Elizabeth’s story

ESCAPE TO THE WEST END

In Sulman’s map we can see the freshly dug foundations of tenements along Sauchiehall Street. The growing demand for housing at the time followed a huge influx of workers moving to Glasgow as a result of the industrial revolution. Crowding and pollution in the city centre led many middle class families to move to these newly built tenements. Large townhouses were also built at Park Circus atop Kelvingrove Park between 1855 and 1863 and are representative of a shift in the location of wealth and power in the city, which from then on was concentrated in the West End.

HOW THE OTHER HALF LIVE

In the animation Elizabeth, working as a domestic servant for the wealthy Webster family in the West End, wonders at the grandeur of it all as she does the daily shopping. Did she dream of living in one of these homes herself one day? What must it have been like to be waited on hand and foot and to have people for tea each afternoon? How she wished she could be Isabelle Webster, even for a night, to get dressed up in all that finery, then head off to one of the grand ballrooms to dance and meet eligible young men. 

Her quarters at the Websters house are much more spacious than she’s used to, she shares an attic room with Jane the scullery maid. It’s lovely to have a bit of space, not that she’s got many belongings to fill it with. She worries about her family though, stuck in the cramped conditions of the High Street, on the other side of town. She misses them too, especially her cheeky little brother George! She doesn’t get to see them often now as days off are few and far between. 

MY NAME’S NOT MARY….

“Mary? Where have you got to? We need to be making a start on the supper!”

Oh, that’s Cook calling. It still jars with her that she’s called Mary here, it’s irritating. She’s known as Mary because at the Webster’s the kitchen maid has always been called Mary. The name’s stuck even though the person hasn’t. Apparently it’s quite common in these big houses. She daren’t complain about it though, she tends to keep her head down here and get on with her work. She doesn’t mind her job and the conditions are comfortable, things could be much worse.  Sure just the other day Jane was telling her about the maid along the road at the Jennings house. They accused her of stealing a bracelet and she was sent packing. Her chances of finding another position without a reference are slim, she’ll probably end up on the streets, falling into prostitution, or god forbid in The Lock..she’s heard horror stories about it, the ‘Hospital for Unfortunate Females’. 

Anyway, she better be getting back to work, no dawdling allowed…

OUR INSPIRATION

Many female workers moving to Glasgow at the time of Sulman’s map found employment in domestic service. Most were from Ireland and the Highlands and Islands, but others were from nearby Ayrshire, or Glasgow itself. One such servant was a Margaret Renton, who was born in Glasgow in 1840 and as a child lived with her family at 33 Millars Place, off Saltmarket. According to 1851 census records, her father was a plasterer. Her mother has no occupation listed, whilst she had two older sisters working as a dressmaker and a servant. Others living at Millar’s place at that time include a porter, a furniture dealer, a tailor and a power loom weaver.

By 1861 Margaret had followed her sister into domestic service, working for the Sommerville family in the West End. Over the next 10 years she married and had three children. By 1881 her and her husband were living in Tradeston, cheek by jowl with industry. By then they had 8 children and Margaret has no occupation listed. 

The arc of Margaret’s life was somewhat typical of those employed in domestic service. They would often commence service in their late teens and work through into their early twenties, living in with their employer. They would usually leave once married and, according to the census, have ‘no occupation’. The shortcomings of the census in terms of recording women’s employment are well documented however, particularly as much of women’s work was temporary, home based, or linked to her husband’s occupation.

Ordnance Survey Town Plan, Glasgow, 1857. Copyright National Library of Scotland
This engraving by Allan & Ferguson (1843) shows Somerset Place looking west across Elderslie Street. The terrace, set back from Sauchiehall Street, was originally residential and laid out in 1840 to designs by John Baird Jnr. The buildings are now occupied mostly by offices. Image: Sp Coll Bh12-y.14, Glasgow University Library, Special Collections
10 Somerset Place, 2021.

WANT TO KNOW MORE?

  • Explore our interactive map. The surviving buildings layer features several prestigious West End addresses, including Park Circus and Claremont Terrace. 
  • Head over to our online shop where you’ll find prints of Sulman’s map, including the Tradeston, High Street and Park areas. Every purchase supports our work!
  • This article explores the economic role of women in Victorian Glasgow in more detail. 

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