Extract from Mining District Report 1849 (part 1)

by the Commissioner appointed to inquire into the operation of the Act 5 & 6 Vict. c99, (Mines and Collieries Act 1842)  and into the state of the population in the mining districts

There was scarcely to be found in the kingdom a mining district in a more unsatisfactory state than that of Lanarkshire when it first became my duty to give an account of it in the spring of 1844. The energies of the wealthy employers, who were responsible for its condition, appeared to have been, up to that time, absorbed in calling into existence this vast combination of mining and manufacturing industry, and little had been done with a view to the moral and social well-being of the immense population so suddenly collected. The result was as described in my Report of 1844.

There is no need at the present time to revive in detail the unfavourable picture I was then under the necessity of giving. Every year has since been marked with very decided efforts at improvement; and there is no part of the mining districts of the kingdom which I now revisit annually with so much satisfaction. A good deal of the same energy that had led to the originating and extending these great establishments, and adding so largely to the national wealth, has, of late years, been applied to the correction of moral evils which oversight and neglect had permitted to grow; and of the 30 or 40 gentlemen, the proprietors and managers of these establishments, there is not one who does not most cordially and earnestly enter with me into the consideration of every question that concerns the physical and moral improvement of the population, and,the means of bringing into smooth working the new society that has sprung up around him.

The population of the two parishes of Old and New Monkland (the chief seat of the iron manufacture in this county), was, in 1821, 12,000. In 1831, it had increased to 20,000 ; and, in 1841, to 40,000.

In 1844, there were 53 iron furnaces in these parishes: by the published accounts of the trade for December, 1848, the number had increased to 63, and the population is probably now not far short of 50,000.

The large mining villages now no longer exhibit the aspect of extreme filth and neglect for which they were formerly conspicuous. It requires time to bring a population not yet accustomed to habits of cleanliness to regard it for its own sake; the masters are therefore obliged to employ men and carts expressly to keep the spaces about the houses free from accumulations of refuse, and to look to the drainage, &c. The effect has been salutary in many respects. The agents also occasionally inspect the houses themselves, prevent over-crowding, and fine or dismiss dirty and disorderly families. In many places proper drains have been made, either covered or laid with stone or brick, and hard and dry road-ways have taken the place of the natural soil, which in wet weather was often deep with mud. Much therefore has been done towards placing the population in circumstances in which the decencies and comforts of domestic life are possible, though the original arrangement of the majority of the mining villages in large squares, or long unbroken rows, must still remain an obstacle; and it has been so far recognized as such, that in most of the more recent works it has been abandoned, and the cottages have been built fewer together, larger, and with more rooms, and with garden-ground and all proper conveniences near at hand.

A far better understanding with the men on the subject of wages has arisen at many of the works. When the men think that the prices of coal or iron in the market justify a rise in the rate of wages, or do not justify a proposed reduction, the matter is talked over quietly between them and the agent, or managing partner, without the intervention of the paid delegates formerly employed, whose interest it was to keep up subjects of irritation between the masters and the men, and who seldom had sufficient intelligence to give good advice, even if their intentions were fair and honest. I was present at one of these conversations, at one of the largest iron works in this county, between the manager and three of the men acting on behalf of a numerous body who remained outside the office. It was conducted with complete good feeling and good humour on both sides. The men argued that the price of iron had risen 10s. a-ton since the rate of wages was last settled. The manager answered, that though that increase had been quoted, it was merely a speculative price, and did not affect the manufacturer, who was unable to realize any such price for iron still on his hands, and who was still working under contracts made at the low prices. The manager added, " that their wages had not been reduced until long after the price of iron fell, because the company were not immediately affected by the fall, having contracts on hand at a higher rate. This the men could not have known, and the company might, if they had pleased, have taken advantage of the fall to reduce wages immediately, but they had not done so; they had voluntarily and equitably given the men the advantage of the higher rates of wages as long as they were themselves working upon contracts at a higher price. The men should therefore have confidence in them, that as soon as they were able to realize a better price for their iron on hand, or to get contracts on better terms, they would allow their workmen to participate in the improvement, by raising the rate of wages in proportion."

