IN THE 1860s, keeping Glasgow healthy was a huge challenge.

Although it was not yet properly understood, a connection was being made between overcrowding, dirt and epidemic disease.

Previously, when it came to housing, the city had only made rules about building safety, about houses being built in regular patterns along the streets, and about the cleaning of shared closes.

However, this great worry – that disease could spread quickly – prompted new action.

Glasgow began to consider the impact of the size of houses, their facilities and the number of people crowded into them.

The most important new rule, laid down in the Glasgow Police Act 1862, was that small houses should be ticketed.

Glasgow Times: Inside the ticketed house on Bolton Street, now Ardgowan PlaceInside the ticketed house on Bolton Street, now Ardgowan Place (Image: Glasgow City Archives)

Every small house in the city that the authorities thought might become overcrowded was to be measured. It was then calculated how many people should be allowed to sleep there.

Both pieces of information, the size of the house and the number of people allowed to be living there, were printed on an iron or an enamel plate and attached to the front door.

The sanitary department had night inspectors who visited the houses to check that they were not overcrowded. If they were, both landlord and tenant could be prosecuted and fined.

Glasgow Times: Outside the ticketed house in Bolton Street (now Ardgowan Place)Outside the ticketed house in Bolton Street (now Ardgowan Place) (Image: Glasgow City Archives)

All dwellings with three rooms or fewer, and an area of up to 2000 cubic feet were measured. The authorities calculated the space needed by one person and on this basis established how many people could sleep in each house.

By the 1880s there were 23,228 ticketed houses in Glasgow sleeping (officially) 75,000 people - about one seventh of the city's population.

In 1903, an assistant sanitary inspector gave evidence to the Municipal Commission on Housing in Glasgow. He reported that magistrates were usually lenient towards those who were overcrowded with their own families.

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Those housing lodgers sometimes got away without any punishment and at other times a penalty was imposed upon them depending on the numbers of lodgers. Others when they made a “poor mouth” or put on a “poor experience”, generally touched the feelings of the magistrate and got away without punishment.

In 1915, Peter Fyfe, chief sanitary inspector of Glasgow appeared before the Royal Commission on Housing in Scotland, outlining departmental routines used at that time.

They only ticketed where there was suspicion of overcrowding, he said, or wherever individuals, either from information from neighbours, or owing to a complaint, are suspected of overcrowding.

If they called during the day, they got a large number of false statements, he explained. The preference was to go in at night between midnight and 5am. The doors were usually closed, and they were they able to count the number of people living in these houses.

This was not always a success, for whenever the night men appeared at one end of the street, the word passed right through the street, and by the time they get to the closes further on, the residents all got up and dressed. The inspectors’ night’s work in that street failed. 

The inspectors faced ongoing difficulties finding both men and women concealed in every conceivable corner.

In one case, a son aged 22, a young woman aged 20, and a girl of 16 were found between the bed and mattress. The father was lying above the son, and the younger members of the family were above the girls. The mother was on the floor, having risen to open the door.

“Sanitary inspectors, inspecting houses to check that they were not overcrowded, often found two tiers of people in one bed – one on the boards or on the mattress, the bed then flung over, and another lying there on the top of that,” reveals one document.

The department visited 1300 houses in various locations, to form some idea of the habits, and character of the occupants.  They estimated about 58% were “respectable as far as appearance went”, as the house had some furniture in it and was tidy. Peter Fyfe added: “I always think that where I see a clock hanging there is some chance of respectability.”

This system continued until the 1930s and remained extremely unpopular with the city’s poorest citizens, who regularly suffered the indignity of night inspection.