Notes on Miners' Houses Part III

(By Our Own Correspondent)

Motherwell and Holytown District

I suppose it is understood that, in describing the sanitary and other arrangements in connection with miners' houses, I do not profess to exhaust the whole number of villages where the need for reform may be found to exist, or in which the necessities of the case have already, been recognised and in some measure dealt with. To do so would be to extend these Notes far beyond the limit assigned me, and probably also to tire readers who are not personally interested in the subject The field is too wide to be overtaken within reasonable time, even if a thoroughly exhaustive survey were necessary for my purpose; and accordingly the course I have adopted is to select well-known mining centres, in the neighbourhood of which I have reason to believe inferior as well as superior houses are to be found, and then, spending the day in the villages round about, taking the good and the bad as they come, to present Notes of these as fairly representative of the district generally. It may be thought that one is not likely to get accurate information from miners and their wives, who were born long before School Boards were in existence; but I am satisfied that this is not the ease, and that by carefully weighing the testimony of the people the truth may as a rule be got at. The facts, too, which I seek to ascertain relate to the daily experiences of the miners, who are hardly astute enough to mislead, even if they wished to do so. Indeed, I have found more difficulty in verifying the statements of persons of position, who are fully alive to the bearing of questions, and quite as much interested in making out a good case as the miners are in exaggerating existing evils. On Thursday, I happened to speak with one of the younger members of a large firm, and, referring in the course of conversation to a specially dirty quarter which I had just visited, he assured me that the health of the people there was better than in any other part of the village. When I expressed incredulity, he proposed to introduce me to the medical man; but 1 did not choose to place the doctor in a dilemma, especially as nothing he could have said would have altered my own opinion. Moreover, a great deal that is pertinent to an inquiry of this kind lies on the surface, and appeals directly to the eye, and sometimes strongly to the nose. There are one or two general remarks applicable to all mining villages, so far as I have yet gone, which may here be offered as preliminary to my Notes on the Holytown and Motherwell District. In every instance the occupancy of houses legally ceases when a miner leaves the employment of the owner or lessee. The power of ejection is considerately exercised by the managers, who do not expel a tenant unless there is a demand for houses, in which case, of coarse, he must clear out. But all the same the power exists, and may naturally be supposed to operate in the way of rendering miners careless as to homes which they hold so insecurely. In connection with the old houses, again, there is usually an absence of coal-cellars and wash-houses and sometimes of ash-pits, while in those of more recent construction out-buildings of this description are provided. The favourite place for storing fuel is below the kitchen bed, in front of which the coal lies in heaps. Amongst the lowest class of miners, Scotch as well as Irish, little attention is paid to cleanliness or to the decencies of life, and even in villages where the houses are well-constructed, and the general arrangements excellent, the habit of throwing ashes and refuse in front of the doors is much too common. On the other hand, I have seen very many houses as well kept as could be desired. The tidiest colliers, however, have no notion of a house arranged after the English fashion, with the sleeping-room away from the kitchen, and would in all likelihood rebel against any attempt to make them go into cottages of this description. They prefer that cooking and eating and smoking and sleeping should all be confined to the one apartment, the kitchen, with its everlasting two beds.

The district of Holytown and Motherwell is distinguished above all others I have visited for the vileness of its water supply. Carfin, to which I first drove from Motherwell, is a large village, with a pretty equal admixture of old and new houses, belonging partly to Mr Simpson and partly to Messrs Dixon. Of the former class, a handy example on the main road presents itself in a row of single apartments and room and kitchen houses, the rental of which is 6s per month of four weeks. They are not very uncomfortable houses, I was told, although smoky and in bad repair. The stone floors are above the level of the street, which is of course greatly in their favour. Mid way in the row are the ashpit and closet, the only conveniences of the kind in the row, and erected against the corner gable of one of the tenements. When I saw them, both were in a disgraceful state - literally heaped up with filth, which also lay strewn all round. It appears that the old man who attends to the ashpit is ailing, and, as no ad interim scavenger has been appointed, matters are as I have indicated. The water for cooking and general use is taken out of one of the pits belonging to Mr Dixon, and after imperfect filtering is led into a pump near at hand. I got several specimens of this water, and in all found more or less of sediment. In wet weather it is specially foul, and in summer worms and "wee creepers' are found in it, these minute creatures getting into the "stoops" even though a towel is placed over the spout of the pump. I made particular inquiry on this point, and found the most perfect agreement in all the answers. "We don't drink any more water than we can help," said one of the women, "and in summer, when we must do so, we first put meal into it." Going down to the well, I saw the water as taken out, and it proved to be quite as impure as that shown me in the houses. A woman who was getting a supply told me that during the frost, when the well was frozen, they required to take water from a pond close by. At “The Bell,” two rows of old houses farther on in Carfin, and belonging to Mr Dixon, a boy died of scarlet fever this week. I went through one of the rows, finding the stone floors generally damp, and hearing many complaints of the condition of the houses. There is no ashpit or closet to this row, the ground behind being nastily befouled. There is, however, an ashpit near at hand, in connection with new houses, but that is not enough. I was told by more than one of Mr Dixon's tenants that if they wish to remove into another house the rent is advanced a couple of shillings a month. It seems that when wages were high the owners wished to raise the rents. This was resisted by the men, and now the increase is being carried out in this gradual way. I only refer to this matter because, whatever the intention may be, the effect of such a rule is to induce people to stay in bad houses rather than remove to others of a higher class. A large number of new houses have recently been erected at Carfin, which, although not of the best class by any means, are a great improvement upon the old ones. Take one of Mr Simpson's for example - a new brick row of room-and-kitchen houses. The kitchen has a brick floor, which is not free from damp, but the room is boarded, and at the back is a small wash-house to each, tenant. The rent is 10s a month.

