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 the Nethergate 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 Dundee Police Commissioners are at last to take action in regard to dirty houses in Dundee. A very strong Committee has been appointed to examine and report upon properties destitute of the requisite sanitary appliances, and which are not properly lighted and ventilated. The Committee have a task before them which will not be easily accomplished. If the remit is carried out properly the Committee’s labours will be as exhaustive and prolonged as those of the Parnell Commission. The more I see of the dens and hovels in Dundee the more I am convinced of the truth of the remark of a medical gentleman to me some weeks ago, “that the only remedy for the existing state of matters in the slums was either condemnation or a wholesale demolition of the old buildings. There is no use pottering with old houses, or indeed with some modern tenements, where it is absolutely impossible to make them habitable from a sanitary point of view.” I doubt if the doctor’s suggestion will be acted upon by the Police Commissioners; but one thing is certain, that, if the public health is to be conserved, we must get the wretched inhabitants of the slums removed to properties where police regulations can not only be laid down but enforced. The Police Commissioners have powers to punish offenders against the laws of health; but those who have to see that the law is obeyed in this respect would require to have a Police Court and a Magistrate all to themselves if every slattern in the slums was to be dealt with for offences under the sanitary clauses of the Police Act. There is no opportunity in many districts for the people keeping the approaches to their homes tidy, and, what is worse, there is no incentive offered them of being cleanly.
Fashion and Filth.
The Nethergate has always been looked upon as the popular promenade of Dundee. It is undoubtedly the busiest thoroughfare in the city for foot passengers, and on Sunday nights the pavements are crowded by large numbers of well dressed, orderly people. It may not be generally known, but nevertheless it is the fact, that only a house breadth separates this popular promenade from a number of very ugly back courts and buildings.
Gellatly’s Close is one of the place I refer to. Formerly the entrance was from Nethergate, but that passage has been utilised as an addition to a shop, and the close is now off Tay Street Lane. The houses facing Nethergate and Tay Street Lane. The houses facing Nethergate and Tay Street Lane, and those surrounding the square on the East and North, are very old. The rooms, though small, are for the greater part occupied by respectable tenants, and the very most is made by them in beautifying their humble homes and the approaches thereto. But there are another class o tenants who unfortunately have settled down in the place. These people reuse to co-operate with the neighbours in keeping the stairs and landings clean, and of course the court and the staircases are not so tidy as they might be.
The buildings themselves are the worse for wear. Attempts have evidently been made to patch them up at various times, and perhaps with success, but the effect has not been to improve the outward appearance of the properties. The outside stair leading to the houses on the North side of the court reminds one of a ruined battlemented tower, and the “plats” [a built-out stair] leading to the houses are fenced in with iron, wire, and wooden railings. The staircase leading to the properties in Nethergate and Tay Street Lane has a most tumble-down appearance. The builder of it has evidently been “gathered to his fathers” a long time ago. The steps are not only worn, but when I saw them they were dirty and covered with filth. On the right-hand side there is an opening 2 feet 3 inches in width by 6 feet 2 inches in height. From this a flight of marrow stone steps lead to a narrow doorway, evidently the entrance to a house. I met a gentleman about 5 feet 10 inches in height in the opening. He was in a stooping posture, and the reader will judge of the appearance of the place by the accompanying sketch taken on the spot.
The upper landing, I found, was even worse than downstairs. The floor was covered with filth, and the atmosphere was very heavy. After some difficulty I obtained entrance to one of the houses. I found it occupied by a family of ten. The father explained that he was ill, and the mother of the children was working in the factory. There was no mistaking the fact that the house-wife was absent. The two rooms, very badly lighted and with no ventilation whatever, were littered with rags of clothing, the beds were untidy, and there was an overpowering smell in every corner. In a closet off the kitchen, which the poor fellow described as “a corner for orra bits of things,” there was a pail filled with “the ashes of the house,” which did not tend to sweeten the air.
A “Modern” Common Stair.
On the staircase I found there was a gas pipe and bracket, evidently used to illuminate the tortuous and dilapidated flights of steps at night. The bracket was such a novelty in a common stair of the kind I am speaking of that I inquired into its history. One of the housewives vouchsafed me the information desiderated.
“The pipe was put up,” she said, “after Mrs So-and-So fell and broke her leg.”
“Has there been any accident since the pipe was put up?” I inquired.
“I don’t think it,” was the reply; “but that was not because of the pipe being there. The gas has never been lichted yet.”
“How long is it since the pipe was put up?”
“Oh, years ago,” was the answer.
“Were you charged extra for gas by the land-lord?”
“The tenants have paid 1d per week ever since the gas was introduced, but they have got no benefit.”
In face of a section of the Dundee Police and Improvement Act, 1882, which provides that the owners of properties shall make provision for lighting common stairs, this dangerous trap is left in darkness every night. The penalty of 40s of a fine for every day that such a landlord is in default has no terror for the landlord or landlords in Gellatly’s Close.
Leaving Nethergate I examined a number of properties in the Overgate. I found that there was a great want of sanitary conveniences for the people in this densely populated locality. Most people will be surprised to know that there are only three ashpits and two privies between High Street and West Port. One of the ashpits is situated in a court on the South side of the Overgate about 50 yards East of Tay Street. To this receptacle for filth the occupants of houses in the neighbourhood come, and very unceremoniously toss down the rubbish. This accumulation lies for house within two yards of the windows of dwelling-houses, and any one can have an idea of the strong odour which permeates the court, especially in the summer time.
A Model Landlord.
I am glad to state that I heard of a landlord in the Overgate who has done the public a great service. The gentleman in question bought a “built-in” tenement on the South side of the street, nor far from Lindsay Street. A bakehouse stood at one time in the court, and the roods of it and one or two outhouses were wont to be covered with the refuse of houses thrown from the windows above. These buildings have now been removed, the court has been paved, and the houses “faced up” almost right round the square. If this gentleman’s example were followed, not only the Overgate, but other insanitary localities, would be improved, and the general health of the community correspondingly benefited.