Minutes of Evidence - Coal Industry Commission, 1919

Dr. John Thomson Wilson, Sworn and Examined. 29 May 1919

Chairman: I believe you are a Doctor of Medicine and you hold the Diploma of Public Health, and you are Medical Officer of the County of Lanark and Medical Officer of Health of the three County Sanitary Districts?—Yes.

You say, in the course of your précis:-
"The County of Lanark is, for the administration of Public Health, divided into three areas, the Upper, Middle, and Lower Ward Districts. Each area is administered by a District Committee, and, except in matters of capital expenditure and rating, act almost independently of the County Council in all matters relating to Public Health. Coal mining is an important industry in the Middle Ward, which is a large industrial area. The Upper Ward is largely agricultural, but in certain localities there is a considerable mining population. The Lower Ward, which is near Glasgow, has also some miners. The statistics relating to these areas are as follows."

You show here a table of "Occupation Mortality in Scotland." I think this is with regard to all Scotland, is it not?—Yes.

We have already had that. I thought perhaps it referred to Lanark itself, but I will just draw attention to the three salient facts. You take a table of deaths per 1,000 workers, age period 25 to 45, for the period 1890 to 1892. Agricultural labourers seem to be the lowest with 4.52, and builders, masons and bricklayers seem to be the highest with 15.04. Coal and shale miners are 7.3. I think those figures come out more or less the same with regard to the years 1900-1902?—Yes.

I think the same proportion is maintained at the next age period, which is between 45 and 65?— Yes.

Then you set out a very interesting table which we have also had given to us. Then we come to another interesting table (Table A) at the bottom of page 2 showing the "Comparative Mortality of Men. 25 to 65 years of age, in different occupations. 1881-2-3." I think the people who seem to live longest areclergymen, priests, and ministers. Gardeners are next with 108; coal miners are 160. Inn and hotel service seems to be the worst with 307. That table is set out under the heading of 'Mortality in Relation to Occupation," by Dr. William Ogle, and the last paragraph of that reads: —
"Of the death-rates thus obtained the lowest was that of men in the clerical profession, and for the sake of easy comparison I have taken this lowest death-rate as my standard. I represent it by 100, and the death-rate of each other profession or industry is represented by a figure duly proportionate to this standard."

Then it goes on to set them all out. Then on the top of page 3, second column, it says: —
"There remains yet one industry among those exposed to inhalation of dust of which I have not yet said anything—I mean coal mining. This I have reserved to the last, as requiring special consideration. Seeing the conditions under which coal miners work, in a hot and dust-laden atmosphere, and their terrible liability to fatal accident, it might naturally be expected that their death-rate would be excessively high. As a matter of fact, this is far from being the case. Even when fatal accident is included their death-rate is by no means an excessively high one; and, putting accidents aside, the death-rate from disease alone is exceptionally low, being almost exactly the same as that of agricultural labourers.

The question is, To what is this comparative exemption due? There are two possible explanations: one, that it is simply due to the picked character of the miners, inasmuch as none but strong men are likely to adopt so laborious a calling; the other, that there is some special preservative condition attaching to the industry; and, as the most notable of the conditions under which the coal miner works, is the necessary inhalation of coal dust, or other matter given off from coal, it is to this that most writers who have adopted the second explanation attribute the comparative immunity. 'It is in the highest degree probable,' says Dr. Hirt in his well-known treatise, 'that coal dust possesses the property of hindering the development of tuberculosis, and of arresting its progress.'"

Then you set out a number of most interesting figures and we are much obliged to you for your proof.

Mr. Robert Smillie: (To the Witness.) I think you can say a few words on the housing question of Lanarkshire?—Yes.

I suppose you know the housing conditions of the Lanarkshire miners?—Yes, and I did send on some proofs of that some time ago and I have some of the details here.

Chairman: Would you just tell us what they are. We have not time to go through the 60 or 70 pages of proof which you have been good enough to send in. Will you just tell us from your own knowledge?—The tables taken from the last census show that the two-apartment dwellings prevail mostly, but one-apartment dwellings come next, and then the three and four-apartment class, and then above that.

Mr. R. Smillie: Do you remember going round a portion of the county with Mr. Forgie, Dr. Haldane and myself?—Yes, I do.

I think we went to your house when we finished?—Yes.

Do you remember showing a map of the county in which there were certain black spots?—Yes.

I think you yourself had prepared it from your own knowledge?—Yes. You were naturally anxious to find out what accommodation was available for washing in the miners' houses.

That was the reason for our visit?—Yes, and I took you to the parts where I thought you would see the evidence you wished to get.

I want to call attention to that map. On that map you pointed out certain parts which were darkened, and you said if any infectious disease broke out, you would know at once where it would spread to. Do you remember that?—No, I do not remember that particularly, but the localities I took you to were Blantyre and Bellshill, and round that way.

