‘The Dens and Hovels of Dundee’; Victoria Road (23 February, 1889)

The following is the last of a series of articles on the poorest areas of Dundee which were published in ‘The Peoples Journal’ from the end of 1888. The area around Victoria Road 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 opening up of Victoria Road, although costly at the time, was one of the best projects which has been carried through under the Dundee Improvement Act. Bucklemaker Wynd may have been a historical locality, but it was anything but salubrious. The Wynd was narrow, and built in on each side with comparatively high tenements, more or less in a tumble-down condition, but now Victoria Road is one of the principal thoroughfares of the town, and the spacious dwelling-houses which line the street on both sides are a credit to the owners. Between Victoria Road and King Street from King’s Road Eastwards to Dens Brae, however, there still remain a number of hovels which ought to be at once levelled with the ground. William Street, off King Street, is the entrance to the hovel I visited last. The street itself is not prepossessing. There are only three signs of civilisation about the place—viz. A certain semi-circular iron erection, a joiner’s sign, and “Bell Street U.P. Church Mission Hall.” A better site for a Mission Hall it would be difficult to find even in the wilds of Central Africa. The buildings are all ancient, but those on the East side are, besides being old, completely done.

“The Beef Can Close”

leads to a brick building which was erected I believe when the jute industry made the first great bound forward. Houses, especially of one room, were very scarce at the time, and the families drafted from the country to find employment in the factories were glad to get a lodging of any description. The first landlord may have been looked upon as a benefactor, but any unbiased person who visits the locality now must be forced to the conclusion that the gentleman or gentlemen who draw the rents for the brick land and the tenements adjoining look only to their own personal advantage. A glance at the above sketch will convince anyone that the “Beef Can Close”—so called I believe because the unfortunate tenants were said to have no cooking utensils or dishes except for empty beef cans, which they put to all manner of uses—is entered with difficulty. There are two short flights of steps at the entrance, and both are very much worn and dirty. The close itself, like the opening into it, is filthy in the extreme. When I saw it it was literally covered with filth, and the whole locality presented a most ruinous and miserable appearance.

The houses are reached by outside stairs of a most primitive description. The steps, railings, and supports are entirely of wood, very much the worse of wear. The flooring of the passages is broken in several places, and the joiner work generally is sadly in need of repair. The passages leading to the houses in the West corner of the building are dark, and one has to grope his way through the prevailing gloom to the wretched homes of the poor people. Opposite the stairs is an upright paling broken in several places, and beyond this is an enclosure known as the “green.” The patch had at one time perhaps, been a place for bleaching clothes, but now instead of grass it is covered with stones and heaps of rubbish which the tenants had at some time or other laid down rather than convey it to the ashpit, which is only a few yards distant from the paling.

Miserable as are the surroundings of the dwellings, I found that on inspection the interiors were even worse. The above sketch will show that the windows are large enough for the admission of light, but beyond this no provision has been made for the comfort of the inmates. Water has not been introduced into any of the houses, and so far as I could see there were no bunkers or sinks. It was pointed out to me that the walls were damp, and that the plaster work was sadly in need of repair. In one house on the Western landing the tenant warned us “to be cautious,” lest our advent into the house “might bring down that bit,” pointing as she spoke to a piece of plaster which seemed to be hanging by a hair. For these miserable rooms I was informed the rents ranged from 1s 6d to 2s 6d per week.

Behind this wretched tenement there is a building used as a stable by a butcher in the locality. It is built of stone, and is far superior as a place of human habitation than the building in front of it.

“The Tarry Twine Close,”

which is to the South of the “Beef Can Close,” and which was at one time a notorious place, leads nowadays to only a few houses, most of those facing William Street having been shut up. A more dreary square I have never seen, and if it were entirely shut up the public would benefit.

With the description of this property my labours come to a close. There are other localities in Dundee which I could say something about, but a description would be a mere repetition. It now rests with the Police Commissioners to act, and I shall be glad to chronicle the improvements which may be effected under their orders.

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