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17 Dec 2020

The past in the post – a special delivery from yesterday!

Written by Ana Sanchez-De la Vega, Visitor Services Supervisor at the Tenement House
A close-up of a stamped and franked envelope, addressed to Mrs Toward, 145 Buccleuch Street, Glasgow. The post mark reads Glasgow, 8.15pm, 5 Sep, 1930. The stamp is red, cost three half pence and has a picture of George V.
A letter addressed to Mrs Toward from 1930
By the early 20th century, a young Agnes Toward was living at 145 Buccleuch Street in Glasgow. Her letters, which have been preserved in our archive, offer a window into her life.

The Tenement House archive holds these letters along with many others. We preserve them with care, thanks to the generosity of the National Trust for Scotland’s members and donors. These letters offer a unique window into the changes that Agnes’s generation saw during their lifetime.

The image shows Miss Toward’s job application letter to the Herald as well as her photo and some of her shorthand typing books. The letter reads: Herald Office, Referring to your advertisement in Saturday's Herald, I beg to offer my services. I am well educated, and have a thorough knowledge of Shorthand and Typewriting having been trained in the Glasgow Athenaeum; I am able to write Shorthand at the rate of 120 words per minute, and to operate the typewriter at 60 words per minute. I have four and a half years experience and am presently employed in the office of a large shipowners firm where I have been for the past three and a half years, but am desirous of making a change. Should you consider my application favourably, I shall be pleased to furnish you with full particulars as to character and abilities, Yours sincerely, Agnes Toward.

Letter of 5 December 1910

In 1905 Agnes attended the Athenaeum Commercial College in Buchanan Street and learned shorthand typing. Women were slowly starting to be accepted into the office work environment, and shorthand typing was considered a good option for well-educated ladies looking to pursue a career.

In 1909 her mother’s health began to decline and they decided to take in lodgers to make ends meet. Agnes earned 14 shillings a week, which is perhaps why she decided to draft an application letter to the Herald’s office looking for another job. Agnes states in her application that she could write shorthand at an impressive rate of 120 words per minute and operate the typewriter at 60 words per minute. I wonder how fast she would be with today’s keyboards?

By 1911, 125,000 women were employed in clerical jobs in Britain, and this number would rise substantially when war broke out a few years later. Agnes ended up working for the same employer from 1914 until 1960.

The image shows shows William Wood’s field card. It is rather brown with age. The typed text reads: Nothing is to be written on this side except the date and signature of the sender. Sentences not required may be erased. If anything else is added the postcard will be destroyed. [Then there is a scored line] I am quite well. [The following lines all have a line drawn through them] I have been admitted into hospital. sick/wounded and am going on well. and hope to be discharged soon. I am being sent down to the base. I have received your letter dated / parcel / telegram  [The following line is not scored out] Letter follows at first opportunity. [The following lines are erased] I have received no letter from you lately / for a long time. [The following lines are not scored out] Signature only: W Wood Date 9 4 14 Postage must be pre-paid on any letter or postcard addressed to the sender of this card.

Postcard of 11 April 1915

William Wood was a former colleague of Agnes during her first job as a shorthand typist at the shipping company Miller and Richards. The company moved to London in 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War, and so Agnes found a new job working for Prentice, Service & Henderson (another shipping company). By the time Agnes received this letter she would have been relieved to hear from him. We don’t know the exact nature of their relationship, but from the letters that she kept we can see that they were close.

During the First World War, soldiers used field service postcards to reassure family and friends they were still alive. These were a form of quick communication and did not have to go through the lengthy censorship process like other letters.

William enlisted in the London Scottish Regiment and was stationed in France. He was reported missing in action in July 1916 at the age of 24. He’s listed on the Thiepval memorial in France and remembered amongst those who died during the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

The images shows four sheets of handwritten letter pages, arranged on top of each other. The first sheet reads: 17/10/40 41 Greenways, Beckenham, Kent [Shelter] Dear Miss Toward, We did think it very nice of you to write enquiring how we are. Well up to the moment we are still intact! but I can assure you we are going through it tonight all right, this being a lovely moonlight night. They are making good use of it. Just now a terrific droning has been going on and I suspect it must be one of their 4 engine planes. Before I go further, I must say we were very sorry to hear of your mother's death and we can quite understand how you must have missed her. These are dreadful times to live in and just what is there to look forward to. Hitler his crowd have upset the whole world. Doesn't it make you wonder why they are allowed to go on.

Letter of 17 October 1940

These letters from Agnes’s friends in London give an important insight into how the Second World War affected the everyday lives of British people.

Mr and Mrs Collins were former work colleagues of Agnes at Miller and Richards, and she continued corresponding with them throughout her life. They moved to Kent in 1914 and continued to work for the company.

In this letter her friends express sympathy for the loss of her mother, who passed away at the Tenement House on 25 May 1939. What makes the letter especially interesting is that it was written from an air raid shelter, and reflects on the hardships people endured during the war.

