We won’t use this blog to describe what happened inside the Glen Cinema, Paisley on Hogmanay 1929 – it is well documented online, in history books, and in the memories of the people of Renfrewshire and across the world. Instead we are using this blog as an opportunity to describe some of what we have learnt and experienced over the past two years while working on this project.
Since being awarded the Glen Cinema Memorial Commission in December 2019, our research and work has taken us to many places. We were warmly invited into the homes of remaining survivors, Robert Pope and Emily Brown, and met their close families. We climbed the narrow winding staircase of the Paisley Town Hall bell tower (apparently a late addition to the building to obscure the town hall clock and prevent factory workers leaving their work to check the time from their windows). We read painful letters in the Secret Collection from parents of children involved in the tragedy, such as a 3 year old suffering from shock, who would wake up screaming at night and who slept all day. We were moved by the gravestones in Hawkhead Cemetery, such as “our dear son Tom Howard who died in Glen Cinema, 31st Dec 1929 aged 9 years & 4 months” – by the 90th anniversary memorial service in Paisley Abbey and by Paul Mothersole’s powerful documentary film in which many of the survivors tell harrowing stories of what unfolded that day. We discussed the project with an art class at Paisley Grammar School: several were connected to the disaster by family and many were keen to stick their feet in buckets of sculpting material to create a memorial connecting past to present. (The pandemic ruled out many potential ideas!) We met with the wonderful members of Paisley’s STAR Project who, like the children, amazed us with their ideas and insights. We discovered an uncannily similar disaster happened in Calumet, Michigan on Christmas Eve 1913 in which 73 died (mostly children) and which is immortalised in Woody Guthrie’s song “The 1913 Massacre”. We read original news articles and the official report into the disaster at the Heritage Centre and discovered the flexibility of name spelling in the 1920s.
But what will remain with us most deeply is meeting Emily Brown and Robert Pope. Five year old Emily’s righteous anger got her into trouble with her mother for saying to the newspaper man who interviewed her and her sisters, “I want my biddy penny back”. Her older sister (aged 10) had managed to hang onto her little sister (aged 3) throughout their ordeal and all three were photographed by the newspaper. Robert still remembers the advice he was given on his very first day of school: “be good to your guardian angel and she’ll be good to you”. Having been spared at the age of seven, he continues to pray every day.
We began with six proposals for an artwork commemorating the tragedy, these were honed down through public consultation to one: a silent golden jingle bell in Paisley Town Hall’s empty bell tower, conjuring a child’s festive toy and the silence of a town in sorrow.
Unfortunately, this was ruled out for several reasons. We then developed the proposal which is being installed now in Dunn Square. The bronze sculpture, titled “Rattle/ Little Mother” is based on a celluloid rattle from the time of the disaster.
The sculpture stands on a simple plinth in pink stone from Aberdeen, to approach the colour of the existing plinths in Dunn Square. The names of the 71 children who died are recorded around the plinth along with the date of the disaster. The art deco font refers back to the late 1920s and we have taken the symbol of a shining sun from the original Glen Cinema sign.
In this simple and lovely 1920s toy lots of very different things converge: the playfulness of the children, their sticky hands and pockets containing random oddments, the smoking celluloid film canister, Emily Brown’s sisters and the older children clinging to their younger siblings, objects that the children dropped and lost in the panic and, above all, a sense of the sacred. One of the saddest parts of the tragedy is that the children were completely alone, with no adults to protect them. We even heard stories of how some children were blamed for the deaths of their younger siblings – something that must have haunted them for the rest of their lives. We have tried to create a sculpture that hovers between a nostalgic lost object – a portal to the children of the 1920s – and a sacred or devotional object, carrying the story of children as their own protectors.
We would like to thank all who have supported this project in so many ways, including Paisley Rotary Club, the STAR Project, Future Paisley Steering Group, the children and staff of Paisley Grammar School, Renfrewshire Council Events Team, Tony Lawler, Kate Drummond, Leonie Bell, Emily Brown and her nieces Lynne and Lorraine, and Robert Pope and his son Robert.
The Glen Cinema Memorial will be unveiled on 30th November this year.
All images © Rachel Lowther & Kerry Stewart