The Story of a House, part 8

We resume our tale in 1987, right in the middle of the continuing program of remedial work… 

boringWith a bore hole outside her front door and the back green covered in exploratory pits, Ellen MacFarlane, Mum, must have had moments when she felt as if the whole edifice was about to collapse about her ears. After all, she only had to look across the street to see the gap where number 7 had once stood. But if she did, she never let it show. She took each successive wave of bad news with an almost miraculous stoicism, rolled up her sleeves and did what had to be done. Perhaps it’s just as well that Dad was out of the picture by then, I can’t imagine him coping with it all with quite the same equanimity. I can imagine him being very proud of the way his Nellie took on this battle, and in the end prevailed.

It turned out that the various surveys showed that while the external walls were built on a layer of boulder clay overlying the bedrock, the internal ones were founded upon a layer of “mottled brown sandy clay fill which contained gravel, cobbles, shale, ash, etc.” In other words, the rubble left over from various historical quarrying and possibly coal mining activities. The upshot being that the inner walls were suffering from settlement at a different rate from the outer ones. This of course is a gross oversimplification of a complicated situation, but you get the idea.

Reading over the surveyor’s report is almost like lifting the petticoats of number 8 and having a peek underneath. The borehole extended to over 25 metres and it’s like a trip into the far distant past as you follow its progress down past the various geological layers to the bedrock at the bottom – “sideritic micaceous carbonaceous laminae” ; “pyrite knots” ; “ripple laminae”; “deposits of glacial origin”. If I had a degree in geology, I could tell you the significance of all those terms!

But it’s fascinating to start thinking about what lies beneath, and to realise that once upon a time – in fact some 300 million years ago in the Carboniferous period – this whole area would have been part of a vast swampy river plain when various plant and animal deposits were laid down. Deposits which over the eons would turn to stone, including various grades of sandstone and seams of coal, all ready for humans to discover and use for their own purposes all those ages later.

I remember our family visiting the Fossil Grove in Glasgow’s Victoria Park when I was young. We were all fascinated to see this collection of 11 fossilised roots and stumps left over from an ancient forest which had lain underground for millennia until discovered by the Victorians in 1887 when they were laying out the park. Thankfully it was decided to preserve the stone forest and a building was constructed to protect the fossils from the elements. It quickly became a popular visitor attraction – in fact the most ancient in Glasgow –  so one realises that all of the previous tenants of number 8 could have gone along to see it, just as we did.

Let me take you on one more geological diversion before we come back to the surface. The sandstone found and quarried extensively in the Glasgow area is of the blond, or yellow variety. But we also have many buildings constructed of red sandstone, which it turns out comes mainly from the Ayrshire and Dumfries areas, and from a different, slightly later, geological period, the Permian (from 270 million years ago). During this time a vast and expansive desert stretched across Scotland, resulting in massive dunes and arid conditions. Today the evidence of this desert can be found in that red sandstone with its grainy striations and rich red colour, representing an iron-rich coating of the sand grains. This phenomenon can still be seen today in the sands of the Sahara.

Once the surveys had been done, steps were taken to remedy the structural problems and render number 8 stable again. New foundations were installed and the rear basement walls rebuilt – this was mainly in the washhouse area. The ‘lateral drift’ which had caused the gable wall to bulge was solved by strapping the outside wall to the inner timber floors. Various windows were given new lintels. At the front, the access bridge, stone coping and handrail were found to be in poor condition, partly due to settlement and partly to the support steelwork having rusted badly. New concrete copings were constructed and a new bridge made of reinforced concrete. Regretfully, the lovely Victorian railings also had to be replaced.

So, by the early 1990’s, the building had undergone a complete overhaul and, if not exactly as good as new, was at least structurally sound once again, and secure, we were assured, for at least another 100 years!

repaired
All fixed! You can see the steel ties at the side and the new concrete coping and bridge to the front, complete with replacement railings. And that’s a newish drainpipe too, in place since the initial round of repairs.

As you can imagine, the entire 1980’s were characterised by one wave of disruption after another as the seemingly endless series of repairs were carried out. I am mindful of the fact that this was all in the wake of Mum becoming a widow and facing the challenge of remaking her life as a single person, a task which she tackled with her usual single mindedness. Not only was she still working in the Western Infirmary, but she’d signed up for the extra mural classes at Glasgow University which would take her away on her foreign trips to Russia and the Balkans, travels which I’ve written about before.

