Dundee Crest

1891 How the Poor Live

How the Poor Live

(From the 1891 Dundee Year Book)


Monday’s demonstration of the unemployed in Dundee showed in an unmistakable manner that the vast army of the very poor in Dundee at least is largely recruited from the ranks of the labourers. Labourers as a class are such from necessity. They are the offspring of the very poor, and are doomed at their birth to a life of hard work and poverty. They have no chance of advancing in the scale of being, compelled as they are at an early age to go out into the world and fight as best they can for a subsistence. In point of education and technical knowledge the labourer is heavily handicapped as compared with the' skilled artizan. Strong muscles and bodily vigour—if he is fortunate enough to be possessed of them—are his stock-in-trade.

As a labourer he requires very little else, and it is good for him that he does not. There is nothing for him to do but the rough, coarse work of the world, and that work he has to perform exposed alike to the summer’s heat and the winter’s cold. This exposure, combined with a low diet and want of proper clothing, very often cripples him and exhausts his energies. Work for him is so uncertain that he has no opportunity of providing fora “rainy day,” because he has so many of them in a year. He can’t possibly get ahead of his daily wants, and consequently, when the weather is unpropitious, and he ceases from labour, he starts a life of dependence. Of course, there are exceptions. There are unskilled artizans who get into very comfortable jobs, but the exception in this as in other eases proves the rule.
Sad, indeed, were the pictures of domestic misery and privation which many of the houses of the labourers presented when I visited them not long ago. Some of the men were very downcast and despondent, others took, in the circumstances, a very hopeful view of their position, while there were several who blamed everybody, from the Queen down to their parents, for “keeping their noses on the grindstone.” I may add that the majority of the class I speak of are tenants of one- roomed houses, which, as can easily be imagined, are miserably furnished, and in many cases dirty, the surrounding misery evidently having disheartened and brought the wives of the unfortunate occupants to the verge of despair.
Here is a sample — and by no means the worst — of the dwellings — not homes — I speak of. It is on the ground floor of an old tenement in the East end. It is not “built in,” as most one - roomed houses are, but being of Ancient construction the houses are low roofed and the windows are small. It has been a one-roomed house, though some one has contrived, by running a rough partition down the centre of the room, to provide a “but and a ben.” “The ben-bouse,” of course, has no fireplace, but even with that drawback the advantages gained are obvious. A little decoration has been attempted for the purpose of brightening up the dismal shanty. Toe rough deals of the partition have been covered with pieces of wall paper, two “presentation” portraits are suspended with pins on the opposite wall, and a few maimed crockery ornaments adorn the mantelpiece, which has been placed almost close to the roof. An old “wag at the wa’,” hung beside the fireplace, grinds out the time, but, judging from where the “ bauds” were pointing while I was in the house, the inmates would have been better without the dock if they had appointments to keep. The furniture, winch was scant, was rickety, and the chairs and stools when moved about grated on the rough stone floor. A glimmering paraffin lamp placed on the table very imperfectly dispelled the prevailing gloom.
In this miserable home seven human brings — father, mother, and five children — are habitually penned. They were all in the “kitchen” when 1 entered, and I can say there was very little room for strangers. Three of the younger children were huddled round the fireplace, which was innocent of the bright glow a well-filled grate imparts; the eldest girl was nursing the baby, the mother was busy with domestic duties, and the father was working at the table. One of the children was crying bitterly, and it could easily be seen that he was far from well. I was received very kindly by both husband and wife, and I very soon and very readily out the following dismal details from the couple.
