Minutes of Evidence - Coal Industry Commission, 1919

Mrs. Agnes Brown, Sworn and Examined. 30 May 1919

Chairman: I have not the pleasure of having a précis from you of your evidence. I know you have been very busy and have had to travel down from Scotland all last night?—Yes.

I am just going to have a talk with you on this matter, if I may, and you will tell me what your views are. First of all where do you live?— I live at Bellshill.

Are you a miner's wife?—Yes, I have been a miner's wife almost 14 years.

I think you have five children?—Four sons and a daughter.

Probably that keeps you too busy to write an account of your evidence. Will you just tell me what your view first of all is of the housing question, and what you think about it?—My views, so far as I can see, are just the same views as those of my other two friends. I think housing is a very vital question. In Bellshill there are a lot of old miners' houses, but I see one company there is beginning to repair the houses and to put sculleries and sanitation inside. But there are a lot of other houses which require a great deal of repairs. All of them are in a most dilapidated condition. I think Mr. Smillie ought to know it.

Mr. Smillie probably knows all about it, and I will ask him to ask you some questions. Are there many of these one-roomed houses that you know of in your district?—Oh yes, there are quite a lot of one-roomed houses in our district.

What do you think about the one-roomed house? I do not say I agree with it, and in fact I disagree with it, but what is said about them is this: Some people say a one-roomed house is a very convenient thing for an old couple to live in, because they are only by themselves, or for some quite young newly married people to live in, because they are at present by themselves. Do you think a one-roomed house is at all satisfactory for anyone? —I think a one-roomed house is most unsuitable for an aged couple or a young couple. I think they just go into one-roomed houses because they cannot help themselves for the want of houses. In fact I know a lot of young couples who cannot get a one roomed house, and they are living in other people's rooms, and there are others who cannot marry because of the want of houses in Bellshill.

That is not at all satisfactory. Are most of the houses round about you owned by the colliery companies or by private individuals?— There are quite a lot of miners' houses, but there are quite a lot of private houses, too. In fact, the place I stay at is under private ownership, and it is an old, old building and very much in need of repair. It has been condemned since the war broke out.

You heard the last two witnesses, Mrs. Hart and Mrs. Andrews, speak with regard to the sanitary accommodation and the dust-bins. What is your experience with regard to them? Is it the same in your parts?— In the miners' rows they have no sanitation in any way. The ashbin is at the back. They have a square brick thing to which they carry out the ashes, and put them in. There is no sanitation in any way, and the children just run about there.

In your district are there many miners' houses that have baths in them? Have they baths in the private houses of your district?—I would say 1 per cent, in the Bellshill district.

I have asked you all the questions I wanted to ask you about houses. Now I want to come to a very important question, and that is about this question of pithead baths. What do you think about that?—I think it would be a very good idea to have the baths at the pits and baths in the houses, if you could get them. I have known of cases where there were children, and a baby lying in the cot at the fire, and three men's clothes being dried round the fire, and that baby lying ill with pneumonia, and it was detrimental to the baby's health to have that nuisance there.

Do you find in your parts there are different shifts with the men coming home at different times of the day?—Yes; there are three shifts in the day: 7 to 3, 3 to 11, and 11 to 7 in the morning.

And that makes the woman's work never over; she is at it all the time?—Yes.

The sort of thing we have been told here is this, that some time ago the miners did not take very kindly to the question of having pithead baths, but that now a change had come over their views and they were beginning to see the advantages of it, and desire to have thorn. What is your view as to that? Do you think there is that change coming over them? —Yes, I believe the workers mean to have better conditions than they have had in late years and better conditions still in the coming years, and do not mean to put up with the same conditions they had before.

Do you think it is the elder men who rather dislike the idea and the younger men welcome it? What do you think?—I think if the baths were there, they would begin to like it.

You have heard what Mrs. Andrews giving evidence said with regard to the maternity question: Women having to carry very heavy cans of water or tubs about. Do you agree with that yourself?—Yes, I corroborate Mrs. Andrews' statement, so far as that is concerned. I have come against a few cases like that myself.

Now I have asked you all the questions I want to ask you. Do you want to tell me anything yourself? What I am going to do is to ask Mr. Smillie, who comes from your part, to ask you questions, and on the other side I am going to ask Sir Adam Nimmo, who also comes from your part, to ask you questions.