I want to call attention to the map which you showed?—I am sorry, I cannot remember that.

Had you a map in your house of the county in which there were dark portions, one being Blantyre and two or three other- places as to which you told Dr. Haldane and the rest of us that if any infectious disease broke out it would be sure to spread to those particular parts?—No, I do not remember that, I assure you.

Is the housing worse in some parts than others?—Yes.

Have you a map in your house with black portions on it where the housing is worse? No I have not such a map that I can remember, but a great deal has been done since you and Dr. Haldane went round with me in meeting those conditions, in Blantyre we have had water-closets introduced. I remember Dr Haldane being shocked at the midden privy system in the Blantyre area where you had miners houses with midden privies, but within two or three years of your being there they were all converted into water-closets.

But that is not the case all over the county? —No, it is not the case all over the county, but it was very largely introduced wherever there is a good water supply and an efficient drainage system. In other words, although we had in the City of Glasgow the midden privy system existing for a long time, and longer than in other parts of Scotland, yet we tried to introduce that water-closet system very fully and completely.

I think it is six or seven years since we were round?—It is more than that.

It is when the Royal Commission on Mines was sitting, 1909 or 1910?— I have your report beside me and I think the date of that report was earlier than 1909 or 1910.

Well, it is hardly necessary to trouble about the time, you were strong in your condemnation of single-apartment houses for the miners at that time, were you not?—Yes.

I think you went so far as to say that no family should be required to live in a house of one apartment?—Yes, I believe I expressed myself that way.

I think for some years you have done everything in your power to induce the County Council to see to it, and that your scheme of housing was carried out to that extent?—Yes.

Have you changed your mind since then? —No; but I may say that, so far as coal owners' housing is concerned, we have had no plan since 1900 which shows one-apartment dwellings. That is to say, I can give you figures of the actual number of houses built by coal owners since 1900 and I think there are only 12 out of 1,000, which is- about 1 per cent.

Have you changed your mind on the question of one-apartment houses?—No.

You are still of opinion that families should not live in one-apartment houses?—Yes, but there is this difficulty. If miners marry early and they have no way of furnishing more than a one-apartment house, we would rather see them in a one-apartment house suitably constructed than living in lodgings or something worse than that. Take things as they are to-day; you have miners getting married and the wife going to her home and the husband going to his mother's home and living there when they are married. You have also the case where the wife lives with a married sister or some relation of that kind. Now that is a very undesirable thing. No matter how humble the home may be, it is certainly far better than starting married life under these conditions.
I think you have gone the length of expressing your opinion that a one-apartment is very suitable for an aged couple or a young married couple?—I believe that was a reasoned argument as conditions existed in 1909.

Is that really your feeling?—If they can afford something better, good and well: but it is far better to be living in a little house of their own than to be living in lodgings.

But that is not the way in which it is put. That it is far better that they should be living indoors than lying outside anyone would admit, but it is put that you rather advocate a single-apartment house?—No, I am not an advocate of single-apartment houses. I can get the actual words of the Report if you like. You will find it is a reasoned argument which I can go over bit by bit, and if you find me wrong, you can correct me. I am not an advocate of one-apartment houses. We have a very high birth-rate in our districts due to the fact largely that people marry early in life and often with not sufficient means to furnish a house and live under these conditions properly.

Of course at the present time you know in nearly all the mining; centres in the middle of the County that the people who have married recently, the young people, have very often gone into a room of either the man's father or mother, or the woman's father or mother where there has been a two-apartment house?—Yes.

You know there are two families in many cases living in a single-apartment house?—Yes, very largely due to the war condition. That is to say, all building operations ceased during the war and many of these men have come back from the war and were anxious to get married without delay.

But for fifteen years you have been advocating that there should be some scheme of housing in Lanarkshire?—Yes.

I believe you have been doing everything in your power, or were at one time, to get the county authorities to move?—Yes.

But you could not get them to move?—I do not think you should put it in that way. Up to 1909 we did not have Parliamentary power; that is to say, the Housing and Town Planning Act, 1909, was the first Act of Parliament that gave us much power to go ahead with the housing scheme. Since then we have also had the miners' agents on our country committees, who have been most helpful in pushing along with things, and I should think you may take it that with a mining agent as Chairman of our Housing Committee in the Middle Ward things have been going along very well.

You do not seem to be moving very much? —Yes we are.

With regard to the housing accommodation in Hamilton, are you responsible to the Borough Council?—No.

Take Larkhall and so on. If there were houses available for the workmen to go to do you think you would be justified in condemning some 1,000 houses as unfit for the people to live in?—I have given actual figures in my précis, but I will put it to you in this way. Four years before the war 1,000 were condemned and 4,000 were renovated. We have on our books just now about 2,000 that require to be dealt with and are being dealt with in the way of new housing schemes.

