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Edinburgh Past and Present


MODERN DWELLINGS OF THE PEOPLE. BY H. G. REID, Author of ' Pasf and Preseitt,' ' L$e of fhc Rev.John Skinner,' tit. ONE morning in the year 1861, the inhabitants of Edinburgh were startled by the intimation of an occurrence which left sorrowful memories, redeemed only by the influence which it had in helping on a great social reform. During the night a huge pile of old buildings had gven way and fallen, burying many of the dwellers amidst the ruins. Prompt exertions were made to remove the dkbrk, and save as many of the unfortunate sufferers as might be possible, A large space had been almost cleared; the workmen had mounted the ladder to complete some portion of their dangerous and disagreeable task, when they heard a voice cry-' Heave awa', chaps, I 'm no dead yet I" Over an archway in the High Street is carved the figure of the little hero, and this motto marks the spot. The event aroused much sympathy, and called attention at once to the defective condition of workmen's dwellings in Edinburgh, and the efforts that were being made to effect an improvement. To one movement in particular, which has assumed large dimensions, and exercised a widely beneficial influence here and elsewhere, it is our special purpose to call attention. Various causes had combined to produce the state of matters that existed, and still unfortunately exists to a large extent, notwithstanding all that has been done. Edinburgh, beautiful for situation, and rich in noble and historic buildings, had long been deficient in respect to the dwellings of the people. In course of years the Old Town mansions, spacious for their time and purpose, and picturesque even in their ruins, were deserted by their wealthy occupants, and converted by a process of partitioning into tenements for the working classes.
Volume 11 Page 128
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80 EDINBURGH PAST AND PRESENT. In the march of progress it was necessary to construct new streets, and erect railway stations and public buildings. To make way for these improvements, whole blocks of buildings occupied by the poor were swept away, and no adequate provision was made for those whose dwelling-place had been removed. Thus, while the demand for houses was necessarily increasing, from the natural growth of the population, the number of houses was being steadily diminished. The inevitable result was that tenements already too small and overcrowded were further subdivided ; families and lodgers were crowded into hovels having neither light nor air nor seclusion ; the High Street, and the lanes and alleys which extend from it on either side like so many arteries, formed the chief centre for the working people; and many of the sober and industrious, able and willing to pay a reasonable rent for a comfortable house, were compelled to seek shelter in these abodes. Some conception may be thus conveyed:-An archway four or five feet wide leads through the breadth of the first ‘land’ into a close, not much wider, where the houses rise story above story till the light of heaven is almost excluded. A long, narrow, winding stair leads through darkness and dilapidation, to what is meant for a door. Knock ; the door, hingeless and broken perhaps, is opened, and. you are admitted with ostentatious civility. Here, then, is a room ten feet by eight, with what seems but a hole in the wall, dignified with the name of ‘a dark bedroom;’ the roof is cracked; the walls bear traces of damp and rain; the window is small, and the light admitted scarcely sufficient to reveal the faces of seven inmates,-a father, a mother, and five children, doomed to this living death. In another apartment- or rather over the slender partition-four children and their parents, a son-in-law, and a lodger, who could find no other .place, live together. The census of 1861 revealed the startling facts that in Edinburgh 121 families lived in one-roomed houses, without a window ; and that 13,000 families-not less than 66,000 individuals-lived in houses of a single apartment, 1500 of which had from six to fifteen inhabitants in each. . Some time before the occurrence of the sad event already mentioned, a few working men had banded themselves together, with the view of seeking deliverance from the position in which they were placed. One evening in the month of April 1861, six or seven masons met with a friend in a dingy room, down a dingy close, not far from where Hugh Miller, the prince of masons, used to write his sagacious leaders,’ and issue those chapters in his life-history which have inspired and directed many a lowly worker in Scotland.
Volume 11 Page 129
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