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Problems of a Scottish Provincial Town
Chapter IV. The Housing Problem, and its Solution


THE student of the social conditions of Dunfermline will speedily be able to satisfy himself that, of all the problems which present themselves, the housing question is the most urgent. In saying this it is not suggested that Dunfermline is unique in this respect. Probably the great majority of cities in Great Britain would reveal the same problem similarly urgent.

In Dunfermline its solution is comparatively simple for a body like the Carnegie Trustees, if possessed of courage, intelligence, and knowledge, or expert guidance upon the question; and it should be one of the first matters to be grappled with, and that in an adequate manner.

The character of the town has already been referred to—its narrow streets and unfavourable construction. The ordnance map shows clearly how confined, with its considerable population, it is. A comparatively short walk from the centre of the town, in any direction, will reach the country. The great landowners, whose estates surround the town, have, for the most part, given little encouragement to the natural expansion of the city, and the congestion has thus become acute.

The present is an important epoch in the history of Dunfermline, and one which will see it unite with the characteristics of an inland town those of a seaport city j for at Rosyth, five miles to the south of the town, is the site of the new Naval Base. A glance at a map will show the relative position of the two places, and it will be seen that at no far distant date Rosyth and Dunfermline will be practically one city, or at least Dunfermline will stand to Rosyth as Edinburgh does to Leith.

This enlargement of Dunfermline will also receive an impetus due to the impending construction of an electric tramway between the town and Rosyth, and this tramway will have an important influence upon the whole question of housing conditions and general developments.

It must be understood that the tramway scheme is a private enterprise, and that the land on each side of the tramway route is in private ownership. It is, therefore, not hard to predict what under ordinary conditions will be the result of the introduction of the trams. The fate which has overtaken the suburbs of so many towns of the kingdom forms only too trustworthy a guide to the prophet. The land along the route will be secured by the speculative builder; houses and tenements will be run up ostensibly in the interests of the working classes, and the result will be merely the enlargement of the squalid housing conditions which already prevail over a large part of the town. If experience goes for anything these houses will be erected with a minimum regard for health and decency; they will probably be in a continuous line, and the amount of ground allowed to each will be as small as the ingenuity of the jerry builder can possibly arrange.

Such are some of the dangers of the immediate situation, nor are they overstated. On the other hand, the possibilities for good in the present position of affairs are quite unique, and a brave and far-seeing policy now adopted will make Dunfermline ever memorable in the history of housing reform. The congestion within the town itself has already been spoken of, and the accompanying illustrations, which are by no means the worst which might have been selected, but are genuinely typical of the city, will enable the reader to appreciate this point. The tenement system is almost universal amongst the poorer classes. The houses, for the most part, consist of one, two, three, and amongst the more prosperous workers, more rooms. In the poorer quarters the sanitary arrangements are defective, the tenements are frequently squalid, and badly lighted, dirty courts and alleys abound, and, in a word, there are reproduced in Dunfermline, in miniature, all the worst features of the slums, say of Manchester, or London, or Edinburgh.

The photograph given on page 33 (Fig. i) shows a small house of six small rooms divided into three tenements of two rooms each. The two rooms on the ground floor are occupied by a labourer and his wife with seven children. The first floor is occupied by a man and wife with four children, and in the two attics there live a married couple without children. Thus in six small rooms there is a total population of seventeen people. The average annual rent paid for each two rooms is £5 17s., a total of £18 being therefore obtained for a house, the occupation of which, in its present crowded condition, ought not to be allowed.

This case which we have cited is by no means an exceptional one, nor is it one of the worst, for the house we have instanced is situated in a singularly beautiful spot—its back overlooking Pittencrieff Glen and its front facing the Old Abbey. The briefest inspection of the courts running off the majority of the streets, but especially of those to the north of the town, should satisfy even those most indifferent to housing reform of the need for immediate action.

