Brief History of Alexandria 1800 - 2008 - Page 2

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A major improvement in the infrastructure was achieved in 1836 when Bonhill Bridge was built to link Alexandria and Bonhill. This was the first bridge crossing of the Leven in the Vale and it undoubtedly eased the lives of the Vale people. Unfortunately, it was opened as a toll bridge because it was replacing a ferry for which a charge was made and from which the Smolletts made money. This spurious principle survives today of course, but time has exposed its intrinsic unfairness  rather than proved its relevance.

It was from the Bawbee Bridgestart called the ”bawbee” bridge, because tolls were ha'penny for a person (hence bawbee), 2d for a horse and rider, 6d for a coach or loaded cart. The tolls were especially hard on a working family where 3 or 4 might have to use the bridge daily to get to and from their work, and came to be regarded as a second rent.

From the outset, the tolls were a serious offence to virtually everyone in the Vale - workers, tradesmen and management. They provided an issue which, very unusually, radicalised a large section of the population in demonstrations against the tolls which more often than not ended in violence with the toll gates thrown into the Leven and the toll booth wrecked, and also united all sections of society against a common enemy. Clear proof of this is that the main speaker at the celebrations when the tolls were lifted all of 59 years later, was Mr John Christie of Levenfield and the UTR (pictured bekow).

He didn't miss anyone and hit the wall in an attack on the Smolletts and Colquhouns He pointed out their venality and probable criminality in abusing their positions as road commissioners and elected representatives to arguably break the law in prolonging the tolls, and certainly promote their income.

John ChristieThe nearest equivalent to this speech in modern times which readily comes to mind is Edward Heath's attack on the “unacceptable face of capitalism”. The tolls lasted for 59 years ie until 1895, when the tolls on both Bonhill and Balloch (which was owned by Colquhoun of Luss) were lifted.

Even in the 1950's there were a number of old people in the Vale who carried scars won at battles on Bonhill and Balloch bridges with the toll-collectors and police. A fuller description of the issue of the Bridge Tolls is contained in the History of the Vale of Leven section of this web site.

Soon after the Bridge was built, the house building started in Bridge Street and Bonhill Crescent, (as it was known). In 1840 Alexandria Parish Church was built and opened in Main Street (it was extended in 1906, and at that time the Church Hall was built in Church Street, which had formerly been called Ann Street).

Within 4 years, Rev William Kidd became minister of the Parish Church and served there for the next 47 years, from 1844 until his death in 1891. He was there so long that the Parish Church became known as “Kidd's Church”. He arrived before the church Manse had been completed, and he stayed for a time in Rowan Tree Bank in Main Street. The Manse was located in what is now Overton Road, but was then called “Watty's Loan” after Watty Gardner, who had a farm nearby. Unusually for Alexandria, both of these house are still standing and occupied as houses.

Just after the Parish Church was opened, it must have seemed a bit of extravagance, to say the least, because there occurred one of these Church-based disputes which make the outsiders eyes glaze over at the time, and which nearly always seem irrelevant and terminally boring when viewed through the mists of time.

Alexandri Scotland Arial View
Click to Enlarge

Unusually and surprisingly for church disputes, the Church of Scotland “Disruption” of 1843 had at its heart a principle which is still relevant to-day - that of democratic choice - and it was eventually won, not by the Establishment, but by the “Disrupters”. They wanted every congregation to have the right to appoint its own minister instead of the minister being appointed by the local landowner. Even before 1843, when the 1843 General Assembly refused to concede that right, and ministers and members left in droves to set up separate churches, a number of sects had already left and were building their own churches.

The immediate impact of all of this was the appearance for the first time of any number of initials to denote the many different groups of true believers. Most of these have long been consigned to the dustbin of history, and although the initials will be used here, don't be put off, you don't have to know their meaning they are simply used as differentiators in an attempt to help to understand why so many churches  were built at that time. Only He knows what God made of all of this, but you have to suspect that he had long since stopped being surprised at how many groups claimed that only they had the one true way to Godliness.

Alexandria United Free Church
Click to Enlarge

The lasting impact in the Vale, including Alexandria, was a spate of church building. A lesser-lasting impact was that some of these churches also started their own schools for a time. In Alexandria, the Ann Street School was run by the Free Church for many years. After the passing of the Education (Scotland) Act of 1872 brought education and schools under the control of Parish School Boards, which were created by the Act to oversee education in each locality, and which were elected bodies, these schools began to disappear.

About 1875 Ann Street School became part of the new Parish School Board system and the pupils transferred to the extended Main Street School. Ann Street School was eventually knocked down, and new Parish Church Halls were built on its site about 1906, by which time Ann Street had been named Church Street. They too have gone, to be replaced by St Andrews Court housing development.

