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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

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Christian Auer

Living Conditions

65. Living in Greenock, 1842

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1The first of the major cholera epidemics, which struck Scotland in 1832, claimed 10,000 victims. A series of reports on the sanitary conditions in towns were issued; the most important of these, the Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain written by Edwin Chadwick in 1842, concluded that disease was related to living conditions and that public health reform was urgently needed.

2The report for Greenock, written by a local doctor, provided descriptions of the appalling sanitary conditions in the town’s poorer areas.

3W. L. Laurie, Reports on the Sanitary condition of the labouring population of Scotland, Report on the general and sanitary condition of the town of Greenock, London: 1842, p. 252-253.

The majority of the poorest classes (who are chiefly Irish) have no idea of airing their dwellings; indeed the effluvium without is often worse than that within. They very frequently change their abodes, and when once settled in a house with the prospect before them of soon removing, they lose all desire to make or keep their apartments clean and in good order. From the high rent of dwelling-houses, a man with a large family, even though in the receipt of good wages, is unable to have more than one small room. I have even found two and three families inhabiting a room not large enough for the same number of individuals.

There are necessarily a good many lodging-houses for vagrants, but none that I am aware of possessing any extent of accommodation. The charge for one night’s lodging is 2d and 3d, 2d being the charge when more than two occupy the same bed.

I have hitherto only alluded to the poorest class of the inhabitants; of course there is a numerous body of respectable operatives, who live in comfort, and who feed and clothe their families well, and also give their children an education suited to their circumstances, and who even manage to save a little each week from their earnings, which is proved by the great success of the savings’ bank, which has now been in operation for 26 years. Amongst this class of the community, notwithstanding the unmerited opposition it has met with, teetotalism has effected a great moral reformation; it has brought comfort and independence to many a fire-side which formerly knew only misery and degradation.

Excluding those who are addicted to the immoderate use of ardent spirits, the conduct of the working-classes is praiseworthy; the greater bulk of them attend church regularly, and likewise contribute more in proportion than the higher classes do to the various Christian charities.

Trade has for many years past been in a flourishing condition in this town, consequently the workmen are well paid: while other places are suffering from fluctuations in trade, the depression is little felt here.

A great body of the operatives have established friendly societies, which are well supported, and which in time of illness afford their sick brethren a weekly aliment sufficient for their maintenance. Several of these societies pay a medical man for attending their members while sick. It would be well for the working population if these benefit societies were more general, as too many of them are very improvident, laying past nothing, but, on the contrary, spending their whole gains, and when laid on a sick bed, depending on credit for their support; they thus run largely into debt, and when able to resume their employment, feel little disposed to pay what they owe; they thus lose all self-respect, and are degraded in their own and in the eyes of their fellow men.

Like other towns in Scotland, Greenock has a large pauper population; the great bulk of these (I would say three-fourths) are natives of other places, having come here in search of employment, and from destitution, disease, and other causes, have been thrown a burden on the community. A great number come from Ireland and the Highlands with the express purpose of making a settlement, that is, supporting themselves in the best way they can for three years, when they can have a legal claim for relief from the parish. There are many who, though not claimants for public relief, suffer much, especially during winter, from want of food and fuel.

We still here and there find some remains of that spirit of independence which would rather suffer than complain, still it must be a matter of regret to think that many feeling unable to maintain that spirit of independence, are induced from their destitution to commit crime, perhaps their first offence, or fall a prey to disease in its most malignant form.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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