The story behind Duke Street Prison

You wouldn’t automatically associate Duke Street with a great deal of excitement. Other than its sheer scale -it stretches from the edge of the Merchant City all the way to Tollcross, on the extreme east of Glasgow’s boundaries- there isn’t a lot else to distinguish it from the many streets around the city dominated by Victorian architecture and dotted with takeaway restaurants.

It might be a surprise then, to find out that until 1958 it was the location of a prison that held notorious murderers as well as women from Scotland’s own suffragette movement. Not only that, but it was also the scene of a gunfight between police and members of the Irish Republican Army. All of which took place only a couple of minutes’ walk from where the Strathclyde University campus now stands.

The only physical evidence of the prison that remains is a boundary wall which lines part of a housing estate that falls between the Barony Hall and Drygate Brewery.

Before its demolition it was the sight of 12 different executions by hanging, each of the accused having been found guilty of murder. Probably the most infamous among these is Susan Newell, who became the last woman to be hanged in Scotland when she was executed for strangling a paper boy in 1923. Although the jury disbelieved her attempts to incriminate her husband, they did suggest that she be allowed to live – a plea which was ultimately ignored.

Two years earlier, during the Irish War of Independence, the IRA had made a bold attempt to free one of their senior members who was being transported to Duke Street Prison in a police van. According to an article written by Reg McKay in the Daily Record, some of the attackers ambushed the vehicle from the Rottenrow and Cathedral Street –the heart of Strathclyde Uni today,  where hundreds of students make their way to and from classes- as it made its way to the prison from High Street.

The escape attempt failed but left one police officer dead and another injured as a result of the shootout. Consequently, thirteen people from Glasgow’s Irish community were brought to trial but none were convicted.

In keeping with the political theme, Duke Street was often home to members of the women’s suffrage movement in Glasgow. In addition to campaigning for the right to vote, Glasgow’s women were also responsible for organising the 1915 Rent Strike when tenants refused to accept landlords’ rent increases. Lead by Mary Barbour, who would go on to be active in leftist politics in the city for decades, women would physically prevent officials from evicting tenants who refused to pay rents.

Today the prison no longer stands, capital punishment has been abolished in the United Kingdom and Scotland’s political landscape has evolved – the leaders of the three largest parties in the devolved government are women, two of whom are openly gay.

What does remain is Glasgow’s political consciousness which has manifested itself in its history of trade unionism throughout the twentieth century, opposition to the South African apartheid regime in the 1980s and a vibrant and visible national debate in the run up to the 2014 independence referendum.

By Peter Jenkins