In 1967 my wife Eva and I & two sons Ross aged 8 and Colin 4 lived one stair up at 36 Haggs Road, in a room and kitchen with a shared toilet on the half-landing. I drove buses for the Corporation Transport Department from 1960 to 1974 on the routes along Pollokshaws Road and Kilmarnock Road. This meant that I saw the demolition of most of the old Shaws and the construction of the flats, unaware that we would be living in one of them for twenty-nine years.
Having applied for a Corporation (council) house even before we were married in 1957, when our turn came for an allocation it was for a house in 124. As I was working Eva went along to the allocations which were done by ballot, and she drew a house on the eleventh floor. She wanted one lower down and was able to exchange it for the house on the second floor which I regarded with mixed feelings. I was torn between getting as high up as possible because of the view, and the convenience of being low down. Of the four 22 storey blocks between the River Cart and Riverford Road, 21 Riverbank Street, 124 and 142 Shawbridge Street were opened for tenants two months apart in that order. The first was Riverbank Street in February 1967, then 124 and 142 in April and June. I think the contractor then was a company called BISON, and I can remember sitting in my new living room in house 3 and watching the slabs being lifted up to top out 142. The Riverford Road block was built two or three years later, and because its foundations were to be higher than the one in Riverbank Street, to keep the tops of the two blocks as near as possible at the same level each floor was about six inches lower. Instead of the eight feet in first three blocks, in Riverford Road they were seven and a half feet.
House number 3, situated at the end of the block, was ideally placed for seeing both ways up and down Shawbridge Street. It was on two levels with the entry on the second floor where there was a bathroom and a bedroom. The houses on our side of the corridor had an inside flight of stair down to the first storey where there was another bedroom, a kitchenette and a seemingly enormous 16 feet square living room. This apartment was directly under the corridor so that you would be aware of possible visitors by their footsteps before they rang the bell. Occupants of the houses on the other side of the corridor went up to the third floor. This layout meant that houses were accessed only on floors two, five, eight, eleven and so on. We liked our house with the what were for us new facilities of the kitchenette and bathroom. There were fourteen houses on each level, the corridors of which were divided by the off-centre lift area and stairs access, with eight houses on one side and six on the other. The first two houses in each corridor, one on each side as it was entered, were four apartments and all the others were threes. I have to say that the neighbours in this part of the building were ideal.
The long verandas that ran along the outside of the buildings on one side, two for every three floors which seemed to be an unnecessary addition, were actually fire escapes. But they were accessible by anyone who entered the building and could be used by housebreakers. This happened occasionally and it was only partly rectified years later when lockable doors were fitted. The south facing living room window wall had a door and was set back from the front of the building by about four feet. This gave a private veranda in which tenants could sit out and enjoy the sun in good weather.
There were three areas, one on each floor, for drying clothes within the building which had lockable doors. The main one was opposite the lift entrance on every third floor up from the second floor, but the other two were accessed from the staircase landings of the floors above and below. But as they were secluded the more so the higher up the building you went, fearing prowlers eventually most women were too afraid to use them unless they were accompanied. This meant that being used by the occupants of fourteen houses, pressure on the one on the main floor was intense and some tenants had to occasionally dry the clothes in the house, especially in winter.
Something that worried a few of the tenants including me, was the fact that unlike all other multi storey flats anywhere else, these buildings were flat faced like cigarette cartons stood on end, and presented a broad face to the south west where most storms came from. In particular, the two blocks at Riverbank Street and 124 Shawbridge Street were almost in line with only a gap of about 75 yards between them. Even with a moderate wind, in this area young and old could be blown off their feet and rolled along the road, so that when it was windy they had to proceed by hold on to the railings at the back pavement edge. We were concerned about the gales that were more often encountered then than they are today. Would the buildings survive? When site officials were questioned about this the tenants were assured that they were calculated to be capable of withstanding winds of up to 200 miles an hour!
Well, that was put partly to the test during the early morning of the 15th of January 1968. The West of Scotland was hit by a hurricane from the west when a wind speed of 112 miles an hour was recorded in Glasgow. A number of people living in the older tenements around the city were killed when aged and unstable chimney heads of stone were blown down and crashed through roofs. Slates blown off roofs were lethal and caused a number of injuries. During the massive repairs that were done subsequently, men working on the roofs in Partick noticed that the worst of the damage seemed to be on a track running north west to south east which indicated that a tornado had passed along here.
In my job I was due to go out about 4.30am to start a shift at Newlands bus garage which stood where Morrison’s superstore is today. The storm was at its height just then and even in the house the noise was unbelievable, the building was swaying and even at our low level ceiling light units moved around. Indeed, people living high up were terrified and said the building moved about two feet at the highest level, and those with cars went down and spent the rest of the night them. Some people lost valuable ornaments which fell and were broken.
