Housing & Living Conditions

19th Century Housing

An early insight into housing in mining areas was given by Robert Franks in his report on the East of Scotland District to the Children’s Employment Commission in 1842:

Mr Franks reported that “The domestic condition of the collier population presents a deplorable picture of filth and poverty. I took the opportunity of examining many of the witnesses in their own dwellings, in order that I might become well acquainted with this branch of the inquiry, and it would indeed be difficult to witness a more disheartening spectacle.

The hut itself is a wretched hovel, perhaps 10 to 12 feet square, in which a family of from six to ten individuals are huddled together; two bedsteads, and sometimes only one, nearly destitute of covering, generally a few stools, sometimes the hanging of a chair, and some damaged crockery, fowls, occasionally a pig or a jackass, dogs, and whatever animals it may chance that they possess, share the room with the family; and the only objects of comfort which present themselves are the pot, and the fire over which it invariably hangs. The almost general absence of all furniture is to be attributed, as the women and men told me, to its giving no inconvenience in “flitting” a term used when colliers leave their places of work and seek employment elsewhere. There is generally an absence of all drainage and the filth, &c., of each cottage is accumulated before the door, not even, in many cases, placed on one side; indeed, there is rarely any other deposit for filth except the entrance to the dwelling; and even this filth itself is not neglected as a source of profit. One of the witnesses informs us that his father said “that dung and filth paid for the whiskey”, and I believe the purchase of whiskey is usual destination of the profit of the abominable and unhealthy nuisance.

There exists a general want of cleanliness in the habits of the colliers, with exceptions of course; though I believe it is usual for them to wash their faces on in the day after labour, and sometimes the children follow the same example; but the younger children, not at work in the pits, present a miserable appearance. The ragged and dirty clothing of the whole family, the flesh of the children, which seems perfectly innocent of water, and blackened by the general employment, added to the squalid aspect and unwholesome stench of the place, bespeak at one glance a population neglected and abandoned to a course of life which has blunted the commonest perceptions of human comfort.

As might be expected, these hovels are infested with vermin, as are the persons of the children”

Mr Franks went on to comment on the reasons for the poor health of the children:

1. Because the food taken is too poor in quality and insufficient in quantity to sustain such severe labour, consisting for the most part of oaten cake, oaten bread, or porridge; no butcher meat; even the hewers do not enjoy the luxury of common table beer, and the children invariably drink the water in the pit.

2. Because the food, bad in quality and scanty in quantity as it is, is always taken most irregularly, there being no fixed time set apart for meals.

3. Because the air of the mines in which the work is carried on, and which the workpeople respire, as well as the air of the houses in which they are crowded, instead of being pure, which is indispensable to convert aliment into nutriment, is loaded with noxious matters.

4. Because the hours of work are much too long for children of eight years old and under. The tender and feeble powers of girls and boys of this age must be taxed beyond their strength by uninterrupted labour of twelve hours average daily – labour called for at irregular periods, sometimes by day and sometimes extending through the whole night.

5. Because the medical evidence shows that this labour is injurious to the bodily frame. Evidence showing that there are peculiar diseases which tend to shorten the duration of life among colliers, resulting from the nature of their employment, has been obtained from Dr William Thomson, Dr S. S. Alison, Dr Makellar, Dr. John Reid of Markinch, Dr Morison and Mr. Symington.

20th Century Housing

In 1912 a Royal Commission was set up to report into the housing conditions of the Industrial Population of Scotland, rural & urban.  The Commission finally published their report in 1918.  Anedited version of the complete chapter on Miners Housing is available here

The following is a general description of miners housing from the introduction.  See also below for reports on specific districts and other aspects of housing.

A Mining District.
The “Miners’ Row ” of inferior class is often a dreary and featureless place, with houses, dismal in themselves, arranged in monotonous lines or in squares. The open spaces are encumbered with washhouses, privies, etc., often out of repair, and in wet weather get churned up into a morass of semi-liquid mud, with little in the way of solidly constructed road or footpath – a fact which adds greatly to the burdens of the overwrought housewife.