“I have,” said the husband, “when working a very poor job. I am a shipyard labourer. I may say that I have always been hard up, for I work only about seven months a year.”
“Yes,” said the wife, “he is very often out of work, and we have very hard times of It then. We almost starve.”
I could see that she was the chief sufferer—no doubt voluntarily — when the weekly wage ceased to come in. The father and children were not nearly so pinched as the poor mother.
“How old are you?” I asked the husband.
“I am 33 years of age. For thirteen years we have been married. We have five children — the eldest is 12 years and the baby is 11 months old.”
“You are not working in the yard at the present time?” — “No”
“What are your wages when employed in the shipyard?”
“I am not paid more than 15s 6d per week.”
“Have you any other sources of income except the wages you earn?”
“Now we have. Two of the children are half-timers. One has 2s 9d and the other 2s 4d a week”
“Yes, and if it were not for the girls, we would starve altogether, I think,” said the wife.
“Are the children willing to go to the public works?”
“Oh, yes,” said the mother, “they would cry if were to take them away. They learn to work and to read, you know.”
I have heard it asserted that the half-time system was a blessing to the children of Dundee. Perhaps the mill, with all its noise and dust, was preferable to the children I am speaking of compared with the miserable abode in which they spent their leisure time.
The husband while speaking to me had been busy making paper bags. I asked him if that was a paying job. He turned round with a grim smile his face and said —
“What would you think if you had a gross of these to make for 1½d? We have 144 of these square pieces of paper to fold round this block; then we have to make this ‘box’ end (showing how it was done); we have to paste the edges together; fold the bags after they are finished into neat bundles, and tie them up. For all this we get 1½d a gross and have to supply the paste and the cord.”
“How many gross can you make in a week?”
“I and my wife working hard can make about twenty gross a-week, and we get the handsome sum of 2s 6d for our pains—for a week’s hard work.”
“Have you any difficulty in getting the bags to make?”
“Sometimes,” said the wife. “I was refused a bundle last week, but when I said my husband as out of work, and that we were very ill off, the manufacturer gave me some.”
“Who learned you bag-making.” I said, addressing the husband.
“I did,” replied the wife, laughing. “When I as a little girl in Germany I used to make them for pleasure — for pocket money, you know. In my country I could then make 8s to 10s a week when I liked; but here I can only make Is 3d a week.”
“What rent do you pay for your house?”
“We pay 1s 9d a week,” said the wife.
“And taxes?” — “We pay no taxes.”
“With such a precarious income you will have nothing to spend in luxuries, such as tobacco or strong drink, or on amusements?”
The husband replied by looking up and smiling. Then he said – “No, no; nothing of that sort, I doubt I would need to steal first.”
“How much do you give to the church?”
“Nothing. I am not a member of any church now, although I was once an Episcopalian. I have no clothes to go to church in.”
“Are you never been visited by a clergy man?” — “No, they never come near us.”
“How much do you spend on clothes in a twelvemonths?”
“Clothes!” exclaimed the wife, “I have not had any new clothes for three years. My husband has all the clothes he possesses on his back, and for the children I have just to make down any old garment 1 can get. For each of my two eldest girls I bought a pair of second-hand boots for 2s 6d this week.
“Well, now, just tell me, Mrs …………, how you manage to feed your husband, yourself, and your children?”
“That is no easy matter. But I manage, except when my husband is long out of work. What is worst to bear is when the children wake up during the night and ask for ‘a piece’ when there is nothing for them.”
“Have you often been reduced to such straits?”
“Well, not often, especially since the girls began to work. I may tell you we have to live without butcher meat altogether. Sometimes I get a fish when they are cheap, and I make soup with a bone for the dinner. White salted herrings are also good, and I get some of them occasionally. This is what I spent for last week’s living: -