The illustrations given in Figs. 2, 3, and 4, are typical views of the houses, courts, and streets of which Dunfermline is for the most part composed. Fig. 5 shows court and dwelling-house at the back of the High Street. Fig. 6 is a view taken in one of the courts running off the High Street. This dark passage faces the living rooms in one of the tenements in the alley; the passage is filthy, and is frequently used as a convenience. Figs. 7 and 8 show the fronts and backs respectively of ordinary working-class houses, but by no means of the worst type.

Many business premises and shops, which show a fair exterior to the road, are in such a condition at the rear as to lead to the belief that no inspection is ever made by the responsible authorities.

Figs. 9 and io show the front and rear respectively of a public-house in St. Catherine's Wynd. It will be seen in Fig. io that structures have been erected against the back rooms of the house for live stock, and one, at least, of the lower rooms or cellars is used as a pen.

We might go on almost without end with this description of the dreary conditions of life for the poor in Dunfermline. [As these sheets are passing through the press, other testimony to the housing conditions of Dunfermline reaches me. The Dunfermline Press, December 31st, 1904, reports a speech by the Rev. Merrich Walker, a local minister, calling attention to the evil, and urging for organisation to cope with it. "There was," he stated, "at that very hour a house in Dunfermline which was not fit to stable a beast in, and the house was occupied by a poor old woman who made her livelihood by keeping the babies of women who had to work in the factories. The last day he visited that house there were bits of curtains, bits of rags and other materials she could get her hands on, utilised to keep out the bleak winter wind from herself and the children."] But if it is a dark picture, it is one which may speedily be made bright. For if, in some respects, the housing conditions approach those in the worst quarters of the biggest towns, the evil in Dunfermline is only the miniature reflection of that existing in the great cities, and for this reason alone is capable of being dealt with much more speedily and effectively. But the foundation of the Carnegie Dunfermline Trust provides means to grapple with it in a way not frequently possible. Let the reader again consult the map, in order to satisfy himself that the natural development of Dunfermline will inevitably be towards the coast, where the Naval Base is being founded, which will be connected by the tramway already mentioned. There is no reason to believe that the owners of the land along the tramway route are unsympathetic to the needs of the town, or will be lacking in willingness to co-operate in a wise scheme for the best interests of the people, were such placed before them.

I therefore press that the first step for the Carnegie Trustees to take in their attempt to improve the housing conditions at present existing, is to acquire as much of the land as possible on each side of the tramway route from Dunfermline to the coast. If they neglect the present opportunity to do this, they will miss one which may never occur again, for at no distant date the land in question will otherwise become the prize of the speculative builder.

On this land the trustees should then commence the erection of a greater Dunfermline, to afford, at once, accommodation for the overcrowded dwellers in the existing slums, and to prevent the extension and aid the rapid extinction of these latter.

I can well understand that any proposal for the Trust to embark on the building of houses will arouse opposition of the vested interests, and the cry of interference with private enterprise will, no doubt, be raised. But this is not a cry which ought to deter men desiring to realise the object of their trust, and it may well be remarked that private enterprise is responsible for the present state of affairs, and offers no solution of the existing evil. It is time that other and adequate measures were tried. It is not suggested that the Trust should recklessly embark upon a great scheme of building, but that it should proceed with this department of its work slowly though surely. It will set out primarily with the view of building houses for the working classes, which, whilst being constructed in accordance with the best teaching of science, will, nevertheless, be let at a rental which will be within the means of the classes they are intended for. It has already been demonstrated in other parts of the country that houses with good gardens and plenty of air space, with proper sanitary arrangements, well-lighted and well-ventilated rooms, can be erected at a price which will yield a fair return, and the possibilities in this direction will be still further increased when the simpler but not less efficient methods of erection have been adopted, and when the existing bylaws, which are discussed in another place, have been modified and made the means of helping instead of preventing.

This chapter has been mainly concerned with the needs of the working classes of the town, but the writer would express the earnest hope that in any scheme which is undertaken provision will be made for all sections of the community, so that no unnatural divorcement of one class from another may take place as so generally results from modern methods.


 


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