Dundee Poorhouse Rivalry

When it came to providing for their poor, there was considerable rivalry between Dundee and the neighbouring parish of Liff & Benvie. In 1852, the Liff & Benvie Parochial Board had declined an invitation to share in the operation of a poorhouse in Dundee, expressing a doubt that Dundee would "look after" its poor. Instead, Liff & Benvie established its own 'model lodging-house' — akin to a poorhouse but not subject to the same official regulations and inspections.

In February 1862, the lodging-house, at Lochee, was the subject of a scathing report in the Dundee Advertiser:


There is in Lochee a model lodging-house for the destitute poor — a place famed all over Scotland. Its inmates are maintained at a cheaper rate than those of any rival establishment; its casual visitors are also sooner got rid of. How such extreme economy has been achieved is matter of wonder to all other parochial authorities. The House is not large — the inmates are not numerous — and, therefore, the managers have not those advantages in the purchase of food and stores, and in the saving of labour, which belong to extensive poorhouses. Yet its economy has, despite such disadvantages, become the envy and admiration of rival institutions, and it is the boast of its conductors that the rate per head is lower than in the great Unions; that those who go in go sooner out again; and that the proportion of candidates for admission are, for the circumstances of the parish, strikingly few. Some of its managers contend that it is a most comfortable place. There are iron bars in front of the lower windows; there are a great number of deaths in the house; and there is a peculiarly painful paleness about the inmates, but these signs must not misunderstood. The iron bars are perhaps put over the windows for ornament, or are perhaps put there to keep people from breaking in. If the death-rate is double, that is all the wilfulness of the paupers, for there are people prepared to show that they ought to live, and that if they die it is their own fault. It would be a shame to discredit the arguments of the excellent gentlemen who regard the Lochee House as model institution, so we must conclude that there is a peculiar perversity in the Lochee poor. As for the paleness of the inmates and that look of hospital invalids which they wear, paleness, we know, is genteel, and that possibly the happy insiders consider it fashionable to look delicate. One thing we must admit, the House is a marvel of cheapness.

Let us visit this happy home, this abode of comfort. It is rainy morning in January when we drive along the muddy main street of Lochee, in company with a member or two of the Liff and Benvie Board. Turning to the right we go a few yards along an alley between blind walls. This alley serves more purposes than it would be fit to name, and is not without its peculiar odour. On opening a little green door in the wall, we have a change of scene and a change of smell. The scene is a cabbage plot, with two cottages in it — the smell is one of sewage and decaying matter combined. Knowing that the parishes of Liff and Benvie include a densely peopled and poor part of Dundee, we expect to see a substantial building of some bulk as its Poorhouse. Where is it? We are pointed to the two cottages built side by side, and are told they constitute the much-talked-of Model Lodging House. That the Mode? How many inmates? “Forty-two.” Where are they all packed? where do they in? Yet the house, small as it is, is not all at the service of the poor. The largest room is the Board's meeting room; the next best room is the matron's; the poor must be sought for mainly in the garrets and cellars. Descending some steps we reach the cellars. A dingy low room, lighted from certain little holes in the sunk walls — holes barred at the back, and called by courtesy “windows;” a room full of a musty, sickly air, and with all its floor bordered round with brown-looking beds, most of which contain wan, woe-begone looking men, is the first we enter. Are the men sick? We cannot make out. The answer is evasive. Very ill the men look. Their cheek bones show high and angular through a bad-coloured skin which looks like old parchment stretched over bone. Let us look at the beds — but, “Mind your head, Sir. I once hurt my head against that beam.” Good advice, for the room is low, the light feeble, and we move about stooping as men do in the between decks of an old ship. Where is So and So? “He is dead, Sir.” And where is So and So? “He is dead, Sir.” “Dead,” “dead,” we do not like the word. Let us look at the beds, at least at one that is empty. Those that have not men lying in them lie flat and unsubstantial-looking as door mats. Is this assembly of tatters a blanket? Is this coarse brown thing, with all its “looped and windowed raggedness,” a sheet? Is this potato-sack-looking pallet — this stained brown substance, which would look as if made out of old seed-sacks, if it were only stronger and better, and which now encloses a little chaff, and a great deal of nothing — is this a bed? And is this lesser sack, of like complexion, a — pillow? There are holes a foot long in the brown sacking-like stuffs which are called sheets; there is stain upon stain, and patch upon patch, on the blankets; there are spaces ten or twelve inches in length in the beds where no chaff exists; and at the bed feet, more particularly the two sides of the mattress, lie flat as the sides of empty bag. Stowed away under the mattress, we, in almost every case, find a few old books, an old newspaper or two, two or three tracts, and in some cases a bit of bread — bread, dry, discoloured, and hard. The bed, such as it is, serves as a store-house for these things; and the things, such as they are, give more substantial feeling and appearance to the bed. The other cellar rooms are like this, only smaller. One room, we notice, is provided with the luxury of a towel. The towel is of the colour of brown paper when it has been kicked about — or, at least, it would look like brown paper were it only as clean. Such is the cellar department, and, with Lochee as with porter merchants, it is in the cellar where the main stock is kept. Cellars are economical for the storing of wines and of the destitute poor. The London milkmen keep their cows in cellars because the temperature is even, the ground rent cheap, the light a needless luxury, and because cows in cellars are more cheaply kept — by being kept out of the cool fresh air above ground, they don't eat so much. There is great economic virtue in a cellar. The clammy doors; the beds so thin, ragged, and stained; the husky-voiced anatomies that count for men haunt us, and remind us of the doleful answer we have received about the empty beds. We emerge from the sickly air of the cottage cellars burdened with the feeling that those cellars are preparing-rooms for the grave, and that the motto over the door ought to be, “All hope abandon ye who enter here.”

