Notes on Miners' Houses - Part IX
(By Our Own Correspondent)
Mid and East Lothian
The Lothians, in which I have spent a couple of days, are not rich in mines, and colliers are in a minority. When trade was brisk and wages high, they ran up a total of 2400; but now their number barely exceeds 2000. They are a pacific, strike-disliking class of men, the best proof of which is that, previous to the great dispute last year, there had been no general rising since 1842, From what I have been able to gather, the employers exercise the paternal rather than the autocratic rule, and this system of government has, doubtless, had a restraining and soothing influence upon the usually rebellious class over whom they are set in authority. For one thing, some of them give houses to their colliers at rents which may be described, from a high commercial standpoint, as ridiculously low. Elsewhere, the most wretched hovels, having inside and outside all sorts of provocatives to disease, bring a shilling a-week to their owners. In the Lothians inferior houses are occupied for sixpence a-week, really good rooms and kitchens for, eighteen pence a week, and in the case of one row, which I shall afterwards refer to more particularly, four excellent rooms, on the cottage-principle, are held for 2s a-week. A number of years ago, I believe, colliers' houses in the Lothians were usually free; and the Duke of Buccleuch continued this old-fashioned generosity until last' year, when the ''bigstrike" soured the sweetness of his Grace's disposition, or that of his factor, and now rents are exacted which, although moderate, are yet amongst the highest in the district. As a result of long years of peace and prosperity, not a few of the Lothian miners are credited with large-balances at their bankers, amounting in some instances to as much as £400. I was curious to knew whether the wealthier of their number, aspiring to become their own landlords, had invested a portion of their savings in cottages, but I could not hear of more than one or two such cases. They appear to think that money is money only while it exists in the shape of bank notes; when it takes the form of stone and lime it is no longer available capital, and they are not to be tempted to surrender the barren bird in the hand even though the one in the bush may promise a large offspring of percentages. All miners, of course, are not so opposed to investments of this nature; as we learn from the history of a large-co-operative society at Tranent, the membership of which amounts to 600, four-fifths of the number being pit-workers. The association was originated about 13 years ago, and has progressed so satisfactorily that a couple of years since elegant and substantial premises were erected at a cost of £2700. Members who have money invested in the building are allowed 5 per cent., and all shareholders receive a dividend which runs to about 2s 6d a-pound, and a bonus upon purchases averaging about £5 a-year. The society bakes its own bread, makes its own shoes, fashions its own clothes, and also retails groceries, draperies, and household furniture, turning over in this way a sum of about £24,000 annually. The trade, both as to buying and selling, is conducted on ready-money principles, and the capital of the society at last quarterly balance amounted to £4663. As for the "Company" houses in the Lothians they are of a middling description; but the worst I have seen are greatly better than the nurseries of disease and death to be found in the West. Some of them are very old, and ought to be demolished as soon as possible; yet even these are not to be compared for dirt and squalor with Jawcraigs, or "the Briggate" at Mossend, or ''the Hole" at Easterhouse. The sin of which miners' wives here and elsewhere are guilty is that of throwing down ashes anywhere and a knowledge of this, perhaps, makes managers indifferent about erecting ashpits where they do not exist. Otherwise, the people really make the best of things. The custom which prevails in the Lothians of sanding lobbies and stone floors lends a certain air of cleanliness and almost of warmth to the houses, and a strong taste for art finds expression in the cheap engravings and highly-illuminated prints which decorate the walls of the sitting-rooms. Birds are great favourites; in some houses as many as half-a-dozen cages hang all round. Flowers, too, are not neglected. Plants in pots grow inside some of the houses, and flower-plots in front, where they are provided, are not destitute of culture and design even at this season. These, perhaps, are not important details in themselves, but they give character to a district. I may here notice as another token of progress, that the miners in the Lothians have established an Accident, Superannuation, and Widows and Orphans Fund. Members paying three half-pence a-week are entitled, in case of accident, to 10s a-week for ten weeks, and afterwards 7s a-week until they are able to resume work. When superannuated, they receive 7s a- week till death; widows get 6s a-week; and fatherless children 1s a-week till they are twelve years of age. This society has only been in existence for about three months. The weekly payment, which is the same for all members of whatever age above 17 years, has obviously been fixed at the lowest rate, but power is taken to increase it if this should be found necessary. Members below 17 years of age pay three-halfpence a fortnight.
