Housing of Scottish Miners – Report on the Housing of Miners of Stirlingshire and Dunbartonshire

By John C. M'Vail, M.D., LL.D. County Medical Officer - Part 4


The greater sanitary activity in rural districts since the advent of County Councils has had an effect on the arrangements made by mine owners with proprietors of land in respect of dwelling houses. Formerly the practice was that the houses reverted to the landowner at the end of the mineral lease, a period ordinarily from 28 to 31 or 35 years. That being so, it was only natural they should not be built in the same way nor fitted with the same conveniences as if they had been to remain longer in possession of the mining firms. Even yet, houses may be built on only a twenty years' lease, but with the important condition that the lessee has the option of taking over the house at a fixed feu duty at the end of the lease, or otherwise he may have the right to renew the lease. Sometimes, however, there was a building lease of 99 y ears' duration, and long building leases may still be the arrangement. But feuing of the land, which for all practical purposes means permanent ownership, is coming more and more into vogue. This is an important change of custom, and has a very decided influence in improving the character of the houses. The stonework and woodwork may now be quite as good as for the best class of workmen's dwellings in towns and cities, and there is no reason why it should be otherwise, unless from the beginning the prospect is that the coalfield will have only a short life, and that no other industries are afterwards likely to take its place. In a remote country district wholly dependent on coal mining of limited duration, the owners will naturally restrict their outlay on buildings.


(a) The Public Health Acts.- It is hardly necessary to state that the various Acts relating to public health are administered in mining districts as elsewhere, in respect of such matters as sanitary inspection, notification of infectious diseases, provision of fever hospitals, and disinfection of houses. With regard to domestic water, the action taken to provide public supplies in East Stirlingshire has already been recorded, and the difficulties met with in Central Stirlingshire and Cumbernauld parish have been mentioned. In villages unconnected with mines a large part of the duty of the sanitary authority relates to the administration of special districts for water supply, drainage, scavenging and lighting. But hardly any of the mining villages have been formed into special districts, except at Carron, and, for drainage, at East Plean.

Building Bye-Laws.- The work done under the Building ByeLaws has been indicated in Part II. of the report. But even here the influence of local habit and tradition is notable. In a district where the coal-field was opened up very early, and many rows of houses built which, so far as they remain, are much out of date, the low standard of house accommodation originally established has had an evil effect, which still occasionally shows itself. One village built less than twenty years ago, most of it not long before the Building Bye-Laws were passed, is far behind both in plan and construction. Many rows in less backward parts of the country, though considerably older, are much better. Tradition appears to have its influence alike on mine owners, architects, and tradesmen, and when protest has been made against manifest defects the reply is not unknown-What more would you want? Don't you sec that the houses are only for miners ? Even building bye-laws have been able only in part to move this dead weight of local precedent. Some of the more recently erected houses in the district in question, though complying with every bye-law and in various details quite satisfactory, are yet defective in respect that the width of the kitchen between fireplace and beds is barely 9 feet, and that there are no sculleries.

(b) Overcrowding.- Occasionally a case of overcrowding is discovered, either because a man has an unusually large family or because one or two lodgers - employees at the same mine - are kept, and intimation of nuisance under the Public Health Act commonly has the desired effect ; but it may happen that a man with a large family has some difficulty in getting a large enough house at a growing colliery where new housing does not always keep pace with increase of work and workmen. These occurrences, however, are not very frequent, and the police census referred to at p. 7 reveals on the whole a smaller average number of persons per house – 5.6 - than I had expected would be found.

In East Dunbartonshire I ascertained through the sanitary inspectors the facts for 433 occupied houses. Their total population was 2,453, giving an average of 5.87 persons per house. The total number of apartments was 875, so that the number of persons per room was 2.8. In the different villages for which these figures are the totals, the number of persons per house varied from 4.6 in a small row of 19 houses to 6.0 in a village of 90 houses.