May I take it the majority of the older houses owned by colliery companies are simply founded on the clay without any attempt to have a damp-course to them?—I think that the houses built in early days were so constructed, but I think the bulk of them now have been condemned as unfit for human habitation. That is to say, the lack of a damp-proof course may give rise to dampness, and that we say is a nuisance, dangerous to health, and we condemn the house if it is damp.

Would you believe about 70 per cent, of the houses owned by employers in Lanarkshire are of that kind and that it is only those built within the last 10 or 15 years that have a damp-course?—I could not give you figures, but I will take it from you if you say so. Of course, it does not prove dampness. It is quite easy to protect a house without a damp course and not have dampness in the walls, but a great deal depends upon the subsoil.

I think your explanation as to the low death-rate of the miner is probably accurate, and I was going to put it to you, but you put it more clearly than I can. You say it may be accounted for by the fact that it is only the strong that go to the mines?—Yes.

And probably the weaker are kept out of the mines and put to some other industry. Is the mortality amongst other children more favourable than amongst the miners'? That is to say comparing miners' children with other children?—Comparing the miners' children as a class with the children of another class?

No, I mean the children of the mining villages of Lanarkshire as we understand them as compared with the middle-class and upper-class children ?—Well, I will put it in this way, that the infant death-rate—that is to say infants under one year of age—among the mining classes is higher than among the wealthier classes. If you take houses of three or four and more rooms, the death-rate may be only 60 per thousand infants, but among the mining communities it is perhaps as high as 110 or 120. But you have to remember that the population that produces most of our babies to-day is the working classes.

But it is percentages you are dealing with? - I want to lay stress on the fact that where the mortality is high you have also a high birth rate, and it is the working classes that have the highest birth rate.

Does not the same apply as you go higher up than one year? Does it not also apply to two years?—I have no statistics taken out for that age period, but I believe for the next two or three years it will be high.

You do not know whether it has been higher in the past or not?—So far as my own statistics are concerned I have not taken out the figures.

Sir Adam Nimmo: I think you have heard the criticism and know something about the criticism which has been passed upon coal owners in Scotland with regard to the housing conditions of their men. May I ask if you regard that criticism as quite fair? —No. I am sorry Mr. Robertson was not aware of the immense improvements that have been carried out since the 1909 Report was issued. Take the firm of James Nimmo and Company.

That is specially referred to; perhaps you would deal with it now?— The information in 1909 was that the conveniences consisted of pail privies and open ash-pits. We got a drainage scheme introduced into the Holytown area, and immediately afterwards water closets were provided. We then got a scavenging scheme introduced, and the ash-pits were abolished also. So that the fact with regard to privies and open ash-pits is that they are non-existent.

In fact, the statement made by Mr. Robertson was not correct?—That is so.

And did not represent actually the position at the time he spoke?—It did not.

Do you know the houses at Eastfield in the Longrend district?—I did at one time, but it is a very decadent area, and they are practically all empty now.

Do you know that certain houses there were reconstructed at the beginning of the war?—Yes.

Twenty houses?—Yes.

Do you know whether all these houses have been occupied or not?—No, they have not all been occupied, but water closets were provided in each of these houses.

Do you know whether the poorer houses in the neighbourhood have been occupied in preference to those houses?—I do not know that.

Do you think that the housing conditions of the mining population in Scotland do prejudicially affect the death rate among the miners?—It is exceedingly difficult to associate health and housing. That is to say, you will get a very bad house, or a lot of bad housing, and yet the mortality would not be as high as you would expect it to be. In going into a court of law we do not require to produce vital statistics to prove that there is actual injury to health going on, because it is impossible; but we simply state that there are sanitary defects which must be dealt with.

Do you think the man in the south quite understands the housing question in Scotland?— Well, I have been through some of the mining areas about Coventry with a committee, and I know the housing there is very different to what we have, but we have adopted in our new scheme somewhat that plan and type. The two large apartments provided for the Scottish houses will contain, perhaps, as much cubic space as the three and four apartments in the South Country house.

Is that not a fact very much overlooked in comparing houses in Scotland with houses in England?—I believe it is.

That the two rooms in the houses in Scotland are much bigger?—They are.

Are the miners' houses in Scotland that you know of either better or worse than the housing conditions generally applicable to the industrial population?—No, the housing conditions relating to all classes of labour are on the same plan, more or less.

Have you found that the coalowners in Scotland have been very ready to carry out your instructions in regard to improvements on houses where you considered them necessary?—Most of them have; there are just one or two exceptions.

