Notes on Miners' Houses Part IV

(By Our Own Correspondent)

Shotts to Crofthead

When I wrote to a friend telling him of my intention, as explaining certain inquiries, to visit the mining districts lying between Shotts and Crofthead on Monday, he advised me to surround myself with disinfectants, if I was really resolved upon entering such a fever-stricken territory. This portentous warning seemed to be merely playful exaggeration ; and in any case it was unnecessary to act upon my friend's counsel, because I did not intend to run any great risk. It is enough that one must look into filthy ashpits, and taste impure water, and go into uncleanly dwellings, and thrust one's head into tumbled, ill-smelling beds, in order, by the actual contact of the hand, to feel the damp which stains the walls, without entering houses in which fever has got its victims down and is rolling over them. As it happens, however, the district in question is really the least objectionable that I have visited, and, so far as I could ascertain, is at present entirely free from epidemic. With the exception of some houses near Shotts, the villages at which I called on Monday are of purely negative character - that is to say, they are neither very good nor very bad. If there is not much to be said in the way of praise, I found nothing to put one much out of temper - except perhaps the weather, which even a Sanitary Government cannot hope to reform by Act of Parliament. The weather certainly was most objectionable. It rained at Glasgow when I left in the morning, and it poured as the train drew up at Shotts Station, with the added discomfort of a bitterly cold wind. Fortunately my friend had brought a close carriage, with which, and a couple of horses, we might bid defiance to the chilliest blast and the hilliest road.

Near to Shotts proper is a hamlet which has sprung up in connection with Shotts Iron Company, having in particular two lines of old stone houses, known respectively as "The Tile Row", and "The Cockyard Row," that must not be overlooked. Let us take the Tile Row to begin with. Here there are five houses, each with a room and kitchen. The road in front if broken and irregular, with many muddy pools, in which we may trace, as in the blackest wayside puddle, the perfect drawing of Nature. It is more to the point, no doubt, to say that the road is raised above the entrance to the houses, so that in wet weather, as we see now, the water seeks its level in the nearest kitchen. Right in front of the door is a pipe communicating with a drain, seven or eight feet off. The refuse water of the houses is poured out at the mouth of this pipe, and as it is not all carried away, there is always enough left, I should think, to create a nuisance in summer. The house we enter, and they are all very much alike, is tenanted by a widow, who tells us she has been 27 years in the house, and has paid for every old stone, in it, and for every red tile which forms its ancient roofing. She is the tenant of two houses, consisting of two kitchens on the "but and ben" principle, with a small bed-room entering from each, and for these she pays 10s a month. Lodgers are her hope and mainstay. The apartments are extremely damp, so much so that the wall at the side of the kitchen fire is moist and cold. The bed is so wet that the tenant has introduced loose boarding at the back to keep the blankets dry. To ordinary people such a house means chronic rheumatism and bronchitis, yet this widow has lived in it for more than a quarter of a century, and she is still hale and hearty, and I hardly dare to say how many stones in weight. Her exceptional good health, of course, proves nothing. In the early days of the Glasgow Improvement Scheme, I remember visiting "the Blin' Close" in Saltmarket, a long, narrow entry unvisited by a ray of light in the brightest day of summer, and at the extremity of it we came upon an old woman who had lived there in perfect contentment for half a century, and for aught anybody could tell, was good for another score of years of Egyptian darkness, if the Commissioners had allowed her to remain. Cockyard Row, just round the corner from the Tile Row, numbers six houses, also below the level of the pavement. The floors are of brick, and the rent paid for two apartments is 5s 1d a month. These houses must be extremely unhealthy in wet weather, whatever may be said of them in dry seasons, for the walls show damp everywhere, and I had not the least doubt of the truth of a statement made, that once when a great fall of rain occurred, the floors were flooded to the depth of two feet. In general, miners' houses are entered directly from the road or pavement, and may thus be exposed to the free air by opening the door. Here, however, is an unventilated lobby after the fashion of city erections, giving access to four single apartments, the rent of which is 1s 1d a week. The tenant of one of them is a voluble, clear-voiced Irishwoman. From the torrent of her indignant eloquence, I gather that she is sick of the one room in which nine of a family are compelled to live. The beds are damp, the mystery of sleeping berths for nine being explained by a "hurley" which protrudes from underneath one of the set-in beds, while coals are stowed away under the other. She has tried to get better quarters, she says, but they are not to be had, and she has lived in this one upwards of a year. Altogether, she declares it is not fit for human beings "at all, at all;" and although not the worst I have seen, the houses in Cockyard Row are bad enough. Gray Street, also belonging to the company, introduces us to a very superior class of dwellings, having a large kitchen, a small parlour and bed-room, and a larder. The rent is 12s a month of four weeks. They are of excellent construction, dry and comfortable. In a new row of houses adjoining there are attics, the rent being 6d a month higher. Shotts is supplied with tolerably good water. It is drawn from two sources - a spring rising near a cutting on the North British Railway, the flow of which is distributed in pipes through the town; and a tank which receives the water off the hills.

