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Slum Life in Edinburgh
Chapter IV. “Furnished Lodgings” in the Slums


In the preceding- articles we have endeavoured to describe life as it is to be seen in the homes of the very poorest and most degraded denizens of the slums of our city. To some—those to whom the putrid squalor that seethes beneath their feet is nothing but a name—these pictures may have seemed exaggerations, too horrible to be real; we have been told as much. But those who are familiar with the dark places of Edinburgh will unhesitatingly confess that the reality surpasses in hideousness anything that the imagination could create. There are things one sees that defy description, that cannot be written. But they burn themselves into the brain; they can never be forgotten ; they come into the mind unbidden in times of warm, well-fed comfort and content—phantasms that chase away cheerful theories of the welfare of future generations.

The one-roomed dwellings we have hitherto explored, filthy holes though they be, are still of the nature of private houses ; they and the bits of furniture they hold are, for the time at least, the property of the occupants. The unhappy beings who live in them have not sunk so low but that they retain a desire to have a home of their own.

We now take a step lower in the social scale, and come upon a section of a vast floating population who have never been able to struggle into the position of being masters of their homes, or have never had a wish to be so; or, having once been in that position, have fallen from it through misfortune 01* their own evil habits. We refer to the occupants of “furnished lodgings” in the slums. These may be said to fill a social position midway between the class who live in private houses and the more deeply sunken multitude who pass their days in common lodging-houses.

Scattered throughout the poorest quarters of the town, sometimes in small groups, at others the whole or portion of a tenement, are hundreds of tiny chambers let out in this manner at exorbitant rents. The rooms are usually like those we have already described, small, dilapidated, and dirty to a degree which people of the better class can scarcely conceive of. To the mind of a housewife in what is called respectable society, a very dirty room is one that has been neglected for perhaps a day or two. Let such persons of average tidy habits, however, think of a room, originally of wretched, dingy appearance, inhabited by two, three, or half-a-dozen tattered men, women, and children, whose notions of cleanliness are not much higher than those of savages, and who for weeks, or even months, seldom make a pretence of washing their abode, but allow all kinds of refuse to accumulate and rot undisturbed; and then some conception will be formed of the foulness that prevails in the dwellings of the poor.

In going in and about those furnished lodgings we have often thought that they must be exceedingly profitable investments for the proprietors. The weekly rent generally ranges from four shillings to four shillings and sixpence, for which the tenant has a hovel of the kind that usually lets unfurnished for eighteenpence or two shillings, and furniture consisting of an aged bedstead, the very shortest possible allowance of bedclothes, a small deal table, a rough wooden stool, and, in some cases, a battered tin kettle and a piece or twTo of delf ware. These odds and ends, that might be bought right off for a few shillings, constitute the “furniture,” for the loan of which the liberal-minded landlord charges about half-a-crown a week. That is to say, the unhappy tenant pays in the course of a month as much for the hire of the furniture as the furniture itself is worth at a generous estimate. Certainly a very fair return for one’s money.

If one believed all the stories one hears about the rapacity of proprietors, he would set the slum landlord down as a past-master in the art of extortion. Doubtless some.of them are. They treat the wretches whom they have in their power as if they had no rights and no feelings, as if they were only so much material made for squeezing pence out of. Every mean dodge that a base ingenuity can invent is resorted to for the purpose of multiplying “extras.” Their victims may protest, but complaints and protests are of 110 avail. The tenant is pretty plainly told that if he is not pleased with the conditions he must bundle and go; and it may be, if this last advice is adopted, he finds that he has jumped from the frying-pan into the fire.

It was reasons of this kind that caused a young man and his wife, living in the Canongate, to remain in a house—not furnished lodgings—which was in such a disgraceful state that a merciful man would not have stabled his horse in it. The room was a small, smoky den, with a wall on one side, on which there was 110 plaster, only a coat or two of yellow ochre covering the rough hewn stones. In the corner of the bed recess appeared half of a doorway that had been built up, and in the roof above was a great hole about two feet long by a foot broad. The wall at the foot of the bed was wet, of a dark brown colour, and gave off a sickening smell. When we asked him the cause of this state of affairs he told us that the hole had been made by leakage of water from a closet in the landing above. Sometimes the overflow was so great that the water poured through the hole, down the wall, formed a stream on the floor, and escaping under the door, ran down the stairs outside. He had had bad health ever since he came to the house, and at length he had removed the bed from the recess to the middle of the floor; but as that placed it between two opposite windows neither rain nor wind proof, the alteration was not much of an improvement. The room was a terribly cold and draughty one. But had he not asked the landlord to put the closet to rights and repair the windows ? Yes, several times ; but he had been told in effect that if he did not like the house he was at liberty to remove to another. And so the hope that the house would some day be put in proper order and the disinclination to remove had combined to keep him in that disease-breeding hovel. Besides, lie did not know to whom to make representations regarding the insanitary condition of the house. They are ignorant, very ignorant, these poor people, and fall an easy prey to the cheat and the extortioner.