One can see these travels now as brief periods of respite from what became, in effect, her role as informal master of works for whatever was the latest phase of the building refurbishment. I think she must have learned from the earlier debacle when communal repairs were held up for lack of a signature or two from the owners of properties in the close next door and from then on she maintained close contact with the property managers on the progress of each successive claim for grant funding, and wouldn’t be above popping next door to leave a note, or knock on the door of anyone who was being slow to sign their mandates or pay their share.

And of course she always made sure she was on the spot to liaise with surveyors, council inspectors, building control officers, contractors, loss adjusters. Would it be going too far to say that it was Mum never keeping her eye off the ball that in the end saved the building from deteriorating so far that it couldn’t be saved? I don’t think so!

Once awakened, the sleeping tiger wasn’t going to lie quietly down and go to sleep again! In the aftermath of the remedial work, the back green had been left in a terrible mess, as described in this letter: “Due to extensive remedial works on our building and drilling for the Consolidation Scheme in our back courts, the drainage and surface have been badly damaged and the fencing by the lane for 8/10 Kersland Street has disappeared. This back court in particular is open nightly to intruders from the nearby bus stops and is being used as a toilet area. We do not have any bin shelters and consequently a great deal of rain-soaked litter lies about.”

A sorry state of affairs indeed! The above extract comes from a request for funding for environmental upgrading from the members of the Kervin Residents Association, formed in 1991. Secretary of the Association? One Ellen MacFarlane!

Nothing is ever straightforward and while the merits of the case were unquestionable, there was another factor complicating matters. Arnold Clark’s proposed redevelopment of the Botanic Gardens Garage, round the corner in Vinicombe Street. This would involve access to the rear down our lane to the side of the house. We would have to wait for the outcome of the planning application.

You’ll perhaps remember that we encountered the Botanic Gardens Garage in 1929 when it was celebrating its 25th anniversary. The Art Deco building had been taken over in 1968 by Arnold Clark Automobiles, becoming the company’s first accident repairs centre and causing, truth to tell, a lot of annoyance to its neighbours by the constant comings and goings of the mechanics as they shunted cars in and out of the various workshops and parked wherever they could along the street.

morris ten-four
Arnold obviously bought the car back again once he’d become successful. Here he is with it taking pride of place in his showroom.

Arnold Clark was an interesting chap. It seems he started out in 1954, when he used his demob money to buy a 1933 Morris Ten-Four which he restored and sold on for a profit. Thus began the company which eventually became Europe’s biggest privately owned car retailer with a turnover of billions. I suppose by the late 1980’s the company had outgrown the Vinicombe Street premises and had applied for permission to demolish, then redevelop the site, something that the Council initially looked upon with approval.

But there had been a sea change in attitudes in the intervening years since 1968. No longer were the inhabitants of Hillhead – and Glasgow as a whole – content to just sit back and allow business interests to determine the fate of what was increasingly recognised as a wonderful Victorian heritage that should be preserved for posterity. The development plans encountered stiff resistance and the Campaign to Save the Botanic Gardens Garage was born.

Other conservation groups sprang up around this time – the Glasgow West Conservation Trust and the Friends of Glasgow West are just a couple of examples. Buildings started to be given Listed Building status in order to protect them from inappropriate development. Glasgow West (i.e. Hillhead and adjacent districts) became a Conservation Area, defined as “areas of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance”. Legislation was enacted or updated to force landlords to comply with building and safety regulations. The Landlord Registration Scheme was introduced.

Mum, in her 70’s, became Secretary of the Community Council and of course kept a finger in every pie. There wasn’t much going on in Hillhead that she didn’t know about! As a private individual, she spoke up for a street trader, Sherbanu Halai, who sold flowers just round the corner at the top of Byres Road, when it looked as if his Street Trader’s Licence was going to be withdrawn. Mum succeeded in persuading the Licencing Section of the Council to change their minds and renew it after all. Sherbanu never forgot what she’d done for him and would often send round a big bunch of flowers left over at the end of the day. Sometime if you stopped to buy Mum flowers on your way to visit her, he’d recognise you and wouldn’t take your money: “No, no, it is for Mrs MacFarlane, no pay for Mrs MacFarlane” and he’d push a whole armful of blooms at you to add to your own modest offering. He even invited her to his daughter’s wedding, an event which she joyfully attended.