In the principal modern villages in Central Stirlingshire the facts are similar. In 391 houses at Cowie there were 2,388 inmates, giving an average of 6.1, but these figures include 54 houses of three apartments, in which the average occupants number 8.6. If these be deducted and only the two-roomed houses taken into account, the mean number of persons per house is 5.7. In 153 houses of two apartments at Fallin there were 885 inmates or 5.8 per house, and in 163 two-roomed houses at East Plean there were 911 inmates or 5.6 per house. At Banknock, in Kilsyth parish, 66 houses had 383 inhabitants or 5.8 per house, and in smaller rows at Dennyloanhead, in Denny parish, the figures varied from 5.1 to 6.4. The 6.4 village includes a few three-roomed houses. At Queenzieburn village, in Kilsyth parish, 56 houses averaged 6.2 inmates, but certain houses with more than two apartments are included. In the older rows in South Eastern Stirlingshire the number of persons per house ranges from about 3.4 to 6.5. Standburn, which is the largest single village, has an average of 5.7. All these figures include the usual proportion of children, and in any calculation of the cubic space per inmate this has to be taken into account. The minimum allowed for common lodging-houses is 400 cubic feet per adult, two children under ten counting as one adult. As shown in the table at p. 21, the average cubic space in a two-roomed house erected under the Building Bye-Laws is 3,700 feet; and if such a house contains three persons over ten years old and three under that age, the cubic space per adult will be 822 feet. The facts are always noted wherever a case of infectious disease is reported, and any ascertained overcrowding is dealt with under the nuisance section of the Public Health Act, but, as already stated, such cases are not common.

(c) Housing of the Working Classes Act.- Under Part II. of the Housing of the Working Classes Act local authorities have power, on a representation by their Medical Officer, to serve a notice on the owner of a house in the following terms :

To ____________________ Take notice that under the provisions of the Public Health Act, 1897, and the Housing of the Working Classes Act, 1890, the _________________ Local Authority, being satisfied that the following premises, that is to say are in a state so dangerous or injurious to health as to be unfit for human habitation, do hereby require you within from the service of this notice to make the said premises fit for human habitation.

If you make default in complying with the requisitions of this notice proceedings will be taken before a court of summary jurisdiction for prohibiting the use of the premises for human habitation.

Not many years after the County Councils began, legal proceedings for a closure order were taken before the Sheriff in East Stirlingshire in the case of one very old group of buildings, mainly occupied by miners, though not belonging to mine-owners. The proceedings were successful, and since that time resort to the law court has very seldom been necessary in either county. Following on correspondence with the owners, houses are often closed after a short interval has been allowed for convenience of occupiers. Otherwise they may be renovated and modernised in various respects. Since 1891 hundreds of the oldest class of miners' houses, including several whole villages, have been closed, sometimes under pressure by the local authority, in other cases owing wholly or mainly to exhaustion of collieries. Many of these houses have been demolished.

[Since this report was written, the Housing, Town Planning, etc., Act, 1909, has been passed and greatly extends the powers and duties of local authorities.. In the words of the Local Government Board's circular of 24th June, 1910, " The law as regards the closing and demolition of dwellings unfit for human habitation is simplified and strengthened. Local authorities will, under the new Act, themselves make closing orders." Also, it is now the duty of the public health authority to call on the landlords of working class houses (not exceeding sixteen pounds in rent) to maintain them in a condition in all respects reasonably fit for human habitation, and if the landlord fails to do so, then unless he intimates his intention to close the house for human habitation, the Local Authority itself may do the work required, and recover from the landlord the expense incurred in so doing, either in a summary manner, or by annual instalments extending over not longer than five years. These powers, including closing orders, are subject to appeal to the Sheriff.]

(d) Renovation.- Where, under pressure by the Sanitary Authority, renovation is the course adopted, the degree depends on the circumstances. If the houses are to be required only for two or three years the same demands are not made as in cases where there is expectation of long occupancy. One firm whose coalfield includes a district containing many very old groups of houses, has for several years employed a small staff of men almost wholly in this work of repair and renewal. Where renovation has been undertaken, walls have been protected outside by 'rough-harling' with lime or covering with cement, internal plastering has been renewed, old floors of brick or stone with irregular surface harbouring dirt have been taken up and relaid with smooth cement concrete, door steps of similar material have been provided, wood floors have been ventilated below, surface or subsoil water flowing towards house walls from higher ground behind has been intercepted and diverted, roofs have been rendered water-tight, eaves gutters have been provided, and rain water either properly stored in barrels or carried away from the base of the walls.

But damp-proof courses are so troublesome to introduce into existing houses that they are never asked for, and frequently the alterations do not include what is asked for in respect of strapping and lathing of walls, this being objected to on account of the cost, the inconvenience to the occupiers, and the chances of subsequent injury by careless or mischievous tenants. Damp is very difficult to remedy, and the attempts made are sometimes only very partially successful.

Great improvements in ventilation have been obtained by causing windows to be inserted in back walls, and front windows to be made more openable. But the alterations often do not include the hanging of the windows on cords and pulleys, which, though more costly, is the only really effective way.

Outside the houses, sanitary conveniences have been erected, but these if not properly emptied and cleaned are of little value. Even where the villages are expected to be occupied for lengthened periods, washing houses are seldom provided, so that the very objectionable practice of conducting family washings within small dwellings still prevails. As already stated, coal houses cannot be insisted on by the Sanitary Authorities, so that storage under kitchen beds may continue after renovation. While whole villages have been much improved, the improvements have been limited in these directions, and notable dilatoriness is sometimes shown in meeting the requirements of the Local Authority, so that much still requires to be done. But the policy of renovation is being actively followed, and a great change has already been effected.


Summarising the various matters discussed in the course of this Report, the principal points are:-

(1) Daily Refuse Removal,

(2) Provision of sculleries, indoor water supply, water closets, dustbins, washing houses, hot-water supply if practicable, coal cellars, paved footpaths, good roadways, and garden plots,

(3) Maintenance of houses, roadways, drains, water pipes, wells, sanitary conveniences, fences and drying greens, in good order and repair.

In any proposal for renovation of old villages and houses the most urgent necessity is that the scheme shall be thorough. As regards the very few cases in which incomplete improvements might be accepted owing to the coal seams being nearly wrought out, daily refuse removal and constant attention to the maintenance and tidiness of roadways and surface channels should invariably be insisted on as conditional to any relaxation of other requirements.

But it has already been pointed out that in ordinary colliery villages District Committees have no sufficiently direct powers to compel daily refuse removal, nor the construction and maintenance of proper roadways and footpaths, nor the provision of indoor water supply, nor the erection of coal houses or washing houses. It may be urged that theoretically some of these objects might be attained by continual prosecutions under Section 16 of the Public Health Act, but all who are acquainted with the administration of that section must be aware that it does not provide a practicable and efficient remedy for any of the defects in question.

In suggesting that further powers are required, the object is not to lay needless burdens either on landlord or tenant. Most of the defects (though not the most serious of all) are now confined to only a minority of villages, and steady progress is being made in the right direction, but the reforms indicated are so nearly essential that they ought to be practically universal. Towards the living of a decent and healthy life they are worth far more than they would cost. They would benefit both coal master and collier. The rents of the houses would have to be adjusted so as to yield a reasonable interest on structural alterations and additions, and so also as to give effect to the principle of the existing Public Health Acts, that the price of sanitation is to be paid in equal shares by owner and by occupier.

For the preparation of the various plans and diagrams illustrating this report my best thanks are due to Mr. T. G. Gough, County Sanitary Inspector for Western Stirlingshire, and to Mr. P. J. C. M'Kenzie, Assistant County Sanitary Inspector in Dunbartonshire.

I am,
Your obedient Servant,
(Sgd.) John C. M'Vail

The Coal Mines Bill, 1911. Provision of Baths at Mines

After this report was sent to the Local Government Board, the Coal Mines Bill was introduced in the House of Commons by the Home Secretary, on 15th March, 1911. Clause 77 was as follows :

"(1) In every mine required to be under the control of a manager, sufficient and suitable accommodation and facilities for taking baths and drying clothes shall be provided at the mine for the persons employed underground in the mine, regard being had to the number of the persons so employed.

"(2) Where such accommodation and facilities have been provided, the use thereof shall be obligatory on the persons employed underground in the mine, and every such person shall be liable to contribute the sum of one penny a week towards the expenses of maintenance, including interest on any capital expenditure, and the owner shall be entitled to recover such contributions from the workmen by deductions from their wages, notwithstanding the provisions of any Acts relating to truck or of any contract to the contrary.