The houses vary greatly in construction, but a large number are of two types. The older is either a ” single-end” or “but-and-ben,” according as it has one or two rooms. It has only one door, and the solid back wall is pierced only by the smallest of windows, if by any, so that through ventilation does not exist.

Many of the older houses show the faults of their class – leaky roofs, damp walls, and uneven and broken floors – the last a source of particularly bitter complaint. In addition there are faults not found outside mining communities, the chief being broken plaster and fissures in the walls, where “subsidence” has been serious ; while in the worst houses in the West of Scotland the only place for the storage of coals is below the bed. The impossibility of domestic cleanliness and order where this is the case needs no enforcement.

If the workers in a house are on different shifts, the task of the housewife is complicated by irregular meals and sleeping-hours. If the pit is a wet one, the miners’ soaking clothes must be left at night by the kitchen fire ; and as the kitchen is a sleeping apartment even where there are one or two other rooms, the steam and gas which are given off as the pit clothes dry are highly injurious to the children, who may be in one of the two large beds near by. In the absence of baths at the pithead or in any save the newest houses, the miner on his return must take his bath in the scullery (if there is one), or in the inevitable publicity of the kitchen. With this accumulation of difficulties to contend with, the standard of cleanliness and neatness attained in many houses (though by no means in all) is a matter for genuine surprise and admiration. In the numerous cases, however, in which water has not been introduced into the houses, but must be fetched from a standpipe at the end of the row, a high standard of cleanliness cannot be looked for.

The dreary and unkempt surroundings of many rows have been already referred to, but a word must be said as to the nature of the outhouses which fill the intervals between the rows. Occasionally there is a properly constructed common washhouse, but in the older villages more often only such makeshift and ramshackle washhouses and coal-sheds as the miners have run up for themselves. But the chief of these unsightly structures are the privies. In the West of Scotland this often is a “privy-midden,” which has only in comparatively recent times been expelled from the cities and still unhappily retains its place in the mining villages. It is a large erection, open on one side, where ashes and all other household refuse are thrown in, and closed (though often not adequately closed) on the side which serves as latrine. It is the only sanitary convenience in many rows; and it is so impossible to keep clean, so foul-smelling, and so littered with filth of all sorts, that no decent woman can use it, while if children do so, it is at grave risk to their health of body and mind. Another case, one degree less bad, is that of the range of separate privies – one for each three or four houses in the row. Here things may be better if they are well kept, but the difficulty of keeping them well is enormous ; and often locks are forced, and doors may even be wrenched off.

These abominations are gradually being replaced by better sanitary appliances, but in some districts they are still the rule.

County of Fife (Visited 24th April 1913)
Coaltown, Wemyss. – Typical houses here have been built at a cost of £160; rent, 9s, 2d. a fortnight (approximately £13 a year). Accommodation – three rooms ; two beds in main room ; water-closet in house ; coal storage. Several of those houses have been reconstructed on the old foundation. This probably reduces the price. The usual rules of house construction – under-floor ventilation, etc.- have been fulfilled. In the same village a house twenty-five years old, with three rooms, was rented at 2s. 6d. a week ; water-closet and scullery in the house.

This village is interesting as showing, first, an older type of miners’ houses ; second, a progressive improvement in the standard of accommodation – the improvement being effected partly by construction, partly by provision of entirely new houses.

In these rows there is a tendency to subdivide the houses. In one case, a room of a two-room house was let at 2s. per week. A common rent for a two-room house is 4s. 3d. per week. Formerly, there were gardens attached to these houses; now discontinued. The feu-duty is £40 an acre. This is commonly regarded as high. The area is well crowded with houses.

Methilhill. – Here, there is an older type of miners’ house. A one-room house can be had at 1s. 4d. a week. In this row of very poor cottages there is no washhouse. Some of the cottages are damp. There is no water-closet for women. There is a filthy common trough-closet for men. The sanitary conditions generally are very defective. The ashpits are cleaned out once a week. Most of these houses are unfit either to be rebuilt or repaired.

