From further up the hill it may have looked almost like a new block of flats, except, of course, they don’t build the chimneys on the outside walls any more, and those Huguenot style cornices are dated now, but the granite glistens in the winter sunshine and the whole building gives an appearance of rather sanctimonious solidity and precision, so that it comes as a surprise to notice the patently decaying wood of the door frame, the cracked windows, and the granite step worn quite hollow. There are three bells on either side of the door, two ‘houses’ on each of the three landings, probably twenty-five people behind the one front door— perhaps two hundred ‘houses’ within the whole rectangular, hollow block of masonry, perforated at intervals by narrow passages —the ‘closes’. These lead past the prams and bicycles to the area at the back of the building, what has obviously once been a drying green: although the clothes lines still indicate the use made of this space, it is green no longer. There is an air of decrepitude about the buildings round the green that contrasts with the clean lines of the main block, slates missing on the wash-house roof, broken hinges on the lavatory door. The ‘green’ itself isn’t paved, and the dustbin bays are too obviously a haven for rats. But amidst the jumble you miss the peripheral bric-a-brac that distinguishes ‘living high’ in the English city; no pram stores, no lifts, no coal hoists or refuse chutes, only a common wash-house, two or three lavatories and a row of coal cellars—this time very obviously a haven for cats! Even ‘wash-house’ is too dignified a term for these often dark, damp rooms, cold and badly ventilated, and too frequently used as a storehouse for excess rubbish—invariably little used by ‘more particular’ tenants, who might only enter to fulfil their ‘turn’ at keeping it reasonably clean, every two weeks or less. The uniformly brown doors of the houses leading off the green repel curiosity by their massiveness, keeping out both the dirt of the green, and the ‘too prying’ interests of the neighbours, and no doubt also the cold; but where communality is forced on one by the physical structure of the environment, privacy can be good in itself. Looking outwards from the green instead, through the ‘closes’ punched at intervals in the other side of the block, you see the noisy traffic of the street beyond.
Inside, the stair rail is cold metal, worn quite away at the bottom. Looking upwards you see one of those smart photographs that you’ve
Along the gloomy, narrow passage to where a strip of oil-cloth, highly polished over its faded green and brown check, marks the front door of a tenement house. Behind the front door is a tiny lobby, off which the rooms lead. It is a moderate size as tenements go, a two apartment home, the smaller room usually the children’s bedroom, the larger one used as kitchen, living room, dining room and main bedroom, the bed sometimes half hidden in an alcove; though alcove beds are becoming a rarity now, begin designed for a generation whose limbs were much shorter.
The smaller room must often be used as store-room too, for any clothes, cases, boxes, etc. which just won’t fit into the main room— leaving precious little space for a bed, or perhaps beds, into which the children must crowd. The large room rarely alters in appearance—no room here to satisfy the housewifely love of ‘changing the furniture round’, to fit it in once is a big enough problem and once done it has to stay put. Perhaps there is a cracked sink, with cupboards, maybe only a tap. The room will have built-in cupboards, probably too deep and not too practical. Even where effort is made to smarten it, with bright curtains, cushions, pictures and fresh flowers, it is difficult to bring much relief to this overall muddle of a room in which all the family must live.
This is a tenement, not a good one, probably not yet scheduled for replacement, structurally perfectly sound, yet this is the kind of dwelling house that forms the largest part of the housing problem in Scotland.
The generic ‘tenement’ covers an enormous range of property, the only common element being a class one: these are the dwellings which the urban working-class in Scotland have inhabited for three generations or more. The pressures that produced them were those of an agricultural society in rapid transition. Their standards were probably superior to the homes of the rural immigrants who came to them, whether peasants from Ireland to the Clyde Valley, or crofters to the East Coast cities. At the time of their construction, indeed, their standards of sanitation and ventilation were probably not inferior to those of the ‘back to backs’ that were simultaneously spreading across the urban landscape of the West Riding, or the miners’ cottages in the oddly-named rural districts of County Durham. To some extent it was England that went out of step in its provision of working-class housing in the 19th century, for Scotland, a poorer country, merely retained and adapted a living-pattern that had roots in the middle ages, akin to the Continental walled city in its densely packed population in the town centre. There was too a shortage of suitable flat building land on the cramped sites of the major cities, high site values and greater returns in rent from high density development as a result. The basic building material, stone, favoured the construction of tenement
Though there were tenements in Scotland before the Industrial Revolution, mass provision for the housing of the labouring classes came with industrialisation. The collapse of the Continental market for textiles in the Napoleonic War, and the growth of the factory system drove the crofter weavers into the already overcrowded central areas of the towns. The extent and speed of the influx of population into the towns created an enormous demand for houses, which was largely met by the construction of oneand two-roomed tenement dwellings which were solid, but satisfied only one immediate basic need, that of shelter; sanitation and ventilation were neglected. Although most Scottish cities paid attention to town planning, it was directed to the Adam squares and the Archibald Simpson terraces for the expanding middle class. By about 1870 the government and local authorities began to show concern about working class housing. The Artisan’s Dwelling Act (1875) and the Housing of the Working Classes Act (1890) provoked some activity, but the preoccupation in Scotland with quantity operated to depress standards, and prevent the implementation of standards already laid down; even up to 1914 tenants were still trying to have the Act of 1867 enforced, which obliged landlords to provide sashes to open the windows at least one-third of the way. The basic problem remained the sheer lack of dwellings, and the achievement of even the minimum decencies of living has never been within reasonable distance.