Wester Benhar, which we next reach, is a large village, with long rows of brick tenements of comparatively recent erection, most of them room and kitchen houses, and a few single apartments. The rent of the former is 8s a month, and of the latter 5s a month. They are thoroughly dry houses, with wooden floors, beneath which is an impervious deposit of tar. While they were in course of erection, and after the plasterers had set to work, large fires were kept lighted, so that at the very outset they were free from damp. All are raised considerably above the level of the street. The interiors give one a pleasing impression of the houses of miners of the middle class. Kitchen "dressers," as they are called, show a wonderful variety of useful and ornamental glass and crockery ware, and a pretty little cruet-stand which I noticed in one of the houses, and seemingly in daily use, may perhaps be taken as an evidence of growing delicacy of taste at the dinner table. At the back of the houses are coal cellars, large kitchen gardens, and well-kept ashpits and closets, so far removed as to be inoffensive even in the hot season. The Flat Row, which owes its name to the flatness of the roof, is much inferior. The floors are of stone, and there are a good many complaints of dampness, especially in the gable houses. They are single apartments, the rent being 6s a month, and are unsupplied with coal-cellars or gardens, although there are bleaching greens in front. The Messrs Addie, the proprietors, are spoken of as at all times willing to repair the houses. On the other, side of the street from the Flat Row is a line of old room and kitchen houses, the rent of which is 8s a month, and here also the prevailing grievance is dampness. Wester Benhar is not well off for water. Brownhill Pit, not long opened, furnishes a large quantity, which is conveyed to a pump-well at the end of one of the rows. I could not learn that it is subjected to any filtering process, and all that I saw, both in the houses and at the well, held a good deal of matter in suspension. The bottom, and sides of a "stoup," which I looked into at the well, were coated with a brown, muddy deposit, indicating at once the character of the water and the carelessness of the people. Another, although more limited and less readily accessible source of supply, is the Benhar day level, from which spring water is led in pipes to a field-spout. This is perfectly clear, hard water, and is described by the medical man of the district as of good quality. Surface water from the fields is got in a drain at the back of the kitchen gardens- already referred to, and is used for washing purposes.

Quitting Wester Benhar, and glancing at an excellent schoolhouse which the Messrs Addie have erected, and near which a new row of brick houses is being put up, we drive on to Harthill, This is not a mining village of the kind we seek, but a collection of houses, two storeys in height, and a good many of them in need of extensive repairs. Confining our inspection to two tenements of this class, belonging to private individuals and not to coalmasters, we find in the rear a deplorable accumulation of ashes and filth, while the entrance to one of the closets can only be reached through a lake of stagnant impurity. A good many miners live here, and pay high rents for sorry accommodation, rather than live in "the company's" houses nearer the pit For a single apartment, with such surroundings as I have indicated, the monthly payment is eight shillings, and for room and kitchen houses it is eleven shillings. I asked two of the tenants why they did not seek cheaper and better accommodation in connection with the works, and the reply in effect was that they preferred fixed occupancy, even with all its disadvantages, to the uncertain tenure of the company houses. Harthill has no public water supply. A neighbouring burn is utilised for washing, and the getting of cooking water is a matter of diplomacy and private bargain. In several of the gardens there are private springs, from which, as a mark of high favour, and sometimes for a consideration, those not so well off are allowed to help themselves. Some of these garden wells, however, are said to yield water of doubtful quality.