The manager remarked to me, that it was not always the same men who came to him to speak for the rest, but that many more among them now understood these questions, and were able to advocate them with him. A few years ago they used to trust themselves entirely to paid delegates, and at their bidding would make up their minds and cease work before the question was discussed with the employer. They are now encouraged to come after the day's work is done and talk over the matter. This practice has been followed at several of the works, and is a considerable improvement, tending to produce a far better feeling, to make the men and the masters understand each other better, and to give the latter an opportunity of setting the minds of the men right, and freeing them from those erroneous ideas which imperfectly educated men are so apt to lay hold of and cling to with obstinacy, when put into their heads by men of their own class, or by others who profit by misleading them.

The number of schools, formerly so inadequate, is now increasing yearly, and there is every disposition to make them efficient, by appointing and paying well qualified masters and mistresses. The Messrs. Baird, who began these salutary measures some years ago for their own immediate neighbourhood by building a church and a magnificent establishment for all the branches of elementary education, have followed it up by opening other schools in some of their mining villages, and they speak with satisfaction of the good effects produced upon the habits of the population, and especially of the children, by the frequent supervision, advice, and instruction of resident clergymen and able teachers. They remark that an emulation is excited among the parents by seeing their neighbours' children improved by the school, better clothed, and kept more clean and decent; swearing and the use of improper language has been greatly checked; and the parents themselves are, in many instances, led insensibly to better habits by observing the effects of the school upon their children. Mr. Wilson has entered very cordially into the improvement of the education at the four schools he has now established in connexion with his extensive works; lending libraries are also to be set on foot; and much has been done in the neighbourhood, and at his works especially, by the zeal of the minister of the Episcopal chapel at Coatbridge, to diminish the excessive drinking which I noticed in my Report of 1844. The excellent schools which I have formerly spoken of at the works of Mr. Murray, Mr. Stewart, and elsewhere, are increasing in numbers. A handsome school, with a master's house attached, is now being built at Airdrie by Mr. Alexander, the proprietor of a large portion of the mineral dues of the district.

An Act of Parliament was obtained two years ago for establishing a rural police in the mining portion of the county, the effect of which has been to produce much more general quiet and order, and respect for the law, in the mining villages.

The administration of justice has been rendered more complete by the appointment of the proper staff of law officers to reside and hold their courts in the district.

A water company, which procured an Act of Parliament last year, has made good progress with their arrangements for supplying the large village-town of Airdrie with water, the deficiency of which was great; and, in all probability, it will, before long, extend its supply to some of the large villages around, and to the great collections of houses near the principal works.

The above is a brief recapitulation of what has been done within the last five years towards introducing into this thickly peopled, and, up to that time, very much neglected, neighbourhood some of the principal elements of good order and civilization, for the want of which, filth, sensuality, and disorder had become the characteristics of the dwellings of the working classes, the progress of society in all that makes life respectable was impeded, and its harmonious working was impossible.

Several other useful projects are now under consideration.

It appears remarkable, that for a population of upwards of 40,000 people within the space of a few miles, engaged in a species of labour which renders them liable to frequent and serious accidents, there should be no institution in the nature of a hospital at which the sick or maimed can be received, nearer than Glasgow, from 10 to 15 miles off. Provision is, indeed, made for medical attendance by a deduction of a few pence per week from the wages of the men, and a considerable sum is also contributed by the masters of all the works towards the same object; so that funds for the support of a hospital in a central position within the district would not be wanting, large enough, in all probability, to command the services of medical men of ability and experience. The pain of a removal to so great a distance as Glasgow would thus be avoided by the patients, as well as the distress and inconvenience of a separation of so many miles from their families. Several of the leading gentlemen of the district acknowledged that this ought to have been thought of long ago, but that more pressing subjects had hitherto occupied their attention.