‘We had a piece of metal over 4oz in weight come through the glass of a window upstairs. We don’t know if it’s a bomb or shell splinter but these are the bits flying about that make it so dangerous to be out in.

‘We are thankful we have this shelter as it feels more safe than the house. It is in the garage and is built of 2,000 bricks and cement and has 6 inches concrete roof. We stay here all night. Ena and Dorothy have a mattress and they lie head to feet and John has another small mattress. I sit on a deck chair and snooze off and on. I haven’t had a night-dress on for about 8 weeks as I think it’s about that time since the all-the-night raids started.’

The image shows four sheets of handwritten letter pages, arranged to slightly overlap each other. The first sheet has a typed address at the top, in green. The letter reads: 11/1/45. Dear Miss Toward, You will think me an awful person for not acknowledging your very nice gift before now. I am afraid I am just hopeless at writing these days. There's so much to be done. You made a very good guess at colours where you sent me this bag and little spray as it will go with what I wear. I haven't sent any presents again this year. I haven't any time ...

Letter of 11 January 1945

On 5 and 9 January 1945, the town of Beckenham in Kent was heavily bombarded by V1 bombs (‘doodlebugs’) and V2 rockets, killing 138 people. Mrs Collins tells Agnes in this letter that the recent bombing damaged their front door and blew out their windows, but that they were luckily not hit. Agnes would have understood her friend’s anxiety, as she would have remembered the Clydebank Blitz in Glasgow during March 1941. It killed over 500 people and injured over 500 more. Instructions for how to adequately black out and protect windows were distributed to civilians; Agnes’s copy is still kept in our archive.

Agnes was able to reunite with her friends once the war had ended. She visited Mr and Mrs Collins in Kent in December 1946 and even had a day out in London.

The image shows a carbon copy of Agnes’s typed letter, a photo of Agnes out shopping and a copy of the Scotsman newspaper coronation issue. The first sheet of the letter reads: My dear Elsie, By this time, you will have given up all hope of hearing from me. I'm afraid I can only offer the same-old excuse. I was glad to have your letter about the weather, and your Summer bonnets etc. Funny, the word Bonnet sounds to us who think of it only as an elderly lady's headgear! I am more than pleased to know that you have got into such a pleasant office, and not too heavy work. What is the weather like now?  Here we have had a fine weekend, and wonder of wonders, Tuesday [?] June was a fine day here, while as you no doubt know, it was raining at times in London. One up for Scotland. I wonder if you saw the coronation by tv. I heard on the wireless that the Jets were taking over the film, or whatever it is called, to Montreal. I saw it at a friend's house from shortly after 10am till 6pm. A wonderful sight, and now am hoping to see the coloured film here when the queues are shorter. Last Saturday 5 June, I posted to General Delivery copies of the Scotsman which I think are about the best, and I hope that you will get them safely and you will enjoy the pictures. I am much interested to hear of your purchases, and your fine modern kitchen. It is nice to get new things of one's own. I am toying with the idea of getting in Electric light, but feel that it is a good deal to do for a house that is not one's own. The price of steel is high now, and on a rough idea, it would cost probably about £25. I could I think get it done by an expert at night and Saturdays, but there are so many formalities to go through, and then I might not even be allowed to engage the Electrician, as the factors usually have their own Contractors, which would no doubt come to be more expensive. I am busy with B/Lading but not just at the moment so am taking a chance to make this an Aberdonian letter with the small type. Hope it won't injure your eyesight reading it. The Principal, S, is in the office today, and as the high heid yins are in conference at present, I am typing this with one eye on the door, so please excuse typing errors. This machine worries me with the half spacing. I prefer the old 1, 2, 3 and forget that one turn of this wee wheel is all wrong. It is a botheration having to switch from one machine to another. The back spacer on this Oliver is confused with the arrow at the left which operates the Tab, and if you forget you are not working the Remington and touch this arrow you whizz away to the end with a bang. However it is much lighter than the old one. I was very glad to hear that Miss Todd is so much better and with the bright Summer weather (which I hope is not too hot) I hope she will improve still more. Things here are just the same - some days we have a hired typist for the African work, Manifest etc, and would you believe it, one of your old favourite's Sculthropes machines. It is bone dry, no oil, and works like a Boiler Shop. Really it is most nerve racking, especially when stranges are hurrying, and not using the release on the ratchet wheel. Canada seems to be the magnet still. What do you think, the couple below us (the wireless policeman) who removed just about this time last year to one of the 'Luxury' Corporation houses, are going there. Indeed he has sailed and she follows with the two children next month. Reason, no promotion, and going to do Wireless work over there. Well, well. The people who came into the house, now all their hammering and painting is over, are very quiet, which is a great blessing, and my new neighbours next door are most kind and nice - a not just young couple with no family - at least they have never mentioned any and I don't think they can have any - I of course don't ask questions. She told me he is in the printing business. Next time you come to Glasgow you'll need a guide book. You know Fraser took over Duncans and Wood & Selby. I think it must be this because Dunn & Wilkie the fruit shop you know, were asked to buy, but cleared out instead, as have several other shops in that range. Bayne & Duckett must I think be leaving, or have left the ship just round the corner in New City Road, and Craig, Bakers, have also to go eventually. B & D have opened new shop on Duncans side just past Mackay's grain store. Annett Smith is now across Sauchiehall Street just near Patons shop, and Allan the boot shop is in Smiths shop now. Everybody seems to be getting put out. Pettigrew and Dalys are now Fraser as you will see from the supplement. I think that is the most of my news.