On the other hand, they are uncommonly “contrary” folks to deal with. A landlord may at first regulate his dealings with them by the most elevated, philanthropic principles; but very soon he finds that business cannot be successfully conducted on the lines of pure philanthropy. If he cleans and repairs his houses, they arc soon as foul as before, and he discovers to his grief that his tenants use the soil-pipes as rubbish bins, and have a rooted conviction that the wood-work of the rooms is intended to be broken up for firewood in times of emergency. He may try to teach them more civilised habits; he may expostulate or endeavour to shame them into cleanliness. But all his attempts are almost altogether fruitless. Dirty and careless these people are, and they will remain so to the end. It is little cause for wonder, then, that with such incorrigibles to deal with, the landlord relinquishes "all thought of reformation, and adopts a purely business basis of procedure. Still we might point to instances where efforts of that kind have been rewarded by most gratifying results, shown in the tidiness of the houses and the mode of life of the inhabitants. The public would receive with a murmur of pleased surprise what might be told of the patient disinterestedness of some men and women in Edinburgh who have property in the slums.

But to return to our furnished lodgings.

The people who conduct their housekeeping on this plan are an exceedingly interesting class of the community, comprising as they do many of those strangely-living, itinerant beings who pick up their livelihood on the streets, and who have not had opportunity or inclination to establish a permanent household—such as beggars and street musicians. Thieves likewise find this a convenient mode of domestic life, for they have the quiet of a private house, which cannot be got in a common lodging-house, without. any encumbrances that might be awkward in- the event of hurried removal being considered advisable. Furnished lodgings are suitable also for couples who marry very young or are improvident. Such persons can start matrimonial life without the initial expense of furnishing a house; but this is a bad beginning to make, for once they become accustomed to lodgings the probability is that they will continue in them, and never get the length of having a fixed abode—a state of affairs not at all conducive to family comfort or stability.

One instance will suffice to illustrate the habits of those nomadic tribes. In a dreary little room in the West Port we had a talk with the lodger, a young pavement artist of somewhat prepossessing appearance. The room—it goes without saying that it was horribly dirty—contained a bed, a small table, a backless chair, and an upturned box ; while a candle, stuck against the wall, shed a sickly light around, and, at the same time, decorated the walls with long streaks of smoke and soot. Upon the upturned box the artist’s wife, a mere girl, sat with her head in her hands, a picture of shabby, dishevelled dejection; the artistic young man himself, just returned from an unremunerative day’s work on the pavement, was making a tasteless supper of a chunk of bread. He had had “hard lines” all that week. That day (Thursday) was the first that week favourable to his calling, and though lie had stood at his pictures all the day, he had earned only twopence. But such poor drawings were the exception, not the rule. In summer days (people will not stand to look at pictures in winter when the frost is nipping their toes and making their noses blue) he makes a comfortable living; and that is just where the mischief comes in. So long as those fellows can get along without doing any steady work, they will do so; though one would imagine that loafing is about as laborious an occupation as any one could be employed in. The street artist, however, loafs to some purpose. He told us that on New Year’s Day he took up his position on the Lothian Road, and in the course of the forenoon, until a policeman commanded him to “move on,” he made twelve shillings. The largest sum he ever made in one day was at Perth races, when his day’s earnings amounted to thirty shillings. But, as he said, his sort of life was only “a hunger and a burst;” at one time he would be in clover, and then a spell of bad weather would reduce him almost to starvation. He was glad in these circumstances to do any odd job that could keep him alive till the tide turned.

This is a fair specimen of the thriftless, shiftless persons who never get beyond the unhomelike furnished lodgings.

As we have already said, thieves are generally supposed to favour this style of domestic economy.

One of the rooms we visited—“by special permission/’ so to speak—was inhabited by a gang of housebreakers and pickpockets. Their apartment was quite a model one of its kind; it was not so hopelessly filthy, but it contained nothing more than the usual stools, table, and bed. In consideration of a bed-closet being attached to the room the rent was six shillings a week, and this the light-fingered gang—three hangdog-looking men with eight-piece caps and spotted neckcloths, and a brawny woman with a hoarse voice —paid amongst them. They worked together, each having a special department of business to attend to. A middle-aged man, who appeared to be the captain of the crew, did housebreaking and other jobs of importance. A quiet young man did the prospecting; that is, he looked about him for likely “cribs” for his pals to “crack,” with a view to which he would clean windows and do other similar light work that procures for the operator entrance into houses and shops. The muscular female also had her duties strictly defined, the principal one being to act as “decoy” when her male copartners had pocket-picking business on hand.

With many poor families life too often resolves itself into nothing but a desperate struggle to meet the weekly payment of four shillings for lodgings. The father, it may be, loses his health, and the mother has to take up the labour of the bread-winner. She goes out hawking or charing, or engages in the loathsome work of “bucket-ranging;” frequently she is reduced almost entirely to this last employment. Scarcely anything can be made out of it now-a-days, paper is so cheap, and people seem to be more careful of what goes into the refuse-box. So old cinder-gatherers have told us. A woman, with a husband and a family depending upon her, will rise up in the early morning and make a raid on the ash-buckets, and perhaps twopence or threepence will be the total result of her industry. Cinders she carefully preserves for use at home ; while pieces of bread and meat are eagerly rescued from the dust-heap, and go to replenish the exhausted family larder. In this way they keep life in, and every available halfpenny of money is husbanded for the purpose of keeping a roof above their heads. But even with this constant pinching the rent frequently cannot be gathered, for four shillings is a considerable sum to those poor creatures. In that eventuality their fate depends very much on the character of the landlord. If he is an individual of average tender-heartedness, they are usually allowed a period of grace; but eviction generally quickly ensues. One landlady has a practice of removing the bedclothes, so as to precipitate the removal of her non-rent-paying tenants.

Thus thrust out into the streets, those unlucky wretches subsist as best they can till a return of prosperity enables them to take to furnished lodgings again, only, however, to tread the same weary round of adversity, where change is but a variation in the degree of suffering.


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