Housing of Potato Diggers By Margaret H. Irwin
The Housing in Rural Districts of workers
both permanently and temporarily employed, is a subject
which only emerges at lengthy intervals, and in a sectional
form, when it happens that some organisation turns the
searchlight on one or the other phase of it. Then we have
pictures of a particularly lurid character thrown on the
Recently the Miners, who have been
renewing their efforts for the abolition of the old and
insanitary dwellings which still disgrace certain Mining
Districts, held the stage. Again, from time to time, the
conscience of the public has been startled by revelations
concerning the Bothy system and the Housing of Navvies.
All of these are really sections of the
one great problem of Rural Housing (in the defects of which
some persons see a contributory cause of the depopulation of
the Highlands revealed by the recent census) and it would
seem the time has now come when it might well be taken up
and dealt with as a whole.
Instead of leaving the Housing of these
workers to the chance Bye-Laws and varying standards of
Local Authorities, most of whom are open to the criss-cross
currents of local influence, what should be aimed at is the
embodiment in the Public Health Act of certain definite
provisions whereby some general standard of comfort and
decency consistent with modern requirements shall be made
applicable to the whole country.
It is fully recognised that in the
unforeseen emergencies due to exigencies of weather, etc.,
which may occur in harvesting, a certain amount of latitude
must be allowed in cases of temporary housing for short
periods. But where the employment of the workers is of
regular recurrence, to an extent which can usually be
anticipated with some exactitude, proper provision should be
The neglect of this question may be
partly due to the lack of concerted effort among the various
sections of workers affected. Still more is it due to the
attitude of masterly inactivity which Government Departments
promptly assume when Scottish business is introduced to
their notice. A large proportion of the sufferers, be it
further noted, are voteless women whom Government can safely
The conditions of workers employed in
Potato Gathering in Scotland, and the insanitary conditions
of their housing, etc., have for some years past, engaged
the attention of the Scottish Council for Women's Trades and
Union for the Abolition of Sweating. The Council have made
several direct and systematic investigations into the
subject, and have brought the deplorable conditions which
obtain in many cases before the Scottish Office, and before
Parliament. Over a year ago a deputation from the Council
waited on the Secretary for Scotland and urged on him the
need for a Government inquiry into the whole matter. The
subject was also laid by them before a special conference of
Scottish Members of Parliament, and the latter were so much
impressed by the serious nature of the facts submitted to
them, that the Liberal Members organised a deputation of
themselves to wait on Lord Pentland, and again press on him
the need for a Government inquiry. A series of questions on
the subject was also put in the House. Notwithstanding all
these efforts, however, the Authorities have, up to the
present, refused to grant the desired investigation.
In consequence of this, the Scottish
Council for Women's Trades and Union for the Abolition of
Sweating undertook themselves to make a further inquiry. I
have now to present the following report summarising the
results of this, which, with previous investigations, has
covered a total of 60 farms.
The accommodation in the farms visited may be classified
under four headings :
A. "Bad," under which come 19 farms.
B. "Indifferent," including 15 farms.
C. "Good," do. 15 farms.
D. "Excellent," do. 7 farms.
The "Bad" and "Indifferent" cases make a
total of 34, thus somewhat exceeding the "Good" and
"Excellent," which number 22. In 3 cases I found on visiting
that potato diggers were no longer employed.
In one of these the conditions had been
specially bad, and in one case I was refused permission to
see the workers' accommodation.
To take the "A" Class or "Bad" first,
which included 19 farms The main features of the
accommodation here were earthen floors, old, dirty, and
ill-ventilated buildings, usually windowless, and frequently
dilapidated to such an extent as to be neither wind nor
Farms Nos. 5, 7, 8 and 31, may be taken
as typical examples of the accommodation in this class.