Leaving Harthill and its mediaevalism behind, our way lies through a long stretch of moorland. The day is still one of the dreariest, and as we look out across miles of bleak monotony, it seems foolish to suppose that anybody has been daring enough to colonise on these windy, marshy uplands. All the same, it in impossible to deny the existence of Easter Benhar, where a village has been erected by the Benhar Coal Company. The houses are of middling class. One of the rows consists of good sized kitchens, entering from which are wash-houses and stores at the back. A payment of 3s 8d a fortnight covers the tenancy and secures an ample supply of coal - so ample, as one of the miners informed me, that he was able to keep on a fire all night. There are large ashpits and closets behind, well removed from the houses, and tidily kept. This was the only row which I examined, the other houses although some of them are larger, appearing to be of the game general character. Here again the water supply is far from satisfactory. There is a spring-well at Fala Hill, nearly a mile away, where the wants of the village are well met in winter, if people will be at the trouble of going for it, but in summer it is often dry. Near at hand is a pond, into which surface water is carried. It is not filtered, the margin of the pond is often unclean, and the pond itself is said to receive more than surface water. One of the miners told me he had seen a dead dog floating in it.

Lying between Easter Benhar and Crofthead is Benthead Row, a line of fourteen single apartment houses belonging to Messrs Dixon. I only mention it - for the houses are not specially bad - because overcrowding appears to exist here, a great many lodgers being kept. Ashes are thrown down immediately in rear of the houses, the tenants being apparently unwilling to carry them to the ashpit, the way to which lies through sloppy grass.

Crofthead is a large place, with a mining population, including Fauldhouse, numbering upwards of 4000. In communities of such extent the Local Authority is readily exerted, and with the exception of the School Row, which is an unsavoury locality, and Slate Row, where the legend runs that a half-tipsy miner once undertook to run through all the partitions, and had actually demolished one of them before his friends could stop his wild career, Crofthead does not call for special comment. There are, however, two excellent features in it which are worthy of notice. The first is that a good many of the cottages are owned by working miners, which I take to be an excellent sign of the times at Crofthead; and the second is that a co-operative store, of which Mr John Drinnan is President, is in successful operation. There are fully 100 members, almost exclusively miners, in connection with it, and the weekly turn-over is about £90. Quarterly balances are made, the average dividend being 2s per pound, yielding, in the case of large families, a bonus of from £4 to £5 a quarter. Crofthead, it may be added, is fortunate as regards water. Ten years ago people were supplied from the clouds or the fields or at far-away springs, and several of the springs came to be obliterated by the Coltness Company and the Messrs Dixon opening new pits. The great scarcity of water was often discussed, and at length Messrs Dixon and the Coltness Company agreed to bring a supply from the Leavenseat, a range of hills about two miles from Crofthead, if the feuars would first make a contribution of £150 for this purpose. This money was obtained, and works were forthwith erected at a cost of about £1000, the water being given gratuitously by Mr Hair. In this way Crofthead has had an excellent supply for the last seven or eight years. No local assessment is levied. Of course, repairs upon the works must be provided for, and this expense has hitherto been met by a voluntary collection once or twice from the workpeople, and by a tax of 3s, morally not legally exigible, which has been laid upon all feuars of later date than the first subscription. In some instances, the new feuars decline to recognise the moral law, and then they are told that as all the wells are laid down on private property (for some such stinginess was anticipated) they can be prevented from drawing a single gallon of water. I do not know whether this argument is always convincing, but at any rate you may drink- without stint it Crofthead.

