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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

Living Conditions

68. Living in One Room, 1888

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1During the years of economic and social modernization, Scotland developed into one of the most urbanized countries in the world. Urban expansion led to intensive subdivision of space, which was particularly acute in the poorest areas of the cities where most people lived in tenements (blocks of flats or houses of three to four storeys served by a common stairway).

2“One-roomed flats” was the subject of a lecture delivered in 1888 by Dr James Russell, medical member of the local government board for Scotland and Glasgow’s medical officer of health from 1872 to 1892.

3J.B. Russell, Life in one Room, (a Lecture delivered to the Park Parish Literary Institute, Glasgow, 27th February, 1888) in A.K. Chalmers (ed.), Public Health Administration in Glasgow, Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons, 1905, p. 195-196.

I have told you that in 1881 the population of Glasgow was 511,520 persons, and that of those 25 per cent lived in one-room, and 45 per cent in two-roomed houses; but what does that mean? It means that 126,000 persons live in those one-roomed, and 228,000 in those two-roomed houses. But is that all I can say? I might throw down that statement before you, and ask you to imagine yourselves, with all your appetites and passions, your bodily necessities and functions, your feelings of modesty, your sense of propriety, your births, your sicknesses, your deaths, your children,—in short, your lives in the whole round of their relationship with the seen and the unseen, suddenly shrivelled and shrunk into such conditions of space. I might ask you, I do ask you, to consider and honestly confess what would be the result to you. But I would fain do more. Generalities are so feeble. Yet how can I speak to you decently of details? […]

It is those small houses which produce the high death-rate of Glasgow. It is those small houses which give to that death-rate the striking characteristics of an enormous proportion of deaths in childhood, and of deaths from diseases of the lungs at all ages. Their exhausted air and poor and perverse feeding fill our streets with bandy-legged children. There you will find year after year a death-rate of 38 per 1000, while in the districts with larger houses it is only 16 or 17. Of all the children who die in Glasgow before they complete their fifth year, 32 per cent die in houses of one apartment; and not 2 per cent, in houses of five apartments and upwards. There they die, and their little bodies are laid on a table or on the dresser, so as to be somewhat out of the way of their brothers and sisters, who play and sleep and eat in their ghastly company. From beginning to rapid ending the lives of these children are short parts in a continuous tragedy. A large proportion enter life by the side-door of illegitimacy. One in every five of all who are born there never see the end of their first year. Of those who so prematurely die, a third have never been seen in their sickness by any doctor. Every year in Glasgow the deaths of from 60 to 70 children under five years of age are classified by the Registrar-General as due to accident or negligence; and it is wholly in these small houses that such deaths occur. Half of that number are overlain by drunken mothers, others fall over windows and down stairs, are drowned in tubs and pails of water, scalded, or burned, or poisoned with whisky. I can only venture to lift a corner of the curtain which veils the life which is lived in these houses. It is impossible to show you more.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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