From Carfin we go on past a palatial mansion just erected for Mr Simpson, and directly opposite the entrance to which is Jerviston Square, one of the moat wretched places I have visited. They are all old stone houses, having rooms and kitchens on one side of the square and single apartments on the other, one or two of the number being unoccupied. Mr Dixon holds almost all the tenements, half-a-dozen or so being occupied by men in the employment of the Clydesdale Iron Company. In all, there are about 50 houses in the square, for which three ashpits and closets are provided on one side. They are erected between the dwelling-houses, and separated from them by a narrow passage a foot in breadth on each side. There is no back- ground of any kind. Taking the row of single apartments, for which a rent of 1s 6d per week is paid, I went into one of the houses next an ashpit, in order to ascertain whether its nearness occasioned any nuisance. There was smell enough in all conscience, but whether it arose from the ashpit outside or the insanitary conditions within I could hardly determine. It might be interesting to describe the interior of one or two of these houses if there were anything to describe. Two stools and a small table in one house, an earthen bowl and a couple of miners' tea-flasks in another, were the only visible furniture - all else was dirt and vacancy. Stone floors, black with damp, walls mouldy and begrimed with smoke - everywhere "loop'd and windowed raggedness." The set-in beds have stone bottoms, and a woman told me that after removing into another house she found that her mattress was rotten with damp. On the other side of the square are the two-roomed houses, with brick and earthen floors, the general appearance of which is little better than those I had just visited. The rent is 8s a month. In several of these houses two families kennel up, the tenant of both sub- letting her room to others. I asked one of the women whether she got her chimney regularly swept. "Oh, we never see a sweep here," she replied, "and when the house smokes badly we just set it on fire." Two years ago overcrowding is reported as having existed in every house ; and last summer smallpox and scarlet fever were prevalent The wonder is that epidemic is not always rife in Jerviston Square. The water supply is obtained anywhere. No. 6 pit yields a little, such as it is, a field drain in Camp Road gives some more, and at Jerviston Farm spring water is supplied as a favour in necessarily limited measure. The water in common use is extremely bad. Good water is generally, not always, to be had at Kirklee, but that is a mile and a half distant, so that practically the inhabitants of Jerviston Square require to make a journey of three miles for it. Is it surprising that people of their class should help themselves to what is to be had near at hand?

Within a stone-throw of Holytown are two large squares of miners' houses - Napier and Baird Squares - belonging to the Monkland Company, and to Messrs Pickering & Sons. There is not much to be said about the houses in Napier Square, some of which are damp ; but otherwise they are in good order. The single apartments are 6s a month of four weeks, and the room and kitchen houses 8s a month. Baird Square is inferior to the other, in respect both of the houses and the intervening ground. The open drains are badly constructed, and not properly flushed, and the closets, which with the ashpits are set down in the centre of the square, are an offence to all decency. About the month of November there were several cases of fever and smallpox ; at present one man is down with fever. The water here is very much like that at Carfin. Between the squares runs a burn, which has been diverted into a drain carrying it into a well, over which is placed a metal covering. The only attempt at filtration is placing some coal in the drain. In point of fact, it is not filtered at all. The round aperture of the well cover is only large enough to admit a "chappin' can," which is let down and pulled up again by a piece of cord, so that in order to fill a couple of stoups the water is stirred to its dirtiest depths perhaps twenty times in succession. Nor is this all. The ground round about and on a level with the well top is sloppy and muddy, and in wet weather some of the mud must find its way into the water. Again, the sewer water from Baird Square runs past the well, within six or eight feet of it, and I was told that in heavy rains it overflows into the field from which household water is taken. I went to the place and looked at it. On the field aide the sewer is high, and it would require a biggish spate to carry the foul water over, but in other respects the well and its surroundings are precisely as described. In wet weather the water is dirtier than usual; in summer, the burn gets dried up altogether. Then the people store rain water, which they say is better in hot weather than the burn water, for cooking purposes, or they beg it from neighbours who have springs in their gardens, or they go for it to "the Howdens," at the head of Holytown.

