Collections Care: Where to start…
About the West Boathouse Project
Built by City Surveyor Alexander B. McDonald for Glasgow Corporation, the West Boathouse on Glasgow Green has been home to Clydesdale and Clyde Amateur Rowing Clubs since its construction in 1905. From the outside, the boathouse looks like a traditional masonry building. However, a cleverly designed, lightweight timber frame lies behind the facade and the walls were made up of metal lath and a thin, 2-inch thick layer of render. The building was pinned to the riverbank with deep timber piles, which allowed it to adjust to the natural movement of the riverbank and ultimately contributed to its survival. This clever solution also allowed for a quick build – timbers were cut to the architect’s specifications off-site and the frame arrived as an Ikea-style kit build. McDonald was also responsible for the People’s Palace on Glasgow Green, the Clyde Tidal Weir, Govanhill Baths and many other civic buildings across the city.
By the late 1990s, Glasgow City Council, who own the building, were becoming increasingly concerned with the condition of the West Boathouse. Historically, the clubs had carried out essential repairs and maintenance, but the building now faced significant structural problems. A new ‘super-boathouse’ was proposed in 2007/08 to accommodate all the Clyde-based rowing clubs but the plan was never realised. In 2015, Glasgow Building Preservation Trust, a charity that rescues and repairs historic buildings, began working with the rowing clubs and Glasgow City Council to explore options to save the building.
Time was running short – surveys of the building revealed the below-ground timber foundations were deteriorating rapidly, and the exterior cladding was in danger of collapse. Interior facilities were outdated, and the accessibility of the building was, by modern standards, very poor.
After several years of hard work and generous funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Historic Environment Scotland, Glasgow City Council and many others, the Rejuvenation of the West Boathouse Project got underway in 2019.
In addition to renovating and upgrading the building, the project also aims to change how the boathouse is used, and who it is used by – embracing new audiences and encouraging people to re-engage with the River Clyde. The community engagement programme began in April 2019. Over the past three years, we’ve been boat-building with Glasgow Disability Alliance, developed nature walks with The Conservation Volunteers, made films with local schoolchildren, celebrated the sporting heritage of the city’s east end, and begun work cataloguing and recording the rowing clubs heritage collections.
Collections in the West Boathouse
Both clubs are very proud of their long histories. Before its closure for renovations, the building was packed with photographs, vintage boats, oars, pennants, medals, and a wide range of rowing related material dating from the 1860s to the present day. Very little of the collection had been catalogued or recorded, so the decant in advance of capital works provided the perfect opportunity to begin working through the material. With the help of volunteers from each club, we conducted a rapid inventory and photographed and recorded each room before the big move.
Even at this stage, the process of looking more closely at the heritage in the building helped club members begin to think about the material as a heritage collection rather than just an assortment of rowing memorabilia. The decant took place just before the first lockdown in March 2020, and the collections were moved to Glasgow Building Preservation Trust’s offices for storage and recording.
Covid and Collections
For substantial parts of the past two years, it wasn’t possible for staff or volunteers to access the collections due to Covid restrictions. To maintain momentum, we used this time to focus on online activity – trialling and evaluating cataloguing systems, cameras and other recording kit and developing training resources for volunteers. The goal of this project was always to document the process of recording and sharing our collections, warts and all, and share that experience with other clubs and groups embarking on a similar journey. We hope that the additional time spent developing our collections plan, evaluating, reflecting and gathering resources will result in a better project, creating an affordable, accessible model to help other clubs.
Where We Are Now
By summer 2021, our offices at GBPT had reopened and we were able to resume working through the material with volunteers. We recruited a core of ten students from Glasgow University Archaeology Department to work alongside volunteers from the club. The 2021/22 winter lockdown and limits on the numbers of volunteers have caused some further disruption, but we’ve made steady, albeit slow, progress.
Work on-site at the boathouse is progressing well, with the foundations and roof complete and most of the rot repairs and conservation work done. Refining our interpretation plan is now a major priority, as our summer deadline looms for reinstallation and redisplay of the material, we’ve fast-tracked recording some of the older and more fragile items. The rest of the material will be recorded on-site at the boathouse when it reopens later in the year. This is a change from the original plan, but has the benefit of continuing activity into the ‘bedding in’ phase of the project, allowing more people to engage with the process, particularly those within the rowing community.
Rowing on the Clyde
Glasgow’s interest in competitive rowing began in the early 1800s, with regattas recorded from 1830 onwards. Before it was eclipsed in popularity by football, rowing was the most popular spectator sport in the city – up to 50,000 spectators would crowd along the riverbanks to watch the races. Today, six rowing clubs are located along this stretch of the river, including the two clubs based in the West Boathouse. Clydesdale Amateur Rowing Club is the oldest surviving rowing club in the city (est. 1856), closely followed by Clyde Amateur Rowing Club, founded in 1865. For more on the background to rowing on the Clyde: https://www.glasgowheritage.org.uk/glasgow-green-and-sport-part-three/
Up Next . . .
Our next blog will explore the ‘nuts and bolts’ process of cataloguing, recording, and sharing the boathouse collections.