‘The Dens and Hovels of Dundee’: Ash Lane (26 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. The area around Ash Lane on Lochee Road (near the Verdant Works) 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.

Ash Lane is well named. It is essentially the place of ashes, dirt, and rubbish of every description. The houses, too, seem crumbling to decay, and some of the people look as if they would not be long in returning to “dust and ashes.” Ash Lane and Ash Street are partially lined with hovels which would do credit to the mountain sides of Donegal. Indeed the “brogue” is freely spoken by the denizens, and were there a hillside near, instead of the high walls of a mill and the slanting roofs of the houses, one would imagine he was in that wild region. I was told I would see in Ash Lane some of the most primitive houses in Dundee, but I was disappointed. The proprietor of these has evidently been reading the Advertiser, and has judiciously closed them up before opportunity was afforded of describing them. Judging from an outside view, the “houses” internally must have been of novel construction.

The hovels on the West side of the Lane are not far behind those on the East, the only difference being that an attempt has been made by the builder to give them the outward semblance of houses. The buildings have been made into one-roomed houses, and are tenanted by very poor persons who work in the mills. The attic rooms are the worst. These are small, badly lighted, and have no means of ventilation. Where there are children the stench is overpowering. One of the garrets I visited was half the size it should have been, measuring about 9 feet by 15 feet. The slanting roof left very little room for a full-grown person to stand upright; yet in this den a man and his wife and two daughters live. The house, which is kept by the youngest daughter, a girl of twelve, was comparatively clean; but I must explain there was little furniture in the place on which the child could practise cleanliness. A ricketty stair with a worse than ricketty railing led to two similar houses.

I remarked to the proprietrix that the stair seemed dangerous, especially if any of her tenants tried the ascent when under the influence of liquor.

“An’ sorry a bit I wid care,” she replied, “for then they moight [sic] perhaps have in their stomachs what should hev paid me rint.”

Close to the foot of the stair was a most unsavoury ashpit. I said to the proprietrix that it appeared to me a very dirty hole to be so close to the houses.

“A dirty hole, did ye say? Faith and it cost me £7. It is what I call a bonnie, muckle midden if the ‘scaflies’ wid only keep it clean.”

I was asked to see the proprietrix’s house, which is in Ash Street. It was comfortably furnished and well lighted. A door to the South opened on a slushy enclosure, in which a number of fowls were disporting themselves, A high paling enclosed the space, which was littered with filth, and the smell could easily be felt within the walls of the dwelling-house.

The landlady seemed quite pleased with her surroundings, her only regret being that the “tack” was nearly out, and that the superior would next year come into possession of the feus and buildings. It is to be hoped that the Earl of Home will take possession of the place and clear it of its present unsavoury encumbrances.

In Park Street there is a wretched row of hovels. These are situated on the West side of the street, ahont half-way between Lochee Road and Douglas Street. The houses, which are one story in height, are in a bad state of repair, and the area in front is very narrow, and littered with rubbish and filth. The rents charged range from 1s 6d a week upwards. In the Eastmost house I got a surprise. Entering the front room, which had more furniture in it than most houses in the locality, but very untidy, I found a little girl nursing a child. She told me that her mother was “at the back.” A sanitary officer who accompanied me asked where the “back” was. The girl pointed to a doorway, which was partially bid from view. We proceeded to the “back.” It was a shed which had evidently been used at one time as a place for stowing material of some sort, as a large doorway capable of admitting a loaded cart opened out on a backyard. This shed had been converted into a washing-house, and seemed to answer the purpose admirably. But in the court beyond, and within five yards of the dwelling-house, a sight met our view which staggered us. In one corner of the court, which was entirely enclosed by high walls, was heaped up about a ton of filth. As there was no chance of the place being swept by the winds of heaven a combination of smells pervaded the court and shed. Opposite was a large door kept closely shut by a wooden support. Asked what was inside the enclosure the woman in charge denied there was anything. But the untruth of the assertion was at once made apparent by the squeaking of pigs confined in total darkness. On opening the door we found there were half-a-dozen animals of various ages and sizes actually “wallowing in the mire.” The pig is not a cleanly animal, and the pigs in Park Street we found to be no exception to the rule. The floor of the enclosure was covered with manure, the greater part of it being in a liquid state. This unsavoury substance was lying up against the back wall of the hovels, and was within 18 inches of the house of the owner. No wonder that fevers are prevalent in Dundee. The liquid manure of this stye must seek its way into the houses, and any one can fancy what will follow. I was told that immediate action would be taken by the sanitary authorities, and no doubt by this time the pigs are either slaughtered or removed to the piggeries in the outskirts of the city.

A Word For Landlords.

Cooper’s land, Milne’s West Wynd, was the next place I visited, The houses there are in a fair state of repair, but most of the tenants are a class that would give any locality a bad name. I saw two or three young women under the influence of drink at eleven o’clock in the forenoon, and a glance at some of the houses I visited convinced me that strong drink was at the bottom of most of the misery which prevailed in the locality. As the court was clean, and an ashpit provided for the convenience of the householders, I felt that the landlord had done his duty, so far at least as the situation of the building would allow.

A Terrible State of Matters.

Entering a two-roomed house I was told by a lad of fifteen that his father was a porter, and that his mother was a millworker. The front room was bare of furniture, and was dirty in the extreme. The “bedroom,” in which the boy and his brother, seven years of age, and his parents slept, was a triangular shape, and with the exception of a few dirty rags in the corner and a number of tattered garments hanging on a string suspended from one end of the room to the other, there was nothing in the room. There was a window, which at one time had contained fourteen panes of glass. Seven of these are now entirely gone, and two are severely fractured. In this wretched place the family sleep—the parents on the “shake-down” and the boys on the planks.

A pond in connection with a public work is not more than six feet from the window, and when very hot water is being poured into if the steam is said to fill the whole house. I asked the lad why the window was not repaired. He remarked that the factor had been asked to put in the glass, but hitherto he had refused to do so. If the statement is true the factor, whoever he is, may on reading this resolve to be at the expense of putting in a few panes of glass. It would add to the comfort of the miserable tenants, who, I believe, are not altogether undeserving of sympathy.

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