At Farm No. 5 there were 5 or 6 men and
25 women employed. The accommodation allotted to the workers
was a shed, with a granary above. Both places were dark,
dirty and ill-ventilated. The shed had an earthen fl >or,
and the granary above was low in the roof and very badly
lighted. One of the (arm hands, who acted as guide, said the
workers suffered great hardships from having no place to
cook their food, or dry their clothes when they got wet, as
they often did. The only fire, an open one, was made in a
comer of the farm-yard, and some way off from the sleeping
sheds. He said he 'tried always to keep up a bit fire for
themnot that it was his duty, or any other body's to do
this, but that he was so sorry for the poor things.' The
workers were expected to bring their own cooking utensils
and blankets, 'and sometimes they went short enough.' In
most cases the blankets had to be eked out with old potato
sacks. The men and women arranged their accommodation in the
shed and granary 'just as they pleased; nobody minded them.'
"Indeed, Ma'am," said the guide, "it's a sad, rough life for
the women, and they seem nice, quiet women too." There was
less excuse for negligence at this farm, as ths workers
remained here for three weeks.
This place made a specially dreary
impression. The night was closing in and a heavy rain was
coming on and fast extinguishing the poor flickering fire in
the barn-yard, and one had a cheerless picture of weary
toilers coming back wet, hungry and tired, after their heavy
day's work in the fields, to this miserable shelter, where
nothing either in the way of warmth or comfort awaited them.
At Farm No. 8 from 25 to 30 men and women
were employed. One of the men agreed to show the workers'
accommodation. He said ' he was ashamed to do so. The place
was scarcely fit for beasts, let alone human beings; but
they don't mind for the likes of us.'
He led the way through a narrow lane,
ankle-deep with mud, at the back of the farm-steading, and
threw open a broken door, which ushered into a dark, dirty
and dilapidated shed. The only light came through a hole in
the wall, where there had once been a window, but which was
now destitute of even the framework of that, and through
which the rain and wind were at the time driving heavily.
The workers hung up sacks at night to keep out the cold and
wet, the guide said.
On the earthen floor, damp and dirty,
were piled heaps of straw for bedding. Two blankets were
supplied to each worker by the merchant; but, as these were
quite insufficient to keep them warm in such a place, the
workers had added old sacks and other coverings. The bedding
had a filthy appearance. 'The men and women were all lodged
together in this shed. The only fire provided was one under
a sort of archway in the farmyard, and was practically in
the open. Two workers, who were trying to cook something on
it, were standing exposed to the heavy rain and wind.
At Farm No. 7, the "gaffer" of the gang
complained strongly of the accommodation. "They are not
given even a box," he said, "to take their food on, and the
whole place is swarming with rats." The men and women were
all lodged together, and there were no locks on the door.
The only provision for light and air were unglazed apertures
in the wall, where there had once been windows. There were
no closets, and the fire was in the open. "The farmers is
just favouring themselves when they say the workers want to
lodge together. I would walk two miles to get a place to
myself," he said.
On the same farm I saw another shed in
which the same conditions prevailed. 7 men and 10 girls were
lodged together here, and, I was informed, 'there were more
"We would like separate sheds, but we
can't get them," said one of the women. "We are packed
together like herrings in a barrel." Some of the squads will
stay a month here. "When it is wet and windy," said another,
"we just have to suffer. We have no place to cook, and our
clothes have just to dry on us."
There is no doubt that, in bad weather,
these workers must suffer considerable hardship.
The evidence here was somewhat
conflicting. The farmer, whom I saw later, and who appeared
slightly to resent my visit, said"The merchants are
entirely responsible for the accommodation. We give the
workers what accommodation we have, in order to save them
walking. At one farm I know of the workers have pulled down
the partition put up. Different squads will not mix with
each other. When a new squad came last night they were
offered that empty shed up there for the separate use of the
women, and they would not take it. They are all very shy and
not amenable to outside control."
Farm No. 31.Fifty workers are employed
here for six weeks. About 15 men and lads are lodged in an
old disused stable, with an earthen floor. Some 35 women
sleep in an old granary. The walls of both buildings were of
rough-hewn stone, grimy with age and dirt. There were no
windows in either of the buildings, light and air being
admitted through long, open slits in the walls. These being
un-glazed, the workers must have suffered severely from cold
and wet in bad weather. Straw was provided for bedding, but
neither tables, seats, nor any furniture even of the most
The workers made their fires in the open.
