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The Rows
The housing of the workers

(extract from Three Centuries of Change
 - Peter Drummond and James Smith)

The population of Old Monkland Parish in 1801 was just over 4,000. By 1851 Old Monkland contained 27,333 people dependent for their living on more than 50 blast furnaces, malleable iron works, tube works and innumerable coal and
ironstone pits scattered across the parish. This continually increasing population had poured into an unprepared rural economy, from Cornwall, Staffordshire, Ireland, Wales and the Scottish
Highlands (including 70 crofters who were brought to Carnbroe in the 1840's as strike breakers), and later on from Lithuania. This was to create serious problems in a district where there was no overall body effectively responsible for the organisation of its basic welfare and public health services, let alone the provision of housing, until the creation of the burgh in 1885.

In most cases the coal and iron masters were responsible for the erection of their own workers' houses - Dixon at Calder, Baird at Gartsherrie, Wilson at Dundyvan, Merry and Cunningham at Carnbroe and Addie at Langloan. They were therefore 'tied houses', tied to jobs: the sack and eviction thus went hand in hand, thereby punishing a worker's wife and children very harshly should he be deemed guilty of industrial misconduct.

The exact location of a row was determined by the owners' desire to have it as close to the mine or works as possible, since he would not need to buy additional land for his workers' homes. It also meant that he could keep tight social discipline over his workforce, being able - as Baird did - to inspect the condition of their houses, collect the rent, check up on absentees, and if necessary carry out evictions of the families of the 'troublesome workers'. On occasion of strikes, as in the bitter miners' strikes of the 1840s, whole communities would be put out on the street to fend for themselves within hours of the withdrawal of labour.

For the worker himself it meant he endured a condition similar to that of Orwell's nightmare of the future, ' 1984', in which the state, 'Big Brother' has full knowledge of personal and social life and thus effectively controls the individual. Over a century before 1984, the mine owner or ironmaster and his overseers were just such 'Big Brothers' to many workers, since their family life and leisure activities were conducted only yards from the workplace. For his wife - after women were banned from working in the pits from the mid-19th century - it meant not only insecurity in the family home but a constant battle against pollution from smoke and grit of the house, the furniture, and the washing. The 600
yards Long Row at Dundyvan, for example was split in two by Dundyvan No. 5 pit, sunk between two gable ends. For the iron workers at Gartsherrie and Summerlee (the latter in Merrystone Square), whose rows lay only yards from the open-topped furnaces,
the only 'blessing' was that being to the west of the works they lay upwind for most of the year.

The pattern made by the layout of these rows was very different from the older hamlets and villages in the area, where variety, although unintended, was the essence. The slow pace of agricultural population growth meant that a house was added when needed, to an existing settlement, often of a different size, style or distance from the street compared to its neighbour. The need however to 'mass produce' cheap workers' housing led to monotonously similar houses arranged in long lines - the essential 'row' - or in squares: in these, the open spaces between were cluttered with common wash houses, dry toilets (with no flush) and middens. The actual construction of the houses was usually of the lowest quality: the possibility of a mine or ironworks having a short life meant that they were not built to last; and investment in the capital equipment of the works was seen as being far more important that investment in the human equipment, the workers and their families. Let us look at two examples.

The Carnbroe Rows of Merry and Cunningham (built 1838) consisted of three single storied rows running along the steep bank of the Calder. The most westerly row, known locally as the Monkey Row, consisted of twenty back-to-back single ends containing two hole-in-the-wall beds - 'those cubicles of consumption' as one commentator described this feature. The other two rows were room-and-kitchens. These rows, which stood into the mid-20th century, were served by dry toilets,
one common water pipe, and open sheughs (drains) until 1923, when a rude brick scullery with cold water, and a toilet with unfinished inside walls and bare rafters, were added to each house. It was into the 1930's before gas was led into these rows, replacing paraffin lamps for lighting: electricity never managed to get there before the bulldozer. Poor construction expressed itself in peeling wallpaper, rotting floorboards and repeated burst pipes in winter.

Throughout their existence, the workers' rows were visited by recurrent eruptions of cholera and enteric fever (both contracted from polluted water and food) typhus fever (from body lice) or endemic typhus (from the bites of rat fleas). The eradication of these came with the provision of piped clean water, housing improvements, rubbish collection, and personal hygiene in the 20th century. But it was well on into this century before such basic human rights were won.

The Royal Commission of 1912 reported on housing in Scotland and visited the district in March 1914. Their opinion was that: 'As an extreme example of the unsatisfactory housing we may quote the following description of the Rosehall Rows' (these were built by Robert Addie who leased the mineral right of the Douglas Support Estate in 1837 and built Langloan iron works in 1841)

  • They consist of four long parallel rows of single storey hovels. Most of them have no roves to carry the rainwater from the roof.
  • Rainfall simply runs down the roof and then runs down the walls or falls down by chance as the wind decides.
  • Coals are kept below the beds.
  • The closet accommodation is hideous.
  • A number of these hovels are built back to back . . .
  • The closets outside are not used by the women . . .
  • In some of the rows 7 or 8 people occupy a single room.
  • The sanitary conveniences were in a state of revolting filth.'

In the 1930s George Orwell's book 'The Road to Wigan Pier', which tried to bring home to his readers the depths of poverty and misery endured by the working class, and in particular by the miners of northern England, used a photograph of these Rosehall Rows for illustration, although by then they had been cleared away.

In this they were outlasted by the Gartsherrie Rows, which were built by the Baird company for its workers early in the nineteenth, and were finally emptied in the early 1960s.

They had managed to keep one pace ahead of the demolition gang and bulldozer by modifications; in the 1890s, many of the single-roomed rows were combined to make double-roomed dwellings: in the twentieth century, this reversed version of the normal growth process of cell division, continued as some two-apartments were united in four-apartments with the luxury of an inside toilet. However these spacious abodes had their limitations - in the late 1940s some tenants were still at the stage of having to install electricity at their own expense - and in any case outside toilets and two room accommodation were still standard.

 By the mid-1960s these last examples of the housing conditions of many nineteenth century working class families had finally been cleared, and largely replaced by terraced or semi-detached housing built to twentieth century specifications.
Coatbridge 3 Centuries of Change by Peter Drummond & James Smith
Published by Monklands Library 1984


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