This is what I spent for last week’s living: -

























Potatoes and vegetables









“I don’t know how seven of you can manage to live on 6s 3½d a-week.”

“Well, if it had not been for the soups I made we could not have done it.”

How the poor woman manages to make up her weekly budget I cannot conceive. With an uncertain income and a certain expenditure, if life is to be kept at all, she will have as great a difficulty and about the same success as many Chancellors of the Exchequer have had to get both ends to meet. The husband was a quiet, decent-looking man, and seemed, while he laboured hard in my presence, to be an individual who, as he put it himself, would tramp his feet off before he applied for relief from the rates. I could not help reflecting after I left the miserable home that the husband was blessed in having such a managing wife to help him to keep the wolf from the door. Of Teutonic origin, she seemed to be possessed of the prudence and thrift which distinguishes her countrywomen.


Now for a companion picture. A “muggye afternoon in November; the foot-pavements of Dundee damp, and covered with a slimy substance” which retards pedestrians and makes one feel as if he were walking in grease. The atmosphere chill and damp; everyone except the Cowgate merchant hurrying to get inside his place of business or his home. Not everyone! Kneeling on the flags at Albert Square, opposite Burns’ statue, sits the “pavement” artist busy at work. He has started with a scroll, on which is indifferently written —

“The Original Street Artist

Remember the Artist

Live and Let Live.’


Then his cap is put down beside the scroll to receive the “remembrances” of passers-by. The artist must live. And he must work. So he begins. With his bare hands he removes the slime from the adjoining slabs, lays down bis colours, and starts work. Gradually the portrait of some notable character begins to appear. From the lines or furrows on the brow one can see that it is the face of a venerable personage. The old-fashioned high collar and “stock” which are next “put on” confirms the impression. Then comes the vest (adorned with a flash gold chain) and coat, and with a little touching up the portrait is completed and “framed.” It is old Middlewick, father of one of “Our Boys!” It is to have a title — “The Grand Old” —Middlewiek. No; the artist adds “Man,” and leaves the “G.O.M.” to be stared at by Radicals, Liberals, and Tories.

Picture No. 2 is started. The forecastle of a ship heaves in sight, and one imagines he is to have before him a representation of a storm at sea. Nothing of the kind. Only the forecastle and part of the “well” astern of it are shown. A few strokes of the red, white, and blue colours bring up on deck the captain. Several scratches with the brown and the black, and a shivering boy with hands clasped stands before the irate skipper. There is no doubt that the little wretch is to be flogged, for there is, or meant to be, a look of terror on his face. With outstretched arms at right angles with his body he pleads for mercy. One feels that a sailor with a ropes-end is to be brought upon the scene, but the artist is more considerate for the feelings of his patrons. He simply writes above the picture “The Stowaway,” and leaves the captain to do what he likes with the boy. In the next cabinet we have a representation of Mazeppa’s fearful ride. The untamed steed is in the act of leaping across a fearful chasm, which fully realises the poet’s notion of the incident.

“Twas so wide,

I saw no bounds on either side.


The animal is evidently a circus horse, high of bone and low of flesh, and the rider is clearly a saw-dust-bred Mazeppa, scantily attired in the regulation costume of flesh tights and spangled loin-cloth. The scene is a harrowing one, and the horror is intensified by black-lead clouds unbroken by a single scrap of blue cawm sky, and unrelieved even by a solitary yellow ochre ray of sunlight. Quickly is limned — quickly because the show must be completed while the streets are busy—the fourth sketch. It is a representation of the exciting incident in “The Lights of London,” where Harold Armitage, the hero, jumps from the bridge in "Regent’s Park into the water and rescues Seth Preens, the minor villain of the play. The bridge, the water, the drowning man, the hero, a woman with outstretched arms, hair streaming, and a look of intense terror on her face, a policeman’s head, and some of the lights of London are shown. Though there is plenty of “canvas” the artist does not extend his “collection,” nor does he stop operations. He has got something for people to look at now, hut he has to touch them up. He returns to the first picture, and while he is adjusting the collar of Mr Gladstone’s coat, I touch him on the shoulder and give him a sixpence, with the remark —

“I don’t think that is a very good likeness of the G.O.M.”

“I ’aven’t seen the gentleman for some years. That was his born image when I saw him last.”

“How many years ago is that?”

“About twelve; not long after I started this business.”

“What were you before that?’

“Before I became an artist I was employed in the boatyards. Work became scarce; I was paid off; and for a long time I was in ‘the big shop.’ When at school I could draw well. I tried to paint, first in private, and then in public, and here I am."

“And do you like it?”

“Yes; it pays me better than working.”

“How much do you make in a day?"

“Well, that depends very much on the weather and the people, I have made 3d a-day, and since I came to Scotland I have had as much as 8s a-day.”