The farmer said, "The workers never
complain. If furniture were provided for them they would not
use it. But I make it a rule that the men and the women keep
In Class "B" or "Indifferent," containing
15 farms, the buildings were weather-proof, and in some
cases fairly clean, but they were destitute of furniture, or
any appliances for comfort, and nothing was provided for the
workers beyond the bare shelter of four walls and a roof.
Class ,"C" or "Good" contains 15 farms.
The accommodation here might include, in addition to good,
clean, well-lighted sheds for sleeping, separate places for
cooking and eating meals, with special fire-places under
cover, and a reasonable amount of furniture in the way of
tables and benches. The following is a typical example:
At Farm No. 1 twenty-four women were
employed. They were lodged in a bothy which was both
windtight and water tight, and sufficiently lighted and
ventilated. It also contained a good fireplace.
The bedding consisted of a plentiful
supply of clean straw, spread on a wooden platform raised
over two feet from the ground. Blankets were supplied to the
workers by the potato merchants. Adjoining the bothy was a
kitchen where the food was cooked, and a woman assisted in
its preparation. Also a big fire was made outside on which
potatoes were boiled. The woman in charge said the workers
were "nice, civil, well-behaved girls, and very cheery too;
they have a dance in the barn nearly every night." Their
breakfast, taken at 5 a.m. was usually tea and eggs; dinner
taken at 11.30 a.m., ham, onions and tea; and the evening
meal, taken at 6.30 p.m., tea, potatoes and salt fish.
The men workers were lodged at the farm
by themselves. The accommodation was similar to that
provided for the women. The workers in question were
employed by the Leith Co-operative Society, and it was
stated that the Society not only provided better
accommodation than the average, but that they paid 3s. a
week more than other merchants in wages.
Here, as in other places, the workers
were employed in pairs i.e., a "howker" or "digger" and a
"gatherer." They made on an average £1 10s. per week per
pair, rising in the case of Co-operative employes to £1 13s.
with a minimum of £1 8s.
In Class "D" or "Excellent," 7 farms
deserve to be ranked. Farms Nos. 11 and 35 are typical
examples of this class, and are worth quoting as showing
what may be done.
Farm No. 11.Between 80 and 100 workers
are accommodated here for about a month. They are employes
of the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society, and have
come to this farm regularly for 10 years. The remark was
made to me, ''We can always trust the workers the
Co-operators send us.''
In one large shed with strong roof, good
windows, and cemented floor, 23 women were lodged. In
another, with the same provisions, 16. In a granary, clean,
well-ventilated and comfortable, 8 were lodged.
Separate and most excellent sheds were
provided for the men. The sheds for both sexes had pulleys
over-head for drying wet clothes. Two very good sheds, with
well-fitted fire places, were provided specially for
cooking. Hot plates had been put in these, but as the
workers disliked using them they had been removed.
The farmer said he took no married
people. He had no difficulty whatever in arranging that the
sexes should have separate quarters for sleeping.
I was very favourably impressed by the
appearance of the workers here. The girls were, almost
without exception, clean and nicely dressed, many of them
wearing white blouses and fresh cotton frocks. They seemed
to be of a superior class, and very pleasant relations
apparently existed between them and the farmer. In going
through the place I met with numerous expressions of
appreciation and gratitude on the part of the workers
regarding the arrangements made for them.
Farm No. 35.This with No. 11 presented
the high water mark of comfort and excellence of
arrangements met with in the course of my inquiry. 40
workers are employed here from 4 to 6 weeks. Two excellent
large sheds, with cemented floors, white-washed walls, and
windows opening out, were provided specially for the
workers' accommodation. These were well-ventilated and
lighted, and had pulleys overhead for drying the workers'
A special shed with large fireplace, and
hot plate for cooking, was also provided.
The farmer said the same workers came to
him year after year. He was very sympathetic on the subject
of the Council's inquiry and said he was glad to hear the
matter was being taken up. It was time something was done.