But I digress. 8 Kersland Street hadn’t been the only address where extensive rehabilitation was needed. The whole area had been built upon old quarry workings and coal mines, and was generally subject to ground settlement and subsidence. Not every building survived. It’s just fortunate that the growing awareness of the merits of preserving one’s heritage, together with new sources of funding, came along just in time to turn Hillhead from a rather down at heel locale to one with a much brighter future and sense of its own worth.

We’ll explore that idea further, together with what it meant for our house, in the next instalment.

flower stall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Story of a House, part 7

In the period (1960s and 70s) when we were growing up in Kersland Street, Glasgow was changing. Thanks to the new Welfare State, the post war period saw standards of living improve, infant mortality fall and real incomes start to rise. Massive slum clearance programmes were undertaken and new housing schemes created where families could for the first time enjoy the benefits of their own bathroom, separate bedrooms and even a garden. Arts and leisure facilities were opening up and became more accessible than ever before.

Of course there was a downside, there always is. A shift to the outlying new developments in Easterhouse or Drumchapel, or to one of the newly emerging tower blocks in the city – ‘streets in the sky’ – could mean the break-up of close-knit extended families. The friendly image of women blethering and children playing at the close mouth was replaced by that of the family sitting around the television. And in their hurry to clear away the old and bring in the new, it could be argued that the city fathers too quickly swept away some of Glasgow’s historic legacy along with the notorious slums. The photographer Oscar Marzaroli, with his iconic pictures of the soon-to-be-demolished Gorbals, left a loving and memorable record of that long lost Glasgow.

An area like Hillhead was less affected by the slum clearances of course, having been built for a more middle class section of the population in the first place. But there’s no doubt that West Enders benefited from measures such as the opening of municipal parks to Sunday sport and the relaxation of the licensing laws. Not to mention a veritable explosion in University education, with the new Strathclyde University opening in 1964, and the more traditional University of Glasgow also responding – eventually – to the changes in demographics (post war baby boomers) and growing demands for new and different courses of study.

With Glasgow Uni firmly ensconced within its boundaries, the 1970’s saw ever increasing numbers of students taking up residence in student flats throughout Hillhead, though of course not our flat. Mostly – but not always – my sisters and I didn’t have to leave home to go to University or College.

Glasgow’s development continued apace. In the mid 80’s, a new campaign, under Provost Michael Kelly, encouraged us to sign up to the slogan “Glasgow’s miles better”, inspired, it seems, by New York’s efforts to reinvent itself with the “I Love New York” slogan. And given a huge worldwide boost when the rival City of Edinburgh refused to carry the slogan on its buses, a fact that even made the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Shot yourself in the foot there Edinburgh!

glasgows_miles_better

Somehow the campaign succeeded in making significant changes to the way Glasgow was perceived externally, as well as the way Glaswegians saw themselves. There was a move away from the image of a hard-drinking, gang-ridden, working class city to one which focused on the cultural richness of Glasgow, its environment (more public parks per head of population than any other city in Europe), its suitability for enterprise and its mild climate (the rain is warm, folks!) AND it attracted further much needed investment.

The City eventually began to re-evaluate its Victorian inheritance, resulting in the systematic cleaning and restoring of the impressive sandstone three- and four-storey tenements and the city centre’s grand Victorian edifices, as well as the rediscovery of Glasgow’s greatest artist/architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Slowly and painfully Glasgow had indeed largely changed its dreary post-industrial identity to take on a more open, forward looking character which reached its high point when it was designated European City of Culture in 1990 and UK City of Architecture and Design in 1999.

The widespread programme of cleaning of the Glasgow tenements made a huge difference in Hillhead. A century of industrial soot and grime began to be sandblasted away, revealing, to our wonderment, the real colour of the buildings; not the black we were used to, but beautiful blond and red sandstone. You can see from this picture just how much of a transformation it was.

sandblasted

I remember looking down Kersland Street one day, marvelling at how the sun lit up these golden buildings in total contrast to the few solitary blocks that were still black and waiting to be “done”. Number 8 is at the far end of this view, on the left. And this photo also reminds me of the exponential growth in car ownership in this increasingly prosperous era, and the introduction of residents’ parking spaces and parking meters. This must have been in the 1970’s because I remember my Dad complaining at length about having to pay for parking “outside my own house!” But I suppose it’s kind of obvious that these rows of fine sandstone tenements were build at a time when there was no notion of the revolution in personal transportation that would occur a century later. Parking and traffic in the essentially Victorian West End remain a bit of a nightmare to this day.

kersland_street_1_13

Unfortunately though, the tenement cleaning wasn’t the end of it. These buildings were getting old and were showing their age – in many cases needing extensive repairs and refurbishment to deal with their generally dilapidated condition. This included our house. By 1979, negotiations were under way for the various proprietors of numbers 8 and 10 Kersland Street to apply for one of the grants that were then available to have these repairs done and bring our building up to scratch. I think this was when I first became familiar with the term “absentee landlord” because it proved difficult for the Factor to obtain permission from all the proprietors of number 10 for the work to go ahead. In fact it took a ‘Section 24’ (compulsory repairs) order from the Council for the work to finally commence in 1982/83.