Because of the amount of debris being blown about at ground level I wondered if it was safe to go out. As well as lighter detritus, there were bricks, bushes and trees being hurtled along the road. At the foot of the building I waited for a lull then tried to leave to cross Shawbridge Street, but just then what seemed to have been the most powerful blast came along. A lamp post of the old rolled steel type stood in the gap between the buildings mentioned above, and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it being bent to an incredible degree. After a time, I risked going out to the middle of the road only to be picked up and forced to run as fast as my legs would carry me before reaching shelter at Riverford Road, and the rest of the journey was done in stages like that. At least half the street lights around the city were put out by the blast.
Eva always attended the UF Church in Shawbridge Street on Sundays, and on another day there was a high wind but at the time she was leaving the house it wasn’t strong enough to make her stay at home. I usually made the lunch so that it was ready for her return. The wind had increased in force but I was preoccupied by working on a model making project, and was late in starting to make the meal, and suddenly realised that she hadn’t returned. She came in in a bit of a state about an hour after this, saying that when she and a friend came out of the church the wind was so strong that they had to hold on to the railing and move along the pavement in stages. Proceeding down Shawbridge Street like this, when she got to the place where she had to cross the road it was impossible. She and her friend had to work their way round by Riverbank Street where her friend lived and wait for a lull in the blast, then wait for a more extended period before she could get across the road to 124 at Bengal Street.
Another event of an alarming nature occurred on 27th of December 1979. Asleep in the upper bedroom, around 4am I was awakened by a loud groaning, grating sound and the bed moved. It seemed that it was the building that moved. It had swayed back and forward once along its length just for an instant. Eva awakened too and said with a loud gasp ‘whatwasthat’. In an effort to reassure her, half kidding but wholly in earnest I said ‘Ach it’s only an earthquake, go back to sleep’. Next morning it was headline news that there had been a ‘quake’ in Western Scotland centred somewhere around Dalbeattie. My sister lived in New York at the time, and she and her husband were listening to the morning news on the radio about reports of a ‘quake’ coming in. They were used to hearing this from the parts of the word usually affected, but they said they couldn’t believe it when Scotland was mentioned.
Late one Friday evening I was taking a bath when there was a shattering explosion somewhere in the building followed by loud screams. Afraid that the block might be collapsing I scrambled out and went to investigate. The water supply for the building was pumped up in two stages to tanks, one at mid height and the other near the top by a powerful machine in what was known as the pump room at ground level. The pump had developed a fault which had caused it to blow up with tremendous force that blew the double leaf heavy doors yards away, just missing a group of children that were playing there. It was a warm summer evening during the school holidays otherwise they would have been in bed.
Each building had a caretaker, who was later given the swankier name of concierge and an external office. At that time, they lived in house 14, but as time passed there were changes and they lived elsewhere, even outside the Shaws. Tenants took a turn weekly to wash their corridor and the floor at the lift, and the caretaker, or ‘cairy’ as he came to be called, was supposed to do all 22 flights of stairs, something that came to be done only intermittently. His main task was to look after the rubbish bins, of which there were six. One was placed under the rubbish shaft, and it was essential that he checked it frequently so that it didn’t overflow and block up the system, which did happen from time to time. There was a sliding flap that could be pushed over to hold anything that came down the shaft during the change-over. He was the first point of contact by tenants with complaints, and was also charged with keeping the surroundings outside the building clean.
Rubbish was disposed of by a chute next to the door that led out to the stairs which quickly became a source of contention because tenants had to learn how to use it sensibly. The shaft from the very top floor down which the refuse fell wasn’t suitable for perishable items as some of it contaminated the walls which caused a bad smell. The horizontal flap-type access door in which the rubbish was placed before it was tipped up to let it fall down to the bin on the ground floor was quite small, about 1ft by 2ft, and thoughtless tenants above had to learn not to try to cram in items that were obviously too big, and carry them down to ground level where a bin was always left convenient to receive them. One example of thoughtless use of the chute was when Tommy, the first caretaker, complained that as he was changing bins on one occasion someone poured a pot of soup down the shaft!
There was a shortage of storage space in our house which became chronic. There were three compartments in the kitchenette, two of which had doors and shelves for storing kitchen utensils and food, but the middle one was open. It had a 2k heating element low down and a rack above presumably to dry clothes that nobody used. There were two cupboards not much larger than those in the kitchen in the landing at the foot of our stairs, while the upper bedroom had an opening between three and four feet square with no fittings. The first improvement I made was to have a cupboard made under the kitchen sink to hold cleaning materials and basins and buckets. Then looking at the open compartment in the upper bedroom I thought it could be made into a two-rack wardrobe, which I made myself fitting it with sliding doors. A shelf was installed above at a height of six feet, also with doors, in which luggage cases were stored, with the clothes rails fitted underneath.