He had no difficulty in keeping the Irish workers separate;
they knew it was the rule of the place, and the arrangement
was never questioned; but the Scotch tramps were more
difficult to manage.
His man had instructions to change the
straw for the beds regularly and frequently. He thought
straw was the most sanitary form of bedding in the
circumstances. He was very thankful he had not put up wooden
bunks. One of the new sheds had cost £150.
He took a great interest in his workers.
They were apparently of a superior class. Here also several
of the workers expressed to me great appreciation of the
arrangements made for their comfort.
REPORTED CASES OF OVERCROWDING, &c.
Witness A reported that he had found 70
men and women lodged together in a hayloft. There was no
provision made for decency or comfort. The workers who came
from Ireland were, on the whole, very decent, well-behaved
people, but large numbers of a disorderly class also came to
the district during the potato harvest. Although he had no
direct information regarding the conditions last season, he
had no reason to believe that any change had been made. A
case of meningitis had occurred among the workers. This
terminated fatally, the man having died after being removed
to the hospital.
This statement was corroborated by
witnesses B, C, and D.
Witness E said he had known 6 men and 12
women to be lodged in a place 12 feet square, while 40
altogether were lodged in a byre. In another farm he knew of
200 men and women being all lodged together indiscriminately
for a month.
Witness F said that he had been reading
with much interest the report of the Council's deputation to
Lord Pentland, and was glad to see that some influential
body was taking up the matter of the housing of these
workers. He thought it urgently called for attention. He had
made a personal investigation officially two years ago among
the surrounding farms. There was no doubt that workers
suffered great hardships. He had visited at night and found
men, women and children all lodged together in the same
buildings. A great hardship for the women was the want of
any place to wash, and also the want of other sanitary
provisions. The cooking was mostly done in the open. He
spoke highly of the Irish workers, who, he said, were
generally very well-behaved. The difficulty was with the
specially low class of workers who came from the slums of
Glasgow, Greenock, Paisley, and other neighbouring towns.
The women employed in this industry were
exposed to greater risks in the way of assault than in any
other with which he was acquainted. He thought one reason
why the women did not make use of separate sleeping quarters
was the absence of securely fastened doors. The fires were
generally in the open, and this was also a great hardship.
The Authorities were in possession of ample evidence, but
they had taken no action on the reports sent to them. Public
attention had been drawn to the matter in the press by the
local Roman Catholic Clergymen. The local farmers had
replied pointing out the difficulties of dealing with
workers of this class, stating further, that the wages they
made were sufficient to allow them to lodge in the town, but
that accommodation had been given them at the farms without
any charge, and as a convenience to the workers themselves.
Witness said the farmers in the district
were really anxious to do their best for the workers, but
the whole matter was one of great difficulty. Conditions in
some other districts were very much worse than here.
It may be noted that one feature is
shared by the large majority of the farms visited, namely,
that the sleeping accommodation is common to both sexes. As
already shown the evidence given by farmers and workers on
this point was very conflicting. The former insist
emphatically that the workers prefer this arrangement, while
the latter just as emphatically contradict the statement.
In some cases the circumstances certainly
seemed to bear out the farmers' contention that it was the
workers' deliberate choice to lodge together; but the
explanation of this may be found in the fact that the
workers usually come in family parties, that the women
workers are timid and shy, and that they feel safer in the
company of their own men-folk than among strangers,
especially when the lodging offered is a shed, the doors of
which cannot be fastened.
With reference to the women workers'
reluctance in some cases to take the separate accommodation
offered, it must be remembered further that during the
potato harvest the country districts are infested by tramps,
and several of the women complained to me that they were
often subjected to annoyance from them. This statement was
borne out by evidence from an official source.
Notwithstanding their primitive habits
emphatic and unanimous testimony was given on every side as
to the good conduct of the Irish workers.
