At the end of the 1890’s changed business conditions made the working of the old fashioned Blantyre Mills quite unprofitable. Around the same time that the Mills closed down in 1904, most of the dilapidated buildings around the Village area were pulled down.
Several houses however remained. Waterloo Row, some miners cottages and the famous Shuttle Row, birthplace of Scots Explorer and Missionary David Livingstone. For the first time in 130 years, there was a decrease in work in the area and no need for the older houses. Pictured is Shuttle Row, built around 1780 which was home to twenty four families, each family unit crammed into their own one room about 10 foot by fourteen foot. The fact that decency and self respect could be retained under such conditions gives pause for thought. Conditions were basic and the turret spiral walls contained “jaw boxes” for residents to deposit their sewage. This must have made the approaches to these homes particularly unpleasant when you consider that practice had been ongoing for some 130 years. Water was fetched from a well adjacent to the village gates and you’ll see the circular washhouse to the left. The washhouse had a dove cot on top of it. Despite the high occupancy, the remaining buildings were condemned in 1913 by the County Authorities Act. At the point of eviction about to be served, the Great World War started, and the houses were allowed to remain. It was not until 1926 and the country recovered economically again that any authority again raised the question of them being demolished. By then, the neighbouring buildings that remained, i.e the Miners rows and Waterloo row had become slums and conditions were deplorable. Waterloo Row’s own fate was sealed when it burnt down in 1928. However, I’m jumping ahead, lets go back to 1926 when all the houses were condemned for demolition.
During that year, it came to the knowledge of a few Livingstone admirers and enthusiasts that if nothing were done, the Missionary’s birthplace would be destroyed with the rest. A Committee was promptly formed in the local area and a movement inaugurated whose purpose was to save the Shuttle Row houses and to possibly transform it into a National Memorial and Shrine. The fact the nearby grounds of the manager’s mansion were on the market and that it would thus be possible to make the Memorial what it has since become, a children’s gathering place, made the proposition additionally attractive.
The first meeting was held in 1926 and was presided over by the then Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Dr John White, of the Barony Parish, Glasgow. A Committee was appointed with the Rev. James I Macnair as Chairman, and Dr Donald Fraser and Mr F. Moir as vice chairmen. The grounds were secured at a reasonable figure, the precious buildings being included in the bargain.
Unfortunately, the coal stoppage of 1926 synchronised with the floating of the scheme and progress was at first slow. Fine assistance was, however given by the Sunday School children of Scotland and elsewhere, and gradually a sufficient fund grew. The cost of the purchase and alterations and development of the scheme was around £17,000. (About £1million today).
Work started in 1928 by Messrs A. Wright & Sons. T&W Roberts took care of the joinery work, the painting done by local painters The Brown Bros of 222 Glasgow Road and Plumbing by William Batters. It was completed the following year and the Memorial was opened by her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, then H.R.H Duchess of York, on Saturday 5th October 1929, a day long remembered in the town. The response of the public was overwhelming with some 12,000 people apparently attending the opening day. The Duchess of York declared the centre open with the words “It seems most appropriate that the birthplace of this great Scotsman should henceforth be a memorial to his achievement as a Missionary and a Pioneer. Livingstone’s life is one that must always appeal to the youth of this country and I hope that this most worthy memorial will ever remain a place of pilgrimage to those who revere his memory.”
A record 73,000 people passed the turnstile in 1931 but sadly the centre in the post war years started to lose some of it’s novelty. However, there is no doubt that the Centre put Blantyre firmly on the map.