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We have bags of affection for city's tenements

SOUNDS sexist I know, but the reason I heard for Glasgow tenements being designed with only three storeys above the ground floor is that the male architects worked out this is as far as a woman can climb with a bag of shopping in each hand.

If only Tesco home delivery had been available a century ago then the skyline of Glasgow might have been different.

If ever a city embraced and loved the tenement it is Glasgow.

Over in New York, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum is for people to walk round in a bemused fashion and mutter to themselves: "How could anyone live like this?"

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In Glasgow, though, a West End tenement is still fought over by potential buyers salivating over the space and comfort a tenement brings.

I remember Kate Adie, the BBC's war-zone correspondent, discussing her book Nobody's Child, about abandoned babies, breaking off to say she interviewed a woman in her tenement flat in Dennistoun, and she could not get over how large the rooms were.

"Can you imagine what that flat would cost in London?" Kate asked, on the basis presumably that the broom cupboard in Dennistoun would be regarded as a reasonably-sized bedroom in the Big Smoke.

Tenements in Glasgow welcomed all classes. The tenements in Partick nearest the river were for the working classes in a room and kitchen, with the children crammed into the kitchen bed recess.

The further from the river, up to Partickhill and then on to Hyndland, the flats got bigger until eventually you reached the six-apartment flats with a tiny room for the maid, which housed the lawyers and doctors.

Not that you could tell so much from the outside, although, generally, the better flats were in red sandstone, which came from quarries further away and therefore more expensive.

Only when you went in the close could you tell the difference, as a "wally" close meant decorative tiles on the walls and coloured glass in the stair windows, so you knew there were the middle classes behind the doors.

Glasgow librarian Joe Fisher, in his excellent Glasgow Encyclopedia, described the outside of a tenement. "Sometimes the back-court is at a lower level than the tenement and that part of the close leading to it descends by a flight of stairs and lower close often lined with cellar doors.

"This arrangement is called a 'dunny' presumably a corruption of dungeon, and was traditionally the area for inter-sex relationships."

Reader Ian McCloy once told us of going on a date and taking the young lady back to her tenement. "Leading me to the brick-built dustbin store and out of the icy blast, my date ran her fingers over the lids of the galvanised dustbins and announced she was going to sit on that one. 'Why that one?', I asked. 'Someone has just put out the hot ashes from their fire and it will keep my backside warm' she said."

At one time there would be a stern woman living in the close who would know whose turn it was to wash the stairs, and woe betide anyone who missed their turn.

Writer Lesley Riddoch in her book about Scotland, Blossom, fondly recalled her first tenement party in Glasgow: "I realised the entire tenement would have to be invited or I'd live with the threat of a phone call to the police all night.

"The gatekeepers of the close - an elderly couple in the ground floor flat -requested gin and Irn-Bru, and surveyed the young dancing journalists with the open curiosity of adults at a zoo."

My favourite tenement yarn is the tale of the war-time air raid siren sounding in the night and the couple in the top floor flat heading for the shelter when the wife suddenly stopped and said she had to go back.

When hubby asked why, she replied she had forgotten her false teeth. Telling her to keep going, her husband replied: "It's bombs they're droppin' - no aipples."

Tenements were even the subject of a fascinating talk at Partick Library last week as part of the West End Festival.

Les Milne, from the Glasgow Factoring Commission - I had heard of the Crofting Commission but never the Factoring Commission - explained that while tenements are still very popular in Glasgow, there are problems with absentee owners not paying for common repairs or owners too poor to afford the repairs.

Many tenants were also unhappy with their factors, claiming bills were hard to understand, and were not value for money.

At least nine different Acts of Parliament have been passed since 1987 covering the rights of owners and tenants in tenements and some of the laws contradict each other.

Going to the law to settle disputes is extremely costly and off-putting. There have been eight tenement collapses on the south side in buildings where owners did not use a factor to monitor the upkeep of the buildings.

But the Luftwaffe could not destroy Glasgow's tenements, and not even Glasgow Corporation could wipe them out in the ill-judged regeneration programmes of the 1960s.

It is to be hoped the messages will still be getting humphed up three flights of stairs in Glasgow for many years to come.

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