Monday, 21 October 2013


In every major city, there are neighbourhoods full of old-style, poorer 'traditional' housing, now re-evaluated, then probably or hopefully, appreciated once more.

In Northern cities, it's the terraces: street full of reconfigured two-up, two down homes. In Scotland meanwhile, it's the tenements. Many of both types of these old homes were demolished – regarded as hovels, since they were considered and designated remorseless incubators of disease and poverty, perhaps with justification. In some places, like the bizarre ‘Pepperpot Park’ in Eccles, they were remade.

Before that, Manchester lost the Georgian slums of Hulme, which were covered with newbuild flats on top of demolished sixties monstrosities, while Glasgow destroyed the largely unmourned Gorbals, celebrated for a sense of community, but universally demonised for overcrowding etc.

Remaining tenements are now considered to be quite desirable. The best examples, like the ‘Greek’ Thomson flats in Cessnock are lovely. I've been told by architects that the reason they are still standing is simply that are very hard to knock down, because they were so well-built and sturdy.

Tenements are far from perfect. In fact they are often problematic. Firstly because when first built, they lacked bathrooms, meaning that several flats (they would never be called apartments) would share an outside toilet, while washing facilities for both human bodies and their clothes were communal, in 'steamies' and bathhouses. Sometimes, the concept or memory of joyous community masks a lack of dignity, with no privacy.

Updated, renovated tenements often have bathrooms placed in what were once cupboards, box-rooms or larders, none of which were designed to vent steam and condensation. The proportions of the newly valued homes might seem generous now, but remember this: visitors, socially minded commentators and charities used to wonder why children always played outside, and blamed parental neglect. The real reason was a large, possibly multi-generational family squeezed and huddled sleeping in 'end tenements.'

The kitchen was the warmest room in the house. Indeed, in some examples it was the only room in the house. Many featured a now illegal niche, which contained, next to the range, a double-bed, where everyone would sleep, well - those not sleeping on the floor, or wherever they could squeeze. That’s one whole family in one bed. Now – that’s actual squalor. This meant bedding next to an open fire, with all that entailed: it was a hazard, and deaths were commonplace.

Glasgow's People's Palace shows an end tenement on permanent display. It's truly sobering to see where people lived, slept, ate, cooked, reproduced somehow and died - all in one tiny, airless room, complete with a chamber pot. There was little dignity, scant room to for privacy, and malnourished occupants would have dreamed of living in a lovely, lofty, airy mansion flat, where they could study, eat, sleep separately and breathe.

These days, no end terraces remain, and all tenements have been refurbished or demolished. Tenements can be cold and hard to insulate, but are still desirable. Please remember this: they now house one or two people, not an entire large family.


space cadet said...

I live in a tenement in Glasgow. It's not perfect (very cold in winter) but it does have character, and I love it for that.

RenterGirl said...

They are lovely.

Anonymous said...

tennements were not lovely,loli live in a kinda tennement in london a small airless room with a cubical for the shower and loo ect cooking all in one small room the place stinks of damp has mould rats also and guess wot its a £1000 a mounth rent,lol

Gardenpea said...

Where on earth is Pepperpot Park in Eccles? Seemingly the only reference to the place on google is on this blog...

RenterGirl said...

My little joke. It's 'Chimney Pot' but it's terrible.