Adams Terrace. – Here a whole street of recently built houses has been destroyed by subsidence. Arrangements were in course of being made for repairs as soon as the subsidence settled. At the date of our visit the subsidence had been in action for three months. It was supposed to be due to unknown ancient workings.

Townhill (Dunfermline). – The features of this colliery village are the large numbers of defective houses and the large amount of repairs. For many years the older houses of this village have been recognised as unfit for habitation. Some of them have been repaired. But, to take several of those visited as samples, the houses were not worth repairing, and are not very habitable even after repair. But, as in some other places, the demand for houses in this locality has been such that the margin of occupation has remained very low.

County of Lanark. (Visited 10th to 13th March 1914.)
Rosehall Colliery Rows, Whifflet. – These rows consist of one- and two-room houses. In a one-room house visited the rent was 1s. 3d. per week. The room contained two beds. No scullery, no bath, no water-closet within house. The closets outside were not used by women. The house was very clean. Inmates, parents and three children.

This is a fair type of the one-room house. In some of these rows, seven or eight persons occupy a single room.

The sanitary conveniences were in a state of revolting filth.

Calderbank Square. – In this old square there are four outside privy middens. The conditions of filth were such as could not be described in decent language. So far as this and a large number of other conveniences in this county are concerned, the Public Health Acts might as well not exist. At this time of day, such conditions of filth are incapable of defence from any standpoint.

Thorneywood Rows. – Dirty combined ashpit and privy. The premises were grossly exposed. They appear never to be cleaned. An old man is said to look after them; but they are so constructed that no personal service can keep them in a state of cleanliness or decency. The gutters were broken in places. There seems to be no idea of training the surface water either from the general area or from the floors of the latrines. A one-room house in these rows costs 1s. 8d. per week.

Craighead Rows. – A house of two rooms – rent of 2s. 8d. per week. A beautiful infant of less than one year old was having his morning bath in the kitchen. Even this small performance was a severe test of the available space.

Merry’s Rows. – In a one-room house there were six persons – two parents and four children, of whom two were girls, one aged about 16, the other about 18. There was one baby. In order to make a washhouse, one house has been sacrificed for every six tenants. Washing accommodation is thus very good. Two water-closets provided for six tenants. In one house, two beds in kitchen, the mother was in bed with an infant nine days old. The whole work of the grossly overcrowded house was proceeding as usual. This child was the twelfth of the family. The house-room was grossly inadequate ; but the inadequacy was, to a certain extent, redeemed by the splendid vigour and vitality of the father, mother, and children.

Holytown, Baird Square. – In Baird Square the houses have been partially reconstructed. The old ashpits, with privies, have been abolished. There is now a water-closet for each house. Washing-houses are provided. General repairs have been carried out. The rents have been increased to cover the outlays on repair and reconstruction. A house formerly rented at 2s. 10d. per week is now raised to 4s. The houses mainly consist of room and kitchen, with accessories. Comparatively, the houses are “improved,” but this is only another way of saying that they have been taken from a state of primitive and intolerable insanitation to a state of relatively good sanitation.

West Benhar Rows. – These rows have all been closed by the Sheriff at the instance of the Local Authority. This case is a very important administrative precedent. The grounds adduced by the Local Authority for closure were want of repair, dampness, want of proper sanitary conveniences. On these grounds the Sheriff granted the petition of the Local Authority. This decision constitutes an important interpretation of section 16 (1) of the Public Health (Scotland) Act, viz. : “And premises or part thereof of such construction or in such a state as to be a nuisance or injurious or dangerous to health.” What has been done with these rows may, on the same grounds, be done with many other rows in the county. But we were informed that, although the tenants at West Benhar Rows were then under notice to quit, they would probably be left in the houses for some time longer, because there were no other houses available for them. Meanwhile the Local Authority were promoting building schemes with the object of providing houses in the near neighbourhood.