Many of these women have left their homes
in some remote country district in Ireland for the first
time. It is a plunge into the unknown for them, and they are
almost incredibly shy and distrustful of strangers. "What
part of Ireland do you come from?" I asked one girl. She
hung her head for a time, and then informed me, 'Sure she
was alter disremembering.' "Perhaps if you consider a little
the name may come back to you," I suggested. After a further
lengthy pause, and a whispered consultation with a friend
she at last confided in me that "perhaps it might be called
SUGGESTIONS AS TO IMPROVEMENTS
The Scottish Council for Women's Trades
and Union for the Abolition of Sweating feel that there is
enough evidence to show the urgent need for reform in the
Housing of these Workers. In submitting suggestions for
such, it is fully recognised that in many cases their stay
is very brief, but it must also be remembered they come
every year. Again, while it is true that the work is
specially dirty and rough, and that it must be carried on in
all weathers, thereby rendering it difficult, if not
impossible, for the workers to "keep anything beyond the
most simple form of domestic appointments reasonably clean,
and also that the potato gatherers themselves are, for the
most part, persons of very primitive habits and needs,
still, a minimum standard of comfort and decency should
certainly be enforced over all. This should include
buildings which are weatherproof, adequately lighted, and
provided with some simple articles of furnituresuch as
tables and seats; a sufficient supply of clean straw for
bedding, also blankets when the workers do not bring their
own; a fire, under cover, for cooking food and drying
clothes ; and some simple sanitary accommodation. Separate
sleeping-sheds, with securely-fastened doors, ought, of
course, to be provided in all cases for the women workers.
With regard to bedding, it seems
advisable, for sanitary reasons, that this should always
consist of material which can be renewed every season.
Probably the most sanitary, as well as the most comfortable
bedding, is straw or hay, when clean and supplied in
sufficient quantities. The workers themselves express a
preference for this.
Among suggestions made by farmers,
workers, and others, in the course of my inquiry, I may
quote the following :
That a superintendent should be appointed
to supervise the housing arrangements for the workers, to
see to their comforts in regard to having fires ready for
their return at night, and to be responsible for decency,
cleanliness, order, and general good conduct.
That in cases where there are a number of
farms adjacent a suitable common lodging house might be put
That caravans might be provided by the
potato merchants to go from place to place. (This is done
already in one case, but is obviously only suitable where
the gangs are small).
That tents might be used for
accommodating the men workers.
That the cost of erecting suitable
buildings should be borne by the proprietor, and not by the
WHAT SOME LOCAL AUTHORITIES ARE DOING
I should like, in particular, to direct
attention to the excellent practical recommendations issued
by the Perth County Council, and in the Counties of Stirling
In the County of Perth the following
recommendations have been issued to farmers who sell
potatoes to merchants who bring diggers to the farms to lift
(1) Sufficient dry and airy accommodation
should be provided, separate for each sex of the diggers, to
sleep in. Previous to the arrival of the diggers the walls
and roofs of these houses should be swept down to remove
cobwebs and dust, and the whole interior receive a coat of
(2) A room should be provided for the
diggers taking their meals in, and rough tables and seats
should be provided for this room.
(3) A fire, under cover, should be
provided for cooking food and drying wet clothing.
(4) Abundance of clean dry straw should
be provided for making up the diggers' beds.
(5) A shed should be provided for the
diggers' washing, and sufficient privy accommodation must be
Visits of inspection will be made during
the potato-lifting season to ascertain if the above
recommendations have been given effect to.
The following recommendations have also
been issued to merchants who purchase potatoes at farms in
the district and send diggers to lift them during the
(1) To make sure that the ganger sees to
the separation of the sexes in the accommodation provided
(2) Sufficient blankets should be
supplied to make the diggers comfortable.
(3) A women should be told off to see to
the cleanliness of the accommodation provided, and the
personal cleanliness of the diggers.
In the Counties of Stirling and
Dumbarton, the Medical Officer of Health, Dr John C. M'Vail
has made an extensive inquiry into the Housing of Potato
Diggers. In the course of this much valuable information has
been collected. The detailed results are given . in the
Twentieth Annual Report (year 1910) to the County Council
and District Committees. Dr M'Vail has also issued the
following letter to farmers
" County Councils of Stirling and
" Health Department,
" 24 George Square,
" Glasgow, July, 1910.