In the course of my two days' travelling, I was able to visit in Mid-Lothian, Cowdenfoot, Millerhill, Adam's Row, Newtongrange, Huntersfield, and Stobhill; and in East Lothian, Elphinstone, Macmirrie, and Penstone. I shall not go into minute detail regarding these villages, adverting only to their leading features, whether favourable or unfavourable, which may be done in one letter.
At Cowdenfoot the houses, which were erected about thirty years ago, belong to the Duke of Buccleuch, and were free to the tenants till the strike last year, the rents now being 7s a month. They are stone houses, having each a room and kitchen, a larder entered from the kitchen, and a water-closet, ventilated from the roof, or by an opening in the back wall. Ample light is afforded by a double diamond-paned window in front, and a smaller one behind. The apartments are large, with stone or earth floors, and there is a kitchen garden behind all the houses, as well as flower-plots in front of some of them. Cowdenfoot comprises somewhere about 40 dwellings, built in two widely-separated rows, with a considerable stretch of intervening grass. Damp is complained of in some of the houses, but it does not exist to any serious extent. Ash-pits are provided, although the villagers are too much in the habit of laying down refuse in the most convenient place. Cowdenfoot is supplied with excellent spring water, rising some three miles away, and filtered outside the village, and it has also a large schoolhouse.
Millerhill, originally a mining village, is now largely peopled by the employees of the North British Railway Company. There are two rows of houses, all of them old, and some rather damp. On the whole, however, they are not bad houses. Sir John Don Wauchope is the proprietor; and the rent for rooms, and kitchens is l0d a-week, and for single apartments 6d a-week. In one of the houses, tenanted by a miner, I noticed a sewing machine in the kitchen, and a small conservatory at the extremity of the kitchen garden behind. There are no ashpits in the village, and closets are only erected for one of the rows. The old Edinburgh custom is observed of laying down ashes, &c., in buckets in front of the door, from which they are carted away daily. In remote villages, otherwise apt to be neglected, this is a very excellent system. A plentiful supply of good spring water is got from two wells.
At Adam's Row, about a quarter of a mile from Millerhill, the houses are tenanted by miners in the employment of the Niddrie Coal Company. There are two rows of old houses, some of them uninhabited, and the remnant of an ancient square, which in its prolonged tussle with time has had greatly the worst of it, some of the houses being roofless, and others reduced to the foundations. No regular ashpit is erected and the village is in a very dirty state, the roadway in front and the garden ground behind being alike untidy. There is not a closet in the place, but a deposit of bricks near the end of the long row is the forerunner, I am told, of such outhouses. For small room and kitchen houses the rent is 5s a-month, and for single apartments 3s 4d a-month. They are poor houses, but not positively unhealthy. Two wells give a never-failing supply of good spring water.
Newtongrange is a large village near the residence of the Marquis of Lothian, who is the proprietor of it and also of Newbattle Colliery at a short distance. This is; I believe, the largest colliery in Mid or East Lothian, employing at least 500 men. Of this number about a half live at Newtongrange where there are a great many rows of houses built back to back, with a space of about twelve feet between them, on which coal-houses are erected. In front are long patches of garden ground. The houses, for the most part dry and comfortable, are rooms and kitchens of various sizes, the rents varying from 3s to 5s 6d a-month, according to accommodation. There are no ashpits in the village but two men are employed to keep things tidy, and they appear to do their work very thoroughly. Except in connection with what I may call the Cottage Row, closets are also entirely awanting. These cottage houses are of brick, and are simply a continuous line of one storey erections, to which a couple of years since good attics were added. On the ground storey are a kitchen and sitting-room, both of good size, and in the attics, reached from the kitchen by a wooden staircase lighted from the roof, are two bed-rooms of similar dimensions. The doors on the ground are of stone, those above of wood, and there are two or three "presses" to each house. They are capital dwellings; and the rent is only 8s a-month. In front are large kitchen gardens, and behind coal-houses and closets - the latter being kept locked. There is a good supply of water at Newtongrange, which is in all respects a well-ordered village.
