Notes on Miners' Houses Part XI
(By Our Own Correspondent)
Fife and Clackmannan Districts
A good reputation, if it be undeserved, is a troublesome possession, especially when people begin to find out the truth. I went to Fife and Clackmannan with high expectations as to the character of the mining villages, and I have returned to say that they are no great things after all. Perhaps I am disposed to judge them severely, just as one is apt to be rather hard upon a fellow who, having. long passed for, a very superior person, turns out to be no better than his neighbours, if half so good. They were represented to me - some at least of these mining settlements - as so many Happy Valleys, in which life had no more envious strife than that of growing competitive flowers, and where miners sat under vines and fig trees, their own property and of their own planting, breathing an atmosphere of contentment and high moral purity. This is much too serene a picture. There are, it is true, several instances of colliers living in houses of their own at Townhill, near Dunfermline; and I am told that Mr Stevenson, the proprietor of the neighbouring pits, takes great interest in the social well-being of his people, yet the old rows in the village over which he presides almost equal, in disrepair and discomfort, any to be found in the district. In simple truth, Fife and Clackmannan are no way superior, in so far as miners' houses are concerned, to any of the other counties which I have visited. They present a lower average than Ayrshire, and come a long way behind the Lothians, where some of the mining villages are the finest I have seen. As compared with Lanarkshire, Fife and Clackmannan reach neither to its lowest depths nor to its very few heights of excellence. I found nothing beyond the Forth equal to Auchinstarry houses and their surroundings, or even to those recently erected by Mr Addie at Rosehall; and on the other hand, although disease is prevalent in one of the villages in Fife, I did not find any place so terribly squalid and filthy as two or three of the fever dens in the West. The houses in the mining hamlets near Dunfermline are both very old and comparatively new, regarding which the general remark may be made that the proprietors do a great deal for the old rows, and comparatively little for those of modern date. Nobody will be disposed to quarrel with them for mending decayed floors and making crazy roofs watertight, but it is hardly creditable that they should so entirely neglect sanitation in the newer villages. These look wonderfully well from the outside, but they will not bear close examination. At King's Seat, a large and rapidly extending community near Dunfermline, as at Burnfoot Hill, near Dalmellington, there is not, so far as I could learn, a single ashpit or closet provided for the company houses. This may not create much mischief in winter, but one can scarcely realise the consequences if an epidemic should break out in summer, with the very essence of contagion lying all round. And yet this is the kind of thing which Dr Maclachlan, surgeon to the Dalmellington Company, described in a recent letter to the Herald as the "wise sanitary regulations" of the company.
In the Lothians, as I indicated in a former letter, miners' houses used to be free to the servants of the company, and in Fifeshire this was also the rule until quite recently. Now, however, fortnightly payments are exacted, which, in the case of the proprietor of Wellwood, are said to have increased his yearly revenues to the extent of about a thousand pounds. All over the district I learned that the rents, which were merely nominal before, have been increased, or "heighted," as the women term it, and there is a good deal of grumbling in consequence. In Clackmannan district, again, the free holdings are continued, but the men complain that indirectly they require to pay enormously high rents. It is the custom, they say, to give the employers 25 cwts. of coal to the ton, instead of 20 cwts., the extra five being rendered in name of house rent. If we take 30 tons of coal per month as being the average product of a miner, and allow him l 1/4d for every hundredweight, it appears that he pays 15s 7 1/2d for houses which are dear at 8s a-month; and if a father and three sons, living under one roof are in the same company's service, the payment is four times as great. The miners certainly contend that this must be regarded as house rent, and deplore the continuance of such a system; but as I afterwards ascertained that in Fife, where houses are now not free, the men give, in some instances, 24 cwts. to the ton, it would appear to be simply the usage of the trade irrespective of occupancy. With reference to the internal condition of the houses in both districts they are better kept than similar dwellings in the West. One reason for this, probably, is that Fifeshire miners are a settled, untravelling brotherhood, who cling to the scenes of their youth, entertaining towards them a warmer feeling than is possessed by the shifting classes nearer Glasgow, who have no such home ties. Perhaps also, we may seek for a partial explanation in the fact that very few Irish families are located in Fife or Clackmannan. Be this as it may, I can only say that in Fifeshire I visited miners dwellings consisting of single apartment and two rooms which were as cozy and bright and well furnished as any one could desire. These were not model cottages either but very old houses which had been put into such repair as encouraged the housewives to be orderly and neat. In some of the villages there is a good deal of overcrowding, which does no arise from keeping lodgers, but from the largeness of the families. Miners as a rule seem to marry very early and are as much averse to the family name dying out as the owners of broad acres, who trace their descent from kings and nobles. All over Scotland the tenure of occupancy appears to be the same. The miner is only entitled to remain in the house while he continues in the service of the company. For this reason many of them prefer to live in large towns, where these exist in the neighbourhood of the pits, and, as far as I have been able to gather, they pay higher rents than those which are charged for company houses. I should like also to make a remark, before proceeding to transcribe my notes, with reference to the demeanour of the people amongst whom I have spent a good many days during the last three or four weeks. It is generally said that miners and their wives are offensiyely coarse, and I was told to expect much incivility in the course of my inquiries. This, however, I have not experienced. There are, of course, many rakish-looking characters amongst them, but I have always got civility, even from the least refined, and frank, smiling courtesy from by far the larger number.