Passing through Holytown we come to Mossend, a place which, together with Muirmadkin, now built up to it, contains some 2000 of a population. I did not seek to enter the dwellings of the whole two thousand, but confined my inquiries to the best and the worst rows of Mossend, belonging to the Mossend Iron Company. "Academy Square," so called because the school-house is built at the entrance to it, may be accepted as a type of the former description. On one side of the square are houses with a kitchen, and entering from it, two bed-closets. The rent is 8s a month of four weeks. In some of the dwellings the back walls in the bed-closets are damp, but, on the whole, they are tolerably good houses. Those on the other side of the square are very superior houses, having each a kitchen, parlour, and bedroom, all of good size. The rent for these is 12s a month of four weeks, or £7 16s a year. In the centre of the square are three square brick erections, having on one side large ashpits, which are well kept, the square itself being swept daily, and on the other washing-houses with boilers. It seemed to be washing-day with everybody on the occasion of my visit, and lines of clothes were stretched at short intervals across the , square, for there is no back ground. As to the water, which is got from one of the pits in the works, the statements made to me were conflicting, but on the whole, I am inclined to think that it is at least greatly better than the supply elsewhere. The pit from which it comes is standing, and it is filtered through sand, charcoal, and carbon. It looks perfectly clear. Two or three people told me they had no fault to find with it, while others declared that sometimes it could not be used. Leaving Academy Square, we may, as its antitype, take Merrin Street and its continuation called "The Briggate." Here is a kitchen, and entering from it a small room, for both of which 2s a week is paid. It is ill-lighted and dirty, and what little furniture there is seems to have braved the smoke of centuries. The tenant lives in the kitchen - husband and wife, two children, and a lodger. His sub-tenant in the small room is an old woman and four youths and girls, including an infant now lying ill of bronchitis. Thus we have eleven persons sleeping in a house which would be reckoned by a merciful man an exceedingly bad stable for his horse. At the foot of Merrin Street is "the Briggate," an exaggeration of all that is evil in miners' dwellings. The row consists of eight single apartments. They are shockingly damp. I went into most of them, and passing the hand across almost any part of the wall brought off a mixture of chalk and sand and water. In one of them I even found damp in the ashpit under the fire. Nor is this in the least surprising. There are two windows - a front and a back one. The latter is level with the ground outside, and in rainy seasons the wet finds ready entrance through broken panes and seamy window frames. The window in front is never visited by the sun. Over against it, at a distance of eight feet, is the high wall of the works, effectually excluding air and sunshine, and the narrow, slushy passage between is full of ashes and all forms of refuse. Merrin Street and the Briggate have only one ashpit between them. It is situated about the centre of Merrin Street between dwelling-houses, and is in a tumble-down state.

Thankerton was down on my list of places to visit, but on getting to it I found that the rows of houses on either side of the main road, which the driver assured me represented this deserted village, were chiefly roofless and forsaken. Some old thatched houses gave out smoke at the chimney-tops, and I went into one of them. Through the gloom of the interior I saw a half-tipsy old man pouring out tea, which an old woman roared to him she didn't want. Neither of them noticed the stranger. When the tea dispute had been compromised, I asked whether I might come in. " Ye may," said the old fellow, in a breezy, hearty way, " if ye're gaun to pray for me. I like a guid prayer " - this almost with a smack of the lips, as if he had said he liked a beef-steak. I confessed to him that my motives were of rather a worldly nature, whereupon he lifted up his hands and said, "Then, if ye're no gaun tae pray,. I hae naethin' tae say tae ye." I saw by this time that he was more tipsy than I had supposed - most religiously fuddled, in fact - and fearing that he might soon drop from maudlin piety into undisguised profanity, I made my exit. In the next house a sooty Hercules, naked to the waist, was combing his raven locks, while a younger woman, with no soft blush or downcast eye, stood at his side and favoured me with a broad stare. Hercules told me that the houses used to belong to Messrs Merry & Cuninghame, but that now nobody claimed them, and they were occupied rent free by the poorest of poor people. I felt shocked at the extravagant neglect of Messrs Merry & Cuninghame.  Why, at Netherton, and Jerviston Square, and the Briggate, houses like these bring a shilling a week to their princely proprietors. [Glasgow Herald 16 January 1875]