"(3) If the owner of any such mine as aforesaid fails to provide such accommodation and facilities, or if any person after having been employed underground in any such mine fails to make use thereof, he shall be guilty of an offence against this Act."

Obligatory provision and use of baths was thus intended, but the Bill, in the form in which it has emerged from the Standing Committee, is very different. The clause (76 in the amended Bill) is now as follows :

"(1) Where a majority of two-thirds ascertained by ballot of the workmen employed in any mine to whom this section applies represent to the owner of the mine that they desire that accommodation and facilities for taking baths and drying clothes should be provided at the mine and undertake to pay half the cost of the maintenance of the accommodation and facilities to be provided, the owner shall forthwith provide sufficient and suitable accommodation and facilities for such purposes as aforesaid :

"Provided that the owner shall not be bound to provide any such accommodation and facilities if the estimated total cost of maintenance exceeds threepence per week for each workman liable to contribute under this section.

"(2) General regulations shall be made under this Act for determining what is sufficient and suitable accommodation for the purposes of this section, and any such regulations may make different requirements as respects different classes or descriptions of mines,

"(3) For the purposes of this section cost of maintenance includes interest on capital expenditure (not exceeding five per cent. per annum), and if any question arises as to the estimated cost of maintenance that question shall be referred to an arbitrator to be agreed upon between the parties, or in default of agreement as to an arbitrator then shall be settled in manner provided by this Act for settling disputes.

"(4) Where any such accommodation and facilities have been provided every workman at the mine to whom this section applies shall be liable to contribute a sum equal to one-half of the cost of maintenance (but not exceeding three-half pence per man per week), and the owner shall be entitled to recover such contributions from the workmen liable to contribute by deduction from their wages, notwithstanding the provisions of any Acts relating to truck or any contract to the contrary :

" Provided that the obligation to contribute shall not apply to any workman who is exempted on the ground of health in accordance with the regulations of the mine.

"(5) The management of the accommodation and facilities provided under this section shall be under the control of a committee to be established in accordance with the regulations of the mine, and consisting as to one half of members appointed by the owner of the mine and as to the other half of members appointed by the workmen liable to contribute under this section.

"(6) The workmen to whom this section applies are all workmen employed underground, and all workmen engaged on the surface in handling tubs, screening, sorting, or washing coal, or loading coal into wagons.

"(7) This section shall not apply to any mine where the total number - of workmen employed at the mine to whom this section applies is less than one hundred, or to any mine held by the owner under a lease of which the unexpired term is less than ten years.

"(8) If the owner of any mine fails to comply with the provisions of this section, he shall be guilty of an offence against this Act."

The clause as amended contains no provision for the compulsory use of the baths. I have not seen a report of the discussion on the clause, but it is referred to in the following paragraph from the British Medical Journal of August 19th, 1911, p. 403:

" We notice that the question of pithead baths for miners was debated in Grand Committee of the House of Commons lately on the Coal Mines Bill, but it was decided by 20 votes to 12 not to make the provision of baths compulsory. The general debate took place on a formal motion to delete Clause 77, which made it obligatory upon mine-owners to establish in every mine, under the control of a manager, sufficient and suitable accommodation for taking baths and drying clothes, and to deduct 1d a week from the earnings of each man for the cost of maintenance. The Scottish Miners' Federation favoured the principle of compulsion, and in the course of the discussion it was stated that the representatives of the miners generally had decided to support the Government in making the bill compulsory. They hailed the proposal as a great and and desirable reform, as there were still hundreds of thousands of houses in which there was no provision for miners taking a bath. The Under Secretary of the Home Office undertook to introduce a clause which would provide that where the miners wanted the bath, and where the cost was not prohibitive, the bath should be provided, and the cost of the upkeep and the return on the capital expenditure be divided in something like equal proportions between the owners and the men. The provision of baths at all pitheads would, there can be no doubt, be of great benefit to the miners, and would have an excellent effect on the amenities of life in colliery districts."