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Slum Life in Edinburgh
Chapter I. The Poor Man at Home

We are no “Special Commissioners” deputed to paint lurid pictures of slum liorrors; we are not sentimental shimmers who run hither and thither in the search for social sores over which to gush and weep; we see no reason for abusing the authorities, or the administrators of public or private charities; we do not even cherish a theory, the carrying out of which would secure the salvation of the “submerged tenth.” We simply wish, in these articles, to draw a few unexaggerated pictures, or rather sketches, of the conditions under which the inhabitants of those lower regions exist; to tell something of their homes and their mode of life, their struggles and their sufferings, with which we have become acquainted in the course of long wanderings among the courts and closes and back streets of the city.

This, we believe, is not yet a work of supererogation ; for, notwithstanding all that has been said and written of the poorer classes, the quarters where they congregate are still “dark places” to all but a comparative few. To the vast majority the “one-roomed house,” the squalor and destitution of the poor, are but the merest abstractions, or are vaguely associated with notorious East End localities. It is only when we come face to face with the misery itself, instead of confining our knowledge to that derived from the reports of charitable institutions, that we can realise its awful actuality.

We need not travel four hundred miles to Whitechapel; we have a Whitechapel at our own doors, gruesome enough to satisfy the cravings of the sensation hunter, big enough to absorb all our time, money, and philanthropic zeal.

A walk through the Grassmarket or Cowgate, or down the Lawnmarket and Canongate, is at times a very depressing experience; but one has to explore the huge tenements that tower on either side of the street, to enter the houses and speak with the people, to arrive at an adequate idea of what life in some parts of the slums means. A night spent in such an exploration—climbing foul and rickety stairs, groping vour wav along a network of dark, narrow passages, and peering into the dismal dens which the wretched inhabitants (and their landlords) call “houses”—a night passed in this manner will give an experience of horrors that will for ever remain imprinted on the memory.

Go into any one of the courts in the Lawn-market, for instance ; glance up at the rows of windows, and then reflect for a minute or two. Windows everywhere—looking to front, to back, into courts and closes; and each one of them probably represents a “one-roomed house,” inhabited by from two to eight or nine persons. The rooms, the spacious chambers of the aristocracy of Edinburgh, have been partitioned off into small box-like apartments, like the cells of a honeycomb. Everybody is familiar with the filth of the closes and courts : these, then, need not be further described. The stairs are in a corresponding state of foulness. The seemingly interminable passages which penetrate in all directions into these human warrens are narrow, and in general very badly lighted ; in many the darkness seems almost to be palpable, so dense is it. Along these corridors the doors of the rooms are ranged within a few feet of each other. A close, sickening odour pervades the passages. It is an indescribable smell—a compound of all the foul vapours escaping from numberless reeking hovels. Sometimes when you enter a room, fumes like the quintessence of all villainous smells combined, make yon gasp, and then, rushing down to the very foundations of your vitals, cause a sensation as if the stomach were trying to turn a somersault. But conquering an instinctive desire to shut the door and beat a retreat, you enter the room and look around you.

The room, for which a weekly rent of from one and threepence to half-a-crown is paid, is small, dirty, and dingy. The walls are black with the smoke and dirt of years; here and there the plaster has fallen off in patches, and reveals the laths beneath. The floor looks as if soap and water were still unknown in these regions : likewise the crazy deal table—if there happens to be one. There may be a chair with a decayed back, but frequently a roughly-made stool or an upturned box does duty instead. And the bed ! These lairs—for the word “bed” may suggest erroneous ideas of luxury—have long been a marvel to us; inasmuch as it is difficult to imagine how blankets, which presumably were once white, have assumed a hue so dark. They appear to have been steeped in a solution of soot and water—blankets, pillows, and mattress, or what stand for such. Generally the bed is a wooden one, a venerable relic of bygone fashions, bought for a trifle from the furniture broker on the other side of the street. But very often a bedstead is not included in the furnishings of the chamber, in which case the family couch consists of a mattress or a bundle of rags, or some straw laid in the least draughty corner of the room, and covered over with any kind of rags that can be gathered together.

