Notes on Miners' Houses - Part V

(By Our Own Correspondent)


To write of the county town of Ayr, and yet have nothing to say about Burns, is to a Scotchman a species of self-denial. But poetry and miners' houses, whatever maybe said of freedom and whisky, do not go together, and so we may at once proceed to our "Notes." I spent three days is Ayrshire, examining the mining villages, while daylight permitted, in the neighbourhood of Ayr, Dalmellington, and Kilmarnock. The tourist who goes to Ayrshire naturally finds his way in the first instance to the county town, but for our special purpose it is not a very productive centre. Indeed, I have half a notion that the honest men of Ayr take no great pride in the black country, and would rather ignore its existence, regarding it as a kind of bar sinister on the fair escutcheon of the district. They tell you "There are nae miners' hooses hereawa. Ye maun gang tae Kilmarnock-side" if you are not contented with the prospect all around of flowing streams and cultivated uplands, which even in mid-winter are not without harvest promise. Nevertheless, there is one mining district near by which had in the past an evil reputation not yet wholly outlived - I refer to Annbank, the only considerable village of the kind near Ayr. Before, however, entering into detail regarding it, there are one or two remarks of a general nature which may be made as applicable to the three divisions of the county in which my inquiries were prosecuted. Whatever may have been the condition of miners' houses in Ayrshire a few years ago, they are now, on the whole, well-constructed, commodious, and cheap. From the large number of new rows to be found in all directions near pits which have long been in operation, it may be supposed that the past condition of things was not satisfactory, and this is borne out by the statements of the miners themselves. Nor can it be said that sanitary requirements are even now properly attended to, for I found populous villages with houses only two or three years old which yet lacked altogether the outhouses necessary to decency and convenience. In this respect, Ayrshire compares unfavourably with the other districts referred to in my former communications. The water for domestic use is also objectionable in some places during wet weather. But if the purely modern houses, while more numerous, are less complete in external arrangements than some in Lanarkshire, I did not find, in connection with the older hamlets, anything approaching to the filth and squalor of several districts within twenty miles of Glasgow. We have in Ayrshire, in short neither the very best nor the worst class of miners' dwellings, but a higher general average than I have found to exist elsewhere. The rule as to keeping the drains free from accumulation and cleaning out the ashpits is much the same everywhere. An old man is usually set apart for this daily duty, which he performs with as much regularity as chronic rheumatism or asthma permits. For the rest, all is left to the tidiness or untidiness of the tenants. In some rows one cannot help noticing filth is thrown down in the kitchen garden or at the back of the houses, even where ashpits, are provided, while in others cleanliness generally prevails. The truth is that a couple of slatternly women will ruin the amenity of a whole row, and I have no doubt that a great deal of the prevailing mischief arising in this way might be averted by stricter supervision, and the exercise of a little wholesome severity towards those who are notoriously guilty of setting a bad example. So far as I could ascertain, there are not many Irish people amongst the miners of Ayrshire. There is a considerable infusion of Englishmen and their wives, who sigh for the "up-stairs and down-stairs" of home. Another circumstance which strikes one is the extreme youth of many of the Scotch wives, as well as their fruitfulness. I had addressed a young, girlish creature several times as "Miss," until she began to speak of her husband, and I discovered that a frightful error had been unwittingly committed. With ladies of uncertain age it is best to give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they are still in the spring-time of life, but a young wife, barely out of her teens, is jealous exceedingly of her dignity, and resents the imputation of being still a school-girl. In another case, a woman of two or three and twenty, deploring the want of bleaching-ground, asked me how I thought she could get along at all on washing-days, with only a single apartment, and "wi five wee weans, and no a place to pit a steek o' claes on!"