The necessity of a barrack, capable of holding a small force of infantry and cavalry, is also almost universally acknowledged. It is hardly just to the right-thinking and peaceably disposed portion of the community that they should be liable to disturbance and alarm from the large and excitable numbers of the unreflecting and violent, whenever it may suit the purpose of paid delegates or other agitators to stir them into such kinds of insurrection as have occasionally of late years rendered it necessary to send for military from Glasgow or the yeomanry from Hamilton to keep the peace. The law authorities find great difficulty in procuring the assistance of either force, in consequence of there being no proper accommodation for troops in the mining district. The last disturbance, which, at one time, threatened very serious consequences, occurred in the spring of last year. Shortly after, the question of making a proposal to the Government on the subject of a barrack was revived, and a long list of subscriptions that could be depended upon was shown to me, quite sufficient for the purpose. A most eligible site is also offered rent free. Nearly all the most influential persons in the district are desirous to effect this object. But I fear it is one of those which minor difficulties will be allowed to obstruct until after the occurrence of some grievous injury to property, or some loss of life.

The success of the baths and washhouses established for the benefit of the working classes in various parts of the Kingdom has not been unobserved in this district, and several of the proprietors of the large works informed me that they had been considering plans by which either the waste warm water from the steam-engine could be conveniently conducted into a series of baths, or some other arrangement made to provide these luxuries, so manifestly desirable to a population engaged in the work of collieries and iron foundries. The almost incredible prejudice, so common among the colliers, that they would weaken their backs by washing them (and which so many of them, therefore, never do), might be found to give way to the comfort of a bath. I have been informed that the account I gave in my Report on Mining Inspection in France and Belgium of the habits of extreme personal cleanliness of the colliers in those countries, has not been without its effect in some localities in this.

Although it will, probably, be long before any such evidences of a cultivated taste and a capacity for refined enjoyment will be visible in the colliery villages of this country, as I have described in the planted and ornamented village squares of France and Belgium, and in their successful musical societies, the knowledge that such things exist in colliery communities on the Continent seems to have acted as a stimulus on some minds, and, from the projects that were mentioned to me of this kind, may possibly be productive of good results.

Spirit Consumption

But in Lanarkshire at least, a grievous cause of obstruction exists in peculiar force, opposing itself to every effort to raise the standard of comfort and intelligence among the mining population. The law of Scotland, permitting the almost unrestricted sale of ardent spirits, produces more than ordinarily injurious consequences in a district like this, where large sums of money are distributed weekly as wages among a people predisposed to the indulgence of excessive drinking, and encouraged to it by the absence of all restraint and the disregard of nearly all the higher sources of enjoyment The injurious state of the law of Scotland in this particular was commented on by the Commissioners of Inquiry into the Poor Laws of that country in 1845. In addition to the facilities of obtaining licences for public houses, any one may for a few shillings obtain a licence to sell spirits at a common shop, where its sale can be under no possible control, and where women are moreover often tempted to drink, with a view to encourage their custom. Various statements have been given to me, tending to show the vast amount of money spent annually in ardent spirits in this district ; but as they rest on no positive data, they are too conjectural to be relied on. That the amount must be very great, and must form a large proportion of the total sum paid as wages in the district (£250,000 a-year by the nine large works alone, in 1844, as extracted by me with their permission from their books), must be evident

