Life in Glasgow’s Single-Ends

Glasgow City Archives P-665, c. 1910

‘I have seen human degradation in some of its worst phases…but I can advisedly say, that I did not believe, until I visited the wynds of Glasgow, that so large an amount of filth, crime, misery, and disease existed in one spot in any civilised country.’ – Frederick Engels (1844)

Engels was not the first to comment on the slums of Glasgow, he followed social reformer, Edwin Chadwick who published a damning report in 1842 declaring the poor housing conditions, in particular the over crowding, as the primary factor in the high mortality rate of the city. By the mid nineteenth century Glasgow had earned itself a reputation for the worst slums in Europe. Did they really deserve their reputation? Why did so many resist the slum clearances?

The worst of the slums were concentrated in Glasgow’s East End where workers lived next to industry, at the same time the middle classes and the aspiring escaped the pollution and headed mainly for the West End. The pollution or as the Victorians called it the miasma was the worst in the East where you were far more likely to die of one of the many lung diseases that plagued Glasgow. This lead to industrial schools sending children to places such as Millport for ‘fresh air fortnights’. However, you were lucky to survive long enough to attend school as 1 in 5 babies born in the slums would die before the age of one. J.B. Russell, the appointed Medical Officer of Health, reported that children played amongst the dead bodies of their brothers and sisters due to the prevalence of child mortality and the expense of a funeral. The surviving children more often than not suffered a myriad of health problems. Whooping cough was chronic and it thrived in the damp and crowded environments of the back-land tenements. Those who survived it were often left with hearing damage with 40% of school children in Glasgow in 1903-4 reportedly suffering hearing loss.

The stifling darkness and airlessness of the slums earned them the nickname ‘coffin closes’. The lack of ventilation no doubt aiding the ravages of many contagious diseases. You were lucky if you had a single toilet per landing if you had one inside at all. The backyards of the tenements would often have ‘dung heaps’ that could be sold to farmers as manure – for this very reason the installation of new toilets was met with great resistance from many tenants. William Gairdner, Russel’s predecessor as MOH, described the close stairs as ‘evil smelling, water closets are constantly choked, and foul water running down the stairs, sickly cats everywhere spreading diseases.’ Visitors continually commented on the overwhelming stench of these stairs as the toilets were often so filthy that it was preferable to defecate in the close instead. Yet, single ends continued to be built and people chose to live in them over some of the newer housing.

It has been suggested that they were easier to heat than the new cottages and that the dampness they were famed for was not as bad in the higher floors. However, we must consider the networks that slum communities fostered and how the mass exodus to the newly created working class suburbs disrupted these. A good relationship with the local pawn shop, the ability to purchase on tick were all key to survival and a little comfort. Knowing the right person could be the difference between eating or not. The overcrowding of the tenements also fostered a strong street culture; especially important for adolescents and women, who were excluded from the pubs. For men, the pub was the heart of your social life, serving as the equivalent of a sitting room that the slums could not offer. They could be the key to finding work, almost a prototype Jobcentre but with bartenders rather than civil servants.

TGSE00671Mrs McGowan on the backstairs at 105 Green Street in the Calton, c. 1900

The closes of slum tenements were never quiet, always filled with neighbours chattering and often enjoying a drink. These spaces served as a small escape from the tensions of family life in such cramped conditions and often non family members too as streams of young male lodgers were commonplace. In the single ends themselves there was little space to think, breathe or relax so this part of life spilled over into the stairs, streets and other public spaces. The inner city could also offer the titillating entertainment of the music hall or the cheap drink of a ‘shebeen’, illicit pubs operating outside of licensing laws, often serving home-brew. Much of the new working class housing just could not compete with such a rich culture and social life that the inner city offered. So, despite the indisputably poor conditions many chose to stay.

Further Reading

W. Hamish Fraser and Irene Maver, ‘The Social Problems of the City’ in Glasgow, Volume II: 1830-1912 (1996)

W. Hamish Fraser, ‘The Working Class’ in Glasgow, Volume II: 1830-1912 (1996)


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