Notes on Miners' Houses - Part VII

(By Our Own Correspondent)

From Bishopbriggs to Denny and Kilsyth

Bishopbriggs is an ancient parish which has slept through centuries of progress, and now finds itself left far behind by more wakeful communities. It rejoices in a public-house, of course, which calls itself an inn, but there is no hotel, nor any means of affording what country hostelries are designed to afford, "refreshment for man and beast.” Whoever seeks to explore the neighbourhood must therefore do so on foot, and, like the pilgrim of old, be superior to all nineteenth century appetites. I visited this Sleepy Hollow the other day, because its sanitary arrangements were reported to be bad. It is built close to the North British Railway, or rather the line between Edinburgh and Glasgow has been formed just behind the old village, and between the houses and the railway embankment are considerable stretches of garden ground, exhibiting the sanitary deficiencies complained of. The ashpits are almost all in rains, and ill-kept, their malodorous contents heaped up and overflowing, while the gardens are littered over with ashes and refuse. These remarks most be confined to the old houses, for there are a good many modern buildings, the surroundings of which are as tidy as the most rigorous Local Authority could, desire. Bishopbriggs is not a mining village, nor are its houses of the special class to be found in the neighbourhood of pits. Its aristocracy apart, the population is made up of miners, railway labourers, and the general working class, and the landlords are not mine-owners, but grocers and bakers and well-to-do people in the village. The houses are also of a mixed character - good two-storey tenements of various ages, elbowed by old one-storey erections. Binnie's Land was pointed out to me as the only one in the village which might be said to be wholly tenanted, or nearly so, by miners. There are two flats in this land - the lower one entered from the street in front, and the upper storey by an outside stair at the back. The houses on the ground floor are single apartments, for which £4 12s a-year is paid, and kitchens with small bed closets, the rent being £4 18s. Four houses enter from a lobby. They are not bright, fresh houses, the lobby system preventing free ventilation, and the families are usually large. Upstairs the rents are £4 18s for the smaller houses, and £6 10s for large-sized rooms and kitchens. There is no deficiency of water in Bishopbriggs, although one of the pumps, situated in the main street, is in Chancery. It seems that for many years it has been regarded as a public well; but the property upon which it stands having passed into other hands, the owner claims it as his own, and in the meantime it is locked up, pending the decision of the Glasgow sheriffs. Excellent spring-water, I am told, is got from this well, and enough of it to supply the whole place. At a little distance from it is a pump also leading from a spring, but the wafer tastes of iron, especially after remaining in the house overnight, and for this reason it is unpopular. Farther away in the opposite direction is Connalton public well, where the water is plentiful and good; and behind the inn of the village is another pump, the use of which, however, is restricted to the tenants of the : owner. On the whole, if you cannot dine here you need not die of thirst.