At Huntersfield the houses belong to or are leased by the Arniston Colliery Company. This firm only acquired the pits in May last, and have nearly completed the erection of a brick row of room and kitchen houses at the entrance to the village. Beyond this are two rows of old room and kitchen houses, and down the hill other rows of a similar description - my inquiries being confined to the two first mentioned. Some of them are rather below the level of the ground outside, and are generally damp, from which others well raised above the road are free. Several of the houses, too, are lighted only from the front. Ashes and other refuse are thrown into, the highway before the doors, and taken away, not every day, but with tolerable regularity. There are very few closets in the village. Huntersfield is badly supplied with water. It is pumped up from the South Esk, which flows down in the hollow, and is delivered without without filtration through iron pipes. In summer youths bathe in the Esk, and in winter, during rainy weather, the water is sometimes so highly coloured that the people cannot use it, but get their wants supplied at Newbyres farm, about a quarter of a mile away. Some of them use rain water. I spoke to several of the colliers as to the appearance of the water during the wet season, and they said it sometimes resembled all. I saw it at its best. It looked very well, but Nessler's test showed distinct impurity.
Stobhill, which lies close to Huntersfield, also belongs to the Arniston Company. They are old, feeble houses, a number of them torn down, while some of those which, are inhabited are complained of as being damp. The rents are ls a-week for room and kitchens, and 6d for single apartments. Large ashpits are provided, but no closets. The water, which is taken from a draw-well at the foot of a field, is of good quality, but the situation is such that in rainy weather it receives impurities flowing from the surface of the field, which slopes down to the wall. It is built over so loosely at the back that a heavy fall of rain must add to it what should be excluded by its proper enclosure and the erection of a pump.
Elphinstone is a large village, which, like many of its neighbours, has seen better days. It belongs chiefly to Messrs Deans & Moore. Bellyford Row consists of good room and kitchen houses, at 5s a-month, with coal-houses and kail-yards behind. The floors are of brick, and they are quite dry, being well raised from the level outside. The houses in the other parts of the village are old, and, many of them damp, room and kitchen houses being rented at 6s a-month. Good water is obtained from two wells in the village. In summer it is occasionally scarce.
The village of Macmirrie, also connected with the collieries of Messrs Deans & Moore, is remarkable as containing a row of the oldest houses I have seen in the Lothians. They are not peculiar in having red-tile roofs, for that is the material commonly employed in the district, even where the houses are new, but they are exceptional as regards age and decrepitude. The floor is below the level of the road in front, which creates damp during rainy weather; the windows in front and back are small, and in most of the houses the slates overhead are only shut out from sight by stretches of paper, which are protected against the detached fragments of the roof dislodged during high winds by sacking being placed above. The houses are all very much alike, rooms and kitchens being 6d a-week. A number of them are unoccupied, and those which are still let are as tidy as it is possible to make them. The company, I was told, intend to demolish them and erect others. They cannot do so too soon. On the other side of the road is a comparatively new row of good room and kitchen houses with high ceilings and stone floors. The rent is 9d a week. The erection of another row is almost completed, and the houses will soon be ready for occupancy. Good spring water is got from a draw well, and is sufficient for the wants of the village both in winter and summer.
Penstone, also belonging to Messrs Deans & Moore, is to a large extent a repetition of Macmirrie, with the sweeping exception of the water, which is not satisfactory. They are old houses, imperfectly lighted, generally damp, and with such low ceilings that in going out by one of the back doors I knocked my head against the tiles, and I am not absurdly tall. In one of the rooms the roof is supported by an upright and a cross beam. There is plenty of garden land in connection with the houses, but no closets. Water for cooking purposes may be obtained from a draw well and two pumps, although practically the draw well alone can be used, and that in a continuous way only during winter, for sometimes in summer it is said to be "like glaur." Even in the cold months it does not serve the village, and about four months ago, at considerable expense on the part of the company, two pump wells were opened. This, however, proved to be one of those good intentions which are proverbially doomed to failure. I tested a sample of this water, which on the addition to it of Nessler's fluid became blueish in colour, and curdled like milk which has soured. In this, as in all cases where I have any reason to believe there is considerable impurity, I applied the test twice. The result each tune was the same. The home supply of water being thus deficient, the people have to go for it to Henmoor or Ceety, both about a mile distant. [Glasgow Herald 8 February 1875]