After the treaty of Union with England in 1707 and the increase in the tobacco trade with America, Glasgow merchants realised the need to bring the raw materials of commerce closer to the city. Exploiting the natural resources of the river, Govan grew steadily from then on, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century was a village of about 2,500 people. Most of its population were weavers and salmon fishers.
In 1841, Robert Napier laid out his shipyard in Govan and the first of the Cunarders was launched. In the decades that followed other yards were laid out, Govan mushroomed and came to the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. During the 68 years from 1836 to 1904, Govan expanded dramatically from a village of 2,122 people to a town of 90,908 people. Soon row upon row of tenements were constructed to provide accommodation for the new workforce.
As the industries grew, waves of Irish immigrants and Gaelic speaking Highlanders moved to Govan to meet the ever increasing demand for a larger work force. Govan became the fifth largest Burgh in Scotland and stretched from Kelvinside to Cathcart. Changing economic conditions after World War Two led to a dramatic decline in the shipbuilding industry. Many of the yards were forced to close through lack of orders, and today only one remains operative – the yard that was formerly Fairfield’s.
The local landmark – Elder Park was presented to the Burgh of Govan in 1885 by Mrs Elder in memory of her late husband, who had owned the shipbuilding yard that eventually became Fairfield’s. In addition to donating a park to the burgh, John Elder’s widow also provided the local library, the Elder Cottage Hospital, and the Elder Memorial Chapel in Partick’s Western Infirmary.
In addition to the local shipbuilding yards, the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society’s works at Shieldhall also employed many local people. Founded in 1868, the SCWS initially established itself as a wholesaler supplying smaller retail societies. However, because manufacturers proved so unreliable, the society began to undertake production work for itself.
It was important for the people of Govan to be able to cross the Clyde as there were shipyards on both sides of the river, and some residents of the town worked in the mills in Partick. The earliest ferries were ordinary rowing boats, but later mechanically powered vessels were required. The more advanced ferry used a deck that could be raised or lowered through a range of fourteen feet so as to be at the same level as the quay at any state of the tide.