildings and impoverished tenements. Contemporary critics remarked on the form of the tower and spire and its similarity to the town houses at Dumfries and Stirling, and Glasgow's Old College, the original home of the University of Glasgow. 5 The clock, which was lit up at night, was added to the tower in October 1896: 'Owing to no public or other clock being near, it is a great boon to the locality.' 6

Colour photograph of Stirling Tollbooth

The Institute was built of snecked Locharbriggs sandstone rubble, stugged, with smooth dressings. 7 There were two entrances: the main door up a flight of stairs at the centre of the W. elevation, over which a canopy was later added, and the separate coffee-room door at the N.W. corner, where patrons could enter directly from the street. The mullioned-and-transomed windows were mostly fitted with sashes, with fixed, leaded lights used for the basement and assembly hall. Renaissance-style decoration on the W. elevation included carved shields on the ground floor of the tower and mullions on the first floor in the form of Roman Doric columns. By contrast, the N. and S. gable walls of the assembly hall had Arts and Crafts half-timbering under projecting eaves. The apex of the W. gable carried a sculpture of a seated lion, similar to that on the Lion and Unicorn stair of Glasgow Old College.


The activities of the Institute, run by volunteers under the Superintendent, were accommodated over three floors. The main entrance led into a wide hallway with principal spaces opening from it: to the left, with canted bay, the large coffee room with its own separate entrance at the N.W. corner, offering an alternative to the public house; to the right, a reading room with library store in the tower, and behind it a committee room. By the 1940s, these rooms were used as an office and bank. The hallway led to the assembly hall at the rear, with seating for over 240 and a platform at the N. end. 8 The broad dog-leg stair was tucked in between the coffee room and assembly hall and had a large mullioned-and-transomed stained-glass window on the half-landing. In the basement there was a spacious recreation hall for over 270 standing persons. 9 The basement also contained a drying room (important for men working on the canal), a smoking room and services including kitchen, scullery and baths. 10 On the first floor, a large classroom was situated above the coffee room, while the remainder of the floor contained the missionary's room and a self-contained superintendent's flat, with kitchen, sitting room and two bedrooms. A hatch in the tower bedroom gave access to the tower and clock, allowing the clock to be wound weekly.

The lack of sectional drawings or photographs makes it difficult to assess the appearance of the interior. Photographs taken during demolition show the roof trusses and decorative stained glass in the assembly hall, which were installed during the extension work of 1929–31, but it is not clear whether these later additions replicated the design of the original assembly hall.


Two drawings for the Institute were published in the British Architect on 5 July 1895: a perspective from the S.W. and a detail of the clockface. The perspective is signed by the editor, Thomas Raffles Davison, who drew many illustrations for the journal. 11 Both drawings show the clockface framed by four naked female figures, provocatively moving through a watery scene surrounded by sinuous Art Nouveau foliage. The design has been attributed to Mackintosh, and is similar to a cast bronze clockface in one of the contemporary chimneypieces at the Glasgow Art Club with which he may also have been involved. Given the religious and moral principles underpinning the Canal Boatmen's Institute, however, it seems extremely unlikely that such a design would ever have been seriously considered. 12 A photograph of the Institute, exhibited at the Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts in 1894, appears to show a clockface of different design, and by the 1960s a clock with a wider dial had been installed. 13

By the mid-1960s, construction of the north section of the M8 motorway had begun in Port Dundas and the area was in severe decline. Nevertheless, church services, the penny bank, weekly children's religious instruction (the 'Band of Hope') and the 'Pleasant Sunday Afternoon' meetings, which had all existed from the beginning of the Institute continued until the last. The building was subject to a compulsory purchase order in 1965 and was demolished during 1967. The Institute committee was dissolved on 19 December 1967 and its assets distributed to other charitable institutions in Scotland. 14

Colour photograph of perspective of Canal Boatmen's Institute, 'British Architect', 5 July 1895, p. 8Photograph of sketch of Canal Boatmen's Institute clockface



1: Glasgow Herald, 12 October 1892, p. 4.

2: Glasgow Herald, 28 January 1892, p. 3; 19 January 1893, p. 4; 18 January 1894, p. 6.

3: Glasgow Herald, letter to the editor from Leonard Gow, president of the Institute, 30 November 1893, p. 3.

4: Glasgow Herald, 12 October 1892, p. 4.

5: British Architect, 44, 5 July 1895, p. 8; Dumfries Town House was illustrated in David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross, The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland from the Twelfth to the Eighteenth Century, 5 vols, Edinburgh: D. Douglas, 1887–92, vol. 5, pp. 127–8.

6: Glasgow Herald, 16 October 1896, p. 6. The clock was reported as being supplied by 'Messrs Sorley', presumably R. & W. Sorley, and was the gift of Major F. W. Allan, vice-president of the Canal Boatmen's Society of Scotland.

7: British Architect, 44, 5 July 1895, p. 3.

8: Glasgow City Archives Collection: Glasgow Dean of Guild Court, list of cases, D-OPW 19/12, 8 October 1891, p. 47.

9: Glasgow City Archives Collection: Glasgow Dean of Guild Court, List of Cases, D-OPW 19/12, 8 October 1891, p. 47.

10: Glasgow Herald, 28 January 1892, p. 3.

11: A. Stuart Gray, Edwardian Architecture: A Biographical Dictionary, Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1988, p. 160.

12: Thomas Howarth, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Modern Movement, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2nd edn, 1977, p. 26; David Stark, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Co., Catrine, Ayrshire: Stenlake Publishing, 2004, p. 97.

13: Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts, 1894, 867.

14: Glasgow City Archives Collection: Records of Canal Boatmen's Institute and Port Dundas Mission, letter from R. McKenzie Smith to John D. Craig, 20 December 1967, TD 1301/3/36; information from Allan Montgomery.