Remembering Glasgow Carnival at Kelvin Hall: 12 old pictures looking back at Glasgow's lost circus

Glasgow Carnival started over 100 years ago - we’re looking back old pictures of the days of the Christmas big top featuring clowns, elephants, and so much more

Over 100 years ago, the Glasgow Carnival made its first showcase at the Kelvin Hall, where it would return every Christmas for the next 60 years - today we wanted to look back at some old pictures to remember the annual event that entertained generations.

The Kelvin Hall was transformed into a circus ground once a year, with an arena set up to host the clowns, acrobatics, elephants, lions, llamas, and other performers to turn the West End space into a veritable big top. Reportedly the smell of the circus animals mixed with the stench of candy floss and hot chips was truly something, and one that lingered for a good while after the circus had packed up.

Old attractions at the circus included a helter-skelter, machines to punch your name out on a metal strip, old spooky slot machines, a ghost train, dodgems, and of course, the waltzers.

The Glasgow Corporation, the predecessor of Glasgow City Council, set up the circus back in 1920 as something of a PR exercise - trying to show the folk of Scotland that Glasgow was a good-time city worth visiting. Usually circuses would travel from town to town, but the concept of an annual circus in a city was the first of its kind in the UK.

Glasgow comic Janey Godley fondly recalled her time at the Carnival, speaking to The Scotsman in 2010, she said: "It was magical; it marked Christmas. We all got on the buses at Shettleston and we'd get off at the Kelvin Hall – such a big landmark! I just couldn't wait to throw myself down a wooden helter-skelter and then go on the dodgems.

“You had never seen anything like that as a kid in the East End of Glasgow – it was literally like Disneyland or Mars that came to your city. All those flashing lights and the music, it was fantastic. And, of course, the circus came with it.

“But I used to feel so bad for the animals. Even as kids we knew you shouldn't be making a donkey jump on top of a lion's back; there's something clearly wrong with it!" The Glasgow Carnival moved to the SECC after the transport museum was opened in Kelvin Hall - and by that time in 1985, folks were more interested in the rides and attractions rather than the circus animals, so they no longer featured at the carnival. Which is probably for the best, we can’t imagine those lions, elephants, and llamas particularly enjoying coming to Glasgow in the middle of winter, not to mention the rapidly changing landscape of animal rights and the case for the better treatment of captive animals.

The Carnival was sponsored by Scotland’s soft drink in 1986 - becoming the Irn-Bru Carnival which is still running to this day. Television celebrity Carol Smillie also reminisced on the Glasgow Carnival for The Scotsman. She said: "I remember it being the most exciting event, and I remember it being massive. The lights all flashing, that smell of candyfloss, always. I went with my mum and dad because kids did things with their mum and dad in those days, didn't they? Kids are so independent now!

“I had to convince my mum and dad to go because it wasn't their thing at all, really, and I knew the cost implications of going at the time, but to be allowed to go was a massive treat. I never thought it would happen because we lived in a different age then where if you got it you were lucky, and if you didn't, well you just didn't. Now kids just assume it'll be fine to go or that I'll say no, we can't afford it.

"As far as rides, I'm not really good with motion sickness. Things like the waltzers, you'd always get some guy – and I know they still exist today – who'd see a bunch of girls and go, 'Oh great, I'm going to spin them 'til they puke.' So I was terrified of things like that. But I liked the ghost train and I loved spending money on the stalls, convinced I was going to win the most enormous prize, and I never did. But I never felt in any way cheated, or that it was anything other than a fantastic Christmas experience."

All pictures below are from The Scotsman Archive.

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