In 1890, after one of his African journeys, H. M. Stanley wrote
a book entitled In Darkest Africa, setting out his adventures in a
continent where life was short and brutish. Soon afterwards
William Booth wrote a book entitled In Darkest England,
recounting the miseries and hardships of the English poor whom
his Salvation Army was striving to succour. Nobody wrote a
book about Darkest Scotland. It might well have been the most
horrifying of the trilogy.
The horror can, to some extent, be quantified. One of Balfour's
last actions as Prime Minister in December 1905 was to appoint a
Royal Commission on the Poor Law and the Relief of Distress.
It was to inquire into the working of the Poor Laws and into the
other methods used 'for meeting distress arising from want
of employment,particularly during periods of severe industrial
The chairman of the commission was Lord George Hamilton and
among its members were Beatrice Webb, later president of the
Fabian Society, and William Beveridge, later the Liberal member
for Berwick-on-Tweed and author of the Beveridge Report which
formed the basis of the modern National Health Insurance scheme.
The commission spent more than three years collecting evidence,
which occupied nearly fifty volumes and provided a
comprehensive picture of conditions among the British working
classes during the late Victorian and early Edwardian period.
Issued in 1909, the report was in two parts.
The majority report comprised a series of proposals for minor
reforms to improve the existing services but the minority report,
inspired by Beatrice Webb and written by her husband Sidney
Webb, later Lord Passfield, proposed much more radical
measures. Among these were the introduction of old age
pensions, an eight-hour working day for certain industries,
and the recognition of a national minimum standard of living
below which nobody should be allowed to fall.
The evidence gathered by the commission included detailed
statistics regarding Scotland. These can be supplemented
by the Report on Housing and Industrial Conditions in
Dundee, published in 1905 by the Dundee Social Union,
by a study of the home environment of 1,400 school-
children in Edinburgh, published in 1906 by the Edinburgh
Charity Organisation Society, and by the 1911 census returns.
These sources reveal that half the houses in Edwardian
Scotland had only one or two rooms. The meanest houses
were to be found in the towns of the central industrial belt.
In Armadale in 1911 almost 83% of the population lived in
one- or two-roomed houses. Among other towns where
more than 70% of the population lived in such houses were
Airdrie, Clydebank, Lochgelly and Motherwell, while in Perth
only 30%, in Edinburgh 37% and in Aberdeen 38.6% of the
population occupied one- or two-roomed houses.
Overcrowding was a concomitant hardship. It existed, in the
Registrar-General's definition, where the average number of
persons per room (not per bedroom) was more than two. The
1911 census recorded that 56% of one-roomed houses in
Scotland had more than two occupants, 47% of two-roomed
houses had more than two persons per room, and 24% of
three-roomed houses also had more than two persons per
room. Glasgow was the most overcrowded city in the United
Kingdom, for over half its population lived at a density
of more than two persons per room. In Dundee in 1904
almost half the population was similarly overcrowded and
a detailed study of nearly 6,000 houses in the city showed
that 21% had no sanitary accommodation for women and
children, while 10% had none for men. Even where the
occupants had access to a water-closet or other sanitary
arrangements within or adjacent to the home, these were
often shared by many people. Of the 6,000 houses studied in
Dundee, almost a thousand had sanitary accommodation
shared by more than 25 persons, over two thousand had
sanitary accommodation shared by between 13 and 24
persons, and two thousand had sanitary accommodation
shared by not more than 12 persons. Most of the remaining
thousand had sanitary accommodation for men only.
In 1912 a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into
Scottish urban and rural housing conditions, with special
reference to the housing of miners and agricultural labourers
, and to report on legislative changes considered desirable
to remedy the existing defects. The commission's report
was not published until 1917. It revealed that although the
number of people in Scotland living at a density of four
or more per room had fallen between 1901 and 1911
from 9.6% to 8.6% of the population, the number living
at a density of more than two per room, and therefore by
official definition 'overcrowded’, had barely changed,
being 45.7% in 1901 and 45.1% in 1911. The report
showed that the reason for the failure to reduce
overcrowding by any appreciable amount was simply a
sharp decline in house-building.
In Glasgow, for example, between 1901 and 1904 a total
of 13,080 houses (with an estimated 34,500 rooms) had
been built; between 1907 and 1910, 3,488 houses
(with an estimated 9,460 rooms); and between 1910
and 1913 only 945 houses (with an estimated 2,750 rooms).
A classic case of municipal lethargy in enforcing the
powers available under the 1890 Housing of the Working
Classes Act occurred in Port Glasgow. In 1901 the
medical officer of health reported that a district of the
town, where houses were crowded together with insufficient
sanitary accommodation and inadequate ventilation, was an
insanitary area under the terms of the act. The town council
accepted the report but because of local objections a
statutory inquiry was necessary.
Agreement was finally reached in 1904 and the- following
year Parliament sanctioned an order for the compulsory
purchase of the condemned properties. A council committee
was appointed to negotiate the purchases and by the end
of 1911, ten years after his initial report, the medical
officer was able to record that the scheme was nearing
Above is a brief look at Royal Commission's report on the
poor law and the statistic's are very interesting but what
the people themselves?What about the vast numbers of
sick or out-of-work folks during these times?
For a more fuller picture of Social conditions we need
to look towards the poor relief records ,held in various
archives across Scotland.
Scotfamtree have since day-one of our site,believed in
tracing these records on behalf of our members,especially
for those members who can not,easily,gain access to
these archive records.