‘The Dens and Hovels of Dundee’: Tyndal’s Wynd (5 January, 1889)

The following is one of several articles on the poorest areas of Dundee which were published in ‘The Peoples Journal’ from the end of 1888. Tindal’s Wynd, which is the focus here, was one of the oldest streets in Dundee.

The purpose of the journalist was to reveal the terrible problems facing those living in the slums (“rookeries”) of Dundee and is spelled out in the first of this series:

It is my purpose to direct attention to both classes of insanitary buildings—the old and the new—and to describe from personal inspection the hovels and “rookeries” of this city. The evil has grown so rampant that the Police Commissioners, on the repeated suggestions of the Medical Officer of Health, have at length begun to move in this matter, and my object is to assist them as far as possible in their investigations. In the course of these inquiries, I shall be able to reveal a side of social life and its environments the existence of which is little suspected by a great many people resident in Dundee.

Compared with what I have seen elsewhere in the city during the past six weeks the slums in Tindal’s Wynd and district are decidedly the worst. The district is bounded on the North by the High Street, on the East by Castle Street, on the South by Doig’s Entry, and on the West by Tindal’s Wynd. In the area there are 22 one-roomed houses, 31 two-roomed houses, 7 three-roomed houses, and 1 five-roomed house. Of these 3 one-roomed and 4 two-roomed houses are empty. The tenements are four and five storeys in height, and the inhabitants number over 230. When it is mentioned that there is neither a privy nor ashpit within the boundaries named, that a washing-house was never heard of in the locality, and that in only one tenement has water been introduced, the sanitary condition of the place will be readily conceived.

Tindal’s Wynd, or Skirling’s Wynd as it was called 300 years ago, was at one time a fashionable place. It was there that the town residences of the Wedderburas, the Rollocks, and the Lovells were situated. But what a change has taken place within the three past centuries! The buildings have become dilapidated, and the houses, which have been converted into one, two, and three rooms, are now occupied by the poorest of the poor. Scores of people are huddled together in ill-ventilated, dark, and dirty tenements, and the courts, passages, and staircases are covered with mud and filth, giving to the place a most wretched and forbidding appearance. The tenants seem to have no desire to improve their miserable surroundings, and indeed empty the “ashes of their houses” in the handiest corner. Heaps of this refuse lie exposed till the scavengers come round—which is not always at the appointed time—and the stench arising from the accumulated filth even in cold weather is overpoweringly strong.

After inspecting the houses on the second and third storeys of the land, entering from the “Water Close”—so called, I suppose, because the water supply for the tenement is obtained from a common well in the court—I ascended a rickety wooden stair to the garrets above. In one of these I found six children sitting around an expiring fire. The eldest girl, twelve years of age, was nursing an infant about thirteen months old. The poor child had not a stitch of clothing on its body, and when I asked the reason the girl stated that the infant would not let her clothes be put on. On looking round the room I discovered that there were no spare garments about, and I judged that the statement had been purposely made by the girl to mislead me. The miserable garret, which was lighted by a projecting window and a skylight, was destitute of furniture of any kind. The children were seated on boxes and tin cases, which evidently served the purpose of a table and seats for the family. The atmosphere of the room was very heavy.

On looking over the hovel I discovered a small closet about three feet by five feet, in which were a quantity of dirty clothes and a bucket filled with filth. There is a police regulation to the following effect:—”The dung, fulzie, soil, dirt, ashes, and filth from premises within the burgh may, when not specially prohibited by these regulations, be conveyed to the streets or public lanes or ways in buckets or other vessels at the sound of a bell, to be rung upon the approach of the dung carts; and these buckets or other vessels shall be put down on the side of the street, lane, or way, free of the footpath or foot-pavement, and near to but free of the stand or water-run, and shall then be emptied into the carts or other vehicles by the scavengers.” The police regulation or bye-law may be all very well in the interests of landlords who will not provide sanitary conveniences for their tenants, but in the case of this particular family what are the consequences? The father is a fish-cadger, who pays no attention to the children; the mother works in the mill, and she leaves home at a very early hour in the morning. The filth is allowed to accumulate, and to remain in the dwelling all day, and the starvelings—for they cannot be designated as anything else—have to breathe the vitiated atmosphere until the pail is removed at night. This is often done when the bell carts have passed, and the refuse of this and other wretched homes is pitched down in a corner very near the windows of the houses on the ground floor. This statement may seem a little coloured, but it is true, and can be verified. The rent of the garret I have described is, I believe, 1s 3d a week.

At the Southern extremity of the court mentioned is a second staircase, which externally has a very tumble-down appearance. The houses on the lower storeys are in rather good order, and the inmates seem to take some pains to keep them clean and tidy. The stairs, however, are very dirty and covered with filth, and the adjoining courts are littered with dirt. The lobby, if the dirty passage leading to the house could be so called, was black with smoke and dust, the flooring was broken in several places, and the roof was open so that one could see the rafters and the pipes of the chimneys from the rooms below. The garrets could hardly be called houses.

The first one I entered was being cleaned for the New Year by the tenant. It was not so large as a prison cell, and it was lighted by a sort of triangular window, which had evidently been improvised at some time for the purpose. The walls were “blistered,” the plaster was broken in several places, and the poor inmate had scarcely any furniture to speak of and no bed.

Next door was a family left, like many others in Dundee, to their own dreary company. There were five children, and I was told that there was only one suit of clothes amongst the whole. The eldest boy—a bright, intelligent looking lad of about ten summers—had nothing on but a pair of trousers. His skin was dirty, and his little shoulder blades, which were sharp and unlike the rounded bones of youth, seemed to be cutting the skin. The other children—some of whom have not been outside the door since October for want of clothing—were in the same state of semi-nudity and filth. The floor of the miserable shanty was broken about the centre, and in the cavity the dust and dirt of ages were accumulating. The laths were sticking through the plaster, and the glass of the small projecting window, which partially lit up the dismal hovel, was broken. There was very little furniture in the room. From a fixed-in bed a horrible smell proceeded, and on investigation I found that besides a pail full of rubbish and excretion, the floor was covered with the latter. The rent of the hovel, I understand, is 1s 6d a week.

For the miserable condition of the family the landlord is not to blame; still it must be borne in mind that if he did his duty by his tenant the sanitary condition of the house would he very much improved and the health of the inmates conserved. The Police Commissioners have ample powers, and why they allow such fearful dens as are to be seen in Tindal’s Wynd to exist is a mystery to most people outside the Commission. Great alterations and improvements require to be carried out in the locality, and that at once. Otherwise in case of disease breaking out the consequences are sure to be serious. Meantime the place could be kept much cleaner.

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