Notes on Old Edinburgh

The following is from Notes on Old Edinburgh by Isabella L. Bird:

Chapter II

In the Old Town, where the population of a village or a fashionable square is constantly crammed into the six or seven storeys of one house, room-to-room visitation, for it is nothing else, affords a visitor in one morning a glimpse of a state of things without a parallel. In no other city could tenements be found without gas, without water-pipes, water-closet, or sink, or temporary receptacle for ashes, and entered only by one long dark stone stair, which return such enormous profits to their owners as from 45 to 60 per cent. Scarcely elsewhere does one roof cover a population of 290, 248, 240 persons, living in dens, honeycombed out of larger rooms, without ventilation, without privacy, and often without direct light. In no other city is the respectable mechanic compelled, for want of house accommodation of a proper kind, to bring up his family in a tenement which deserves indictment as a nuisance, or to pay 5, 6, or 8 a year for a den swarming with vermin, with only a wooden partition to keep off the sights and admit all the sounds of haunts of the most degraded vice. In Edinburgh, which, in more respects than one, is set on a hill and cannot be hid, there are 13,209 families, comprising not only the vicious and abject, but large numbers of the poorer labouring class, living in houses of but one room, and of these single rooms, 1530 are inhabited by from six to fifteen persons! Further, by the last census, 120 of these shelters, for they are not houses, were reported as withoutwindows, and 900 were cellars, nearly all of them dark, and many damp. These figures give the astounding result that the families living in one room, and often herding together in closer proximity than animals wouldendure, comprehend 66,000 persons, or considerably more than one-third of the population of Edinburgh! [Report on the Condition of the Poorer Classes in Edinburgh, 1868, p.9.]

The notes which follow are merely a commentary upon the above facts. My room-to-room visitation on a single day included thirty-seven families residing in a close south of the High Street and ten families in a close south of the Cowgate. I do not give the names of either, in deference to the feelings of respectable persons who are compelled by various causes to reside in them.

The entrance of the close which we selected is long and narrow, and so low as to compel a man of average height to stoop. It is paved with round stones, and from the slime in which they were embedded, and from a grating on one side almost choked up with fish heads and insides, and other offal, a pungent and disgusting effluvium was emitted. The width of this close is four feet at the bottom, but the projecting storeys of the upper houses leave only a narrow strip of quiet sky to give light below. A gutter ran along one side of the close against the wall, and this, though so early in the day, was in a state of loathsomeness not to be described. Very ragged children, infinitely more ragged and dirty than those which offend our eyes in the open street, were sitting on the edge of this gutter, sitting as if they meant to sit there all day; not playing, not even quarrelling, just stupefying. Foul air, little light, and bad food had already done their work on most of them. Blear eyes, sore faces, and sore feet were almost universal. Their matted hair and filthy rags were full of vermin. Their faces were thin, pinched, and precocious. Many of them had been locked out in the morning when their mothers went to their hawking, washing, and other occupations, and might be locked out till midnight, or later, as we found on the following night. There they sat, letting the slow, vile stream in the gutter run over their feet, and there they were sitting three hours later. They were from three to ten years old. It is all the same if the rain or snow is falling, except that they leave the gutters to huddle together in the foul shelter of the stair-foot. Some of these will die, many will be educated into the hardened criminality of the often-imprisoned street boy, many will slide naturally into a life of shame, and a fortunate few will be sentenced to reformatories, from whence they come out decent members of society at the rate of 70 per cent. "God help them!" exclaimed a mother, so drunk that her own babe seemed in peril in her arms. Ay, God help them! But our Father which is in heaven charges the responsibility of their destiny on the respectable men and women of Edinburgh.

We entered the first room by descending two steps. It seemed to be an old coal-cellar, with an earthen floor, shining in many places from damp, and from a greenish ooze which drained through the wall from a noxious collection of garbage outside, upon which a small window could have looked had it not been filled up with brown paper and rags. There was no grate, but a small fire smouldered on the floor, surrounded by heaps of ashes. The roof was unceiled, the walls were rough and broken, the only light came in from the open door, which let in unwholesome smells and sounds. No cow or horse could thrive in such a hole. It was abominable. It measured eleven feet by six feet, and the rent was 10d. per week, paid in advance. It was nearly dark at noon, even with the door open; but as my eyes became accustomed to the dimness, I saw that the plenishings consisted of an old bed, a barrel with a flagstone on the top of it for a table, a three-legged stool, and an iron pot. A very ragged girl, sorely afflicted with ophthalmia, stood among the ashes doing nothing. She had never been inside a school or church. She did not know how to do anything, but "did for her father and brother." On a heap of straw, partly covered with sacking, which was the bed in which father, son, and daughter slept, the brother, ill with rheumatism and sore legs, was lying moaning from under a heap of filthy rags. He had been a baker "over in the New Town," but seemed not very likely to recover. It looked as if the sick man had crept into his dark, damp lair, just to die of hopelessness. The father was past work, but "sometimes got an odd job to do." The sick man had supported the three. It was hard to be godly, impossible to be cleanly, impossible to be healthy in such circumstances.

The next room was entered by a low, dark, impeded passage about twelve feet long, too filthy to be traversed without a light. At the extremity of this was a dark winding stair which led up to four superincumbent storeys of crowded subdivided rooms; and beyond this, to the right, a pitch-dark passage with a "room" on either side. It was not possible to believe that the most grinding greed could extort money from human beings for the tenancy of such dens as those to which this passage led. They were lairs into which a starving dog might creep to die, but nothing more. Opening a dilapidated door, we found ourselves in a recess nearly 6 feet high, and 9 feet in length by 5 in breadth. It was not absolutely dark, yet matches aided our investigations even at noon-day. There was an earthen floor full of holes, in some of which water had collected. The walls were black and rotten, and alive with wood-lice. There was no grate. The rent paid for this evil den, which was only ventilated by the chimney, is 1s. per week, or 2, 12s. annually! The occupier was a mason's labourer, with a wife and three children. He had come to Edinburgh in search of work, and could not afford a "higher rent." The wife said that her husband took the "wee drap." So would the President of the Temperance League himself if he were hidden away in such a hole. The contents of this lair on our first visit were a great heap of ashes and other refuse in one corner, some damp musty straw in another, a broken box in the third, with a battered tin pannikin upon it, and nothing else of any kind, saving two small children, nearly nude, covered with running sores, and pitiable from some eye disease. Their hair was not long, but felted into wisps, and alive with vermin. When we went in they were sitting among the ashes of an extinct fire, and blinked at the light from our matches. Here a neighbour said they sat all day, unless their mother was merciful enough to turn them into the gutter. We were there at eleven the following night, and found the mother, a decent, tidy body, at "hame." There was a small fire then, but no other light. She complained of little besides the darkness of the house, and said, in a tone of dull discontent, she supposed it was "as good as such as they could expect in Edinburgh." The two children we had seen before were crouching near the embers, blinking at a light we carried, and on the musty straw in the corner a third, about ten years old, was doubled up. This child had not a particle of clothing, but was partially covered with a rag of carpet. She was ill of scrofula, and the straw she lay on seemed to be considered a luxury. Three adults (including a respectable-looking grandmother) and three children slept on that unwholesome floor, in a room, be it remembered, 9 by 5, and under 6 feet high. We allow each convict 500 cubic feet of air in his cell. "We consider him as one to be washed, clothed, covered, ventilated; secularly, technically, and religiously taught, regularly exercised, and profitably employed. We do not fling him into a dark hole, even when he misbehaves himself, and we do not leave him there for years to fester in filth."--Daily Telegraph, April 3, 1868. This reads like a bitter satire on what we do to such families as these. On the other side of the dark passage there was a room somewhat larger, for which a rent of 1s. 6d. per week was obtained. This had no window or outer wall, and its sole ventilation was by means of a hole in the door.

These two lairs were the worst specimens of basement-storey rooms in that close, but the rest were not much better, and their occupiers (all Scotch) were equally poor. Medical men, with that noble spirit of philanthropy which adorns the profession in Edinburgh, know these dens, and the city and parochial missionaries, wearied and discouraged, still speak to the dwellers in them of One who is mighty to save. But they have long cried to the rich, to the men and women of leisure, to the Churches, "Come over and help us." They ask people to throw aside their theories, to cease wrangling over the cause, and try a rational cure; to give the poor not what the rich and benevolent like, but what the poor know they need--and that is, houses to dwell in, not dens to rot and perish in, morally and physically. Blissful ignorance of the abyss of preventable misery which exists in Edinburgh is impossible now. There are many divers at work, and not one returns to the surface without bringing some cumulative proof of the wreck and ruin below. No person, stranger or citizen, who believes the facts can shirk an individual responsibility concerning them. If sanitary reforms and city improvement schemes come too late to save a lapsed generation of adults, kindly contact with the rich, discriminating charity, houses in which cleanliness and decency are possible, may redeem the children. It was with a little hope for them, at least, that we turned from the close that day; a little hope, I say, for the dawn of the day which is to save them has not yet appeared. After the many diseased dismal infants crouching in their dark dens on the sunny day, the children of the gutters seemed almost happy, for they could see above the lofty houses a blue strip of sky, beyond which, they might have heard, dwells their Father. But hideous blasphemies all around came forth from infant lips, and of that stinted, joyless, loveless, misused childhood, if left to itself, an impure, unholy manhood and womanhood can be the only end. Did the Master declare of these, and the legion of these, "of such is the kingdom of heaven?" What then?

Leaving these basement dens we entered another close, whose lofty houses, with overhanging wooden fronts, give a certain amount of picturesqueness, while they exclude light to such a degree that it is never much more than twilight below, even on a sunny day. It is said that these projecting fronts were built of wood from Boroughmuir, presented by a devout King wherewith to provide oratories for the inhabitants of this close--so that every one of them might be in circumstances to obey the command, "But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret." If the tradition be true, it renders the use to which these oratories are now applied, and the condition of the occupants of these dwellings, more sad and revolting by contrast. Though the light in the close was little better than twilight, several women were standing outside the houses mending and patching. They said they could not see to do a stitch indoors. There were many children sitting in the gutters, very dirty, ragged, and sore-eyed. These, the women said, were the children of parents too poor to provide them with clothes fit to go into the street. Out of sixty-two children of families visited in this close, twenty only are reported as attending school. This statement, probably, is above the real number, as among the thirty-two families visited by myself, there was only one child reported as attending school. So these children, who don't go to school, and are too ragged to be sent to disport themselves in the street, spend their time between their crowded dens upstairs and the narrow, filthy close--for filthy it was, even at midday, although it was paved, and the scavengers had not finished their work more than five hours before. These children have never known cleanliness or decency. The happiness which comes from chasing butterflies, rooting up pig-nuts, and making daisy wreaths, has never come their way; or even the less Arcadian jollities of trundling hoops, playing at marbles, and making dirt-pies, in which city children delight themselves elsewhere. But these are "cribbed, cabined, and confined" by the high black walls, and, as a mother said, "they are learning the devil's lessons well." It is no exaggeration to add that many of them are as absolutely ignorant of love as they are of cleanliness, decency, and happiness. Locked out into the cold or wet, scantily clad, meanly fed, kicked about in the morning, kicked about at night, cursed instead of kissed, utterly neglected in body and soul, they grow up attaching no meaning whatever to the words love and home. The wynds and closes are swarming with them, the ragged and industrial schools, when they get hold of them, are fain to withdraw them by night as well as by day from what in mockery are called their homes, if they are to do anything with them. As long as these are suffered to be born and reared in dens, so long must we build prisons, reformatories, and Magdalene asylums to teach them, at enormous cost, the decencies they have never known. In going through this close, and several of the poorer districts, I have become aware that a very large number of the parents of these forlorn infants are literally and consciously "lapsed." By their willing and frequently regretful admission they were "well-doing before they came to Edinburgh," or they were once better off in Edinburgh, and "have come down in the world;" they were Church members, and had the friendly recognition of ministers and elders; they "paid their way," etc. etc. From one and all of these they have "lapsed," some by drink, others by misfortune; and this was the case with a large proportion of the inhabitants of this "land," in whose deep wretchedness and degradation they are wallowing, and on whose threshold the reader is being detained. But be it solemnly remembered, the children who "are learning the devil's lessons" in the gutter start not from the platform of well-doing from which many of the parents fell, but from the platform of vice, intemperance, godlessness, recklessness, and filth to which the parents have fallen.

Of such as these, one who claims a hearing for their woes and their helplessness (Dr. Guthrie), writes--"I know the lapsed and wretched classes well. I believe if I was as poor as they I should be as deceitful. Circumstances make people what they are much more than many suppose. There is not a wretched child in this town but if my children had been born and bred up in its unhappy circumstances they might have been as bad."

The smell of this close was intolerable. How can it be otherwise when all the solid and liquid refuse which has been accumulating in the densely packed habitations during the day, lies in the narrow close from ten at night, in such quantities that the scavengers not unfrequently remove nearly a ton of it at seven in the morning, and the ground and the foundations of the houses are saturated with the liquid refuse and drainage? [Report on the Condition of the Poorer Classes in Edinburgh, 1868, p.49.]

I only give a sketch of the general conformation and circumstances of the lands in this close, premising that the description--often very much darkened in tint, however--applies to a majority of the Old Town abodes which, in Edinburgh, are considered good property, and fit for the stowage of human beings, in Murdoch's Close, Hume's Close, Skinner's Close, Hyndford's Close, South Foulis' Close, Cant's Close, Blackfriars Wynd, Todrick's Wynd, Plainstone Close, Campbell's Close, Brown's Close, etc., to which citizens who take an interest in this painful subject can add various other closes on both sides of the High Street and Canongate, many stairs in the Cowgate, and various entries and closes in the Grassmarket and West Port. It is supposed that not fewer than 40,000 people live in habitations not superior to, and often much inferior to, the lands hereafter described.

The entrance to the first "land" visited was by a very long, narrow, winding stair, with steps so worn as to be unsafe. The stair was as darkby day as by night until near the top, and there was nothing to assist an unsteady walker in his ascent or descent. The wall was broken, and, as we found on striking a light, the cracks swarmed with bugs and other vermin, as, indeed, does every fissure and cranny of the dilapidated tenements above. We had not gone far before the stench which assailed us was worse than that from the worst-kept pigstye, and we found the state of the stair too disgusting for description. It is disgraceful, degrading, shameful; and who is to blame? A stranger at once supposes that it is due partly to the filthy habits of the people, and also to the crime of the landlords in not lighting the stairs. This last is a criminal act as regards cleanliness, morals, and safety, and its continuance ought not to be permitted for another month. The regulation concerning the cleaning of stairs cannot be carried out in the dark, even if the people had brooms, which most of them have not, and if they had a "spigot" in the close instead of having to haul every drop of water from a public well at some distance. There is an infinite injustice and degradation in such a mode of access and egress for frail old age, and infancy scarcely less frail, for females heavily laden with water or refuse-buckets, for young girls, and for men savagely or boisterously drunk, in many cases for a population over 200.

On each landing there was a passage branching into several smaller ones, very much like the galleries in a coal-pit, burrowing in and out among endlessly subdivided rooms, measuring from 18 feet by 10 feet to 9 feet by 5 feet, separated by skeleton partitions filled up with plaster, through which any man can put his foot. In this case the long passage was outside the congeries of habitations, and was lighted on two floors by the windows of the recesses before alluded to as having been the oratories of past generations. They had served the greed of late proprietors, for a great number of the rooms partitioned off from the passage were dimly lighted by windows looking upon it. Ventilated they could not be, for the smell in this passage was poisonous. Nothing shows more forcibly the lapsing of houses, as well as of human beings, than the fact that these recesses, once prized as places for prayer, are now highly valued for another purpose, being receptacles during the day for multitudes of battered pails, containing the ashes and refuse hourly accumulating in the rooms. Those persons consider themselves well off who have any such public recesses or corners which can be used for this purpose. In general, in these tenements, the inhabitants are compelled to keep the pail and "backet," containing the unwholesome accumulations of the day, under the bed, if there be one, and, failing that, in any corner, from seven in the morning till ten at night. In large young families, and in sickness and old age, the result may be imagined, when these accumulations of refuse of all descriptions are shut up in rooms without ventilation, along with the steam of half-washed clothes, in air contaminated by the respiration of several persons. In this land the average size of the rooms is 12 feet by 7 feet. If, on the one hand, drink brings people into these abodes, on the other, the foul, vile, depressing air, joined to the want of light and water, drives them in thousands to the dram-shop. There was scarcely a woman whose face did not testify, by its depression, yellowness, and emaciation, to the air she is compelled to breathe by day and night. Besides that the absence of temporary receptacles for refuse is utterly disgusting and injurious to health, it inflicts sore toil on the women, who are more than sufficiently burdened with drawing water from the public wells. It is not a small thing for the mother of a family, or a frail old wife, to come down the dark filthy stair late at night with the "ashbacket," even if there be a window half-way down from which she may discharge the contents on the pavement below.

All along the passages there were thin partitions stuffed with rags, where the plaster had fallen out, or had been kicked through in some drunken frenzy--doors so broken all round that privacy even from the gaze of passing strangers is impossible--a roof, in part, nothing better than old boards, strengthened with pieces of iron and tin, which, like everything else here, had "seen better days"--floors rotten--so rotten as to require big stones to fill up holes larger than a man's head--windows with hardly any glass left in them--wind and rain coming in in many places--the whole pile apparently little more than just holding together by sheer force of habit, utterly unfit for human habitation as it is--a disgrace which public opinion ought to be strong enough to condemn. But it is one of a legion of similar disgraces; it is a lucrative sin, a paying shame; in politer language, it is "a good investment!" Ay, a good investment! For these cabins, which, by a pernicious fiction, are called "houses," are rack-rented at from 2, 10s. to 5 each, and pay the fortunate proprietors from 40 to 60 per cent. Here are "vested interests" with a vengeance!

Chapter III


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