‘The Dens and Hovels of Dundee’: Foundry Lane (29 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 Foundry Lane 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.

Foundry Lane has long been known as a notorious locality, and out of it a large number of our jail birds have come. The Seagate at its Eastern extremity divides itself into two narrow thoroughfares—the Northern being the Blackscroft and the Southern Foundry Lane. Betwixt these two streets, especially towards Peep o’ Day Lane, some of the most wretched dwellings in Dundee are to be found. The entrance to Foundry Lane is about 18 feet in width, but between 60 or 70 yards Eastward it narrows till the roadway, including the selvage of pavement, is only 10 feet wide. At this point the Southern line for a considerable distance is an irregular wall, formerly the elevation of dwelling-houses, the openings of which have been filled with brick so as to form a continuous wall—the Northern boundary of Messrs Gourlay Brothers’ foundry. After passing the foundry the Lane opens out into a decent thoroughfare, with width sufficient for two carriages to pass. The buildings on either side are rather irregular but seem to be fairly habitable, many of the houses being occupied by railway employees and labourers at the Harbour. It is not till one ransacks the closes leading from the Lane that the absolute insanitary condition of the locality becomes apparent.

The “Lower Craft.” as the name implies, is below Blackscroft. It is an irregular range of hovels about equi-distant from and running parallel with the buildings facing Blackscroft and Foundry Lane, and extending from Rattray’s Close on the West to Blackscroft School on the Fast. The “Lower Craft” is indicated by the figures in our sketch. Some of the houses are thatched which of itself suggests their ancient origins; others are more or less covered with slates, grey and blue. The whole are dirty, ill-kept, and unwholesome dwellings and the surroundings are in keeping. The landlords and factors—reputable citizens, I understand—seem to have only one object in view—viz., to get as much revenue out of the property as possible, caring neither for the health nor the comfort of the tenants. No one who has visited the place could but say that the tenants might make the place more clean and sweet, but it is evident that the people have made up their minds that it is useless on their part to try and improve a ruin.

A Late Breakfast.

Entering by Ramsay’s close and turning round the corner of a rather respectable-looking brick tenement I came upon the buildings which I wish to describe. A stone staircase in a very dilapidated condition led to the houses on the first flat. The steps of the stair were very much worn, and the railing seems to require very little force to send it to the area below. The landing, which at one time appears to have been a solid piece of pavement, was in fragments, and these were clamped together by pieces of iron. On entering the building I found that a passage led to two miserable houses, one on each side of the doorway. Turning to the left, I entered with some difficulty a most miserable abode. To all appearance the house consisted of one room, in which were two beds, one of them in a recess, with very little else that could be called furniture. Close to the fireplace sat a meagrely clad woman, who, as she stated, was taking her breakfast, the meal consisting of a jug of tea, a plateful of butcher’s parings, and a slice of bread. Beside her was a bright-eyed little girl, who with her fingers was assisting herself to some of the beef. Three cats were scampering about the floor, and one of them, evidently wishing to participate in the savoury meal, jumped on the back of its mistress and sat there. The room was exceedingly dirty, and the beds were destitute of mattresses and curtains. Th flooring gave way to an alarming extent, and each step I took I fancied I was to go through the boards. A beam which ran along the centre of the roof seemed to sustain a great weight from above, as it was bent in the centre, measuring from the lower point to the floor 5 feet 9 inches. Close to the fireplace was a door, which the woman stated was the entrance to the “coal cellar.” There certainly were coals in the place, but it also seems a temporary receptacle for the refuse of the household, and when the door was opened an overpowering stench issued into the living room of the family. For the privilege of staying in such a bunk I learned that the family had to pay 1s 10d a week. The house at the opposite end of the lobby was of the same description, but not nearly so dirty.

A Gleam of Sunshine.

The second floor of this tenement is reached by a very steep wooden stair, thick with filth. On it there are three dwellings. In one of them I found an old Irishman, “turned 70,” as he told me. He was apparently very ill, and in answer to a question of mine, he remarked that he “would not be long here,” as he was very ill and short of breath. When I suggested that a little fresh air might do him good, his wife opened the windows—one to the South, and the other to the West. The fresh current of air was certainly very refreshing to me if not to the inmates, and I felt as if a load had been taken off my back. The miserable garret was made as clean and comfortable as it could be by the eident hands of the housewife, but with all her care and attention the place was anything but desirable for an invalid. The floor had given way in certain places, but the ceiling was much higher than in the rooms below, and the house was comparatively well lighted.

Dens of Vice and Crime.

Not far from the passage is a house occupied by two women, who, by their levity and lewd talk, at once proclaimed to what class they belonged. The door of their wretched abode is hung by the upper hinge, the lower one having given way. There is nothing in the house but a bed and some dirty clothes, a dresser or cupboard, and a chair or two. The walls of the room are actually black with filth, and the window—a pretty large one—is dim with dust. A more cheerless dwelling I never saw.

Near to this house is one occupied by a “professional,” as the police term him. He with his wife and child live in a hovel 3 feet by 11 feet 10 inches and 7 feet 6 inches in height, and for the privilege they have to pay 1s 6d a week. There is absolutely no furniture in the room. Near the fire sat the mother and daughter, while the father paced the floor. The plaster was broken in several places, and the floor and walls never seem to have been washed or cleaned for years. Though only three individuals were living in the room there was a heavy odour in the place, and glad I was when I got to the door. The passage outside was littered with filth and paper, and altogether the dismal aspect of the building was depressing. On the ground floor I discovered.

A Room Without A Window.

At one time the house appears to have been one apartment—now it is two. A partition seems to have been run across the room so as to provide a sleeping closet. This partition cut off the only window in the house, and the landlord had to provide for that. He solved the difficulty by halving the door and filling the upper sashes with glass. One of the panes has since been broken and the glass entirely removed, the aperture constituting the only means of ventilating the house. The head of this family, which consists of a wife and seven children, has to pay £3 5s a year of rent. The other tenements in this range of hovels are in nowise different from the man described, except that in a few instances the ceilings are higher. There seems to be an utter disregard for the comfort of the tenants. So far as the landlords are concerned, the people are left to wallow in the mire.

It would seem that before the houses were erected blasting operations had been necessary, and only about three feet space has been left between the houses and the rock. In this gullet there is a pool of dirty water, which must [work?] its way through the masonry of the greater part of the buildings, and thus prove a menace to the health of the tenants.

There are 146 persons living in these miserable dwellings. The sanitary conveniences are of the most primitive character, and the privies and ashpits are dangerously near the dwellings. There is only one improvement that can be wrought out in this locality, and that is the demolition of the whole range. It is simply a disgrace that people, driven by force of circumstances to live in such a place, should be asked to pay the high rents charged, seeing that they do not get in return the least comfort or the merest decencies of life.

I should mention that a tenement on the South side of Foundry Lane, nearly opposite to the buildings described, is far from being in a proper state of sanitation. Before the outfall sewer was constructed the houses on the ground floor were often flooded, and were at one time condemned by the Police Commissioners. Alterations were made on the property, and the houses were again declared habitable. At the present time only three occupants have been found for these houses, which being partly underground are scarcely desirable laces to live in. One elderly woman, who lives in a back room which is lighted by a sunk window, has a comparatively neat house, but, as she showed me, the water was coming in from the street, and she had to lift her “bits of carpet” to prevent them being damaged. Another of the tenants I visited in this land lived in a front room, but although the sun was shining into it it was dark and dismal compared with the poor woman’s abode I have mentioned, because it was squalid and unclean.

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