Auchinairn, about a mile and a half off, resembles Bishopbriggs in its external characteristics, with the unlovely features to which I have adverted a good deal enlarged. The houses belong to private landlords as distinguished from mine owners, and its sanitary condition is most discreditable. The road leading to it is a reproach to the trustees - the metal in bad repair, and the drains ill formed. It would be easy to drain the village, which stands on rising ground, and I noticed that an ill-sustained effort is being made to carry the surface water into a field-drain about the bottom of the hill, but reform advances slowly at Auchinairn. In the village itself, the jawboxes at the top of the outside stairs of two-storey houses run into basins on on the pavement, which communicate with an underground sewer. These basins are clean and free from deposit, but otherwise the drainage of the streets is not attended to as it ought to be. The houses are many of them very old, and I think also very dear. The first one I went into, an extremely small kitchen, in which four people could scarcely find room to sit by the cradle of a dying child, and an equally small room, is rented at £4 10s a year, in one of the houses underneath, the front walls and also the beds, are black with damp. The ground behind slopes down into the close, bringing water freely when rain falls; and a sort of porch in front leaks in the roof, so that the people are assailed from both quarters in the rainy season, and find it necessary sometime to desert the recess bed and sleep in the middle of the floor, which is of stone. Taking next a row of one-storey houses tenanted chiefly by miners, I find that six and seven shillings a-month are paid for single apartments, with earthen floors broken and damp, small back windows, and walls and ceilings from which the plaster has fallen in large pieces. The beds in many cases are quite wet along the back walls, and one room smells strongly of damp, which appears all round. Several of the doors are below the level of the street, one woman telling me that on New-Year morning after the thaw had set in, her kitchen floor was flooded with water. At the end of the village is a row of small single-apartment houses, two of them which I entered being only seven feet broad. The rent is 5s a month, If the drainage of Auchinairn is bad, the ground at the back of the houses is infinitely worse. The ashpits, with hardly a single exception, are heaped up and overflowing; and where they do not exist at all, the refuse lies all round. The closets are extremely dirty, and little used, as one may readily satisfy himself by glancing at the rear. The tenants all complain of this state of things, and of course refer the irregularities and uncleanliness to their neighbours. What is wanted is early and prompt action on the part of the Local Authority. I spoke to Mr M'Lelland, the inspector of the district, who told me that he was about to take action against the proprietors, and had already done so in some instances. As for its water supply, Auchinairn is sot so badly off at this season as the people themselves seem to suppose. There are a good many wells in the village owned by proprietors, and available to their tenants, including Marshall's, Cleland's, Weir's, Hutcheson's, Colquhoun's, and Findlay's pumps and a public pump near a quarry. One of the sewer pipes is discharged in a field close by the public well, which is, however, enclosed by substantial walls, and the proximity of the sewer and the quarry has created a suspicion that the water is tainted. In one of the houses I got a sample of the worst of this pump water, by which I mean that it was taken from the lees of the "stoup." I applied Nessler's test without finding any indications of organic impurity. Everybody objects more or less to the water which is got from all the wells, but no one has any very sufficient reason to explain this antipathy. The common complaint is that it does not make good tea, which is hardly a convincing argument; One of the wells, opened a year or two ago was so much spoken against that the Local Authority got the water analysed by a Glasgow chemist, the result of which was that it was condemned, and the well closed. No analysis however, of the water now in use has been made. In summer, these wells are frequently dry, and then Auchinairn is really in extremity. Marshall's pump is the only one which gave a continuous supply during the hot months last year, but the quantity got from it is limited, and only the tenants having a right to it were furnished with water. “Our neighbours, would soon carry it all away,” said one of the women “but we don't allow them to take it during the day, and at night the well is locked.” There is nothing for it in such a case but to go to the Connalton well at Bishopbriggs, and when this is impossible, rain water is used or any which can be got either by favour or strategy - strategy in this ease meaning a good deal.

On the way back to Bishopbriggs we pass through Myremailing, a cluster of half-a-dozen houses inhabited by miners, and owned by the farmer on whose lands they are erected. They are all very wretched places. The doors are below the level of the road, the floors are of clay, the ceilings low, and damp glistens and actually smells everywhere - on the walls, at the back of the beds, and under the beds. They are the most unhealthy houses, and could not be made decently habitable by any amount of tinkering. Burn water is the only available supply at Myremailing, and Nessler's test produced unmistakeable discolouration. In summer, even this impure flow is frequently stopped, and the the people obtain water from a neighbouring farmyard.

Denny, which we get to by the Caledonian Railway, is a large town; including in its population a considerable number of miners. It is not kept as clean as might be desired, the main street at some parts and the ground behind many of the old houses being in such a condition as to lead one to suppose that the Local Authority is not particularly active. The only part of the town where miners are to be found without admixture is the Nob Row, belonging to Mr Miller, a manufacturer in Denny. Strictly speaking, the Nob Row is in Dunipace, not in Denny, but they are so near as to be practically one community. The houses at the beginning and end of the row are comfortable enough, although not of the first class, but in the middle there are some of a very inferior kind, the entrances slightly below the level of the roadway, and damp showing itself on the roof and over some of the beds. These middle houses again have no back or front ground, while the others have kitchen gardens or greens before the doors. The ashpits are some 13 or 14 feet from the houses, and are cleaned out as often as the tenants arrange for this being done. There is no closet for the whole row. The rents of these houses range from £2 12s for single apartments to £6 a year for three rooms. There is no public water supply in Denny. There are, however, a number of springs on private ground from which good water is to be had in plenty in winter and summer.