In the first place, by a return lately furnished to me by one of the county magistrates (James Kidd, Esq., of Airdrie), it appears that the number of public houses in the district, including those in the borough of Airdrie, is 338, or, at a moderate estimate, one public house for every 20 adult males in the district. In addition to this, I find that I state in my Report for 1844 that there were at that time in one large village alone 66 out of 126 occupied shops which sold spirits, or about 52 per cent, of the total number of shops in the village made the sale of spirits a part of their trade. One of the consequences of this great consumption of ardent spirits is seen in the police returns, according to which "2,400 persons were charged, and 2,200 convicted of crimes committed through intemperance," in this district, in the year 1845. Mr Kidd, a very active magistrate, informs me, that his impression is that the numbers have not decreased since that year. The detention, conviction, and imprisonment of these 2,200 persons, must have amounted to no small tax on the sober and industrious members of the community. And to this tax must be added, that which arises from the temporary or permanent support of the many hundreds annually reduced to distress and want by having squandered their earnings in this vicious indulgence, and brought up their families in the same habits. The sober and thrifty, therefore, have a fair ground of complaint against the law which encourages, and the administration of it which does not endeavour to check, this fruitful source of needless expenditure. The penalty, unfortunately, cannot be confined to those who indulge in the vice, though upon them it falls generally with no little severity, in the squalor and wretchedness of their homes, and the degradation of their families. But the manner in which it is affecting the pecuniary interests of the sober and industrious is now, since the New Poor Law of Scotland has come into operation, beginning to excite great attention. The increase of the rates has in this district exceeded all anticipation, of which the following may be cited as an example, taken from the books of one of the great works : - Assessment under the old law, £35 per annum ; under the first year of the new (1844-5), £70 ; 1845-6, £95; 1846-7, £94 ; 1847-8, £135 ; 1848-9, £150. The rate of relief remains the same; the increase, therefore, is due to the increased number of applicants. I found a very general conviction in this district, that nothing but the establishment of Union houses on the principle of the English law would put a check upon these rapidly increasing demands for relief. The drunken and dissolute now argue, that however much they may spend in drink, the law requires that they shall be supported when they cannot support themselves. Very little has yet been done by the magistrates to reduce the amount of temptation by diminishing the number of public-houses. Neither, indeed, could they do much without an alteration in the law. And, unfortunately, the private interests of the numerous persons connected with the manufacture and sale of spirits conspire, with other causes that ought not to be allowed to operate, to perpetuate the evil.

A remarkable and most satisfactory instance of a successful attempt to put a check upon the indulgence in ardent spirits, has occurred at the iron works of Messrs. Houldsworth, of Coltness, employing about 800 colliers, miners, furnace-men, &c. Much loss and annoyance had frequently been occasioned by the negligent or wilful conduct of workmen under the influence of this habit, and the Messrs. Houldsworth having in vain endeavoured to put an end to it by persuasion and advice, resolved to do what they could by removing the temptation. They accordingly, about three years ago, forbade the sale of spirits at the store and at the inn at their works, and ordered that the furnace-men should not be allowed to drink spirits during their hours of labour. These men been accustomed to drink four or five glasses of whiskey during each shift costing them 4d. to 5d. per day, or 2s. to 2s. 6d. a-week, in addition to what they might choose to drink at their own homes. They remonstrated strongly, and affirmed that it was impossible for them to do their work without this quantity of whiskey. They were not long, however, before they found out their error; they now drink nothing but water during their work, and tea or coffee at their meals; what they spent in whiskey they now spend in wholesome and nutritious food; they allow that they do their work better, and that the change has been a great blessing to themselves and their families, and that it is the best thing that ever happened to them. I was informed also, that among the colliers and miners there was a marked improvement from the same cause. I have already mentioned the improvement in this respect among Messrs. Wilson's workpeople at Dundyvan. Messrs. Baird and several other proprietors of works are making similar efforts. All, indeed, see the magnitude of the evil produced to the working classes of this district by the immense consumption of ardent spirits, in which the value of so much good food and clothing, and of so many other things that contribute to the comfort of life and its moral elevation, is recklessly wasted. The average rate of wages throughout the entire district is so high, even in bad times, that there need be scarcely any poverty, if common prudence were used in times of prosperity, or, indeed, at any time.