Within a short distance of the quiet old town of Clackmannan are two or three mining villages belonging to the Clackmannan. Colliery Company, Messrs A. &A Mitchell. The nearest is "The Pottery," which stands just outside the municipal boundary, as if too modest to seek inclusion within the county town. It is a biggish village, with several rows of old houses built on ground which falls away to the Devon. The first is the best row of the number, the houses being rooms and kitchens of large size, with brick floors in the kitchens and high ceilings. They are dry, comfortable houses. The second row, running at right angles from the first, compares unfavourably with it, the houses being older, and not in such good repair, while a third range of buildings is of a decidedly objectionable character. I had gone into two or three houses on a level with the road, supposing them to be all that the block contained (large apartments, with wooden floors) when I was told that on the other side there was a lower level, and houses underneath. These are extremely unhealthy houses lighted only from the front, and damp on the floors and along the wall. As the wall is backed by the solid earth, it is hardly possible that it should ever be dry. The tenants complain loudly of the unhealthiness of their houses, and one cannot accuse them of exaggerating evils which are as real as they are apparent. Kitchen gardens are attached to some of the houses, but there are no conveniences of any kind - neither ashpits, closets, wash-houses nor coal-cellars. All refuse is laid down in the gardens, or in the most easily-reached corner. No rent is paid for these houses, although as I have said the miners consider the indirect payments heavy enough. Last year, when the big strike took place, the colliers remained out for eight or nine weeks; and when they resumed work, rents were charged for the "stand" period, varying from 6d for single apartments to £l for a large room and kitchen. The water supply of the village is got from various irregular sources. Field water is generally used, and when it is not procurable the Devon is laid under contribution. Now, the sewage of Clackmannan runs into the Devon, from which the water supply for the town is also taken. One of the town drains empties itself at the Pottery and the people go beyond that point, but the water which they get is contaminated by another drain further up still. Clackmannan supply is taken out beyond the reach of the sewage. I used Nessler's solution in testing the surface water, which gave evidence of impurity.
Leaving the Pottery, I proceeded next to Westfield, where there are three rows - theLong Row, the Middle Row, and the Low Row, consisting of between thirty and forty in all. Taking them in this order, we go into the first house in the Long Row, a room and kitchen. Fires are lighted in both apartments, and on the hearth-stone of the room the woman of the house has placed two trunks with the lids thrown open in order to dry the clothes which they contain. This she requires to do every other day; and the contents of the boxes are often quite moist. The room beds are placed against the back walls, and as the ground outside is above the level of the floor its is not surprising that the sleeping places are damp. In the next house the kitchen is very damp, and the room altogether deserted. The neighbours have pretty much the same story to tell, and at the end of the row several of the tenements are unoccupied. The middle row houses are a shade better than those we have left. They are on a better level, and therefore less liable to damp. The low row is, however, the worst of the three, the houses being all unhealthy during wet weather, and more or less so even when the sky is bright. In one of them the tenant found it necessary to remove her room furniture to prevent it from being destroyed, and in another a piece of sacking laid in front of the room fire is quite black with damp. Here there are no fewer than ten persons living in a small room and kitchen. There is no regular water supply for the village, but Mr Allan, a neighbouring farmer, kindly allows the people to help themselves from his well. In summer this permission is often necessarily withdrawn, and then the villagers go to Wellmyre, fully half a mile away, where good spring water is obtained.
Watermill is a small place with three old houses, giving indifferent shelter to as many families. One of these comprises eight persons, who sleep in a small kitchen and a bed-closet entering from it. There is a room to the house, but the ceiling is so much broken that it is impossible to sleep in it, and the children are laid on "shake-downs" on the Kitchen floor. This house is two feet below the level at the back. In these hamlets no attention whatever is paid to sanitary matters. There is absolutely nothing beyond the four walls of the house except piggeries, and of course dirt reigns supreme.
Returning to Clackmannan, I made my way next to "the Green," where there are three old houses connected with the Clackmannan Company which are, I believe, to be taken down at the next term. The sanitary arrangements here are of precisely the same negative description as elsewhere. The houses are below the level at the back, and very damp - so much so, that in one of the kitchens the careful housewife has lifted her chairs from the stone floor and placed them in the bed, lest their limbs should be seized with the dropsy of the district.
Near the Green is "the Square," consisting of two parallel rows with an end row, and comprising in all about twenty new houses, not yet finished. These are built on the site of an old square of dilapidated houses, some of the walls of which have been utilised in the construction of the new buildings, which promise to afford good accommodation, although the apartments are small. There are large windows on both sides, providing for through currents of air, and ventilators are placed below the floors, which are well raised from the ground. So far there is no appearance of any outhouses.
Returning to Clackmannan, I looked in at one house in Castle Street belonging to the company. The kitchen wall was wet all round, and the ceiling also was spotted with damp, while the room was little better. In the afternoon I went on to Dunfermline, where two days were spent in visiting the villages of Wellwood, Milesmark, Parkneuk, Townhill, Kingseat, Halbeath, Crossgates, Fordell, Donnibristle [sic], Cowdenbeath, Lumphinans[sic], and Lochgelly. The story of my experiences in "the kingdom" must be reserved for another letter. [Glasgow Herald 16 February 1875]