“Where did you make 8s a-day?”

“In Greenock — in the West end.”

“What part of a town is it best for you to place your show?’ .

“Oh, in a busy part, of course. I mean where plenty of the working classes pass to and fro,”

“Are the working classes your best customers?” “Certainly; they sympathise with my system. The ‘nobs,’ you know, have collections of their own.”

“The summer will be your best season, I suppose?’

“On the whole, it is, except when the holidays of a town come round. Then the people are too excited running to trains and boats, &c., to look at the pictures.”

“It must be very uncomfortable for you to kneel all day on the cold flags?”

“I have come now not to feel cold in my knees. I would rather have this sort of weather than the weather of April and May.”

“Why is that

“Oh, don’t you see, I may begin in beautiful sunshine to paint, and have my collection finished, when suddenly a drencher comes down, and away my work goes to the dogs. Oh, it’s tantalising, I can tell you.”

“It must be; but do you not start afresh after a shower?’

“Yes; but it is to drink if I have any money. I can’t stand to be ‘rubbed out’ you know.”

“Where do you put up at nights as a rule?”

“At the fourpenny.”


“At the fourpenny lodging-house.”

“That is, you pay fourpence a-night for your lodgings. Do you get any tiling else for your money?”

“You are allowed to ‘loaf about the house of an evening.”

“Do you fetch your own food and cook it?” “Yes, and eat all you cook; there is no going twice to one dish in the fourpenny.”

“What is your daily expenses for food?”

“ When I am sober I take one pennyworth of milk and a roll to breakfast; then I have a roll and a drop beer for dinner; and for supper I have something hot — such as a piece of steak and coffee, or tripe, I never spend more than 10d a-day on food.”

“And on drink?”

“Oh, that depends on the state of my clay.” “And what do you do when you have not four- pence for a bed?”

“Oh, stair it — look for a good stair, and lie down as far up as I can,”

“And what about the police?”

“Ten to one if a policeman climbs the highest stair in his beat more than twice a night. In Dundee I have always had as much as pay my bed.”

“You have never had a penny sleep in any town in Scotland?”

“No; you are not so far forward as the Londoners. Scottie does not approve of sleeping on a string.”

“You have no wife or family to keep?”

The “artist” eyed me keenly, then bent down his head and resumed his work, He seemed puzzled at some of the questions when I put them, but now he seemed convinced that 1 was either a detective, a poor law agent, or an Inspector of Poor. While I stood beside him he never lifted his head, but kept diligently working away. He seemed to be a poor creature, shaky and nervous through exposure and dissipation. His clothes were ragged and dirty, and he was literally covered with mud from the boots to the crown of his head. I could see that he was content with his miserable occupation, and that he never would work at any useful occupation again if he could help it. Rude, rough, unproductive work his is, yet it draws around him many admiring spectators, who ungrudgingly bestow on him a spare mite. It may be said that he lives on charity, yet he does not believe it. What a contrast his case is to that of the first shipyard labourer I mentioned!


It has been wittily said that woman came after and that she has been after him ever since, e latter half of the assertion be true, the bachelors of Dundee should be few in number.

According to the census of 1881 there are fully eleven women to every nine men in Dundee. To the timid young man this is a terrible state of matters — a fearful outlook for him. But still it is the fact. The preponderance of females over males in Dundee is easily explained. The mills and factories afford employment to a very large number of women, who are attracted to Dundee from country districts, from towns where female labour is scarce, and from Ireland. Many of them are young girls without a single Mend or acquaintance in the town, and their greatest difficulty is to get respectable lodgings. A number of them live in family with householders, a few is fortunate enough to be looked after by elderly ladies who have rooms to let; but there are others who are compelled either to furnish a room themselves or to share a room with some one to whom they have been recommended.

