Stone tenements are characteristic of housing in Glasgow — they have been part of the fabric of the city since the 19th century.
Around 73% of Glaswegians live in a flat of some description, compared with under 25% for comparable cities down south. (Source: https://www.glasgowlive.co.uk/news/history/look-glasgows-oldest-tenements-history-15044421)
Tenements were first built to house the huge influx of urban manual workers to the city during the industrial revolution of the Victorian era. These homes needed to be build to last and so the tenement was born. In fact, the tenement block next to the Heilen Jessie pub in the Gallowgate area of the city is home to the oldest standing tenement in Glasgow, thought to date back to around 1771!
What Is a Tenement?
Believe it or not, there is actual official law in Scotland which defines what a tenement is Section 26 of the Tenement (Scotland) Act 2004: “Two or more related but separate flats divided from each other horizontally”.
Today, tenements are characterised from the outside by their sandstone material and large bay windows and inside by period features such as ceiling cornicing.
The Early Days
The earliest red, grey and beige stone tenements were built between 1850 and 1900 using locally sourced materials. Usually four stories tall, they were never taller than the width of the street and were built in blocks along streets inner-city areas creating the city’s distinctive ‘grid’ pattern.
There was one front door which opened into a shared close where each individual flat could be accessed but they didn’t yet have indoor toilets – instead there would be a shared one in the back garden – and between eight and ten families would live in one building. The bay windows help make the distinctive street patterns you can see today.
Also, did you ever wonder why the cupboard usually on the right of the fireplace was very thin? It was bricked up at the end of construction (single brick) as it allowed the construction workers to pass materials along the whole block when building. Now you know!
Across the Social Strata
The size of flats depended on how affluent the area they were built in was. Some flats had only one or two rooms and were normally built in working-class areas like the East End, more middle-class areas like Hillhead and Woodlands had three-room flats. Some, in areas like Hyndland, were much larger and had more decorative features like stained glass windows or doors and ornate iron railings.
Opportunities for Architects
The basic tenement architecture allowed the opportunity for the most well-known practicing architects of the day. Alexander “Greek” Thomson, Alexander Taylor and Alexander Kirkland brought classical influences to these buildings in more affluent areas like Pollokshields which are still visible today.
Although tenements were successful in housing large numbers of families during a population boom, this lead to problems such as poor sanitation, disease, and overcrowding. Often between 30 and 50 people were sharing one outdoor toilet and tap in the back garden!
In 1866, The City Improvement Trust sought to improve these conditions by demolishing tenements that were no longer fit for purpose and built new ones which had running water, inside toilets and two or more rooms such as St George’s Mansions at Charing Cross.
However, in the 1950s, problems arose again. Poorer families could not keep up with the cost of maintenance and in some areas of the city like Gorbals and Anderston, tenements had become slums. As a result, in the 1960s and 70s further tenements were demolished and more fashionable high rise blocks were built in their place.
That said, from the late 70s and 80s, tenements became more sought after once more and those that did still exist became well sought after.
Today, tenements are still the most common form of home in Glasgow, no matter where you go in the city. Buyers and renters, whatever their budget, are drawn to their large rooms, high ceilings and period features like cornicing which can found almost no-where else in the UK.
Traditionally affluent areas never suffered from the same overcrowding as some of the inner-city areas and so the original tenements have remained with their original features intact. As such, in 1972, Glasgow West was designated the first Conservation Area in the city, defined as “an area of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance”. In 1975, Hyndland was given its own special designation, the only one in the UK. This means that these tenements can never be demolished and replaced with new builds.
If you want to see what your current tenement might have looked like back in the day you can visit Glasgow’s unique Tenement House museum. The flat was the former home of shorthand typist Miss Agnes Toward, who lived there from 1911 until 1965. It’s a beautiful time capsule of 20th-century life for an independent woman.
Continue Your Curiosity
If you’d like to explore the history of Glasgow tenements more here are some links to get you started: