Dundee Crest

The Poorhouses of Dundee

Daily Life of the Dundee Poorhouse.

What it was like

A report in the "Dundee Year Book 1886 - 1890" gives us a insight into the background of those people who had no other choice than to apply for entry into the Combination Poorhouse formerly known as the East Poorhouse. It depicts an awful scene. All those who wished to enter the poorhouse and those who didn't but circumstances left them no other choice had to go on their first visit to the Office of the Combination Parochial Board which was situated at the Vault area of town. If you passed there any day of the week you could see the most wretched people congregating, waiting their turn to be seen. "…mothers, with children in their arms, and little dirty boys and girls hanging to their skirts; young men and women, pinched with hunger and weary worn by tramping about; and elderly persons of both sexes, hardly able to creep along the streets. All of them appear to have been beaten in the struggle for existence." [p.124]

These people could not just go up to the doors of the Poorhouse and ask for entry. They had a rigorous process to go through before they could finally enter this establishment.

Following one of these applicants may give us in the 21st century a better idea of what life was like in the 19th century for ordinary people who fell on hard times through no fault of their own.

John was a 68 years old man who had been married and had children. He was classed as a "bit of a lad" and was not one for sitting at home with his wife and children. He preferred to go out and "meet the boys". His wife died after twenty years of married life and this left John with a grown up family who did not have any respect for their father. One by one they left home and John was left on his own to drink away his meagre earnings. As he got older he was troubled with rheumatic attacks which compelled him, in the end, to give up work. Within a few days he was reduced to a condition of starvation. He then tried to eke out his subsistence by selling small articles that he had made but this was not successful and after a further attack of rheumatics he had to apply for Parochial relief.

Inquiries were instigated to find out about his character and his career to date and a report was laid before the Relief Committee. After deliberation the Committee offered John a place in the Poorhouse and he accepted.

The next step on the road to the Poorhouse is the probationer's stage. John is given a place in the probationers' ward where he is duly stripped of his filthy, tattered garments and given a bath. He then must go to bed and await the arrival of the doctor who will vouch for his state of health and say whether John is a genuine candidate for relief. John is believed to be a genuine candidate and is given a haircut and is sent to an ordinary ward for men. He will now pass his days in the poorhouse.

John is seen as one of the less troublesome inhabitant than for example a mother and her "brood" of children. On many occasions those who ran the establishment were accused of cruelty in the handling of those who through no fault of their own had to seek refuge. In many cases these families would turn up at the poorhouse in an extremely filthy condition. Purifying these families could cause great distress but it was a task that was necessary when you consider that the institute could house at least 700 individuals. Therefore it was most important to have a regime which involved rigorous cleanliness on entry to the establishment.

There was a view that there were many people who could work for a living but that they believed the poorhouse would be a better bet. They would prefer to enter the poorhouse and subject themselves to its discipline, labour for eight hours a day and be fed and housed rather than do an honest days work for their own independence. Labour tests were instigated in the East Poorhouse in an effort to reduce the number of those with this lax moral outlook on life.

These candidates were put to work in sheds which were isolated from the other inhabitants. These sheds were about the size of a prison cell and were lighted from the roof and were heated by hot water pipes. Two of the sheds were equipped for stone-breaking and they only had a three quarters roofed area. These jobs were given to the worst class of inmate and convicts returning in to society. This is such a gruelling task that many of those put to it do not tarry long in the Poorhouse.

The second test labour section was sack sewing and this was a far lighter mode of work but again a solitary occupation. After a week working at this it was noted how many sacks an individual has sewn and if that individual wishes to stay at the poorhouse s/he must sew the same amount of sacks or have their food ration cut. Most individuals did not stay long in the poorhouse once they had been put in the test sheds.

An example of this is Joe. Joe was a 57 year old, unmarried man who had sold fish in the streets of Dundee for many years. He was known to have lead a rather insecure life, fell on hard times, applied for relief and was offered the Poorhouse. He accepted and by some mistake was sent to the West Poorhouse. This poorhouse was known to many as the "House of Lords". Joe will in time come to realise why it has been given this name.

He presents himself at the West Poorhouse with his ticket of admission and enters this establishment and lives "in clover". That is until a Visiting Committee of the Board spot Joe who is known to be "a character" and they realise a mistake has been made. There is an inquiry and the result is that Joe must transfer to the East Poorhouse.

Joe is moved to the East Poorhouse and finds the change in conditions quite alarming. Instead of having a genteel life like that which he had in the West Poorhouse he is now separated from his companions and put to work in the test sheds under solitary conditions.

When asked about his experience of the different poorhouses Joe admits to having been quite happy in the West poorhouse where he could pass the day chatting to his chums. What he disliked most about the East poorhouse was being shut up in a solitary way. He was able to sew 40 sacks a day and he never went over that amount.

Jessie Sword
Friends of Dundee City Archives
February 2002


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