It is of single women in single rooms that I am to speak. From personal observation and from what I have heard from ladies who take an interest in the young girls who live together in one-roomed houses, I know there are many very clean, tidy, cheerful homes of the kind to be seen in Dundee, and it is to be regretted that there are a number the very reverse. Of course, the home takes its complexion from the character of the inmates. If the girls are naturally tidy, clean, and thrifty, they will make their one room a little paradise; if, on the other hand, they are slatternly, and know not what economy is, their house will be no home. Then, again, it cannot be denied that girls are exposed to great temptations in taking up house-keeping on their own account at a comparatively early age. They leave, perhaps, a country home where they have been brought up under the wise counsels of their parents, and in a day, they become sole mistresses of their actions. Happy will it be for them if they retain in their new abodes the wisdom and prudence of the homes they have left. Unhappily many a poor girl in Dundee regrets she has not been able to do so.

As I have said, there are bright homes and there are dark dwellings inhabited by single women. I will give a specimen of several I visited not many weeks ago. Let the reader judge to which of the classes mentioned it belongs. It is an attic room in an old tenement in the West end. Like most attics, it is hard to reach. The first flat in the building is reached by an outside stair. With the aid of the light from the street lamps it is an easy matter to go that length. To gain the attic landing, however, is much more difficult. The proprietor evidently expects his tenants to have the instincts of a mole and the proclivities of a fly. There is not the faintest glimmer of light to guide you, nor is there anything but the judicious placing of your feet on the steps to prevent you fading back in your ascent and breaking your neck. Happily, I was accompanied by a friend who knew the way, and he very soon partially illuminated the “trap” by opening the door of the house and allowing the light inside to dispel the darkness. Once inside the house, we were kindly welcomed by two Irish girls — women, I should say — who, after wishing us good evening, asked us to be seated.

The house, as one of the inmates remarked, was “next the slates.” There could be no room for doubt on that point. The ceiling was low. In the centre it was about six feet wide, and on each side it sloped sharply till within three feet of the floor. The house was high enough, wide enough, and long enough for the inmates, but a Life Guardsman would soon lose his soldierly bearing if he was compelled to live in the place. On the East side of the roof was an aperture terminating in a double-sashed window — the only one in the apartment. The house, I could see, was fairly-well furnished, and laudable attempts had been made to embellish the rather dingy walls. Like a true descendant of an Irishman, the owner of the house had placed in a prominent position a coloured lithograph of Robert Emmett, the leader of the Irish rebellion of 1803, On one side of the window was a portrait of a well-known priest — a favourite with all who knew him when he was in charge of a parish in Dundee. Round the walls were hung various little ornaments and emblems. All further attempts at ornamentation were confined to the mantelpiece.

When we entered the room the inmates had just finished tea. The table, I may say, was not loaded with luxuries nor with a variety of viands. But poor as the women appeared to be, they had still one luxury each — a snuff-mull, which lay beside their respective saucers,

“My friend has called to see how you are living in these hard times,” said my friend.

“Och, an’ it’s a sorry living we have now,” said the owner of the house; “isn’t it, Bridgy” she added to her companion.

“Truth an’ it is,” was the response,

“You’ve a rather nice house,” I said to the owner.

“Och no, man: it’s awfully cowld in the winter time.”

My impression was that it was very warm, but I had just left the cold outside.

“What rent do you pay for it?”

It used to be 2s a week, but the landlord has let it down to 1s 9d. But it is too dear yet, for it’s a cowld hole”

“Do you pay taxes?”

“The sorrow a tax; I’m not able.”

What do you work at?” I asked.

“Och, I’m a low mill hand. We are worked like slaves. And what for do yez think? For 8s 9d a week. Not many years ago we got 10s 6d and 11s for the same work, and the labour was not nearly so hard” I remember when I was a girl, and working at the handloom, I could make very much more money.”

“And what is It that makes you work so hard now?”

“We have more machines to look after and more work to do. Och, it’s tiresome enough.”

“How much do you spend on your living a week?”

“Not much, I can tell you. But I always get a bite of something, be it never so mean.”

“And on clothes and boots you spend how much?”

“Well, I can’t say offhand, but it is very little. Sometimes I get a petticoat when I have the money; sometimes I buy a shawl for my work, boots, of coorse, I must have.”

