Tenements: A home for the middle classes too

By Rachel Campbell

A POPULATION EXPLOSION

During the 19th Century, Glasgow was in a process of rapid expansion. Industrialisation created new jobs in factories and trades, and a professional class of clerks, merchants, bankers and lawyers emerged. At the beginning of the Victorian era, Glasgow’s population was around 250,000. By 1901, the population stood at 762,000.

As the population skyrocketed, housing became a key concern for the government. The quickest and easiest way to house a rapidly growing population was through the building of tenements. The word ‘tenement’ usually evokes images of Dickensian London, with families crammed into slums. But in Glasgow, tenement spanned the social classes. It was very much the truth that Glasgow’s working class families lived in one-room tenements called ‘singl-ends’, or in two rooms, called a ‘room and kitchen.’ The middle and upper class tenements, on the other hand, could have five rooms or even more.

The bathroom at the Tenement House. Image credit National Trust for Scotland

ALL MOD CONS

A great example of a Victorian middle class tenement can be found at 145 Buccleuch Street. Owned by the National Trust for Scotland, the Tenement House was occupied by Miss Agnes Toward and her mother between 1911 and 1965. Mrs Toward worked as a dressmaker and ran her own business, whilst Agnes Toward worked as a secretary for a shipping firm. The Tenement House was built in 1892 and is made up of four rooms: a parlour, bedroom, kitchen, and it even boasts its own indoor bathroom.

Middle-class tenements were built with all the mod cons in mind. The indoor bathroom at 145 Bucchleuch Street is probably the most noticeable example of this. It is likely that this was the first private bathroom the Toward’s had. Like many other Glaswegians they would have been used to sharing a toilet with their neighbours.

In 1855 Parliament passed legislation to have clean water piped to the city of Glasgow from Loch Katrine following an outbreak of cholera in the city in the 1840s. The introduction of a clean water source led to the enforcement of sanitation in tenement houses. In 1892 the Police Burgh Act tightened legislation requiring landlords to provide indoor sanitation. But this did not necessarily mean that every tenement house was given its own private bathroom. A shared privy was the reality for Glasgow’s working class, even into the 1970s.

Indoor sanitation looked very different for the middle class. The Tenement House boasts its own private flushing toilet, complete with a bath. For the working classes, tin baths were the norm, filled up with water heated over the range, and then used by each family member. The invention of the hot water tank in 1868 meant that water could be heated in the range and piped into the bathroom. But to have hot running water into your indoor bathroom would have been an incredible modern convenience for those who could afford it.

The parlour fireplace in the Tenement House. Image credit Rachel Campbell

KEEPING UP APPEARANCES

An important aspect of Victorian life was keeping up appearances. Middle-class tenements were kitted out to accommodate this part of Victorian social life.

Middle class tenements were built with servants bells installed. Domestic service was the biggest employer of women during the Victorian era. In 1891 the census recorded over 1.3 million women and girls working as servants across Britain. As domestic service became cheaper, many lower middle class families took the opportunity to employ day servants. Although the Toward’s did not employ a domestic servant, it certainly did no harm to their reputation to suggest that they did.

Middle class tenements were also built with large hallway spaces. The large entryway feels almost like a waste of a good space, but it was built with a purpose in mind. The idea was that it would give guests the impression that the rest of their tenement house was as large and lavishly decorated.

Rachel Campbell works with the National Trust for Scotland at the Tenement House. She has an interest in women’s history and social history, and runs a blog, RachelsFactFiles, dedicated to history, heritage and culture.

WANT TO KNOW MORE? 

  • Find out more about the Tenement House in the ‘Tenement life’ episode of GCHT’s podcast, ‘If Glasgow’s Walls Could Talk’, which features an interview with Ana Sanchez de la Vega, Visitor Services Manager at the property.
  • Check out our Gallus Glasgow map and explore more stories of the Victorian city. Once there, why not add a few stories of your own?
  • Prints of the map are available to buy in our online shop

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