In the meantime, our dear Dad had passed away in 1981. Like John Brown before him, he died peacefully in his own home, in the room where he had devoted so much time and care to that beautifully painted ceiling. The house – and us – would have to carry on without him.

It was around this time that the building across the street, number 7, became the subject of an emergency demolition order as it had become structurally unstable and suddenly, one day, just wasn’t there any more! I can’t find any press report about it so I’m not sure of the date, but no doubt it served as a timely warning as to what could happen if attention was not paid to to the structure of a building. So, whether or not it was prompted by this occurrence, an extensive schedule of repairs was finally undertaken on our building, covering the roof, chimneys, windows, gutters, downpipes, stonework… Most of which probably hadn’t seen much, if any, maintenance since the building first saw the light of day in 1872, despite its continuous ownership by the Blackie family (see part 5).

Thus began over a decade of continuous repair and renovation at number 8, for, once started, each wave of repairs only uncovered yet more defects that would need urgent attention. My newly widowed Mum found herself at the hub of all this activity. She’d never been the sort of wife who had passively sat back while her husband dealt with all the business of the household; she was always aware of the family finances and helped out with them by working at various part time jobs, the first of which, I think, was in the Fairy Dell, a bespoke little bakery literally round the corner from us.

gingerbreadhouse

But it had been Dad who had largely been in charge, making sure, in his meticulous way, that the various insurance premiums, mortgage payments, household bills, council tax and so on, were up to date. So Mum had to step up and take it all on; quite a steep learning curve for her. Which became even steeper when the intricacies of the building renovations entered the mix. For example, once that first wave of repairs had been completed, my Mum put in an insurance claim for some items of ‘collateral damage’ which had happened in the course of the work – some broken window panes, ruined carpets, water damage, that sort of thing. The insurance company refused to pay, saying, among other things, that the windows had already been cracked. If they thought that my Mum was some sort of little old lady that would quietly back down, they were soon to be disabused!

I have to smile when I read one letter that has survived, in which the insurers state “…if the glass had been broken by falling debris or during the course of the major works, there would be evidence of shattering.” To which my Mum has added a note: there was! broken glass!

A further paragraph concerns the claim for water penetration and damage in which the hapless insurers maintain that the water damage wasn’t the fault of the contractor but was due to some polythene sheeting which proved difficult to shift. My Mum makes short work of this also: this is nonsense, the bit of sheeting blew away, in fact people in the next street came round to warn us!

I quote this letter because it typifies Mum’s tenaciousness and attention to detail. She never willingly gave way to anyone and would stubbornly uphold her point of view in endless letters and phone calls which meant that she could never just be dismissed, but had to be dealt with on her own terms. The insurance issue went on for months, with the company eventually backing down and making a payment which they called ex gratia, I suspect because they couldn’t bring themselves to admit they had been in the wrong all along.

Mum was to need all her great reserves of resilience in the decade to come. As I say, once the repairs started, there seemed to be no end to them and no sooner had one issue been dealt with than yet another came to the fore. The first of these was the discovery of extensive areas of wet and dry rot throughout the building, including our basement. As you can see, the remedy involved a great deal of disruption, with the rooms having to be stripped back to the bare bones in order to treat the root of the problem.

At this point Mum abandoned the basement while the work was going on and moved the kitchen upstairs, where it remained from then on. This picture shows an early configuration which was later changed. Mum was working in the Western Infirmary by then and is wearing her Nursing Auxiliary uniform.

005-copy28229

The next blow centred upon a certain worrying bulge in the gable end of the building. Surveys were done and terms such as “differential settlement” and “lateral drift” began to be bandied about. A search of historical records showed that the location – in fact the whole of Hillhead – had been built in an area that had been subject to past mining activity. There had been sandstone quarrying nearby, from which no doubt came much of the building material used to create the district in the first place. It was decided that trial pits and boreholes would need to be dug in order to investigate further.

to be continued…..