" Dear Sir,
"Housing of Potato Diggers.
"As the time is now approaching for the
digging of this year's crop of potatoes, I have to bring
under your notice the principal points requiring your
attention in providing accommodation for any gangs which may
visit your farm.
"(1) There should be no overcrowding. At
least 400 cubic feet of air space should be provided for
each individual. Assuming the available height of an
apartment to be 10 feet, this means that the total floor
area per diggers should not be less than 40 square feet.
"(2) On no account should male and female
diggers sleep in the same apartment.
"(3) Clean bedding should be provided. A
sufficiency of clean straw meets this requirement if the
diggers bring their own bed clothingrugs or blankets.
"(4) The apartment should be clean and
dry, and sufficiently lit and well ventilated. Bothies,
granaries, and barns can usually be adapted for the purpose.
Byres are hardly ever satisfactory. Whatever apartments are
to be used, the walls, if suitable, should be lime-washed
"(5) Proper arrangements must be made for
cooking, eating, personal ablution, and the drying of wet
clothes. Fires built in the open air are quite insufficient.
There should always be a roof for shelter, and it may
sometimes be necessary to have one fire for cooking and
another fire for the drying of wet clothes in bad weather;
otherwise the cooking fire ought to be such as can readily
be used for drying clothes if required. Personal ablution
may be done in the boiler house or wherever there is a water
tap; but it should be under cover, especially in the case of
"(6) Definite arrangements should be made
for privy accommodation. It is very disgusting to have the
ground all round a farm steading dotted all over with human
filth, and diggers should be warned accordingly, so that
they shall use whatever conveniences are provided. If the
privy at the farm is insufficient, some additional temporary
provision should be m.ide, but need not be of an elaborate
character. Where the same gang travels from place to place,
the employer of the diggers should provide a portable pail
"(7) Water supply. This will naturally
be that of the farm steading itself. If gravitation water is
not led into the farm, care should be taken that any local
supply is not polluted through the want of privy
accommodation as above referred to.
"I trust that you will give due heed to
all these matters, so that no cause of complaint will arise
in connection with your premises. The arrangements made need
not be elaborate, but they must be sufficient for health and
cleanliness and decency.
"John C. M'Vail."
Along with the above letter a request was
sent to the farmers to intimate by reply postcard whether
and when diggers were expected.
One of the most satisfactory features met
with in my own inquiry was the improvements in
accommodation, both in progress and projected for the coming
season. In various cases where, up to the present,
conditions had been specially bad, excellent new buildings
were in the course of erection. In others, concrete floors
were being laid down where there had only been earth before;
glazed windows were replacing what had formerly been mere
open holes in the walls, and other improvements were being
made. The "gaffer" of one gang: said"Until this year they
never bothered where they put the workers. They put them
anywhereinto the pigstyes sometimesbut they have made a
quare lot of improvements this year, and we had the Sanitary
Inspector seeing us yesterday."
Another "gaffer" repeated the statement
that "there had been a quare lot of improvements this year.
He had heard that people had been enquiring about the
workers, and that there had been letters in the papers. He
wished that other parts of the country could be shown up in
the same way. He had heard that in Ayrshire the Members of
Parliament had been taking it up, and speaking up for the
Potato Diggers in the House of Commons. It was time somebody
looked after the workers."
I think we may fairly claim to include
among the causes which have brought about these
improvements, the efforts made by the Scottish Council for
Women's Trades in investigating the housing conditions, and
bringing these under the notice of authorities, and also the
valuable support which has been given us by Scottish Members
of Parliament, who have asked questions in the House, and
have made special representations to the Secretary for
Scotland on the subject. That much still remains to be done,
however, will be seen by the evidence contained in the
In conclusion, I should like to record my
thanks for the courtesy and kindness shown me on my visits
to the various farms. The degree of cordiality met with was
such as, in the circumstances, I had not ventured to expect.
In only two cases was there any reluctance shown to grant me
admittance, and in only one was permission actually refused.
In all the others I met with the greatest readiness to give
me access to the buildings, and to discuss both sides of the
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