Mr. Robert Smillie: I think it may be taken you agree generally with the statements made by the two previous witnesses?—Yes; I agree in everything they said. I think it is just my own views, and I have nothing further to express apart from what they have stated.

Are you aware that the housing conditions in Lanarkshire are considerably worse than they are in South Wales or elsewhere?—I know the death rate in Bellshill is 150 a year per 1,000 for Bellshill district alone.

Bellshill is a typical mining district surrounded with collieries, is it not?—Yes.

But you have a knowledge of other parts of Lanarkshire, have you not?—I have lived my married life in Bellshill. I have been in Hamilton and a few other places, but not living there.

Round about Bellshill and the close vicinity of Bellshill there are a considerable number of colliers' houses, are there not?—Yes.

Small villages outside Bellshill altogether? —Yes.

A very large proportion of those houses are single-apartment houses?—Yes, quite a lot of houses are single-apartment houses.

Do you know Holytown very well?—Yes.

Do you know the square in Holytown?— Yes.

I think nearly all those houses are single apartment houses?—Yes. I have never been in the houses, but from the look of them I think they are single-apartment houses.

Did you belong to a mining family before you were married?—No, I belonged to a farming family before I was married.

Your experience since you have been married is chiefly mining?—Yes.

You have been married 14 years?—Yes.

It has been suggested here that miners ought to have built their own houses. Has it been your experience during that 14 years that you and your husband were in a position to save money to build a house?—It has been my position in the last 14 years with six in family that if I am able to keep my family week to week, it is all I can do and pay my rent without saving to pay to build a house.

I have had the same experience, but some people think you ought to have built your own house. —According to the reports in the papers we should have been able all to have our own houses from the money the miners are making, but it is not so.

May I take it at the present time you have not much more than enough to keep yourself and children and your husband?—No; and we have not the comforts we ought to have.

May we take it from your own experience in your own house and of the miners and their wives round about, that it would be a very exceptional thing for a miner to be able, during 25 or 30 years, to save enough to build a house?—I think he must deny himself a great deal if he can save anything to build. He must go without the necessary comforts of life.

Do you know there has been for a good many years an agitation in Lanarkshire amongst miners for pithead baths?—Yes.

Do you think that that would make a wonderful difference to the home life of the miners' wives if the pit clothes were left outside at the pit? —Yes, it would be a great deal less work, and we would have much cleaner homes if we had not the pit clothes coming home.

In a single-apartment house, especially where there are children, the drying of the pit clothes is very bad for the children breathing the atmosphere. The pit clothes are dried at night where the pits are day shift?—Yes.

They are hung all around the fire and are drying all night?—Yes.

The pit clothes are usually wet, either with sweat or with natural wet from the mine—they are usually damp when they come in?—I know with my own husband's clothes you could almost imagine they had been washed each night he comes home.

All that drying has to take place in the house itself?—Yes, in the one room; there is no other means. In the summer time you can put them out, but in the winter time or on wet days you must dry them round the fire.

So far as you know, there would be very little objection amongst the men themselves and amongst the miners' wives to have baths at the pit? —So far as I am concerned, and I am interested in the Women's Labour Party in Bellshill, they are all in favour of pit baths. I know, so far as the women are concerned, they are all in favour of pit baths.

If we can get pit baths established, will you and the women undertake that you will never allow the men to go back to the old system?—We will do our very best.

Sir Adam Nimmo: We are all getting stirred up about this housing question, and I think we are anxious to do everything that is practicable to improve matters. But, dealing with the past, would you say that there had been as much interest in the question generally on the part of the whole community as there might have been?—I would not like to commit myself. I know the workers have not been content with the houses they had, only they have been promised better houses this last two or three years and they are beginning to get impatient about them now. They want more than promises saying they are going to get them, when there are no signs of them coming.

Your view is that we have all been more or less slow on the question?—Yes, I think it is time someone -was getting stirred up.

Is it not the case that the local authorities that deal with the housing question have had power to deal with insanitary houses?—I think it is needing even more than local authorities to deal with it.

I agree with you, but I refer to the fact. I suppose you would agree they have had certain powers which they have not put into operation?— I am not quite sure on that point. I know they have not made use of the power they had, anyhow.

That is the point I want. I suppose you know that they have had power to build houses, if they desired to do so?—I only got to know that one night last week at the Trades Council Meeting, when it was read out that the Council had power to advance the workers' money if they could lay so much money down when they would help them with the rest. Why was it not made known to the workers previously to war time?

