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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

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Christian Auer

XVII. Economic and social conditions

122. Slums in Glasgow, 1937

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1Cicely Mary Hamilton (1872-1952) was a dramatist, journalist and novelist. Her first play, The Traveller Returns, was performed in Brighton in May 1906 and was an immediate success. Hamilton was also very involved in the female suffrage movement: she was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union and of the Women’s Freedom League. She was also a founder member of the Actresses’ Franchise League and the Women Writers’ Suffrage League. After the war Hamilton became a freelance journalist working for newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror. Hamilton’s autobiography Life Errant, was published in 1935. Other books written by Hamilton include Modern France as Seen by an Englishwoman (1933), Modern Scotland as Seen by an Englishwoman (1937) and Lament for Democracy (1940).

2Cicely Mary Hamilton, Modern Scotland as Seen by an Englishwoman, London: Dent and Sons, 1937, p. 30-32.

By courtesy of officials of the Public Health Department I was guided to one or two of Glasgow’s notoriously insanitary streets and introduced into several of their typical dwellings. All the tenants, when questioned, confessed cheerfully to bugs and, judging by the state of some of the woodwork, rats were no strangers to their domiciles. Needless to say, these prize specimens of Glasgow slumdom had been condemned by the sanitary authority; their occupants, so soon as a clearance scheme was ready to receive them, would move to decent surroundings in the suburbs, and the evil-smelling tenements, left to their vermin, would fall to the pick of the housebreaker. In one domicile we visited, the pick of the housebreaker was, already at work farther down the block that contained it; and the occupying family, packed and ready to depart, were only awaiting the arrival of the barrow which would convey their household goods to a new and more sanitary dwelling. Some of their household goods—their bedding—had already been removed by a sanitary inspector; it would be restored, at the new and clean abode, after due disinfection against vermin. Bedding, however, is not the only means of transport for vermin; they can be conveyed from house to house in other articles of furniture as well as in wearing apparel; hence it is the business of local health visitors to keep an eye on migrating families and urge them to special efforts in the way of watchfulness and cleanliness. The office of health visitor, in slum and slum-clearance districts must be anything but a sinecure; it stands to reason that men and women who have dwelt for years, perhaps all their lives, in the squalid surroundings of a Glasgow rookery are likely to need persevering instruction in the arts of domestic cleanliness; and it says much for the health visitor, as well as, for the average ex-slum family, that the authors of a report, issued on completion of Glasgow’s forty thousandth new house, are able to state that ‘the response to the improved environment and better accommodation has been phenomenal, fully ninety per cent of the rehoused tenants in slum areas showing in every way a decided improvement.’ The ten per cent residuum, one concludes, must be borne with and, so far as possible, prevented from becoming a nuisance to their cleaner-living neighbours.

One little woman whom we called on in her slum would, I suspect, need a good deal of attention from the health visitor before she discarded the sluttish habits acquired in her years of squalor. She was a friendly little soul, with a sloping forehead and unwashed face, who, like most of her fellow-slum-dwellers, seemed quite pleased to be called on; the mother of three grubby infants under school-age—one of them in arms, one old enough to stand and stare at us, one crawling on the unmade family bed where, in the unrestrained manner of infancy, it had recently obeyed a call of nature. There were two more absent at school, the mother told us; these latter, presumably, being better clad and washed than their younger brethren—the education authority would see to that, providing at least the necessary footwear. A query with regard to the husband and father brought the all too frequent reply that he was out of work; the income that he and his family obtained from the public purse being thirty-nine shillings a week. Whereby, as in other like-situated households, one glimpsed a problem affecting more than Glasgow and Glasgow’s slums; the problem of the man of no particular skill who may find himself, when at length he gets a job, little, if at all, better off as to money than when he draws his dole in idleness. To the question: what inducement has such a man to work? The answer is obviously that, as far as his finances are concerned, this inducement is nil.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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