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Book Review: She Was Aye Workin’: Memories of Tenement Women in Edinburgh and Glasgow by Helen Clark and Elizabeth Carnegie

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Life since the Second World War in Britain has changed a great deal – the steady, productive and necessary growth in the first two decades after the war, and in the mad orgy of consumption that developed after that, and particularly in the two great Scottish cities that were known for their crowded conditions and poverty.

It was women who by hard labour and careful calculation held together lives that today we’d consider near impossible – 13 children in a “room-and-kitchen”, what we’d call a one-bedroom flat today, or half a dozen in an “end”, a studio flat, living on mostly bread and potatoes, with a smattering of meat, margarine and vegetables to create a survivable diet. It was a life of endless handwashing, scrubbing and cleaning, nursing the sick and caring for children.

In 1911 66% of the houses in Glasgow and 41% of those in Edinburgh had only one or two rooms. About the same time 43% of the single-room houses shared a sink (and water supply), consisting of “made over” older properties., while 94% in Edinburgh and 93% in Glasgow shared toilet facilities.

The lives they lived is the subject of She Was Aye Workin’, (aye meaning “always”) which uses primarily oral history sources to give a vivid picture of tough, resilient women, and communities.

There was a strict gender division in most communities in both of these cities, which meant jobs and roles were clearly allocated as male or female. “Alex Kellock, growing up as one of eleven children in the 1920s, does not remember having to do ‘as much as boil an egg’ as he had older sisters who did everything for him and his seven brothers, even making their beds. He left the family home for marriage and never had to do anything in the house until he was widowed in his 70s.”

Women developed high level domestic skills to keep clean impossibly crowded, and frequently old and decrepit homes, and feed large numbers on a tiny budget. Isa Keith describes one of her mother’s specialities: “They would give you a sheep’s heid, they would cut it in half and it had tae get a lot of cleaning before you actually cooked it. She’d clean and clean it, and then she’d leave it overnight in salt water to make sure it was absolutely clean. She used to tae take the tongue and cheek, she would press it in a plate, ken, a dish, and then a plate on top and maybe the iron, and press it. And that was potted head… and it was lovely. And you’d have that with beetroot for supper.”

Girls were expected to contribute to the family income as soon as they could (or else to take over the housewife’s role if their mother had died or become ill) – school leaving age was 14 through much of the period and many had part-time jobs before that. But on marriage, the assumption was that a woman would give up paid employment and not go back to it.

This is Mrs Gardiner, born in 1882: “ I didnae want to work after I got married and ma husband didnae want me tae work. I did go and get a job though, when the children were off ma hands. An’ I went an’ got a job, cleanin’, cleanin’. So I came hame an’ told ma husband. He was mad, flamin’ mad! He says: ‘What’ll the men in the boat say aboot ma wife goin’ oot tae work? I says: ‘You ask the men if they’ll come an’ pay the rent.’”

Not only did women labour hard in the home, when times were tough they were the first to go without. Joan Creal is quoted: “Father got served first, he was the boss, he was the working man, he brought the money in. He had a chair all of his own, your dad, you weren’t allowed to sit in his chair. Mum would wait to see everyone had some first. She often had less than what you had and made up with vegetables. She looked after the family first and was last to get what was there.”

Helping women keep going, however, was clearly a strong sense of community in the tenements. Helen Dunbar explains how a new mother would be supported: “She wasn’t left alone with the baby. When the baby arrived somebody would would come out and say ‘I’ve made some soup and I’ll take your bairns away’ or they’d take your washing away and it would come back ironed…. You couldn’t go too steps before some old wife stopped you to give advice and say ‘What a bonnie wee baby you’ve got.’ Or there’d be an old granny who’d heard him and say the next day: ‘Of I heard him last night. That sounds like colic.’”

Yet it’s clear to that there was a lot in the culture of the tenements that made life harder and more risky than it might have been. Girls were denied knowledge about their bodies and the “facts of life” – one recalls he mother talking about “new baked babies” and refusing to answer her questions about where they came from: “We used to go to the Co-op for the bakers and I used to watch these loaves to see if there were any babies I could get…”

And there was clearly huge pressure to maintain “respectability”, even against all of the odds. This is Mrs Gardiner: “My mother was 42 when she died, and my father died before that, and I went to work. I was in my teens and … I was the only one working and I had to bring my wages home every week and pay the rent and look after them. Just my wages, there was no help then. In fact, if there was, I never asked for it…I kept them all under my thumb and they were all decently married and respectable and nobody can say anything about us, so there.”

But there’s much arising from the strict code of respectability that today is truly horrifying. The authors quote from advertisements from the Edinburgh Evening News in 1910 from couples seeking to adopt children and children, usually illegitimate, although sometimes with mothers strained past their capacity through multiple childbearing, being offered for adoption – no supervision of the process whatsoever.

Marald Grant worked for the Guild of Aid in placing more than 40 children for adoption, and was clearly well used to human frailties, yet her shock and uncertainty about one case, even when talking about it decades later:
“A doctor sent this person to me … she said she had a son and a daughter. They lived in Ibrox and she and her husband used to go out on a Saturday night and the boy was two years older than his sister and she always left him in charge. And through time the girl was having a baby and she was only fourteen and her brother was the father. I really didn’t know what to do. We waited and the time came when the baby was born. It was a lovely baby.
I had a man come down … and they were down for a baby. I had no other. This was the only baby I had. .. I didn’t know if it was legal or not. You couldn’t put it away. You couldn’t destroy it. It was a beautiful baby. What I did was I said: ‘Well Mr So and So, if you wakened up and found a baby on your doorstep would you take it in… I said ‘I found this baby, and I can’t tell you who was the mother or anything about it, but I’ve got the baby. … The child went into the most wonderful home. It haunted me for ages. And I thought, ‘Dear knows were that child would have been put, had I reported that’.”

This is a slim book, but there’s a lot packed into its 190 pages, as that selection shows. (There are also some telling photos and documents such as house plans.) I was visiting the rather fine Museum of Edinburgh (down the bottom end of the Royal Mile) when I bought it (which includes a nice reconstructed example of an “end” room on its top floor), but I’d recommend it as being well beyond just narrow geographic interest. There are specifics here, certainly, but also much that generally reflects on women’s lives in the 20th century.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.