A drive of four miles, or so brings us to Haggs, a mining village, in which the houses are owned by Mr Wilson, of Banknock Colliery, and by persons living in the village. The Haggs, in various respects, is in a disgraceful state, and some of Mr Wilson's houses are much in need of repair. The old evil of dampness is present in almost every house I visited - damp in the beds, and in wet weather dripping from the ceiling, and being caught in a bowl. The back room of one of the houses was cold enough and damp enough to give one toothache in ten minutes. Stone floors are laid in the kitchen; wooden floors in the room. Farther, along the row are half a dozen houses belonging to other proprietors, one of them most objectionably situated - the floor being a couple of feet lower than the street in front and the garden ground behind. They are all damp and dark - so damp that three of the number are not tenanted. The houses here are rented at about £2 12s for single apartments and £3 10s for rooms and kitchens. The worst feature of Haggs, however, is the indescribably filthy condition of the back-yards. There are no ash pits, and the only closet I saw was so dirty that it could not be used. The result is that the kitchen gardens are poisoning the air, and are allowed to do so all the year through, no one providing for the refuse being removed. It is hard to guess what the local Authority for Haggs conceives to be the proper discharge of it's duty. The water supply is also far from satisfactory, owing to neglect on the part of those who should interest themselves in the wants of the village. It is got from springs led into various pumps, and when procurable is of excellent quality. There are four of these pumps in the village, and I was told that all of them are at present out of repair, so that no water can be obtained. In these circumstances, the people go to the "smiddy" near the pit, where there is a spring, and their wants are supplied, but in summer they are not allowed to take this water, which is reserved for cattle grazing in fields belonging to Mr Wilson. I asked several persona why the proprietor would not allow them to take the water in summer, and the first reply, "Because he keeps't for his beese," was the explanation given in every case, or at least the answers were of precisely similar import. The last resource is to go to Castlecary, where a farmer gives water on condition that he shall receive a day's work from the recipients during the season.

Just outside Haggs is the "New Row." The houses, which are of brick, are held from Mr Wilson, the single apartments being rented at 5s 6d a month, and the rooms and kitchens at £3 12s a year. The floors in the kitchen are of stone, the rooms being laid with wood. They are not bad houses, but the surroundings are ill kept. Ashes and other refuse are thrown in front of the houses although a large ash-pit is provided behind. One of the tenants told me it was not customary to lay the ashes down before the doors, but I fear it is too general. The only water available for the people in the New Row is that which is taken out of a burn down at Holland Bush, and the banks of which sufficiently indicate its quality. It was in flood when I saw it. A wine glassful which I get in one of the houses assumed a deeper brown on Nessler's mixture being added to it, showing that it was impure. The children, I was told, wade in it, and otherwise increase its pollution. In summer, when the burn is dry, the villagers have no water. "What do you do then?” I asked. " Weel, we get it frae a neebor's wall doon at the Bush, but he doesna' let us tak' it." "In short, you steal it?' "Ay, we jist steal it, when we can. Then we catch rain water, which is better than the burn at ony time."

Driving on to Kilsyth, a few miles away, we come to Barwood, on the outskirts of the town. Barwood is a little group of tumble-down houses at the foot of a hill, on the top of which is an old quarry, now full of water. The hill is stony, and in wet weather the rain rushes down, and makes havoc with the houses, which are held by private landlords, not by colliery owners. The walls of one of these houses glistened with water, which literally runs in through the foundations in the wet season, and has to be taken up in saucers and pails. One morning lately, the woman of the house required to get her neighbour to assist her in baling out the water before her children could get out of bed. There are no drains, or other water-courses, although at the time of my visit I found two women up to the elbows in "glaur" clearing out a rain-track, which, even if they succeeded in making it, would be obliterated in 24 hours. Midway up the hill, and right in the course of the houses, are the closet and ash-pit, the nasty discharge from which found its way down and created a most offensive nuisance. On New-Year's Day some of the men closed up the closet and formed an imperfect drain from the ash-pit leading into a field. Spring water is got on the hill, and also from a spout farther along the road. It is very good water. Barwood is an inconsiderable place, the sanitary condition of which appears to be unworthy the attention of anybody. The people are old residenters, and family associations induce them to remain in it notwithstanding its discomforts.

