Miss Agnes Toward was a hoarder. For more than 50 years, she filed away old household bills, recipes, wartime leaflets, letters and personal papers. She also left her Glasgow tenement flat virtually untouched. Its original gas lighting was not replaced with an electric version until 1960, almost five decades after she began living there.
The magpie habits and decorative restraint of Toward have had remarkable consequences. Her apartment and its carefully preserved contents – period chairs and beds, old theatre programmes and perfume bottles – have been transformed into a residential time capsule. This is the Tenement House, part of a red sandstone block of flats that was built in the 1890s at 145 Buccleuch Street, where visitors can experience urban life in central Scotland a century ago.
It has a kitchen with a large, black coal-burning cooking range, which also heated water for the rest of the flat, and a recess bed where a maid could have slept; the bathroom has a deep bath with brass fittings and a high-sided, marble-effect wash-basin with mixer taps. A bright, white bedspread covers the expanse of Toward’s large, elaborate brass bed.
The flat has four rooms – a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and main room – that each open onto a central, square lobby (hall). This was a basic design repeated by builders across the city in Victorian times. My grandmother’s flat had exactly the same layout, providing added emotional texture to my frequent visits to the Tenement House.
Its wonders were first revealed after Toward’s death in 1975. Since then, many features have been restored, including the flat’s original gas lighting.
Her personal paraphernalia has been scattered discreetly through its rooms. These tell us that she was a shorthand typist who enjoyed musicals, took dancing lessons, engaged in church activities and did not retire until 1959, when she had reached the age of 73. She had a cat called Tibs and sent long, newsy letters to her friends.
Like other tenements, you reach her flat from the street through a passage known as a close. This leads to the stairs and then, beyond that, to a door to a communal garden called a back green, where washing was hung.
A vast chunk of Glasgow’s social interactions took place in the closes, back greens, stairs and landings of its tenements. Neighbours met and chatted while, at the back of the close, far from the light, amorous evening encounters were conducted by winching (snogging) couples.
This was tenement life and Toward’s flat is a monument to these edifices which, over the years, have housed millions of urban Scots, myself included. And by and large, they made fine homes for us, as the Glaswegian actor Peter Capaldi insists: “It was great being brought up in a Glasgow working-class tenement. It wasn’t miserable, and it wasn’t poverty stricken. It felt very safe, full of delights.”
Today tenements are often equated with slums and, it must be admitted, some of Glasgow’s were grim. However, as a general rule, it is not true. Indeed, some have vast, elite apartments with half a dozen rooms – like those found in Hyndland, Kelvinside and other posher parts of the city. However, others were more modest – like Toward’s first-floor flat – but they certainly were not places of universal squalor.
Glasgow was once renowned for its Victorian architecture. This fame rested, in part, on its impressive public constructions, such as Gilbert Scott’s magnificent gothic university building, but also on its long vistas of elegant stone tenements, with their large bay windows, that swept across the city.
Unfortunately, these buildings were sacrificed in the 1960s and 70s when it was decided to demolish decaying tenements and move residents to high-rise flats and housing schemes, rather than renovate them. “Yet these buildings could, with a little foresight, have been reconstructed to provide continuing homes for their occupants,” laments Frank Worsdall in The Tenement: A Way of Life. The end result, he adds, was “the general hopelessness and helplessness of life in a high-rise flat”.
Great swathes of Glasgow were sacrificed as buildings were demolished and motorways driven through the heart of the city. Victims of this civic vandalism included the tenements opposite Toward’s flat. By good luck, her side of the road and her building were spared, thus preserving a remarkable record of, and testament to, a bygone way of life.
We should be grateful for that small piece of good fortune. Now run by the National Trust for Scotland, the Tenement House is an intriguing, revelatory place to visit: a deeply personal experience at one level but equally enjoyable as a vision of how a city and its people lived and breathed a century ago.