Vertical village

Life in Glasgow's tenements was cramped, poor, brutal and full of love. Jane-Ann Purdy visits a restored nineteenth-century home.

Tucked away in the Garnethill district of Glasgow, where the streets are as steep as San Francisco, The Tenement House is both everyday and unusual. Everyday because tenements, Victorian apartment buildings usually between two and four storeys, still make up a significant proportion of housing in twenty-first century Scotland. Unusual because this particular tenement has been preserved in its original state.

Each building was divided into 'houses' - what we now call flats. I am visiting this house out of season. No parties of schoolchildren tramp up the 'close' (stair). In fact a close like this would have been alive with children even in the first half of the twentieth century. Houses usually had only one or two rooms, but they were meant for families. Doors were often left open in this vertical village. The womenfolk got on with their relentless household chores. Neighbours ducked in to borrow a cup of sugar and stop for a chat.

The Tenement House has been maintained in all its original Victorian glory by the National Trust, which won the prestigious Sandford Award for the second time in 2001, a mark of their continuing commitment to historical education.

For primary classes coming for a private view of the house, the first port of call is the education room in the ground floor flat, also owned by the trust. The range of ancient household artefacts on show here is quite mind boggling. Some pupils can identify the chamber pot. But few guess that the wooden stick ('spurtle') was used for stirring porridge or that the carpet beater is the ancestor to the modern day vacuum cleaner.

Following an introductory talk classes are split in two. Group One stays in the education room where they get to try out tasks like laundering clothes with a washboard and a wringer, setting a coal fire using newspaper spills and handling old tools like the wooden butter patties and the iron last for mending shoes. Judging by the letters from pupils on the notice board, these activities are a popular part of the trip.

Group Two goes up to the house on the first floor. The first thing visitors notice is the darkness, then the faint smell of gas and the methodical ticking of the grandfather clock. Compared to the overhead gas light, the tungsten in modern homes is incandescent.

Next stop is the kitchen, the hub of the house. A well polished cast-iron range is the centre piece of the room. Giving life to the kitchen, it warmed the room, cooked all meals and heated water for washing. Laundry was done by hand in the sink or in a 'steamie' (communal wash house).

A simple wooden table stands in the middle of the room. All family meals were eaten here. Glasgow families survived on breakfasts of porridge and toast, big plates of hearty broth, and mince and tatties for dinner.

In one corner is the clue to how a family could live in what by today's standards is cramped accommodation - the recess bed. This high box bed, neatly made up with blankets and sheets, is fitted snugly into a purpose built alcove. Curtains closed it off by day, and at night it was a warm place to sleep. It looks tiny. But it is 6ft long and could, and did, house several children top to tail.

Across the hall is the parlour, the best room in the house. It was hardly used daily, except for the box bed housed in another recess. Glasgow families loved to go visiting on Sundays. Then this room, with its well-polished piano, would have been used for entertaining.

A room and a kitchen was the height of many family's ambition. They would wash by the kitchen sink. A toilet, shared with one or two other families in the close, would be on the stair or in the back court (the shared garden). But this particular house was home to a comfortably-off family with a separate bedroom and a well-appointed bathroom.

One of the letters from visiting pupils says: "I thought it was just an exhibition but I was very wrong," which sums up the allure of this historic treasure. It offers classes the chance to experience the past in a way that cannot be reproduced in a museum, however faithfully recreated.

ContactThe Tenement House, 145 Buccleuch Street, Glasgow G3 6QN. Tel: 0141 333 0183. Web: www.nts.org.uk Open March to October. School visits 10am and 12.30pm. Cost: pound;1 per pupil. Similar attractionsAngus Folk Museum in Glamis. Tel: 01307 840288. Grangemouth Musuem. Tel: 01324 504699. Web: www.falkirk museums.demon.co.uk

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