These two operations made a big difference but didn’t solve the storage problem. After a long time has passed I realised that there was a space under the stairs that was totally enclosed, which if a plasterboard panel in the kitchen was removed would provide room for more of the clutter. This too was successful and I was able to fit a framed door. Then I noticed that there was a similar vacant space above the stairs which, when the staircase was being decorated, cause a problem with reaching the highest point. I thought that if sections of plasterboard on both sides of the wall between bedroom and staircase were removed, it would give access to this large empty space. The first thing to do was to fix a false ceiling well clear of head height above the stairs. Then the wall panels were removed which revealed the large empty usable space. When fitted with louvre doors in the bedroom and shelving, it proved to be ideal because it held all the rest of the clutter. Now we could walk freely round the house without tripping over things.
The next improvement was again in the kitchenette. When the open clothes drying space between the two cupboards was measured it was found that the cooker fitted it, so the transfer was effected. There was still pressure on storage space here, so I made four front-face-angled wall cabinets with frosted glass sliding doors which were fitted at just above head height over the dining table and sink. This took care of all that was still lying around in the kitchenette. The angled lower fronts were necessary to reduce the possibility of bumping your head. Other less important changes were made in the fabric of the house. Of the electricity cupboard on the top landing, only the lower section of it had an opening door. The compartment was built up to the ceiling with the top half sealed, and when this was opened up and fitted with a couple of shelves and a door, it held many other small items.
Two storage heaters that ran off the then cheaper off-peak electricity supply had been installed but I was wary of the cost of using them. The larger of the two, rated at 3kw, was in the living room and the smaller one, on the top landing standing under the electricity cupboard, was 1½kw. During our first week in the house I conducted a test on a cold night by leaving the large one switched on overnight with doors and windows closed and the thermostat set at 65°. In the morning after eight hours it still had not reached that setting, which meant that it had consumed 24 units without getting the temperature up to a reasonable level. Of course it was never used again. There was a two bar 2kw radiator heater fixed in the end outer wall of the living room which we made do with thereafter.
The water supply and drain pipes were enclosed in a pipe chase that ran all the way from the top of the building down next to the windows through kitchens and bathrooms. In the late 1980s a persistent water leak developed that took about a year to detect its source. It was evidently somewhere high up in the building, and the slow intermittent trickle subsequently caused a large multi-coloured area of mould to grow around our pipe chase at the ceiling, especially in the bathroom. The plumber was summoned many times but could not find the leak, which I suspected was due to the supply being in use during the day which probably caused it to be less detectable. Even when inspectors called, during the day of course, they found a slight dampness all the way up the pipe chase but no sign of any serious leak. Eventually I took photographs of the mould and sent it in to the housing department to convince those in charge that there really was leak, which resulted in a proper examination; the source was found and the leak fixed.
An alarming feature present in the early days affected the toilet pan. Sometimes the water trap was found to be almost empty, which of course caused the smell of sewage to be noticeable, and there were splashes in the floor and around the pan itself. We could not understand what was causing this until one day when sitting on the throne there was a loud suction noise then a surge that cause a wetting. The contractor’s men were still present to deal with any problems, but at first they could not account for it. Until one day I spoke to an older more knowledgeable man who said it was cause by a number of toilets directly above being flushed at the same time so that a large volume going down the pipe caused suction and backflow. He said it was happening to others living low down and measures were in hand to fix it. There were eight houses above us whose sewage ran down the pipe in the chase. But the pipes from the adjacent houses ran through the wall into this pipe, making a total of sixteen toilets some of which might have been flushing at the same time.
In the coldest weather, in calm conditions the houses were relatively wind and watertight, but if there was a wind blowing they were anything but. The windows were metal framed and those that opened originally had no sealing. They were draughty until the 1980s, when the council sent a team round all the blocks to treat them with a mastic sealant. It was applied to one thoroughly cleaned face of the frame then other one was treated with detergent, wash-up liquid the men said, to stop the sealant sticking to it. They were left open for about an hour to allow the sealant to partly set before being closed and locked top and bottom for the final hardening. This was effective for a few years, then as the sealant continued to harden it became brittle and cracked and started to fall off.
Condensation was a cold weather problem with all windows which gathered on the sills and had to be mopped up regularly. It was worst in the living room because the inside sill there was narrow and sloped down. Of the three window sections here the outer two could be opened, but when shut tight there was enough of a gap to at the bottom to allow the water to seep away. But the center one didn’t open, and in the coldest dampest conditions it ran down and dripped off on to the carpet constantly along its full length. I bought a section of plastic with a ‘J’ section and fixed it at a slopping angle below the ledge to act as a gutter. This allowed the condensate to run down into a pint size ice cream carton suspended there. On one occasion conditions were so bad that the carton had to be emptied twice in one day.