The Empire Exhibition 1938: A Big Summer for Glasgow

This summer is a very busy and important one for the City of Glasgow with a number of events including the Commonwealth Games and WW1 Centenary commemorations. There will also be a Commonwealth Games Business Conference here at the University of Glasgow from 22-23 July, as part of an international business programme.  We thought this was a good opportunity, therefore, to look into another important summer in which the Commonwealth and Business featured prominently.

Souvenir badge from the exhibition

Souvenir badge from the exhibition

The summer of 1938 was a big one for Glasgow as between May and October the city hosted Scotland’s Empire Exhibition in Bellahouston Park, a large scale International Trade Fair.

There’s little trace of it now, but the exhibition filled the 174 acres of Bellahouston Park with over a hundred temporary pavilions and structures housing exhibits. University of Glasgow Archive Services holds a collection of records relating to the exhibition, such as cash books, space rents, and correspondence, as you can see on the on-line catalogue. We also hold the records of many of the figures and companies involved in the exhibition, as part of the Scottish Business Archive, including Sir James Lithgow, one of the prime motivators behind the Exhibition; J&P Coats Ltd, one of the largest subscribers to the venture; James Templeton & Co Ltd, one of the exhibitors; and Anchor Line, who ran the catering for the ‘Atlantic Restaurant’.

For 1 shilling (6d for children) you could sample hundreds of displays promoting many aspects of British life. In the interests of promoting the British Empire, the exhibition included a Dominion Avenue that contained pavilions for Australia, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa and the Colonial Avenue that contained exhibits about Malaya, The West Indies, Cyprus, Malta, Ceylon, and Hong Kong, among others. There was an avenue for the United Kingdom and also a separate one for Scotland. Another very popular attraction was ‘the Clachan’: a life-size model of a Highland village including a clan chief’s castle, smithy and weaver’s cottage.ugd212-9-1-clachan

Many pavilions showcased the businesses of Britain, and Scotland in particular, such as locomotive-building, shipbuilding, and textile industries. There were also entertainment sections such as the Palace of Art (the only surviving structure still situated in the park), the Concert Hall, Cinema, and a Butlin’s amusement park. The Tower of the Empire, also known as the Tait Tower, was the structure that became the symbol of the exhibition and extended 300ft into the air, providing viewing platforms from which 1,312,392 people got a bird’s-eye view of the park over the summer.

Invite for Sir James and Lady Lithgow to lunch at the Atlantic Restaurant

Invite for Sir James and Lady Lithgow to lunch at the Atlantic Restaurant

Sport was also celebrated with an associated ‘Empire Exhibition Trophy’ football league. The final was held at Ibrox where a crowd of over 82,000 saw Celtic defeat Everton, 1-0. The winner received a solid silver trophy in the shape of the Tait Tower.

Templeton Carpet Factory's pavilion

Templeton Carpet Factory’s pavilion

In 1938 Scotland was emerging from the deep economic crisis of the early 1930s, and the aims of this celebration of the British Empire were to showcase the resources of the Empire, encourage Empire trade, stimulate Scottish industry and promote her culture, and to foster a closer relationship between Britain and the Commonwealth. The exhibition was opened by King George VI with Queen Mary on 3 May 1938 during a ceremony at Ibrox Stadium that then moved to Bellahouston. There were a total of 12,593,232 visitors to the Exhibition with the highest attendance figures of 364,092 on the last day, 29th October.

The UK pavilion

The UK pavilion (click to enlarge)

In 2007 and 2010 The Digital Design Studio of the Glasgow School of Art created a fantastic 3D model of the entire exhibition, using a combination of plans, drawings, film, and photographs, so you can explore the exhibition for yourself by visiting their website and watching their videos of the 3D model. There are also some fascinating oral histories sharing the memories of those who attended. These resources enable you to time-travel 76 years into the past and imagine yourself at the Exhibition!

Unfortunately the great Scottish weather made for a cold, wet, and windy summer and a combination of this, and the increasingly unstable European situation, meant that the Exhibition made a loss of around £128,000. Nevertheless, attendees still hold fond memories of the spectacle and it remains one of Glasgow’s greatest Exhibitions.

At University of Glasgow Archive Services we have many projects that echo some of the themes of the Empire Exhibition. Our Commonwealth project, counting down to the 2014 Commonwealth Games, celebrates our previous, and continuing, links with Commonwealth countries. Stay tuned for more Commonwealth blog-posts as the games begin tomorrow! Our International Story project also celebrates our links across the globe.

The Scottish Business Archive encapsulates and preserves the memory of important Scottish businesses, such as those who invested in, and had pavilions at, the Exhibition.

Special edition of 'Scotland' Magazine for the exhibition

Special edition of ‘Scotland’ Magazine for the exhibition

Linking in with the Exhibition’s football competition, we also have a footballing first at The University of Glasgow with Andrew Watson, an alumnus, becoming Scotland’s first black football player.

Finally, the University of Glasgow’s Great War project will commemorate the war-related experiences of men and women with links to the University of Glasgow. The Empire Exhibition closed just nine months before the world was plunged into the Second World War.

If you would like to find out more about our diverse projects and collections you can search our on-line catalogue, visit our website, follow us on twitter, or contact the Duty Archivist at

The city of Glasgow is looking forward to welcoming visitors from around the world again! Happy summer!

Categories: Archive Services

Tags: , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: