Notes On Miner's Houses Part XIII

(From Our Own Correspondent)

Slamannan To Airdrie

When at Slamannan the other week, I was unable to do more than visit the picturesque region of Jawcraig. It blew a perfect hurricane, and rain had fallen so heavily that the roads were converted into running streams, further journeying was then impossible. I returned to Slamannan the other day, intending to drive to the various villages lying between that town and Airdrie. It was a lovely day, bright and balmy, and but for the leafless trees and bare hedgerows, one might have fancied that spring had stolen a march upon summer, and that we were already enjoying the sunshine and flowers of June. In such circumstances, I did not anticipate any difficulty in the way of getting through my work expeditiously, but on asking for a machine at the principal hotel in Slamannan, I was told that in consequence of the heaviness of the roads, I could not be accommodated. Well, this was rather disappointing, and seemed nothing short of a libel on the Road Trustees; but after walking for the better part of three days in the district, I am not disposed to blame the hotel proprietor for sparing his horses, for, in the bewildering language of pantomime, the Slamannan roads "are the beastliest of beastly roads you ever did see.'' For many miles round the country is one universal moss, or rather swamp. My way for a couple of miles was along a good footpath over soft, spongy moss, and when this came to an end it was only possible to get forward by stumbling along the lines of railway connected with the various collieries. At one point I had to wade through a quarter of a mile or so of sludgy moss, and when I had got out of it congratulated myself on still retaining my boots. As for the roads, where there are any, it a no exaggerating to say that at many parts they are knee deep in mud, even in such lovely weather as we had at the time of my visit. An indignant miner presented me with a document acknowledging receipt of road money for last year, and then pointed triumphantly to my own boots and pantaloons as showing the kind of return which he got for payment of this tax. With reference to the character miners' houses between Slamannan and Airdrie, the villages, in so far as mere stone and lime are concerned, are rather above the general average of districts within the same distance from Glasgow. There are one or two decidedly bad rows, but the great bulk of the houses are of recent erection, and are at least decent and tolerably comfortable. The great evil is the want of good water. Beyond the range of the Airdrie and Coatbridge Company, the supply is obtained from pits or from field drains - in very few cases indeed from springs and in summer, when surface water is not obtainable and pit water is scarce, the people just get it, as they tell you, in the cleanest hole they can find. It is difficult, in some villages, to ascertain where water is got in any weather, or a least to find out any common source of supply, every one having his or her own favourite puddle. In proceeding to describe, with more or less detail, the various hamlets I have visited I shall first pick out two or three of the least reputable character, reserving for a concluding latter those which are of a middling or superior class.

Within half-an-hour's walk from Slamannan, but in the opposite direction from that which leads to Airdrie, are two rows of houses illustrating the worst features of the district. Nappyfaulds, belongiug to Mr Hay, comprises only three or four families, whose abodes are the funniest places I have seen since I set out on this mining tour. They are twisted and rent in the roof and walls, some of the crevices being wide enough to admit one's hand. This, of course, is due to the underground workings, which are so directly below the houses, that during the night the people while in bed hear the miners blasting underneath. The houses gave way some time ago, and would seem to yield now in one direction and now in the other, as the gaping, zig zag interstices of today may be closed up tomorrow and re-opened on the day following. The end house has fallen out altogether, the gable wall having parted company with the roof, and the mass of bricks, some adhering in lumps and others broken and chaotic, now lie precisely as they fell to earth. Through the walls of the houses which have not yet tumbled down, one may see into the next room, and as one of the women remarked, " ye canna flyte on the gude-man withoot everybody hearin' o't." Pit water is of very bad quality is need at Nappyfaulds. Mr Hay, let me add, is only blameable, if he may be blamed at all, for not compelling the people to quit the houses. He has not charged any rent since they gave way, and has offered his tenants accommodation elsewhere, but they prefer to sit rent free in happy Nappyfaulds.

Quite as remarkable a hamlet in its way is a row a quarter of a mile away, which goes under the name of Strathaven Mines. The houses, which are very old and much out of repair, are leased by Mr Watson, and there are in all 11 single apartments, for which a rent of 4s a-month is paid. Ashes in great heaps lie all round about, there being no outhouse of any kind, and are removed just when it suits the convenience of a neighbouring farmer to do so. The interior of the houses is in keeping with the outside. The ceilings are low and much broken, and the floors and walls are dirty and damp. In some of them there is almost no furniture, and ragged children run about with uncombed hair, and faces so dirty that one hardly knows to what race of beings they belong. From what I have said, it will be seen that the villagers in Strathaven Mines are largely the authors of their own domestic discomforts. Good spring water is got half-a mile away.

Nearly midway between Slamannan and Airdrie is the village of Easter Glentore, built on a swamp of black moss. It is an exceedingly unhealthy situation, and the water also being bad, it is not surprising that the mortality is high. The hamlet consists of two brick rows, the one forming an angular continuation of the other, and although I did not count the doors, I should say there are not over forty families in the whole place. The proprietor is Mr M'Farlane. There are houses on each side of the blocks, so that they are only lighted in front, with no means of securing through ventilation. An ashpit and closet have been built behind the rows, but much too near the houses. Water is taken from what, by a stretch of politeness, is called "the well." I went down to it through oceans of mud, and found that the well is simply a hole at the foot of a brae, which receives field or moss water, and in heavy rains is added to by dirty burn alongside. A line of loose stones has been laid as a kind of breakwater between the burn and the well, but in wet weather it cannot be of any service. I tested this water, and found it to be very bad. Typhoid fever few been very prevalent at Easter Glentore, and a good many other forms of disease also exist. During the last ten months then have been some 30 cases of undoubted typhoid fever, and several deaths. At present there is one well authenticated case in the village, the patient being a woman, and I spoke with one man just recovering from a severe illness. His wife and five children have all been down within the last few months, and two of the children died. On the way down to the well, I looked in at three very old houses with red tile roofs. They are dark, dismal holes, one of which is rent free, while for the other two £1 19s a-year is paid in one case, and £1 in the other. The ground at the back is level with the roof, so that you may walk up the tiles and reconnoitre the interior down the chimney.

Let us now go to Rawyards, which may be said to be a suburb of Airdrie. Rawyards is a big and apparently flourishing village, with a mixed class of houses and a corresponding diversity of population. There is a large factory in the place, to which crowds of young women were trooping during the breakfast hour, when I happened to be there. At the end of the village is Baird Square, a mining settlement owned by various proprietors. Here there are two rows, belonging to Dr Robertson, which are quite as miserable as those already described. They are single apartments, lighted from one side only, with earthen floors patched with pieces of wood, and are all terribly out of repair. The earthen floors are broken up into a series of watery holes, some of which the tenants have filled up with clay and mud from the street Everything is untidy inside and outside. The ashpits and closets are filthy in the extreme, and the road in front of the houses is a dirty puddle. A good deal of overcrowding exists in these rows. In two of the single apartments which I entered there are eight of a family. The rent is 7s a-month. I was informed that Dr Robertson became the proprietor of the houses two years ago, and before that time they were held for 2s a-month, which, I take leave to say, is their full commercial value. In Black's Place, also at Rawyards, I found single apartments rented at 5s a-month, which, relatively to Dr Robertson's, are worth 12s a-month. The sanitary condition of Black's Place, and indeed of all this portion of the village, is highly objectionable.

A couple of miles from Rawyards we come to Rig-End, in which there is a row of houses belonging to Mr Macdonald, M.P. Rig-End boasts of a row of miners' houses belonging to various private proprietors, and another row on the opposite side of the street, the owner of which is Mr Macdonald, M.P. We may confine our attention to those for which the hon. member for Stafford is responsible, and which are fourteen in number. Mr Macdonald is not a mine-owner in the neighbourhood, and therefore his tenants are not of the class whose occupancy comes to an end when they cease to work in a certain pit. Looked at from the outside, these houses do not promise great things, the roof being low and the structure evidently dating back to the beginning of the century. Certainly one cannot find fault with the surroundings. The roadway in front is dry and clean, and a grating placed at the centre of the row, communicating with an underground sewer, carries off all the refuse water of the row. In the background are two well-kept ash-pits and closets. Now let us go inside. The first house, like all the others save one, is a room and kitchen, with broken stone floors in both apartments. It is not by any means a first-rate house, but still it is snug and clean. The next one is unoccupied. In the third house, the woman complains much of damp, which shows itself on the back walls, and renders the room-bed, in which a miner on the night-shift lay sleeping at the time of my visit, a very undesirable resting-place. The fourth house is unoccupied. In the fifth, the mother is lying in bed with cold. It is an extremely damp house, even the fire-place,under the burning coal, giving proof of it, while the back of the bed in which the woman lies, has a cold, moist feeling, although not actually wet. Since coming to the village, she says, the children and herself have scarcely ever been free from illness. The house, she adds, is draughty as well as damp, so that when ''I hang up clothes on the rope in the kitchen, they blow jist as if they were oot by." I did not find any confirmation of the last statement on the occasion of my visit, but in breezy weather I have no doubt the winds whistle cold enough in these old tenements. In the sixth house the stone floor is black with damp, and during storms the rain finds its way into the room through the back wall, and trickles below the drawers and the table. In one of the room beds, one may take off with one's finger-nails the paint and whiting on the wall like soft clay. The seventh house has, in the kitchen, an earthen floor full of holes, and is extremely damp in the room. During rain, the" woman of the house says, "the weet jist rins doon the wa's." The eighth house is not so damp as some of the others, and is on the whole in better repair. The kitchen floor is of earth and wood. The ninth house is superior still; damp is rather suggested than actually presented on the kitchen floor. The tenth house has a very bad kitchen floor, and is also damp a little. In the eleventh house - clean, dry, and well kept - lives an old man, a weaver, who has been very many years in the village, and whose looms occupy the tenement next his own. The twelfth is damp on the kitchen floor, on the walls, and at the back of the beds, where it appears half-way up from the floor. The thirteenth house, a single apartment, is a narrow strip without a fire-place; and the fourteenth, a room and kitchen, is just a repetition of the others as to discomfort. This single apartment is tenanted by an old woman who keeps her son's family next door, and therefore may be said only to sleep in the fireless room, which has for furniture a small table,a chair, a trunk, and a bed. In a corner lies a heap of bricks and rubbish, the debris which has followed the fall of a portion of one of the inner partitions of her son's house, and which is stored here until the tenants have time to build it up again. For all these room and kitchen houses £4 a-year of rent is paid, while for the fireless apartment £2 10s is charged. In the Lothians, coalmasters give such houses for 6d a-week; the three rooms for which £6 10s a-year is got at Rig-End would be let in that district for 9d a-week. or £1 19s a-year. It was explained to me that this £6 10s is a fancy rent, and was originally fixed by a tenant who, being specially anxious to get the three ends, offered £6 10s, and would probably have given more if it had been asked. He only remained in the house for six months, and sub-let it to the present tenants. Good spring water is got at Rig-End.

I was doubtful as to Mr Macdonald being really the proprietor of these houses, and I spoke on the subject to an old woman and an old man who have lived in the village for many years. They told me in effect that Mr Alex. Macdonald, the member for Parliament, became proprietor about ten years ago. He spent a good deal of money in improving the houses and the drainage, but did not succeed in effecting any great change for the better, at least in so far as the interiors are concerned. He was often about the village for a time, but at length he entrusted the management of the houses to a school teacher in Rig-End, now dead, who neglected them, and gave such poor account of his stewardship that for seven or eight years during which he remained in office the landlord only got some £28 altogether. Of late, they have been factored by Mr Archibald Macdonald of Armadale, brother of the member for Stafford, who on the day before my visit to Rig-End, was arranging for their sale, although the rents remain payable to him until May next. It is thus apparent that Mr Macdonald, after becoming proprietor, was anxious to improve the houses; but I can only say that, even with all possible repair, they would still remain poor miners' houses, much below the average of many provided by coal-masters in other districts, Mr Macdonald is also proprietor of the village inn, the landlady of which told me that he has not been in the neighbourhood for a long time. She does not remember to have seen him for at least twelve months. [Glasgow Herald 2 March 1875]