A group calling themselves Independents had already built their own church in Bank Street in 1838. In 1843 by some of the Disrupters joined these Independents to form a Free Church congregation in the Bank Street building. This building was replaced on the same site by the Church half way up the west side of Bank Street in 1889, and that church building survived until the redevelopment of 1973. By 1973, it was called Alexandria North Church having rejoined the Church of Scotland many years before.

Splits within splits in the early 1840's provided the Alexandria Bridge Street United Presbyterian (UP) congregation with its raison d'etre. They initially worshipped in the Oddfellow's Hall at the bottom of Random Street, but built a church on the site of what became the YMCA in Bridge Street about 1844, and then a larger one further up Bridge Street which opened in 1847 now the Baptist Church).

They seem to have had a relatively affluent congregation, because they eventually came to rest in a fine red sandstone building in Upper Bridge Street in 1909, and only left that building (which was burned down in suspicious circumstances in the 1990's), when they amalgamated with Alexandria Parish Church in 1987 to create St Andrews Parish Church. Four separate church buildings were erected, therefore, by the 3 / 5 variants of Scottish Presbyterianism in the 1840, none more than a few hundred yards from the other, by three separate congregations.

Although one of the buildings has survived as an operational Church, it does so as the Baptist Church, and the gathered survivors of the other congregations now meet as Alexandria Parish Church in what was formerly the new Alexandria North Church, not in Alexandria, but in Balloch. The amalgamation of the North and what was by then the St Andrews Parish congregations and the move into the one building took place in 1994. The Alexandria Parish Church of 1840 / 1906 now survives as a children's nursery and playground.

House-building did not proceed in an orderly, sequential program in the way that we tend to think of housing development to-day. To begin with individuals would build tenements or cottages, mostly for rent, but some for personal occupancy, whenever and wherever they acquired a plot of land and the money.

In a typical mid 19th century Alexandria street there would be substantial gaps between buildings which were only filled in in a piecemeal fashion by a variety of landlords and builders over a 20 - 30 year period. Indeed in some streets it appears that some gaps were never filled in before the streets themselves disappeared in the 1970's. But the bridge and then the railway, accompanied by the success of the factories, were major drivers in the house-building activities from the 1840's onwards.

The railway was the next major infrastructure component to fall into place. It came to Alexandria in 1850. This was, of course, the Balloch - Bowling line. John Neill in his book Records and Reminiscences of Bonhill Parish (1912) says that during the building of the railway viaduct at Lumbrain there was a sudden collapse of the embankment leading onto the viaduct, and that 4 horses were buried alive under the tons of stone and earth which came down. This is an often-reported accident from building sites at this time - particularly railway building sites.

One such story came from the building of the ”Harry Potter” viaduct at Glenfinnan on the Mallaig - Fort William line, and people have tended to treat them as urban myths. However, a few years ago when doing some X-Ray engineering testing on one of the legs of the Glenfinnan viaduct sure enough a horse and cart showed up on the X-ray. After years of disbelief, the story of the horse and cart falling into the structure proved to be true. There is a similar tale of a horse being drowned in 1885 during the building of the railway siding linking Dalquhurn and Cordale when it backed up too far on the towpath and was dragged by the cart into the Leven. Maybe all the stories are true, if not they make a diverting urban myth.

By 1858 the line was opened all the way to Glasgow and access to the national network was possible. Factories were quick to take advantage of the railways to deliver raw materials and carry away finished goods. All of the major textile works in Alexandria were very close to a railway line and sidings were built into them. Alexandria Works had sidings coming off the Balloch - Stirling railway line which opened in 1856, as had Levenbank. Milton and Dalmonach works were connected by a branch line built about 1860, the line of which is still quite visible, while another branch line, built in 1875, left the main line at Alexandria and crossed the Leven by the still-existing bridge into Dillichip works.

Dillichip Bridge

At Alexandria station, goods sidings on both sides of the line were extensive and were much used by goods wagons. (Indeed even as late as the late 1950's, there were enough goods wagons on the Vale lines to shunt a screen of wagons round the north-west side of Millburn when the Vale were playing at home to stop people in the Bridge Street / Victoria Street area getting a free view of the game - or so it seemed on match days, but perhaps that's just another urban myth).

The sidings handled a considerable variety of freight traffic, from light goods like parcels and furniture, to heavy bulk goods, in particular coal. Various coal merchants operated from the sidings, weighing and bagging coal for domestic delivery. Bulk deliveries to factories which didn't have sidings - for instance, to Dalmonach before its branch line reached it - were a different matter. Bulk coal was delivered from the wagons high up on the embankment, directly onto coal carts in Bridge Street, via a chute.