But generally speaking?—Generally speaking they have been very ready and very willing, and I would say this much, that notwithstanding the fact that in the City of Glasgow you had the working classes housed in one-apartment dwellings—even provided by the Corporation of Glasgow and provided with common conveniences—yet you have certain firms, like James Nimmo, whom I will take again, if you like, who were amongst the earliest to provide single water closets and sanitary conveniences for each dwelling.

Have the houses which have been put down by the coal owners in Scotland been steadily progressive?—They have, undoubtedly.

What is the character of the most recent houses which have been erected in Scotland?—They are big, roomy, two-apartment dwellings, each with their own scullery, water closet, slop-sink, gravitation water supply and everything that you would desire in the way of modern conveniences.

As a medical officer, have you looked upon that housing accommodation as satisfactory?—I have plans in my possession that I can show you to prove that.

Are you aware of the statement that was referred to by Mr. Robertson, which was alleged to have been made by Dr. Russell, the late Medical Officer of Health for Glasgow?—Yes No doubt it is an affecting story, but the Glasgow Corporation, whom he served, appointed a Housing Commission some 10 or 12 years ago, and after that Commission sat and deliberated, the Corporation built workmen's dwellings, all one and two-apartments, in the proportion of three one's to six two's. These are out in the Riddrie district.

Do you know when Dr, Russell's statement was made?—It is long ago.

24.115. Was it as far back as 1888?—Perhaps not quite so far back as that. He wrote it in connection with a Church Society.

Mr. Herbert Smith: May I ask you one question, because I want to see what Mr. Robertson said? You seem rather anxious to defend James Nimmo & Co. Let us see what he said in his précis? —What I said is perfectly true.

But let us see what Mr. Robertson said in his précis with regard to James Nimmo & Co.:—"James Nimmo & Co. (Chairman, Sir Adam Nimmo; Chairman, National Association of Coal owners), Holytown Mine." Then you refer to pages 175 and 176 of the Medical Officer's Report, which says this: — "Holytown Mine. 438 employed. One hundred and seven two-apartment houses, one storey, brick built. No damp-proof course, No garden ground. Sculleries used as wash-houses, no boilers, thirty-six pail privies; eighteen open ashpits"?—That was all remodelled when we got that drainage system introduced and the scavenging system.

Is that on pages 175 and 176 of the Medical Officer's Report?—May I get it?

I mean what Mr. Robertson said?—I have I copy of the report here; I can tell you.

Is this what Mr. Robertson said. He is only quoting the Medical Officer?—There was a very fiery paragraph in our "Glasgow Herald"—"Deplorable Conditions." May I call your attention to it? —I have the cutting here (producing same.)

I can understand Sir Adam Nimmo wishing to get clear of it, but I want to know what the doctor said?—What was said was true at the time the report was made. Why Mr. Robertson made a mistake was that he did not find out what alterations were made.

I want to have a word with you on your experience of Scotland because we happen to know something about Scotland. I went up to Scotland in 1887 and went to Cambuslang. Do you think it was unusual to have to be called out of bed because you were in the same room where child-birth was going to take place, as these were only one roomed houses?—That is not desirable.

Is it true, as a matter of fact, that it has happened scores of times?—First of all, I was born in Cambuslang, and I remember quite early the miners rows when I was there, but I cannot say what was the accommodation provided. What part of Cambuslang are you referring to?

I was there in 1887.

Sir Arthur Duckham: Does that affect us today?

Mr. Herbert Smith: There seems to be an intention to glide over this. We are talking about one-room houses. Sir Adam objected when Mr. Frank Hodges made a statement saying it was not so, but I put it, and the doctor seems to agree. There are single-room houses now and he recommends two-room houses. (To the Witness.) Have you two-room houses where you live?—Two-room houses are very popular with the working class.

Have you a two-room house where you live? —No.

Would you like to live in a two-room house? —I believe I would.

Well, there are plenty if your idea Is carried out, to go into. I suggest you ought to show an example by living in one?—With regard to Cambuslang, I was not Medical Officer of Health in those days. Cambuslang in 1887 was simply managed by a Parish Council.

One of the things I want to make clear now you are here is that Mr. Robertson was here before, and all he quotes is a Medical Officer's statement?— What he did quote I believe might be true at the time the report was made. What I am telling you now is that that report would show that it was a basis of action, and immediately the facts were put before the various sanitary authorities, they did take action.

I think you will admit Scotland is fifty years behind England?—We have been a poor people compared with England.

You will admit that there are many scores of houses now in a similar position to what James Nimmo & Company's houses were in when this report was made?—Yes, and if we, are only spared for a few years, they will soon be wiped out.

You have a lot of sins to wipe out and the sooner you start the better.

(The Witness withdrew.)

Extract from Coal Industry Commission Vol II Reports and Minutes of Evidence of the Second Stage of the Inquiry, 1919