‘The Dens and Hovels of Dundee’: Scouringburn (8 December, 1888)

The following is the first of several articles on the poorest areas of Dundee which were published in ‘The Peoples Journal’ from the end of 1888. The area around Scouringburn is the focus of this article.

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 introduction:

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.

Dr Richardson’s Utopian ideas of what should constitute a perfect city of health are not likely soon to be realised. In an ancient burgh such as Dundee there is always the difficulty of getting rid of the antiquated buildings which are no longer suited for modern occupants, and in many cases a proper oversight is not maintained so as to prevent the erection of new buildings that are quite as insanitary as the older dwellings. Edinburgh and Glasgow have “rookeries” not yet grown black with age, and even Dundee, despite the extensive reconstructing of some parts of it, is not free from the evil influences of speculative buildings of this kind. Considerable powers have been granted to the Police Commissioners by recent legislation to enable them to cope with this difficulty, but there are many methods of evading the law or despising the officers of it. 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.

The locality bounded on the West by Blinshall Street, on the South by Scouringburn, and on the East by Session Street, and extending backwards to within a short distance of Guthrie Street, is one of the foulest and most dilapidated “rookeries” in the city. Blackened with the smoke and dust of scores of years, and worn by the action of the weather, the blocks of buildings facing the streets named have a most forbidding appearance. The square inside, which should have been laid out as bleaching greens, with washing-houses, ashpits, &c., is filled with old buildings two and three storeys in height, which were wont to be occupied by families for the most part, but are now almost empty and partially in ruins. Running up between these buildings are Ramsay’s pend, Millar’s Pend, and Whitton’s Pend, all of which, at the time I visited them, were strewn with refuse and filth.

A Disgraceful State Of Matters.

In the ten inhabited blocks facing the streets the utmost disregard is paid to the laws of health—in fact, the locality may be said to be without any sanitary arrangements whatever. There are 81 one-roomed, and 31 two-roomed houses occupied, while 33 one-roomed and 3 two-roomed houses are unlet. Though there are 303 persons cooped up in these dens, there is neither a W.C. nor an ashpit in the whole square, nor is there a single washing-house; and only in two of the blocks are the whole of the houses provided with water-taps inside. Is it to be wondered at that the pends, passages, and staircases should be filthy, that rank odours should abound even in cold weather, or that disease should seldom be absent from the place.

Ramsay’s Pend is decidedly the worst of the three larger passages leading into this dirty den. Most of the inhabitants of the Westmost tenements enter by it to their wretched homes, and to the taller residenters it must be a difficult matter. The Scouringburn end of the pend, as will be seen from our sketch, is very low. The height from the street level is only 4 feet 9 inches, but as the pend is on an inclined plane, its height inside the square is 7 feet 3 inches. The width of the pend is 7 feet 8 inches. It is superfluous to add that there is an entire absence of cleanliness about the walls and roof of the pend.

On emerging from the pend I found myself in a court hemmed in by buildings more or less decayed and dirt-begrimed. A coal shed, evidently recently erected, was the only building which I could say was in a perfect state of repair. It is on the East side of the court. On the North side is a building, apparently used as a blacksmith’s shop, and further along is the open staircase leading to the houses on the West side of the court. The high buildings facing the Scouringburn form the Southern boundary, and shut out the cheering rays of the sun from the desolate scene which meets the eye of the visitor. It is a saddening sight to look on little children waddling about barefooted and ill-clad on their only playground, which, instead of being covered with grass or laid with gravel, is littered with the refuse of the surrounding dwellings. The only purifying element to be observed is the constant flow of water from a tap in the court. But this, too, is going to waste, as it falls through a grating into the sewer. If it could be turned on to the surface of the court it would not be a loss to the Commissioners or the public generally. Overhead are hung on jib-suspended clothes’ lines the “washings” of the inhabitants, which potently proclaim their poverty, as well as the want proper laundry accommodation.

