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Tenements, early to mid 20th
century Britain

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The word 'tenement' tends to conjure up images of bygone city slums. Even some dictionaries confirm this:

Tenement: A run-down and often overcrowded apartment house, especially in a poor section of a large city.      (Dictionary.com)

Most of us are fully prepared to accept this definition because in most parts of the UK, tenements are simply history. Few if any places still exist in England which have tenements because where they once existed, they really were run-down, and they have since been demollished and built over. Yet I have friends who grew up in Scotland who would fiercely deny that they lived in slums. By today's standards their accommodation may have been less than ideal, but it was certainly on a par with living accommodation elsewhere at the time.

So what is or was a tenement?

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What a tenement is or was

Shops built into the ground floor of a tenement block, mid 20th century

Shops built into the ground floor of a tenement block in 1952. Photograph courtesy of Douglas Adam whose grandfather owned the radio repair shop. The flags are in anticipation of a royalty procession.

This section gives descriptions, rather than definitions, but does leave a better understanding of what a tenement really was. It comes from people who grew up in tenements in or around the 1940s.

In Edinburgh, where I grew up, a tenement was a block of several living quarters which always had an open area in the centre with stairs winding up round it.

Bob Ward

Tenement upper levels were only accessible by an internal stairway. In Glasgow where I grew up, there were several levels with between two and six 'flats' on each level. To stress the difference between them and standard blocks of flats, this geometry would have made it impossible for there to be lift access, even if it had ever been envisaged.

Douglas Adam

I seem to remember old American films illustrating the geometry of tenement design. There were shots of stairways winding up and away into a distant roof. rather like a coiled spring except that the 'coils' were rectangular.

one of the better tenement blocks

A more recent photo of a more upmarket tenement block: Lochleven Rd, Glasgow. Photo courtesy of Douglas Adam.

The internal stairway was accessed from the street by a single door which was open in the past for the poorer tenements. It led to what was known as a 'close'. There were normally up to eight closes to each tenement block.

In the better areas there would be a 'flat' on either side; in poorer areas there were up to six at each level.

Douglas Adam

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Washing facilities in tenements

Each close had a back yard with a common washhouse (sink and coal-fired boiler) which had large garbage bins emptied weekly, and poles to run clothes drying lines.

I understand that Glasgow's slum tenement flats - ours was more upmarket - did not have their own individual washing and lavatory facilities. Instead there was a single communal lavatory on each landing between levels. I believe that a galvanized sit-down bath filled from jugs/buckets of water from the kitchen sink was the only bath that residents could use - although Glasgow did have public wash-houses and baths around the city. The really poor, however, would not have been able to afford to use them.

Douglas Adam

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Other tenement facilities

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

I am now speaking of the better tenements which I knew as a child:

The flats had one or two bedrooms, a front room which was mainly used for visitors, a bathroom and kitchen/living room. The front glass paned door had full height shutters to close off for when the flat was unoccupied. It opened into a hallway about 7 feet by 12 feet, with several cupboards of various sizes.

The living rooms and front rooms also had cupboards and some had a bed recess with a wooden rail to hang a curtain on for privacy.

Even before the Second World War my grandparents' flat had some electricity and gas lighting. Heating was with coal fires. The widespread use of these coal fires produced pea-soup fogs whenever there was little wind and the humidity was high. They also produced black deposits on all outside walls. These were blasted clean sometime after 1970 when only smokeless fuel was allowed to be burned.

The front gardens were just for ground floor flats.

Douglas Adam

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