My life in a Glasgow tenement in the 1950s
In my novel Roses of Winter set in World War 2, the characters live in tenement apartments in Scotstoun and Maryhill, neighborhoods of Glasgow, Scotland. The description of the Scotstoun location is based on my memories of living in a Scotstoun tenement in the 1950s, an experience very similar to that of the 1940s. That lifestyle was very different from the one I currently enjoy in New Jersey, USA. In this blog post I share what that experience was like.
I spent the first seven years of my life in a tenement in Scotstoun, Glasgow at 2005 Dumbarton Road. It was in the middle of a long row of similar structures, built in the last decades of the nineteenth century. At the rear was a column of toilets, added to try to bring the building into the twentieth century. Several families shared each toilet, which was apportioned one to a landing. One of my earliest memories is of my father putting on his coat in the middle of the night and taking me out of the house and down the stairs to the WC.
The flat was of the kind commonly called a room and kitchen in Glasgow. The kitchen was connected to a small bedroom by a narrow passage we called a lobby. Cooking was done on a range built around a central fireplace, which also provided the heat for the oven. This was the sole source of heat in the apartment. The range had to be periodically cleaned with ‘black lead’ and emery cloth, an exhausting process. My sister and I slept in a box bed, an alcove curtained off from the kitchen. It was warm even in winter. We treated it as our own province, a walled off ‘castle,’ where we piled up pillows and sheets, and made ‘tents’ with the blankets.
We lived on the top floor and another early memory is sitting up on the sink, boxed in with rough, plain wood, from which emerged a swan neck water pipe and tap, to look at the tramcars clanking past on the street below. Most were double-decked, either the older models, many of which had been remodeled from versions built around the time of the Great War, or the newer ‘Coronation’ types. Sometimes we would see the rarer single-decked ‘Yoker’ car go whistling past.
It was a simple life with few material embellishments. We had an old tube (we called them valves) radio for our primary source of entertainment and news. But it was also a time when books and simple conversation whiled away an evening. ‘General knowledge’ was a very popular concept with our teachers who would ask us many, detailed questions about our world.
The amount of knowledge we were expected to have at our fingertips, to be considered a member of the educated population, was phenomenal. For example, we were expected to know where cocoa was grown, or the capital of Australia, just as we were expected to be able to recite our multiplication tables. It would be anathema to many modern educators and yet, if it was so bad, why does my generation seem so better informed? We were preoccupied with ‘knowing’ things. It was possible to buy ‘quiz books’ inexpensively and we would sit around the fire with our parents testing our knowledge in each category. The older generation, though many had had to leave school early to augment their family income, valued education and wanted their children to have better opportunities.
Our playground was the house. There were no gardens, or lawns. From the street you entered our tenement along a dark ‘close,’ which went all the way through to the backcourt. The main stairs led from the close to each of the landings. The ‘backyard was a bleak area of mostly bare earth interspersed with blighted grass and grubby dandelions. Here were the ‘middens’ where housewives threw their trash and the ash from coal fires into large open cans. I can remember the lingering smell of rotting food and ashes even now. Immediately behind the middens was a railway embankment, along which clanked small goods trains with long lines of coal wagons leaving behind their lingering, sooty aroma.
Despite the air of poverty, the working class ladies who lived in the close took great pride in their domain. The close and stairs were washed carefully and made bright with pipe clay. Women generally stayed home. My father worked at Yarrow’s shipyard and could walk the short distance to his job in a few minutes. Its closeness meant that he could come home for ‘dinner’ at midday. The shipyard hooter regulated our day. In the mornings, men in dungarees hurried to punch their time cards so they wouldn’t get docked for being late. At night, they spilled out, tired, grubby and eager to get home and wash for their ‘tea.’ The measure of a good man in that society was that he went home and not to the local pub. Too many found comfort from their hard existence in a ‘beer and a hauf.’
The shipyards were a constant presence to us. The river lay just on the other side of the railroad and the air was often redolent with its greasy, decayed, diesel oil aroma. The cranes towered over everything, a commanding presence that paid tribute to the importance of shipbuilding to the city. Once small villages like Clydebank and Scotstoun became the focus of that great era which produced the Queens and many other important ships. Both areas had taken a terrible pounding from the Luftwaffe, as they tried to wipe out the shipyards. Yarrow’s had taken a direct hit, destroying a shelter packed with workers. Born in 1950, the war became for me a part of the folklore of living in Glasgow. It was a recent memory to my parents, and there were many reminders in the empty lots and derelict air raid shelters. Rummaging through our grandparent’s closets we would still find gas masks and ration cards.
One of our favorite things as children was to have Dad take us down to Yoker ferry to see the ‘boats.’ My father never called them that - to him they were ships. He had spent the war years in the Merchant Marine, mostly on convoys, first to America, then to Murmansk and Archangel. He was a modest man who didn’t like to talk about himself. Many years later I would read the true story about his ship the Zamalek, one of three rescue ships on the infamous convoy PQ 17, and tell him how proud I was of him and what he did.
Sometimes we would make the short return trip on the ferry at Renfrew. It was a drive on car ferry, open at both ends with a passenger walk up on top. It was driven by enormous chains, anchored on each bank that traveled into the engine compartment, and was used to haul the vessel across the river. Sometimes a cargo ship captain coming up river would get nervous and give short blasts on the steam whistle, warning the ferry out of the way. Then the decks of the ferry would rumble and the ferry would pick up to its top speed, which was still very slow. It was marvelous and inexpensive entertainment.
“The Clyde made Glasgow and Glasgow made the Clyde,” my father would say. On Sundays we would take the tram to Kelvingrove to visit the Art Galleries. Dad would always gravitate to the ship exhibits where he proudly pointed out the turbines of the old King George V. As a teenager he had worked through his apprenticeship to become a ‘blader,’ a skilled job. Then we would wander through the ship model gallery and look at the smaller versions of the ships that had made Glasgow famous. We all knew their stories, the Hood, built just a short distance away, and sunk by one unlucky shell from the Bismarck, the ‘Queens,’ and countless others. As a young man, my father had worked on the Queen Mary at John Brown’s shipyard in Clydebank. We knew the flags and colors of the big shipping lines. The river was in our blood, it was our blood.