There a whole family will lie down at night, and when the cold is intense, and the piercing wind whistles through the chinks in the window frames, right glad they arc to huddle together for the sake of warmth. It is 110 uncommon thing to sec five or six, or even seven, persons in one bed—father, mother, and four or five children, one foetid intertwined mass of humanity. The unspeakably horrible results of this overcrowding need not be described; they can be readily imagined. For it is not only children who are packed together within the four walls of one chamber. It is quite a usual thing to find grown-up people herding together in one small room, without any pretence of privacy or decency.

In a room in the Lawnmarket we found a man and his wife in bed, both unwell. The husband had been out of health and unable to work for twelve months, and he and his wife were supported by a daughter of twenty years of age, who earned seven shillings and sixpence a week, and shared their room, and their led, with them. And they would think you had queer notions if you expressed surprise at this natural arrangement.

Another room—this one in the Castle Wynd— presented a scene that is only too easily paralleled in any part of our slums. It was typical of the poor man’s home. The room was filthy beyond description. From the blackened walls the paper hung in shreds, and in one corner the damp had discoloured the plaster beyond the power of whitewash to restore. A feeble light from a paraffin lamp shed its melancholy rays over a group of two men, two girls, and a boy cowering round a cinder fire which they were in vain endeavouring to coax into a flame. Beside them, on a bundle of rags on the floor, lay a woman and two grown-up daughters; and 011 a decrepit bedstead, curled up among a few foul cloths that no one would think of calling bed-clothes, a man was sleeping off the effects of a two-days’ carouse.


In this dark, dam}) den, the weekly rent of which was two shillings and fourpence, the man, his wife, and five children, the eldest of whom was a girl of eighteen, lived—under what conditions we shall leave the reader to depict for himself.

But this is almost a desirable residence compared with some of the abodes that may be seen any day of the week. In Lower Greenside, where there are some execrable specimens of one-roomed houses, we stumbled across a den about twelve feet square. It was a debateable point which was the more hideous, the room or its occupants. Furniture there was none, unless a shakedown of rags, a stool, and an empty orange box may go by that name. In the grate an old boot was burning, for the supply of cinders had run out. On one side of the fire sat an unkempt virago, with a baby at her breast and a pipe in her mouth. Opposite to her crouched an aged woman, whose grey dishevelled hair, hooked nose, and brown, minutely wrinkled face gave her a very witch-like appearance. Crosslegged between them sat a boy of about ten years of age. This beldam, having reached the stage of intoxication, was venting her spleen in a shower of oaths and curses upon her companion with the baby and the pipe : but the latter treated her volleys of vituperation with the calmness bred of use and wont ; only at intervals removing her pipe from her mouth and commanding the old woman to “shut up,” an injunction always followed by a fierce, complicated oath.

A feature of this low life that impresses one with painful vividness is the total absence of anything approaching rational enjoyment or employment. When a man in comfortable circumstances goes home from his day’s work, he generally finds a cheery hearth and a warm meal awaiting him. Then, if he does not go out for a walk, or to visit friends, or to some place of entertainment, he puts his slippered feet on the fender and has his pipe and his newspaper; or, if he is a family man, he enjoys the company of his wife and children. At all events he is fed and warm, and his mind is more or less at ease.

The forlorn being of whom we write returns to the hovel he calls his home, after, it may be, a day spent in a fruitless search for work. He finds nothing there to cheer or attract him. Dirt and desolation everywhere this better-half not remarkable for her tidiness. A swarm of ragged, hungry bairns are sprawling about the


floor. It depends on reliance and the luck of the day whether there is any supper or not. Possibly there is not a crust in the house. Though the night is bitterly cold, there is only a handful of smouldering cinders in the grate, and a chillness that penetrates to the very marrow pervades the room. Books or newspapers he has none; probably he could not read them if he had any. The night is too cold for loafing at the “close-mouth”—a favourite summer pastime of our slum denizens; so all he can do is to kill time till he shuffles off to bed.

It sickens the heart to see the hopeless, aimless demeanour of a family group such as this. There they sit, as close to the meagre fire as possible; gloomy emptiness on all sides. They do nothing; of conversation they have little, only an occasional remark is dropped in a listless way. When one surprises a household in this attitude, he is impressed with the idea that this cluster of silent figures are expecting something—waiting for something to turn up. But if they are expectant, it is of something that never comes. At length, hungry, shivering, utterly wretched, they throw themselves upon the pallet of straw and rags, and for a time forget their misery in sleep.

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