It was with no small amount of trepidation that I ascended the stair leading to the houses on the East side of the pend. It could not be described as either zig-zag or spiral. I would rather say it was eccentric. So far up as the first landing the steps were mostly of stone, but above that they were merely a series of wooden traps with no hand-rails, and how the children are prevented from falling down and breaking their necks is a mystery to me. The landings were dark, and as the worn wood gave way to an alarming degree under my feet, I was in no way encouraged to go forward. I proceeded, however, and entered a house on the second landing, and found in one of the rooms a slipper-maker at work, while his wife was attending to her domestic duties. Three dirty little children were sitting in front of the fire, and as near to it as they could get for cinders and ashes. A little mite, just begun to toddle about the floor, was standing at its father’s knee prattling away in an unknown tongue. The atmosphere of the room was oppressive, and more light would have brightened up the miserably furnished dwelling had the gudewife been in the habit of cleaning the glass. Over a “four-poster,” which, by the way, seemed the only place of rest for the whole family, the ceiling bulged ominously. The walls were without ornament, save a blackened print or two, and, like the ceiling, were begrimed with smoke. The second room was entirely devoid of furniture, and was used as a drying loft for bedclothes, a cinder cellar, and a receptacle for the refuse of the house. The roof of both rooms was six feet eight inches in height. I remarked that it was rather low.

“Yes,” said the slipper-maker, “but not so low as the house up the stair.”

“What rent do you pay for the house?” I asked.

The slipper-maker’s wife, who evidently was Chancellor of the Exchequer, replied rather sharply—”2s 9d, sir—rather muckle for sic a place; but we cannot afford to get a better.”

Leaving this hovel, I mounted the narrow, unprotected trap leading to the attics. Wretched as the condition was of the family I had left I found it was better than the occupants of the “lair” above them. I had to stoop to enter the doorway of the garret, and, indeed, had to do so all the time I was in the house. The camp-ceiled roof in the centre was 5 feet 11 inches in height, and 3 feet 10 inches from the floor to the spring of the roof. The length of the room was 16 feet 8 inches and its breadth 10 feet 9 inches. Its cubical contents would thus be about 700 feet.

The occupant of the room was a man of medium height, of rugged exterior, but of rather a happy turn, and evidently contented with his cheerless surroundings.

I asked if he were the only occupant of the room.

“No; I have a wife, but she is out at present.”

“You surely rent this house for a very small sum?”

“Not very small. We pay 1s 4d a week, or about £3 10s a year. And what do we have for that? A garret with broken plaster walls, and the rain coming through the roof every time it rains.”

I never saw a more miserable home in my experience. The plaster of the walls was broken, as my informant pointed out, and the laths were sticking out. There was no article of modern furniture in the place. The wretched bed was a “shake-down” on the floor, covered by a dirty rag. The half of a butter cask served as a dust bin, while a disused soap box was evidently the only cupboard in the house, and if the husband and wife sat down to meals together it would have to be used as a seat. A second box evidently did duty as a table, and a third for a second seat. Several jars ranged alongside the wall completed the plenishing of the house. The wife had been washing before she had left, as several articles were drying on a string suspended from one end of the garret to the other.

I afterwards visited several of the other houses within the square, and found them not quite so bad as regards air, space and cleanliness as those I have mentioned, but still not fit for human beings to live in. One of the staircases leading to the houses was lighted by three little square apertures, which served only to make the prevailing dirt and gloom more apparent. Being without any sanitary conveniences, the inhabitants on the landings are making these openings serve the double purpose of admitting light and for emptying the refuse of their houses on the roof of a building below. A quantity of the said refuse clings to the roof, and presents a most disgusting spectacle. Immediately below this spot and at the foot of the staircase there was when I passed out a pool of liquid filth of evil odour, which in warm weather would very soon breed a pestilence. I should mention that one of the blocks of buildings facing Session Street was recently improved, but even it is sadly lacking in what is needed.

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