At the entrance to Kilsyth, "The Brick Rows," belonging to Messrs Baird, first invite our attention. There are three parallel rows, with a fourth built along one of the ends. I did not count them, but there must be some 200 altogether in single and double apartments - the former with bed-closet, rented at 5s 1d a month, and the latter at 7s 1d a month. They were built about a dozen years since, at which time they were probably reckoned very superior houses of their class. Even now, although the people complain of damp, they are not bad miners' dwellings, and the sanitary arrangements are excellent. There is ample space between the rows, the ground being laid under grass, and large ashpits and closets are set down at regular intervals, while substantial drains carry off the surface water. The household supply of water is ample. A man is daily employed keeping everything clean and orderly; and an inspector, appointed by the firm, looks after the behaviour, as well as the comfort of the tenants. On the whole, the government of the Brick Rows is firm and intelligent.

It is almost a pity that the Messrs Baird have not the administration of affairs in Kilsyth which is, without exception, the dirtiest town I have visited, although its situation is such that its rulers might easily reverse this state of things if they wished to do so. The town is built on the slopes and summit of a hill, having therefore a fall on each side, but its streets and pavements are nevertheless ill-drained and muddy. In all communities of the same size there are lanes and closes which will not bear inspection, redeemed by others of cleanlier appearance, but Kilsyth is consistently dirty throughout. Ashpits are erected right under house windows and lie reeking and smelling of accumulated filth, which is not removed with regularity. Indeed, I was told by some of the tenants that it is not taken away at all, but simply laid under ground when the season for delving the gardens comes round. Many of the tenements are very old and ricketty, but they are not by any means exclusively miners' houses; and even though they had been, I could not pretend to describe them in the brief space at my disposal. This at all events is plain, that Kilsyth is very much in need of a sanitary revival, if not an Improvement Act.

After the squalor of the town it was quite a relief to come upon Auchinstarry, which lies between Kilsyth and Crow Station on the North British Railway. Auchinstarry consists of three rows of substantial one-storey houses of stone, the last row being not quite finished, while the foundations of a fourth have been laid. These also belong to the Messrs Baird, and are occasionally occupied by miners. They are all rooms and kitchens, the rent being £6 a year. Below the floors, which are of wood, tarpaulin is laid, and ventilators on both sides of the house carry a current of air underneath. The through ventilation of the houses is secured by the front window being "double hung," as joiners phrase it, the upper and lower frames sliding up and down, while one of the panes in the back window is hinged, and may be opened or closed at will. Two iron beds in the kitchen and one in the room are put in by the proprietors. I went into one of the houses in the dusk of evening and found the tea things laid out on a tablecloth of snowy whiteness, with which the general appearance of the kitchen pleasantly corresponded. Here at last I thought, is evidence that if miners get really good dwellings they will take pride in them, and rival their neighbours in home attractions. But two other houses, although most of them were clean and tidy, did not realise the ideal which I had formed. Three large out-buildings are erected for each row, comprising a wash-house and
boiler for every six tenants, coal-cellars for all, and closets and ashpits for every three tenants. The doors of these outhouses are all kept shut, ventilators being introduced carrying the foul air through the roof. The ground is well-drained, and everything is in perfect order. Here also a scavenger and an inspector or policeman look after the cleanliness of the place.

At "The Twicker," a couple of miles off, which I was unable to visit, the Messrs Baird are erecting about 100 houses similar to those described. [Glasgow Herald 30 January 1875]