A few weeks ago, I was very lucky to be able to visit The Tenement House in Glasgow. This property has been owned by the National Trust for Scotland for the past 30 years and has a very interesting history. The day I visited was one of the first days that photography was allowed inside! I was so happy to be able to show you.
For many people, the word “tenement” conjures up abject poverty. In Glasgow, however, the term denotes 19th-century apartment buildings that were quite genteel, and in many cases have remained so ever since. This tenement building was built in 1892, and the flat that houses the museum was the home of Miss Agnes Toward. Miss Toward came in 1911 and lived there with her mother. Mrs. Toward was a seamstress, and her daughter Agnes earned a living as a stenographer.
The flat has four rooms: the parlour and bedroom at the front, the kitchen and bathroom at the back. The parlour would only have been used for special occasions. I remember the flat of my darling neighbour Mrs. Morrison in Aberdeen (1908-2003). She was born in the flat, lived all her days there, and near enough died there. Mrs. Morrison’s parlour was kept for best, such as a visit from the minister. At Christmastime, she would send me in there to admire the flowers her nephew always sent her – they lasted for ages because the room was glacial!
Perhaps Miss Toward’s parlour was used rather more frequently. The guide explained to us that, even though the flat has only one bedroom, the builders made sure to include a bell for the servant. You can see the crank handle to the left of the fireplace. More than likely, any household help would have come for the day, rather than lived in.
Miss Toward didn’t like to change things, as you can see. She worked until her mid-70s, and lived in the flat until 1965, when she had to leave it to be cared for in a home. She died in 1975. At this point, a very unusual thing happened: the niece of Miss Toward’s church elder, visiting the flat after her death, realised how special it was, with so much left unchanged. She arranged to buy it and its contents, and lived there for seven years before selling it to the National Trust for Scotland in 1982. So everything in the Tenement House (with the exception of the baked goods) is as Miss Toward left it.
I was amused to be told that the shallow cupboard for the china is called a “Glasgow Press,” because the exact same cupboard in our Aberdeen kitchen was called an “Aberdeen Press”. In Ireland, all cupboards are “presses”.
The only change that the National Trust made to the flat was to reinstate the gas lights in the flat. It is certainly atmospheric, with the smell of the gas jets and also the darkness inside, even on a fairly bright autumn day.
The mantlepiece is flanked by a pair of “wally dogs,” the china dogs that you still see in Scottish homes. I don’t know where the word “wally” comes from but people also call the beautifully tiled entrance hallways of the tenements “wally closes”. So I think “wally” is a Scottish word for glazed ceramic, albeit perhaps only used in those two instances.
In the parlour there is a box bed:
And a beautiful piano:
Miss Toward’s photograph is on the piano.
In the shop downstairs, I found instructions for making a “spill” – or as another elderly friend in Aberdeen taught me, a “spillie”. (Aberdonians are fond of adding “-ie” to words: “Go wash your wee handies.”) Before the days of firelighters, people folded newspapers in this way, to use to light the fire:
The kitchen, although darker than the bay-windowed parlour, would have been the main room where people lived. And the heart of the kitchen was the range:
The rag rugs are recreations of the originals, which eventually wore out:
In the photo above, you can glimpse the cords for the pulley, which hangs above on the ceiling.
The kitchen was also the laundry room, and you can see the mangle (wringer) and washboard at the sink:
I remember my mother using a mangle to wring out sopping wet laundry from the washing machine in about 1970. Gosh, women worked so hard just keeping a family fed and clothed!
You can see where the coal was kept in the photo below:
In the corner of the kitchen is another box bed, in the “granny nook”. I wrote about the granny nook in our (1884) flat in Aberdeen here.
The bedroom, we were told by the guide, was probably rented out to a lodger. So presumably Miss Toward slept in the kitchen, which would have been very warm.
The original straw mattress is still under the bed in the bedroom, and her own suitcases are piled on top of the wardrobe. She liked to take her summer holiday in Largs, on the Ayrshire coast, southwest of Glasgow.
You can find out more and watch a short video about the Tenement House on the NTS website here. It is closed over the winter, but if you are in Glasgow in the spring, summer or into October, I would highly recommend a visit.
And now I will tell you another little story about my lovely neighbour Mrs. Morrison. As I wrote above, she was born in her flat in Aberdeen in 1908, and lived there all her days. I knew her in the last decade or so of her life, and she was such a good friend to me. Like Miss Toward, she had changed very little in her house. She used to say to me, “Christine, I know exactly what will happen to this flat. It will be bought by a property developer and made into a student flat.” I had to agree with her that this was likely. The day she died, she took a stroke just when I was due to take her grocery shopping. I went with her to the hospital in the ambulance, and she died that evening.
Some time later, for no particular reason, both Michael and I picked up the Property Listings. (This was before everything happened on the internet.) I thought it was strange that we both had that impulse, since we weren’t looking to buy or sell anything! That day, unusually, I had a bit of time to put my feet up, and I flipped through it – and saw that Mrs. Morrison’s flat was for sale. I took this as a sign, and the next day I went by the estate agents and asked for the schedule. In it I saw the photographs of her flat – all white walls, stripped of woodwork, fireplaces filled in, laminate flooring, curving plasterwork gone, beanbags in corners. It was unrecognisable.
Call me silly, but I felt she was tugging on my sleeve and saying, “Look what they did to my lifelong home!” So I had a wee chat with her, and I told her I completely understood, and it was a terrible shame, but that she had moved on now. At least Miss Toward must have a sense of peace to know that even her jam preserves have been untouched!