Between 1800 and 1860 the population of Glasgow increased more than five-fold to around 420,000. While the richer citizens moved to the suburbs, the influx of migrants from Ireland and the Highlands caused massive overpopulation in the inner city. There were two types of working-class housing; the ‘made down houses' - former middle class homes where each room might house an entire family - and traditional tenements, often without running water or sanitation. In 1866 the City Improvement Trust was tasked with demolishing the old buildings and replacing them with wider roads and larger tenements. Although these slum clearances in part shifted the problem of overcrowding to other areas, they did wipe out epidemic diseases such as cholera and typhus.
In 1868 the Fife-born photographer, Thomas Annan, began his series of thirty-one photographs of the closes and wynds of old Glasgow. This area was one of the worst urban slums in Britain and had recently been scheduled for demolition by the City Improvement Trust, a body set up by the Glasgow Improvement Act of 1866 with sweeping powers to clear property. Annan was charged by the Trustees with recording its passing, an antiquarian commission that answered an anxiety about the city’s rapid pace of change. Facing technical problems due to the dark and dank conditions, he utilised the wet collodion process, the most sensitive technology then available. The series is acknowledged as the first record of slum housing in the history of photography.
Having begun his career as a lithographic writer and engraver on a local newspaper in Fife, Thomas Annan set up a studio as a professional photographer in 1855. He founded his own photographic printing works in Hamilton in 1859 and by 1862 had begun to establish a reputation for photographing works of art. In 1866 he purchased the carbon process patent rights for Scotland and in 1883 he secured the British rights for photogravure. Between 1868 and 1871 he executed a commission from the City of Glasgow to photograph the slums of the old town before their demolition.