Ghostly figures in rags sit barefoot and huddled on the cold cobbles, overshadowed by grim towering tenements and the stern looks of men who could have strolled straight from the set of Peaky Blinders.

Laundry flutters on lines strung across dank alleys that would rarely, if ever, capture the sun. A child in what seems to be a bowler hat tucked over his ears clutches a jug in his arms almost as big as he is, and a curious face juts through a tenement window, perhaps anxious to see what the man with the camera might be doing in a grim Glasgow close.

These evocative images are among hundreds of Glasgow scenes captured by 19th-century photographer Thomas Annan, as he meticulously recorded a city undergoing social and structural changes intended to help end the squalor and deprivation, and usher in a new way of life. 

Many of Annan’s photographs shed light on the east end’s harsh past, where slum life came to an early end at an average age of just 27 and the stinking closes and wynds harboured homes crammed with dozens of people sharing the most basic of living conditions. 

Other images cast light on the effort to raise the city’s living standards – such as the pivotal waterworks project that fed clean water from Loch Katrine to the heart of the city.

The photographs and Annan’s remarkable work is now set to be explored at a sold-out event organised by the Alexander Thomson Society, which is to be held at the Kelvin Hall later this month. 

According to art historian Anne Lyden, of the National Galleries of Scotland, who will present the event, Annan’s fascinating images reflect a time long gone but also serve as a reminder that modern life is not immune from challenges and a constant need for the city to evolve. 

“Annan’s photographs are interesting because they are a moment when change was already starting to happen in the city,” she says. “He started work in 1868, two years after the Glasgow City Improvements Act and the earlier Police Act were bringing about change and trying to improve conditions.

“There was improved lighting and sanitation. However, the city fathers decided it would be better to completely demolish and start over again.”

As a result, many of Annan’s images show closes and tenements that would go on to be razed, with families displaced and new buildings erected in their place. 

Some, however, such as an image of the Saltmarket taken in 1868 from Bridgegate, feel almost familiar, save for the eerie figures that line the cobbled street, many with their unsmiling faces turned to the photographer’s lens. 

Many of Annan’s photographs, a significant number of which capture the overcrowded heart of the city, were commissioned by the Glasgow City Improvement Trust with the distinct aim of recording “Old Glasgow” before it was demolished. 

“The photographs demonstrate the challenges of a shifting city and how urban planners have to constantly evaluate what is available for a changing demographic,” adds Ms Lyden. “When Thomas Annan was documenting these parts of Glasgow, there was a huge movement of people from the north of Scotland and Ireland coming to the city. At one point there were 50,000 Irish people living in that area.

“Similar issues are being dealt with today in terms of managing housing stock.”

Annan took scores of photographs of old closes, tenements and wynds at a time when the compact city centre was home to more than 300,000 people. But his work also shed fascinating light on the city’s industrial heritage, including images of work to dredge areas of the Clyde and of grand houses also facing demolition for new housing schemes and roads – just as the grim closes were being destroyed to make way for improved accommodation. 

The extraordinary clarity of many of the 150-year-old images, taken at a time when photography was still in its infancy, are testament to Annan’s technical skill, adds Ms Lyden. 

“He was incredibly skilled. The clarity in his images is because he was working with glass plate negatives. He was able to capture a tremendous amount of detail and was able to use different processes that he had travelled to Vienna to achieve the rights to use. 

“His photographs are evidence of a time past, but also reflect a lot of the same issues that we are dealing with today.”

Anne Lyden on Thomas Annan is at the Kelvin Hall on Wednesday, August 28, 
at 6pm.