Miss Agnes Toward was a collector. For over 50 years she archived old household bills, prescriptions, leaflets, letters and personal papers from the war. Her rented apartment in Glasgow also left her practically untouched. The original gas lighting was not replaced by an electric version until 1960, nearly five decades after she began living there.
Toward’s magpie habits and decorative restraint had notable consequences. Her apartment and its carefully preserved contents – antique chairs and beds, old theater programs and perfume bottles – have been transformed into a residential time capsule. This is the Tenement House, part of a red sandstone block of flats built in the 1890s at 145 Buccleuch Street, where visitors can experience urban life in central Scotland a century ago.
It has a kitchen with a large coal-fired stove that also heated the water for the rest of the apartment, and an alcove bed where a maid could have slept; The bathroom features a deep soaking tub with brass fixtures and a marble effect pedestal sink with mixer taps. A bright white bedspread covers the expanse of Toward’s large ornate brass bed.
The apartment has four rooms – kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and main room – each opening onto a central, square anteroom (hallway). This was a basic design repeated by builders across the city in Victorian times. My grandmother’s apartment had the exact same layout, which added an additional emotional texture to my frequent visits to the Tenement House.
His miracles were first revealed after Toward’s death in 1975. Many features have since been restored, including the apartment’s original gas lighting.
Her personal belongings have been discreetly scattered throughout the rooms. These tell us that she was a shorthand typist who enjoyed musicals, took dance classes, was involved in church activities, and did not retire until 1959, when she was 73 years old. She had a cat named Tibs and sent long, timely letters to her friends.
Like other apartment buildings, her apartment can be reached from the street through a passageway called Close. This leads to the stairs and then beyond that to a door to a communal garden referred to as the Back Green where laundry has been hung.
Much of Glasgow’s social interaction took place in the doors, back greens, stairways and landings of its apartment buildings. Neighbors met and chatted while in the back of the seclusion, away from the light, amorous evening encounters of squirming (smooching) couples took place.
That was tenement life, and Toward’s flat is a memorial to those buildings that have housed millions of urban Scots, myself included, over the years. And overall they’ve given us a lovely home, as Glasgow actor Peter Capaldi points out: “Growing up in a working-class Glasgow tenement was great. It wasn’t miserable and it wasn’t poor. It felt very safe, full of joys.”
These days tenements are often equated with slums and it must be admitted that some of Glasgow was grim. However, it is usually not true. In fact, some have huge half-dozen-room elite apartments — like those in Hyndland, Kelvinside, and other posher parts of the city. Others, however, were more modest—like Toward’s first-floor apartment—but they were certainly not places of general misery.
Glasgow was once known for its Victorian architecture. This fame was based in part on its impressive public buildings, such as Gilbert Scott’s magnificent Gothic college building, but also on its expansive views of elegant stone houses with large bay windows stretching out over the city.
Unfortunately, these buildings were sacrificed in the 1960s and 70s when decisions were made to demolish derelict tenements and move residents into high-rise buildings and housing developments rather than renovate them. “Nonetheless, with a little forethought, these buildings could have been remodeled to continue to provide homes for their occupants,” laments Frank Worsdall in The Tenement House: A Way of Life. The result is “the general hopelessness and helplessness of high-rise life”.
Much of Glasgow was sacrificed as buildings were demolished and motorways were driven through the heart of the city. The tenements across from Toward’s apartment were among the casualties of this civil vandalism. Luckily her street side and building were spared, preserving a remarkable record and testament to a bygone way of life.