We next arrive at interesting tenement which still stands today. ‘Grays Buildings’, or more recently known as the YMCA building, directly across Glasgow Road from Joanna Terrace.
However, before we delve into the detail, we’re going to tell a nice little story to set the scene, a story belonging to the ‘Gray family’ the original constructors. The tale was first offered to the late Blantyre historian Neil Gordon in 1979 perhaps as a myth, but it is retold below after our correction of dates and providing facts exclusively related to the event.
At Barnhill on the western side of Blantyre on Bardykes Road stands a cottage known as Brownlie cottage, named after a family who lived there for many generations. One day in 1813, the same year explorer David Livingstone was born, Mr Brownlie was leaving his cottage and shocked and surprised to find an abandoned new born baby girl in a basket, which was sitting on his doorstep in the lane that now leads on to Glenfruin Road. A note was pinned on the shawl, asking the Brownlie family to take the child in and raise her as their own and requesting specifically that the baby be called Mary.
Now, just a week before this, Mrs Brownlie had given birth to a baby girl of their own, whom , by co-incidence and in fashion with the day, they had already named Mary. Still, the kind soul she was and unable to trace parents, she took the newly found baby in and raised the child as her own.
She was keen to grant the request regarding the child’s Christian name but she could not possibly consider raising two children with the same name, Mary Brownlie. So she gave the baby another surname and had her christened as Mary ‘Blantyre.’
A heart warming tale and one which has relevance to our book, for little Mary Blantyre would grow up and marry Robert Gray, an incomer to Blantyre ,a grocer born in Lanark in 1808.
Robert and Mary Gray (Blantyre) settled down in Stonefield in the mid 19th Century and it is known they were living at Coats Buildings in 1865, with their grown up family. However, by the 1871 census, they were living in their own building, “Grays Building”. It was constructed in 1868 and 1869 and opened in Autumn of that year, a license provided in October for Robert’s new grocers shop. This makes it, with exception of the Stonefield Tavern, the oldest existing building on all the south of Glasgow Road.
The early years
Built on a long, narrow strip of land, this building may have sat alone in fields with nothing around it when first built. The 2 storey, detached tenement had shops on the ground floor and homes on the upper. The property and yard was entirely fenced off with stone gate posts to the east side providing a wide entrance to the back. The pillars still exist today. Built of stone with a slate roof, there were 5 upper windows on the front facing out to Glasgow Road, with 1 window on either gable side offering at the time views up and down the road. There were 2 doors and three large windows on the lower floor. One, large central stone chimney towered above Glasgow Road with gable chimneys either end.
To the rear was plenty of space in the back yard, which was put to good use. Several buildings were constructed at the back including a granary, a stable, a hayloft and a slaughterhouse. Beyond that to the south was a large plot of land used for growing vegetables for sale in the front grocers shop. A water pump was situated in the rear yard and small glass or greenhouses, although these had been cleared by 1930.
Robert Gray became a master grocer in his lifetime. The 1875 valuation roll has him owning and occupying the house above, as well as licensed grocers shop on the lower floor, and of course, the aforementioned buildings to the rear. However, Robert Gray’s ownership of the building was fairly short lived and when he died in 1879, aged 71, it passed to his wife Mary Gray who was by then 66 years old.
In 1881, Grays Buildings are noted being called as such in the Street Index and that year the shops were a butchers, a licensed grocers and a drapers. These were being run by the 2 sons and a daughter of Mary Gray. In the house above that year were Mary (68), daughter Mary (42) and son Arthur (28). Another son John Gray lived in a small cottage named “Milne”, immediately next door.
Their businesses would have thrived in those early times, but faced more and more competition as further buildings sprang up around them, competing with their drapers, butchers and grocery businesses. By 1895, elderly Mary was 82 years old and the businesses were run by “J&A Gray”, most likely standing for John and Arthur Gray, brothers, and the sons of Mary.
Mary Gray (Blantyre) died on 21st October 1901, aged 88 and ‘Grays ‘Buildings were inherited by her oldest son John Gray.
John Gray was a master grocer and wine merchant, born in Blantyre in 1844, the son of Robert and Mary Gray. During his life he married Agnes Semple Murdoch and had a son whom he named Robert junior. In 1901 he took ownership of his parent’s legacy in Grays Buildings. He moved from his nearby cottage into the upper floor of Grays Buildings and let his son Robert rent the cottage from him.
By 1915, Grays Buildings had address 253, 255 and 257 Glasgow Road, the house being 253 with a rated value of £30 per annum. He would continue to run the granary, slaughterhouse, hayloft and stables for the rest of his life, as well of course as the licensed grocers shop.
On 1st January 1928, just shortly after the New Year Bells, John Gray died at 253 Glasgow Road, aged 84. He had been suffering from dementia amongst other things and his son, Robert was present. It was an end to the name “Gray’s Buildings”, having existed for over 6 decades, but not of course to the building itself, which was about to go on to serve an important function for the community as a whole. The Blantyre Social Club moved in during 1928, and found themselves in trouble with the law over licensing laws relating to the sale of alcohol. Joseph McCool was secretary. Between 1936 and 1938, the Blantyre Social Club closed at this location, becoming the Y.M.C.A.
Between 1940 and 1945, the Y.M.C.A building was used as the “Home Guard” training headquarters. Behind it, the former slaughterhouse and granary used also for wartime training as volunteers practiced attack and defend war-games, adjacent to some home made trenches. For a short time following the war, children would sneak in when the YMCA wasn’t holding functions or classes on and play soldiers in those trenches. Post WW2, the Thomson family moved in above the hall.
Shelter for Homeless Families
During 1948, ten families were rendered homeless when fire ravaged through their Watson Street homes in High Blantyre. Almost 40 people lost their homes and most of their possessions, being forced to stay temporarily after the fire in the YMCA on Glasgow Road. The fire had started early one morning at 12 Watson Street and destroyed the two-storey building. Temporary repairs were carried out at one end of the building to ensure the families adjacent were protected and could remain there. The fire was believed to have originated in the upper storey in the home of Mr. and Mrs. McNulty and their four children. Within half an hour the roof the building was on fire, as was the two shops on the lower floor, burning furiously. Mrs. McNulty’s cries for help caught the attention of her neighbours who raised the alarm. Householders made a vain attempt to put the fire out with buckets of water but were unsuccessful. Similar attempts were made to rescue possessions.
YMCA is sometimes perceived to be primarily a place for homeless young people; however, it offered a broad range of programmes such as sports, personal fitness, child care, overnight camping, outings, employment readiness programmes, training programmes, advice services, immigrant services, conference centres, and educational activities as methods of promoting its values. There is no doubt that from as early as 1938, this was an important organisation for Blantyre, in the days before proper community centres. Financial support for local associations was derived from programme fees, membership dues, community chests, foundation grants, charitable contributions, sustaining memberships, and corporate sponsors.
Children took great delight in escaping the tensions of the war years by being able to go on organized trips and outings. These 3 teenagers were on a Blantyre YMCA outing in 1945. On the left Blantyre youths, Tom Ashbridge, in middle an unknown handsome chap and on the right Thomas Buchanan. How smartly these young men were dressed for this exciting field trip.
We have to note just how much the YMCA was used. A small café was located inside the centre, and the halls held different kinds of classes for many decades right up until the 1990’s. Gymnastics, Tap Dancing, The Red Cross and many youth discos. During the 1960’s the Blantyre Discussion Group would meet there.
Between the 1940’s until 1960s the upper storey remained as homes and it is known Andrena Black a local lady was born there in 1961. At the vacant plot at the back of the yard, by the 1960’s a small woodland had sprung up between the outbuildings and Calder Street.
Blantyre YMCA Football Club was also based there coached by Tommy Chassels. They started out as “Cherrytree United” but were allowed to change name in June 1952. The Blantyre Miners Welfare held a gala day in Blantyre up until 1960 but stopped when the larger YMCA and Community Council events started in the public park. However, the Welfare would resume galas in 1978 and suddenly Blantyre often had TWO gala days each summer!
In the early 1970’s, the upper storey was made use of as halls also. By this time the building had no permanent residents. It meant dances downstairs in the hall, could also be held upstairs, even at the same time! Mr Park of Fernslea Avenue did a lot of charitable work for the YMCA as did many volunteers in Blantyre.
From 1972 until the late 1970’s, YMCA discos were a popular event in Blantyre. It was the place to be if you were between 9 and 13 years old. Youth discos occurred every Saturday night from 6pm until 8pm the children naming the disco, “The Roxy”. Mr. Sandy Nisbet was responsible for supervising the kids along with his then girlfriend, Alma. Local man, Jimmy Whelan remembers the “Roxy” by his poem of the same name, kindly shared here:
“Doon the Roxy on a Saturday night,
Dressed to kill oh what a sight,
Struttin oor stuff oan the dance flair,
The whole of Blantyre seemed to be there.
Two bob tae get in or a tin a beans,
Ten bob for sweeties that was yer means,
Music kicks aff wae some rock n roll,
Smoochin some burd tae a wee bit of soul,
Smelly toilets and flaking paint,
Fae oor crowd ye got nae complaint,
Loads of great memories in that wee hall,
Generations of people having a ball.
Another memory to be wiped away,
Gone forever the Y.M.C.A.
At least there calling it a fancy name,
But the Spice of Life just is’nae the same.”
Kids had a blast, especially around annual parties like Easter, Christmas and Halloween, where apple bobbing was especially fun!
During the 1980’s for a time, although the YMCA continued to be in use, a Health & Lifestyle centre was based there, a kind of home help for elderly people within the community. However, by the 1990’s the building was used less and less and in post Millennium years became closed and started to become derelict. Even as late as 2010, some of the windows were boarded up, security cameras installed and warnings to trespassers adorned the façade.
By 2013, however, the building got a new lease of life. Shops on the lower floor were renovated by new owners, former homes on the top, given new windows and a makeover. The Spice of Life Indian Takeaway moved into the eastern shop and William Hill bookmakers into the west at 253 Glasgow Road. This configuration still exists today and as of time of writing in 2017, it may surprise many to know that little 2 storey building is currently almost 150 years old!
Before we leave Gray’s Buildings, a note for just some of the many businesses that were located out of sight, at the rear yard. Mr. William McSeveney owned a coachbuilders shop in a small garage/ workshop at the back of Blantyre YMCA in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. Previous to this he had run the garage further west beside the Old Original Bar. In 2009 it was G Valets and following 2010, became Stoddart’s Accident Repairs and a carwash. As you see, Gray’s Buildings certainly had a packed and interesting history.
From the book, “Blantyre Glasgow Road South – The Real Story” by Paul Veverka (c) 2017
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