The report also gives the following examples of defective housing:
As an extreme example of unsatisfactory housing, we may quote the following description of the Rosehall rows, Whifflet, given by the Lanarkshire Miners’ Union, which, after visiting the rows, we can fully endorse:

They consist of four long parallel rows of single-storey hovels; most of them have not rones to carry the rain from the roofs. Rainwater simply runs down the roof and then runs down the walls, or falls off as chance or the wind decides. There are no coal-cellars: coals are kept below the beds. There are no wash-houses. Water is supplied from stands in the alleys. The closet accommodation is hideous. A number of these hovels are built back-to-back.

A group of 23 one- and 5 two-apartment houses in the Bellshill district, Lanarkshire, was described by the Medical Officer for Lanarkshire, in terms in which negatives predominated :

Erected probably about eighty years ago – stone built, one storey; no damp-proof course; plastered on solid walls ; wood floors, unventilated, one or two of cement; internal surfaces of walls and ceilings in fair condition, but some are damp. No overcrowding; apartments fair size. No gardens; no washhouses; no coal-cellars. Three lots midden privies, two being “of recent construction. No sinks ; drainage by open channels. Water supplied from two standpipes.

To which description it may be added that, owing, to the absence of coal-cellars, coals were kept below the beds; and that there were no rones on the houses, which extended to the extreme limit of the feu and had no openings in the back wall.

In two other squares in the Parish of Old Monkland (Lanarkshire), of which the older was built in 1846, we saw two-storey houses built on the double-flatted principle in which box-beds with doors were still to be found. Apart from dampness and defective plaster-work, the ash-pits, etc., in the centres of the squares were the cause of very serious nuisance ; and it was stated to us that the water-supply from standpipes in the squares was defective, and that water had often to be carried round from the front street. Four years before the date of our visit Dr Wilson had reported:-

“Action has been taken with regard to the defective and foul condition of the outside sinks and drainage arrangements, but improvements have been of an intermittent nature.”

The accuracy of this last remark was fully apparent to us on our visit in March 1914.

Box-beds and Bed-recesses.
The use of closed-in beds was formerly widespread both in the towns and the country districts of Scotland. The old type of completely enclosed beds, usually with folding doors like a cupboard, has, in the main, disappeared from the towns, though its existence is noted in the evidence from certain northern districts, particularly Orkney and Shetland ; but the bed-recess, which is frequently enclosed for part of its length, is still common.

The Sanitary Inspector of the Middle Ward of Lanarkshire gave evidence on the subject, stating that the provision for sleeping in miners’ houses consists of a series of recesses, which, in houses constructed under the building byelaws, have openings extending from the floor surface to the ceiling, and of a width equal to the length of the bed, 6 feet, whereas in the older class of houses these openings are considerably less in height and width. As their position and arrangement are obstructive to ventilation, the air in the rooms becomes stagnant and impure, and is rendered more so by the presence of dried particles of matter brought into the houses from fouled surfaces outside by the occupants and visitors, and by the expiration of the sleepers during the period of slumber. Owing to the want of any coal storage accommodation the occupants of many of the old miners’ houses have no place to put coals except below the bed. This storing of coals under the bed, said the Sanitary Inspector, encourages domestic animals to resort there for their natural needs. This aggravates the impurity of the air. It is a fact that the air within these bed-recesses is grossly polluted, in some instances to the extent of eight times the permissible volume Ox carbonic acid gas, viz. .06.

Examples of Lack of Sanitary Conveniences or their Bad Condition
We first quote extracts from the Reports of Local Government Board Inspectors regarding a burgh in the West of Scotland and an eastern Burgh.


(a) ________ Lane. – Here the buildings generally, including an old and disused brewery, are somewhat crowded. Repairs, I was informed, are here secured with great difficulty. In the yard were a dirty grating and two large, full, open ashbins. At my second visit, small children were rummaging for pieces of coloured paper among the filthy contents of these bins!