From Bathgate To Slamannan

From Bathgate to Slamannan across country. must be a breezy drive at the best. In such blustry weather as that of yesterday the horse and his rider run a fair chance of being blown over one or other of the storm-swept hills across which the road is carried. A more desolate landscape than that presented amidst the wind and the rain could scarcely be found in the Lowlands - the low-lying fields on every side for ten miles at a stretch laid under water by swollen streams which had overtopped their banks; farm-yards apparently deserted and perfectly still, the bedraggled poultry crowding together under the hay-ricks ; blasts of rain impelled as by a whirlwind ; and overhead the storm-cloud sailing rapidly across the sky. At one part of the road, just after we had passed through Slamannan, the horse for some 60 or 70 yards required to wade through three or four feet of water, which lay apparently to the same depth in fields all round.. I was rather anxious to get on to this district, having heard that the hamlets of Jawcraig, near Slamannan, were not all that could be desired, and I found that this was a very mild way of putting the case. There are here three rows of houses at some distance from each other, and tenanted by miners in the employment of Mr C. J. Alexander, of Jawcraig. They are called Cornfield Row, Low Jawcraig and High Jawcraig. We may begin with Cornfield Row, consisting of twelve houses, eleven of one apartment and one of two rooms. They are built on mossy ground, covered with red tiles, and the floor is partly of brick and partly of old pieces of loosely-laid wood. All the houses are damp, some of them to such an extent as to make it impossible that the people can live in them, save at great danger to health. In one house two plies of canvas cloth were laid on the middle of the floor, and both were wet through in several parts. Here also, as at "the Briggate" in Mossend, unmistakable damp was found in the ashpit under the lighted grate. The old woman who lives here told me that sometimes during the night, when the door is shut and a large fire burning, she sees steam rising from the floor. In another house the occupants, whom I found on the eve of removal, had a good eight-day clock (miners, by the way, are very fond of a handsome clock), and the ceiling being only about six feet high, it was necessary to make a hole in the floor and set the tall timepiece in it. On lifting it the other day, the bottom of the case fell away, and the hole was full of water. It was in this state when I saw it yesterday. There are two beds in each house, of the recess kind. They are placed against the inside partition of the houses, and the back of the beds in most cases is wet from the floor almost to the ceiling. The outside walls are, of course, very damp. The rent of these single apartments is 1s a week. If their internal condition is bad, the outside is still worse. There are no ashpits or closets - filth of all kinds being thrown into the road in front. Neither is there any drainage for the irregular cutting in front of the houses is really a cesspool At the back a drain has been partially formed, but it is quite stopped up and the surface water soaks in at the foundation of the houses. The people are all Scotch, and keep their houses in as good order as is possible in the circumstances. As for water, they depend chiefly upon rain, which is caught in barrels, and is of course charged with atmospheric impurities. They know nothing of filtration, and last summer I was told that bowel-complaint was common in the row. This, however, was attributed not to the rain water but to the age of water taken out of a stream that flows from a neighbouring pit under working.

The houses at Low Jawcraig, also built on mossy ground, are in very much the same condition. There are some 21 in the row - single and double rooms - and almost all of them are extremely damp. The rent is 4s and 6s a month, and notice has been given by the proprietors of an increase. Health and decency are outraged by the want of ashpits and closets and drains. One of the houses is used as a school-room, and the back of it will not bear description. Water is got from field drains; yesterday, it was so muddy, by reason of the heavy rains, that the people could not use it, and they have not been educated to great nicety.

High Jawcraig is quite as wretched as the other rows - in some respects even worse. Several of the floors are simply soft clay, with large holes in them. Water flows through an opening in the row, and the tenant of the adjoining house, in getting out of bed one morning, stepped into cold water. Drain water is used at High Jawcraig ; in summer, when the drains are dry, the people get water where they can.

I should have liked to continue my inquiries in the neighbourhood of Slamannan, if only in the hope of finding a contrast to the Jawcraig Rows ; but the day was by this time far spent, and the roads impassable. [Glasgow Herald 20 January 1875]