Frozen in time

Nicola Sullivan, 27.04.2016
Tenement House makes the ordinary remarkable
The most remarkable part of visiting Tenement House, a National Trust property close to the centre of Glasgow, is that in many ways it is unremarkable.

Built in 1892, the property at 145 Buccleuch Street has none of the splendour of the castles, stately homes and palaces that are more commonly associated with the National Trust.

And its occupant, Agnes Toward, who lived in the house between 1911 and 1965, lived a very ordinary life, although her meticulous hoarding and her lack of enthusiasm for modernising her home means that she has inadvertently provided future generations with a rare glimpse of history.

That’s not to mention the fact that she liked to make jam – there is a jar in the kitchen cupboard that dates back to 1929 – or that some of the neighbours that still live in the block remember being both intimidated and fascinated by her eccentric nature.

A shorthand typist, who worked into her 70s, Toward never married, although in the archive are letters written to her by a young solider fighting in the first world war. There is nothing in them that confirms the attachment was romantic, but enough is written to know that news of his death would have hit Toward hard.

On my tour of Tenement House, which didn’t have electric lighting until 1960, the items that caught my attention were: the tiny beds, tucked into cupboard-like spaces in the parlour and the kitchen; a coal-fired kitchen range; a porridge spurtle; and heavy cast iron scales with imperial weights.  

Reading the information panels in the small museum on the ground floor made me realise that the way people lived in Toward’s time echoes the struggles experienced by today’s renters.

Rises in building and mortgage costs caused rents to double between 1860 and 1911. Cleaning rotas have also stood the test of time and residents living in tenement buildings were expected to ensure the stairs were swept daily and cleaned at least weekly.

By all accounts Toward lived an ordinary and unremarkable life, but her beautifully preserved home gives visitors to Tenement House an extraordinary taste of what life was like for working people in the early 20th century.