Passenger services obviously opened up the possibility of travelling fair distances to work, and in the coming years fair numbers of Vale folk commuted to work in the ship-yards and engineering works of Clydeside, and the shops and offices in Glasgow. The early morning workers trains were introduced, and carried workers into, as well as out of, the Vale. This was particularly true after the Singers Sewing Machine factory was opened at Clydebank and the Argyll Motors Works at Alexandria, both in the 1900's.

Argyll Motor Works
Argyll Motor Works

Strange to say, old Presbyterian habits prevailed and there were no trains running on a Sunday on the Balloch lines until 1919. This seems a bit hard not only on people who worked overtime or even part of their normal shift on a Sunday, but also day-trippers who became such a feature of week-end usage of the lines.

The railway changed the topography of the Vale and also dictated the street layout in the centre of the Vale for the Victorian building phase, and indeed largely still does. Prior to the arrival of the railway, the ground sloped gently, without interruption, from the Grocery area down to the Leven bank in both a north-easterly direction to-wards the Craft gate and Lumbrain Hole and in a south-easterly direction down Ferry Loan to Bridge Street and beyond into the wide open spaces of Parkneuk, the Public Park and the old Cricket Park.

The construction of the railway changed that: To keep the line reasonably level, an embankment was built from just south of the station to just beyond the Croft gate. In the other direction a cutting was dug out from about Millburn Quarry to where the embankment began. This also required the building of bridges and the Lumbrain viaduct. As it happened, two of the vehicle bridges went over the line - one at the “squew” bridge at the south end of Main Street beyond any existing housing, the other away along at Heather Avenue carrying the road down to the management housing for the Croft works (there is another footbridge over the line at the bottom of North Street).

At Bridge Street, Bank Street and Croft or Alexander Street the line goes over the road. Under or over doesn't really matter, what mattered was that no one was likely to build an additional bridge anytime soon. The layout of much of the centre of Alexandria, therefore, was dictated in 1850 by the railway, and that layout stood the test of 120 years and a period of considerable growth and change in Alexandria, until the destruction of the1970's.

John Street was re-aligned to follow the line of the railway on its west side from Bank Street to what became Victoria Street. Random Street ran from Mitchell Street to terminate at John Street, close to the original wooden steps down from the station in John old vale barStreet. Ann Street ran from Main Street to also terminate in John Street very close to its junction with Random Street.

From Bank Street to Bridge Street, John Street only had buildings on its west side - the east side was at the foot of the railway embankment on the top of which were railway sidings. It then crossed Bridge Street for a little way in a southerly direction, before ending at what shortly became Victoria Street. In Victoria Street the houses were built at a slightly later date. Victoria Street ran parallel to Main Street and the railway line, and the gardens on the east side of Victoria Street backed on to the railway, which delineated where housing had to stop. It was joined to Main Street by Albert Street and Arthur Street which ran in an east-west direction. Victoria Street was destroyed in the early 1970's by the new town centre road system, a separate, but perhaps even greater act of development vandalism than the town centre, of which, more anon.

drinking a pint in the Old Vale Bar
Customers enjoying a pint
in the Old Vale Bar a few years ago

On the eastern side of the railway, a half-hearted Station Street was built between Ferry Loan, as it still was, and Bridge Street. Leven Street was formed on the east side of the railway line, running south to-wards the Leven's tow-path. Between Leven Street and the river, to the south of Bridge Street, lay the old Parkneuk, Alexandria's Public Park, and also the first of a number of Old Cricket Parks, which was directly behind what is now the Baptist Church.

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"For those we loved are scattered,
and some in death sleep soun',
and the old oak tree sae bonnie,
has long since been cut doon".

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Oh the auld brig, the auld brig
Tho' noo ye're bent an' grey
Yet weel I min' in auld lang syne
Ye were sae fresh an' gay

But noo ye're auld an' thin an' bauld
Ye're hingin' sair agee
For on ye're heid like wight o' lead
Is the curse o' your bawbee

Oh the auld lairds, the auld lairds
They're gaun, the lairdies three
O' a' they got. they've left us nought
But this dear memorie

Oh the auld brig, the auld brig
Ye're just about tae dee
Yer sides are thrawn, yer cheeks are fa'in'
Ye're shakin like a tree

An' noo, jist like the lairds, ye'll work
Nae mair iniquitie
But meet yer fate, an' gang yer gait
Withoot a broon bawbee.

A.S. McBride 1895


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