“Then about 30s a year would cover your expenditure in this direction?”

“Well, perhaps not quite that.”

“How much do you give to the church?”

“Threepence a week.”

“And to charities?”

“I pay 2d a month to Wellburn Institution, Lochee, and 2d a month to the Infirmary. I grudge none of these. In the Institution our own poor are well tended, and the money to the Infirmary I never miss, though it is kept off my pay. It’s a grand place the Infirmary, as many a poor creature can testify.”

“Then are you a member of a Benefit or Funeral Society?”

“I pay 9d a week. I pay 2d for a brother who is in delicate health, and 5d for a brother who is deranged in his mind, and who is an inmate of the Poorhouse. I cannot keep him, but I shall see that he is not buried in a pauper’s grave. I pay 2d a week for myself.”

“You shall have little left for amusements after all that is paid. Do you ever go to the Theatre or Music Hall?”

“Och, do you hear him, Bridgy,” said the owner of the house with a laugh. “We get plenty amusement during the day, and it’s rest we need at night.”

“Then as to luxuries?”

“Such a man you are for questions, and such questions you put to poor creatures. I suppose sleep is our only luxury.”

“Do you not spend some money about the holidays and New Year times?”

“Och, man, we are idle at these times and have nothing to spend. At the New Year I may have a piece of bun so as to be like my neighbours.”

“You spend nothing on drink?”

“No, indeed.”

“I see you indulge in the luxury of keeping a cat,” I said, as puss came from below the bed and sat down in front of the fire.

Both women laughed while they looked admiringly at the cat

“Och, he’s a fine fellow,” said his mistress,” and is my only companion when I have no one staying with me. Of course, I do not keep lodgers. Bridgy is biding with me because she is out of her house. The cat is no trouble, I can tell you.”

“But it will cost you something every week?”

“Och, he shares my pennyworth of milk with me, and welcome he is.”

“And what do you spend on snuff per week?” Again, the women laughed, and meantime pocketed their “mulls.”

“We require snuff at the work, you know,” said the owner of the house, “there is so much dust in the low mill. We use about one ounce and a half In a week.”

“That is 4½d a week for snuff?”


The following is the woman’s budget for a week, She has 8s 9d a week, and receives 1s from her lodger, but that is only a temporary source of income. Her expenditure is: —







Coals, Firewood & Light



Food – Tea, 3d; sugar 3½d; bread 1s 2d; butter 7d ham 4d; eggs 6d; sausages 3d; milk 7d. TOTAL




Clothes and boots



Church and Charity



Benefit Societies



Luxuries, say








I left the house with a very favourable impression of the owner, She was not robust by any means, but she seemed determined to work as long m she was able, not only for herself but for her brothers who were unable to do so. There was something very touching in the manner she referred to her brothers, her church, and the Infirmary, Though the occupant of a one-roomed house, I felt her good nature and self-sacrificing spirit might adorn a person in a higher rank of life.

Half an hour after leaving the above house I was following a gentleman up a stair to see “a richt case,”

“If Jean is sober,” said my guide, “she’ll gie you a rieht screed, and you will see something.’^ We were at the door. My guide knocked; there was no response.

“Oh, she’s no in. Man, you’ve lost something.” He knocked again and listened. Still there was no response. He then tried the door, and it swung back. The house was dark, but on striking a match we discovered a woman lying on a miserable bundle of rags in a corner of the room. Her face was towards the wall, but I could see that her cheek was flushed, as if she had merely lain down after staggering home drunk. I struck a second match to have a look at the miserable dwelling, but there was very little to look at but the four bare walls, a bed of its kind, several other articles, and a piece of a soap-box, which I supposed served for the woman’s table, seat, and press. All the crockery in the house — and it consisted of a cup and broken saucer and a teapot — was stowed away in the box.

Not many years ago “Jean” came to Dundee to work in the factories. She was then a rosy- cheeked country lassie. Alas! what is she now?


Transcribed by Iain D. McIntosh, Friends of Dundee City Archives

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