(b) ________ Lane ________Street. – Backyard very dirty, and concrete pavement is broken. Passages very dark. At my earlier visit a water-closet in the yard was choked and in a revolting condition.


________ Row. – The water-closet for these houses has been choked for a while. The tenants have sent complaints about it frequently, but hitherto nothing has been done to remedy it. All the tenants have keys to this water-closet, but the lock is broken.

Court Cases regarding Statutory Provision
Some of the Local Authorities responsible for the administration of the Acts of Parliament have attempted, according to their light, to have the provisions enforced. But there is a great diversity of opinion as to what the words “in all respects reasonably fit for human habitation” mean, or when a house is “dangerous or injurious to health.” Expert witnesses of high standing take widely divergent views of what standard is intended in these provisions.

In a case, the Cadzow Coal Company Ltd. v. Middle Ward District Committee of Lanark County Council (decided on 29th July 1912; County Council Cases, volume 19, page 130), the question tried was whether houses 200 in number, with a population of 1000, without sinks and inside water-supply – the water-supply then being five outside wells situated in some cases 80 yards from the houses (the outside channels being utilised for the disposal of slop water – were reasonably fit for human habitation.

The Sheriff held that they were. In the course of his judgment he stated – There can be no two opinions as to the great convenience of having an adequate water-supply within every house. It means great saving of labour, and I have no doubt Dr Wilson is right in saying that it ensures better health to the mothers, and a consequent improvement in the health of their families. But the convenience or the desirability of the appointments of a house do not help one much in estimating actual human habitability.

I do not think that section 15 (of the Housing, Town Planning, etc., Act, 1909) was intended to enable a Local Authority to initiate and enforce a new standard of habitability every few years. But I cannot accede to the startling doctrine that the general terms of this section enables the Local Authorities to make what are practically “repairing byelaws” for old houses. If Local Authorities desire such powers, they must obtain them directly.

In another case, Middle Ward Lanark District Committee v. Forrest (known as the Benhar case -decided in 1912 ; County Council Cases, volume 19, page 140), the Committee instituted proceedings under section 16 (1) of the Public Health (Scotland) Act, 1897, in respect of 155 houses (with a population of between 700 and 800) in the parish of Shotts, requiring the owner to provide proper sanitary and domestic conveniences, including the provision of a sink and water-supply for each house. The gravitation water was laid past the houses, and the properties were supplied by stand-pipes. The owner strongly resisted the Local Authority’s demands, and the Sheriff, after hearing proof, issued an interim Interlocutor, stating generally his views on the scope of the powers of the Local Authority as regards the provision of conveniences for housing of the class in question. It will be observed from the report of the case that the Sheriff indicated that the provisions of the Public Health Act do not empower the Local Authority to require the provision of sinks and a water-supply for each house, and it is only on this head that the case is here referred to.

It is clear from the last case that in landward areas a house is held not to be in a state of nuisance or dangerous or injurious to health although it has not a sink or inside water-supply.

Examples of Overcrowding
In Wishaw, the representative of the local Trades and Labour Council told us there was a considerable amount of overcrowding. He mentioned the following cases :-

In one-room houses :-
3 adults ; father and two daughters.
5 adults ; widow, two sons, daughter, and male lodger.
3 adults ; widow, two male lodgers; small shop
5 adults ; man, wife, two sons, daughter (age 17).
4 adults ; man, wife, two male lodgers
4 adults ; widow, son, two male lodgers

In two-room houses :-
2 adults, 4 children – 3 children working.
8 adults, 4 children – man, wife, 2 sisters and 4 brothers of wife, 4 children.

The following cases are reported from Hamilton : –
Single-apartment house, 1263 cubic feet, occupied by husband, wife, and four children.
Single-apartment house, 1058 cubic feet, occupied by labourer and his adult daughter.
Single-apartment house, 1028 cubic feet, occupied by three adults and one child
House of 3 rooms, inhabited by eleven persons.
House of 3 rooms, inhabited by widow and two little children and four male lodgers.

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