'All shadows...': the early stages

Esther Draycott lays out the early stages of her research project on the Glasgow drying green.

This project focuses on the Glasgow drying green. A poem by Edwin Morgan is a departure point to explore the ways in which public memory of women’s space in the city has been shaped by melancholy, longing and nostalgia. 

Left: Image of a vase of 'clutha' glass, designed by Christopher Dresser, for James Couper & Sons, Glasgow, ca.1890. Credit: V&A Gallery Collections.\nRight: Draycott, E. 'The Monroe Effect', Nothing Personal, 1, (October 2021), p17-23.


All shadows are alive takes Edwin Morgan’s poem ‘Glasgow Green’ as a departure point to examine the decline of the drying green in working-class Glasgow. The last recorded use of the drying green to which Morgan refers was in the late 1970s, roughly coinciding with the final closures of public washhouses in the city, known as ‘steamies’. Latterly both sites have become what Lynn Abrams calls a ‘Scottish fascination’, their loss seen as a stand-in for the loss of a certain idea of community within Scottish urban life which had women and washing at its centre.

I am interested in the way that sense of loss manifests via nostalgia groups on social media, which range from the large and exceptionally popular, such as Glasgow Memories, Lost Glasgow or The Glasgow Chronicles, to specific and often intimately personal groups, referring to old Glaswegian neighbourhoods, estates and even single streets. I believe these forums are overlooked as historical sources because the contributions people make to them are usually difficult to substantiate, but that quality, I think, is exactly what makes them valuable. They are grassroots archives, containing expressions of memory indifferent to processes of verification that often obscure and reorder those recollections under regimes of power.

Over the past two months, I have been gathering posts made on these internet groups (anonymised: I do not record names, only photographs, and untraceable fragments of commentary) together with artefacts, essays, images, films, poetry and some things more difficult to categorise into a folder labelled ‘All shadows are alive’. While doing so, I have tried to compare two narratives – the ‘official’ story of the rise and fall of the drying green and the ‘unofficial’, the latter enriched by personal stories of laundry across time and place.

The Washing-House, Glasgow Green 1885. Photograph by T. R. Annan & Sons.
The Washing-House, Glasgow Green, source: The Getty Museum Public Archive, photographer: T. R. Annan & Sons, 1885, Photoengraving, 13.6 x 19.5 cm.

Among the ‘unofficial’ items in this folder is Clotheslines, an experimental film by Roberta Cantow made in 1981, which layers memories of women in New York City (mostly Italian immigrants hailing from Queens and Brooklyn) about the ritual of laundry with found footage of clothes washed and dried in unnamed cities around the world. There is also a letter of complaint written to the owner of Parkhead Baths in 1915, describing the ‘unseemly quarrels’, often escalating into ‘physical violence’, between women at the East-end steamie over use of the wringers. Artist Marianne Wex’s 1979 publication Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ body language as a result of patriarchal structures offers a framework to understand certain poses and gestures that reoccur in photographs of laundresses – suggesting subtle ways they play with masculine tropes of aggression, strength and mastery. Glaswegian performance artist Donna Rutherford’s 2018 film Hung Out to Dry weaves personal memories of Barrhead bleachworks, back court wash houses, and the final days of the Glasgow steamie into a kind of lyric, a many-voiced chorus synchronised by rhythms of physical labour.

All of this provides grounding for the next stage of All shadows are alive, writing a multi-voiced written response to what I have found. Taking direction from feminist, queer and Black cultural theory, I want to use the evidence I have to question a dominant interrelation of cleanliness and goodness, dirtiness and evil, asking who these overseers of the steamie and the drying green were if not the angelic figures they are often made out to be. As Morgan writes, using the dirt that remains on billowing white sheets on the Green to speak to another obfuscated story, that of homosexual life in post-war Glasgow: ‘the dirty starless river/is the real Clyde, with a dishrag dawn/it rinses the horrors of the night/but cannot make them clean’.