‘The Dens and Hovels of Dundee’: Hawkhill (22 December, 1888)

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. The area around Hawkhill 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 to the first article in the 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.

The locality in the Hawkhill district, Dundee, known as “The Blue Mountains” is anything but delectable. How the district should have been so named is a mystery to me, except that the appellation was used as a term of reproach. There are no characteristics of a mountain about the place, except that the houses are built on a rising ground. Nor does the visitor experience the pure, invigorating air of the mountains. On the contrary, no sooner does he approach the locality than he is disgusted with what he sees, and sorely oppressed with the vitiated atmosphere which floats around and within the pends leading to the place. “The Blue Mountains” forms a very old district in modern Dundee. It could scarcely have existed at the time when the Laird of Blackness could see from the East windows of his residence what was going on at the West Port. Still it is an ancient locality, and has evidently been built when capitalists had more regard for their pockets than for the health of those who occupied their tenements. “The Blue Mountains” is bounded on the East by Johnston’s Lane, on the South by Hawkhill, on the North by Scouringburn, and extends Westward to a line running from Whitten’s Pend on the South to Scouringburn on the North. The space covered is a sort of gusset, as shown on the above sketch. There are three entrances to this slum—one from Barron’s Court, off Johnston’s Lane; another from Munro’s Pend, Scouringburn; and the third by Whitton’s Pend, Hawkhill.

Barron’s Court

is a dirty, dingy, and forbidding enclosure. The houses surrounding the open space are dilapidated and ruinous in appearance. On the North side of the Court the houses are reached by a spiral stone stair, but the platforms are of timber; and from the appearance of the iron railing of the lowermost platform it would seem to have served another purpose before it was transferred to the court. The railing is coped with a piece of wood which would be a discredit to a cattle court. The occupants of the upper flat have nothing to keep them from falling into the court below but a rickety wooden railing, which is not extra strong. There fearful and wonderful platforms are supported by a wooden “upright” or support, which is very much the worse of wear. Most supports taper towards the top, but in this care the order of things is reversed, and the thin end of the upright as at the bottom. It seems to have served as a “rubbing-post” for adults and a pillar on which the youths of the past generations have tried the edges of their knives when they had them. At any rate there is scarcely three inches of the plank left, and should it give way when the inhabitants are out taking the air the results might be of a serious nature.

On the South side of Barron’s Court there is a second staircase leading to wretched dens, which look into this court and also to Johnston’s Lane. The staircase is a square building, but the stair itself is spiral. It is lighted by a square hole, which might at one time have been a window, but now the upper sash (without glass) is the only part of it left, the lower portion being closed up with boards.

A High-Rented Hovel.

After climbing up the stair, which has evidently not been washed since it was built, and turning to my right, I found myself facing a door. I knocked, and was at once admitted into a very poor home, consisting of two rooms. The kitchen, or living room, was poorly furnished, while the “ben end” was entirely destitute of furniture, and was evidently used as a washing house and receptacle for dirty clothes. The kitchen, which continued about 940 cubic feet of space, was lighted by two windows looking into the court, but they were so dirty that the sun’s rays reflected from the buildings opposite did not penetrate to the miserable interior. The roof was only six feet in height, and in several places it seemed dropsical and ready to come down on the heads of those in the house. The floor was creaky, and I was warned not to go near a certain place unless I wanted to share the fate of Sweeny Todd’s customers. Pieces of deals and bits of floorcloth were nailed on the openings of the floor, not only to keep the wind away, but also impede vermin and the fumes of an ironmonger’s cellar. I was told that the outer door, though patched and mended inside and out, did not keep out the cold winds of winter, and I could easily imagine that it did not, seeing there was a large hole near the handle through which the doings of the occupants could be seen. The other apartment of this wretched dwelling was lighted by two small windows, which made one imagine that the window tax was still levied. The roof was “blistered,” and when touched by the finger it gave way at once. In the middle of the room a stout wooden post was placed, evidently to support the roof and to prevent the occupants above from paying an unexpected visit to their neighbours below. For this wretched place a rent of 2s a week is being paid.

A Hold in the Wall.

At the top of this stair I entered a house occupied by a sacksewer, who, with her aunt, was busy plying the needle. I ascertained that the occupant was the mother of a young lad, a millworker, who was at present out of employment. There was little or no furniture to speak of in the garret, which was lighted by a projecting window on one side and a skylight on the other. The window was dirty, but the glass was intact. The skylight had suffered at some time, and the hole was covered by a tea tray jammed into position by a pair of old bellows. Underneath was a hole in the wall, “not through and through a’thegither,” as the tenant said, but inconvenient as a ventilator in cold weather. The walls were almost destitute of decoration o anything to cover the black hue which they had gained through time, and I could not help recalled as I gazed on them the vivid lines describing a similar apartment—

“With the walls as blank,

That my shadow I thank

For sometimes falling there.”

This wretched abode brought to the landlord is 6d a week; but, as the tenant explained, “he had been gey canny since her laddie was oot o’ wark.”

Descending the stair, which was very steep and unprotected by a handrail, I reached the foot of the stone staircase, and took a view of the court. It was by no means clean. There was a large quantity of garbage and the refuse of the houses lying about, and the children who ran about were ill-clad and very dirty. A number of lean cats scampered about the hideous enclosure, and one of them, like Jacob, “halted on his thigh,” and was not able to flee like its neighbours to a place of safety. It, however, was not molested by the children.

Munro’s Pend.

At the West end of the court is a coal shed and a pend, which leads to Munro’s Pend on the North side, and to the Hawkhill on the South. Munro’s Land, which faces the pend, though built in on all sides, is said to be the best one-roomed tenement in the locality, although, like the other buildings in the place, there have been no sanitary conveniences provided for the occupants. The rooms in Munro’s Land, though small, are evidently well kept, and are fairly clean.

The passage leading to Hawkhill is narrow and ill-paved, and runs between a high wall enclosing the bleaching-green of a modern land facing Hawkhill and an old slaughter-house, which is now used as stones for merchants and the stall-keepers at West Port. From the staircase of the modern land one can judge of the great improvement which has taken place within recent years in the housing of the working classes.

The sanitary arrangements

of the locality are altogether inadequate. On the South side of Munro’s Land and between it and the Hawkhill is the only privy and ashpit in the place. This ashpit in the place. This ashpit was erected for the use of the tenants in Whitton’s Court, but the cleanly disposed housewives in the neighbourhood take the use of it; others who have less respect for health and comfort do not trouble to carry the refuse of their houses so far. In one land only has water been introduced into the houses. There are in the district mentioned 115 one-roomed houses, 21 two-roomed houses, and one three-roomed house. There are 13 one-roomed houses unoccupied in the district included in our sketch. Most of these are on the ground floor of a tenement, access to which is obtained from Whitton’s Pend. These houses have recently been drained and refloored, but they remain unlet. The pity is that those interested should have put themselves to the trouble and expense o puttying up a properly which to say the least of it is not, and never can be, made a comfortable place of abode. In all 305 persons are cooped up in there miserable dwellings with scarcely a chance of living decently and comfortably. There is not a washing-house in the locality, and only one small enclosure adjoining Whitton’s Pend, on which there is no grass, is available for the householders doing their clothes. A reformation is urgently required in this district, and this reformation can only be brought about by the entire reconstruction of the buildings. In this way alone can the “Blue Mountains” be made delectable.

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