Annbank is distant about five miles from Ayr. I had heard a good deal of an uncomplimentary nature said about it, but a visit to the place showed that it is only necessary to give a mining village a bad name and it will stick to it. The pits here are now being worked under trustees, the firm having got into difficulties. Under the former management, all my informants concurred in saying, everything was allowed to get into disrepair, and Annbank became a byword and a reproach. Now, however, a spirit of improvement has been awakened, although it is not sufficiently developed. While far from being a model mining village, Annbank is by no means the worst I have seen. It consists of two long rows of houses built on sloping ground, and having two "squares" in the centre. The houses, which number 233 in all, were erected about 15 years ago, and are of brick, with slate roofs, the great majority being single rooms, and the remainder of two apartments. For the former 1s a week is paid, while the rent of rooms and kitchens is 2s a week. I only entered one of the two apartment houses, and I was surprised to find the accommodation so extensive, both apartments being about 72 feet square, and in good repair. I  went into a great many of the single apartments or kitchens. They are much too small for the families living in them, and numbering in many cases from six to nine persons each. There are two beds in the kitchen, in addition to which a "hurley" is brought out after dark when the family is large. The floors are all of square brick, and quite free from dampness. The most serious objection to the houses is that they are only lighted from the front, and as the windows are fixtures, the doors are thrown open for air. This is not the sole means of ventilation, though perhaps the only really effective way securing it. Last summer, Mr Clark, manager of the works, caused a small ventilating shaft to be driven through the back wall, which may be opened or closed by a sliding cover, worked from the inside. It is better than nothing. Smoke is a good deal complained off especially during the winter nights, when the doors must be kept closed. The sanitary arrangements of the village are defective, chiefly in consequence of the nasty habits of the people. Behind the houses are ashpits and closets but the surroundings show that they are little used, great heaps of ashes and filth being deposited at the gable walls, although the proper receptacle is only a few feet off. There are no coal cellars, coals being stored under the beds or kept out of doors. The single street which stretches the whole length of the village is on a lower level than the pavement, having on each side well-formed open drains, and as there is a considerable fall the refuse water runs off freely. At Annbank, as well as at the other two settlements belonging to the company I afterwards visited, everyone spoke highly of Mr Clark as being at all times conscious to promote the comfort of the miners and their families. If he were to knock out windows at the rear of the single-apartment houses, and provide a few more ash pits outside, and insist upon greater attention to cleanliness on the part of the housewives, the contrast between the appearance of Annbank now and that which it presented seven or eight years ago, would be still more marked. A plentiful supply of good spring water is obtained from from a well in the village; and a pumping engine, which was erected by Mr Clark on the bank of the river Ayr at a cost of about [illegible], conveys water for washing purposes to a couple of boilers in the rows. In connection with the works there is s large store, a friendly society, a reading-room and library, and a schoolhouse, the village terminating in a little iron church, which stands at the top of the hill, and within whose corrugated interior Established churchmen, U.P.'s, Frees, Baptists, and people of all sections of religious belief worship together undisturbed by any vain speculations as to the province of the civil magistrate. The school accommodates about three hundred children, and the reading room, which is free to all for a penny a week, is provided with a bagatelle board and a summer ice-table, while the library, recently opened and as yet in its infancy, offers the best thoughts of Carlyle and Darwin, and Macaulay and Gibbon, for a weekly payment of a halfpenny.

A pleasant drive of half an hour brings us to Woodside, and a row of miners' houses also belonging to the Annbank Company. They are of brick, 31 in number, and were almost all erected only a short time since. Of these, 18 or 20 are single apartments, and the others rooms and kitchens. The few older houses have brick floors, but in those of recent construction wood has been put down. The rent here is the same as at Annbank - 1s a-week for single houses, and 2s for double ends. They are warm, comfortable houses, the only fault I have to find with them being that the back windows are extremely small, so that they are dark. There are no wash-houses, no coal-cellars for the single apartments, and only one ash-pit, the refuse being laid down at the back of a detached series of double closets. It is creditable to the miners' wives at Woodside that they really make the best of the situation and do not throw ashes under the windows, but proper ash-pits should be provided at once, if the character of the place is to be maintained. The water at Woodside is drained from a neighbouring field. It is apparently free from organic impurity in ordinary weather, but I was told that during heavy rains it is discoloured and therefore unwholesome. Here also is a school-house erected by the company, a reading-room, and a library which was opened a few weeks ago.

Between Annbank and Woodside lies the hamlet of Burnbrae, belonging to the same company. It consists of three small rows of very old houses, huddled, together on an eminence overlooking the Water of Ayr. The houses have stone floors, small windows, low ceilings, and roofs of slate and thatch. In all, fifteen or sixteen families live here, paying, like their neighbours elsewhere, one shilling and two shillings a-week for single and double rooms respectively. Dampness is not complained of, but rather certain domestic plagues which are born of heat and old wood. In summer, to be quite plain, bugs are said to make their unwelcome appearance “not singly, but in battalions.” The door-steps are below the level of the outside, and in wet weather the rain finds its way inside. There are two sources of water supply at Burnbrae - a spring well, which gives sparingly in winter, and not at all in summer, and a field drain at some distance, the water coming from which in the rainy season is often quite brown.

The only other colliery village near Ayr of which I could hear anything is, or rather was, Whitletts, for it has now ceased to exist. It was a stirring enough place at one time, but a good many years ago the pits were shifted, and now only a few of the houses are occupied by farm labourers. My Notes on the Dalmellington and Kilmarnock districts must be reserved for another letter. [Glasgow Herald 26 January 1875]