You will agree that they have not really put into force all the powers that they have had? It is not the workers that have not put it into force, but the Council.

I am not suggesting it is the workers' fault. The miners' representatives have a lot of influence in the various districts, have they not? - The miners' representatives do all they can, but they cannot build houses for all the miners.

But, of course, they might have stirred up the local authorities a little more to try and secure better conditions in housing?—I think, so far as stirring up goes, they have not been asleep. The miners' leaders and the labour agents have been doing it, but I do not think they have been very anxious to be stirred up.

You do not think they have done all they might have done, and you do not think they were anxious to be stirred up?—I think it is want of sympathy with the workers. They do not sympathise with the workers, and think we really want a better condition of life.

We will hope for a better condition of things in that respect in the future. Are most of the houses in the Bellshill district room-and-kitchen houses?—The majority. There are not many other bigger houses. If they built houses like the Government houses that have been built lately, I do not see where they are going to benefit us greatly. The rooms are tiny rooms and the rents are some of them up to £29. How do you expect one miner and family to pay £29 rent?

I can see that that is a very serious problem. Taking the room-and-kitchen house in Scotland, have you not usually two big rooms? The kitchen is usually a pretty big room, is it not?— My kitchen is about 18 feet long and 8 feet wide, and the fireplace site out on the floor. I can whitewash the roof without going on a stool.

It is a low roof?—Yes, so that. I do not reckon that is a big room. The other room is a very small one, a tiny room with a stone floor, with a ceiling you can touch, and which would go inside the kitchen.

In most of the cases of room-and-kitchen, have they not a pretty good-sized kitchen?—In some of the more modern houses they are bigger, but not the old houses.

You are complaining that the houses proposed to be put up by the County Council have too small rooms?—The rooms are not very big, but when you compare the houses with the rent, they are not adequate for the money.

You think you are going to pay too much for what you are going to get?—Yes.

Do you think if larger houses were put up in these districts there would be a strong demand for them?—Yes, and the people would not stay in the houses that they stayed in now if they could get a better house.

Do you think they would be willing to pay a reasonable rent?—Yes, to pay a reasonable rent for a good house.

I think you mentioned that the houses which are occupied by miners in the district which you know do not all belong to the colliery companies? —There are a good many colliery houses round about me, but there are not sufficient miners' houses to house the miners, and they have to go into the other houses.

Would you say, in the district you know about, that the houses which are owned by the colliery owners are any worse than tho other houses: —They are much on a parallel with the other houses. One company in the Bellshill district has started to repair the houses.

The company most concerned in the Bellshill district is Wilson & Clyde, is it not?—Yes.

Have not Wilson & Clyde a lot of very nice houses there?—They are passable houses.

As houses go in the district?—Yes. They have started to put sculleries and lavatories in, but the Douglas Park houses are very poor houses.

That is, they are older houses?—Yes.

I suppose you would agree with Mrs. Hart's reply to Mr. Herbert Smith when she said she looked upon this problem as a national problem. It is a big question ?—Yes.

Requiring to be dealt with for the whole country?—I think, like everything else, it should be a national problem. Everything should be a national problem.

With regard to baths; I suppose you agree that they are desirable?—Yes, they are more than desirable.

And you would like to see them bath at the pit and in the home?—Yes. Another thing I should have mentioned is that there is no recreation ground for children. There are no play-grounds for the children and nothing for the children except the streets.

That may be an improvement that will come?—We have had one or two serious accidents just lately in Bellshill: two children have been killed with the cars in the main streets.

Talking about baths, would you say that before the war there was any real stirring up on this question at all? Would you say that there was a demand on the part of the miners generally for them? —I think there has been always the ambition of the miners to better themselves, but the housing problem has been more an view lately and I think they are getting more discontented with their condition.

Of course, they have had opportunities of approaching the employers, if they had been very anxious on the subject?—I suppose they have approached their employers, but they have not got the sympathy they should have from the employers.

Speaking from the point of view of the miners’ wives, you desire that this question should be taken up seriously and dealt with – I think we should demand that it should be taken up seriously and dealt with as soon as possible.

And you view is that it will add accordingly to the comfort of our homes - I do not see why we should not have better homes and good homes.

Would you compel all the men to take baths if they were erected, or give them their choice? – I would erect the baths and let them take their choice. You cannot compel them to do anything.
(The Witness Withdrew)

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