Letter of June 1953

This letter written by Agnes gives us a snapshot of her later life. Elsie was a former colleague who had emigrated to Montreal, Canada, and they kept their friendship over many years. As a shorthand typist, Agnes was very organised and she often kept carbon copies of the letters she sent. Today, this allows us to see both parts of the conversation.

This letter is filled with interesting things. Agnes tells her friend that she watched the Queen’s coronation at a friend’s house. The coronation of Elizabeth II took place on 2 June 1953 at Westminster Abbey and was a key date in the history of television, as it was seen by more than 20 million people at the time.

During the 1950s the centre of Glasgow was going through a period of rapid change, with large department stores growing and changing the way Glaswegians shopped. Agnes tells Elsie about these changes and the loss of independent shops on the high street: ‘Next time you come to Glasgow, you’ll need a guidebook!’

In her letter, Agnes also wonders about whether or not to change to electric light, which she eventually decided upon 7 years later in 1960!

The image shows two pages of a handwritten letter and a photograph of Miss Toward from the 1950s. The letter reads: June 28/53. Dear Agnes, I must thank you very much for the bundle of Scotsman papers, which came on Friday. The coronation pictures are, indeed, splendid, also the wedding pictures of the Dalkeiths. We have enjoyed seeing all these pictures and reading the Coronation supplement - yes I am afraid I burned some 'midnight oil' over them when I had intended going to bed early that night!!! Did you see the Royal Couple whilst they were in Glasgow? From what we hear over here they had a warm reception in more than one way in Glasgow! (Aunt Elsie keeps wonderfully fit - is able to go out by herself. She knows to take it easy and reads lots between times.) How nice that you saw the Coronation on tv. Our friends in Uddingston also saw it as they now have a tv set. If we had still been over there we too would have seen it on tv. We saw the 2 Coronation films which we enjoyed. Did you see either of them? I am glad you have such nice neighbours. What changes there have been since we left! So that other couple with family are all coming to Canada! There is certainly lots of opportunities over here for men if they are prepared to work really hard and I can't blame young couples with families deciding to come across here when they have a position already in view. Did I tell you there were big changes in view for our farm since a big deal went thro early in May? I think I did, but if I didn't you can mention it. I don't want to repeat myself. About 2 weeks ago we had the President of our Co. in our office - the first time I have seen him. He came over to my desk and I wondered what was coming!! As he had heard I was from Scotland he thought he would chat with me. Ho, too, is from Scotland - came over 34 years ago -  served his apprenticeship in Engineering in Glasgow - saw no fortune so decided to come to Canada - made up his mind when he left Glasgow that he would be his own boss and never work for anyone again - and that is what he did. He built up this concern I am in - has service stations apart from offices all over Sasketchewan & Alberta. This big deal that went thro is what he has worked for and hoped for for years. His is a success story alright. Yes, we certainly will need a guide book should we ever return to Glasgow. I had hoped Dalys, Pettigrews and McDonalds would remain as they were and not be taken over by Fraser! So Dunn & Wilkie are away now! It was about time they had retired and give their tongues a rest. eh? ha! What changes in your office also! Nothing like variety to make life interesting. Allow the newcomers they can demand and get what they want every time even if they are only temporary. Very unfair but there isn't much we can do about it unfortunately. I am kept very busy but no ...

Letter of 28 June 1953

This last letter just shows how lucky we are at the Tenement House, as it is Elsie’s reply to the letter above! In this letter, Elsie thanks Agnes for the coronation newspaper supplements that she sent over to Canada.

‘yes I am afraid I burned some “midnight oil” over them when I had intended going to bed early that night!!!’

Elsie’s reply also highlights the fact that many Scots were emigrating to Canada, looking for better futures for their families:

‘So that other couple with family are all coming to Canada! There is certainly lots of opportunities over here for men if they are prepared to work really hard and I don’t blame young couples with families deciding to come across here when they have a position already in place.’

Between 1955–58, an enormous number of people emigrated from the UK to Canada, as a result of the post-war policies and the Canadian Immigration Act of 1952.

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