Now let us visit those holes in the cottage roof — the “attics” — for in this model establishment every nook and cranny is occupied. The women and children are here. We go up a stairway, and that we may go up so narrow a place, you have to sidle up much as chimney-sweep would do in wriggling up an awkward flue. This staircase is just thirty inches wide, and you go up edgeways; it is, however, of ample width for the standard of stoutness possible under the régime of the House. Once up, you are much like a candle under an extinguisher, or a mouse under an exhauster. The children lie under the shelving roof, with its whitewash little removed from their noses; the beds are in situation like cucumbers under a cucumber frame. There is a fire up here, and the fire is remarked on as an improvement — one of the visitors observing that, when last he was in the attics, the ice and hoar-frost hung thick on the under frames of the skylight. The people here help to keep each other warm. Young and old, little and big, are crowded in under this pigeon-cote, much as onions, and gherkins, and French beans are thrust together in the sloping shoulders of a pickle bottle. There is one very pretty infant — there is a cluster of children, who look neither thin nor dirty, but who are heavy of countenance, as if they were so many vegetable bulbs; there are some ghastly-looking women in bed, and some decent-looking ones up and dressed; and we are told that there are many children out of the house at a school. The children have their hair cut mop fashion; their heads are thatched, and the thatch hangs rough and square-edged over their eyes, like cottage thatch over cottage windows.

Immediately underneath one of the cellar windows of the house is a cess-pool. This cesspool is full to the brim, and is crusted over with a black froth, busily fermenting. At one end of the house is a rude shed, with a furnace and copper in a tumble-down condition, and this is the kitchen. A broom has just streaked the floor, which is as wet as the High Street flags on a rainy day, and dirtier than we ever saw those flags. The soup is being prepared for forty-two people. There is some beef and bone in the soup. We see the beef. There may be, say four pounds and a-half of beef and a pound and a-half of bone. But we will call it five pounds of beef, and we have less than two ounces to each inmate. Just behind the kitchen is the dead-house — an important branch of this model establishment.

Before leaving the house, one of our party offers half-a-crown for a certain concatenation of woollen tatters, found in one of the beds, desiring, as he says, to exhibit it from the pulpit rails at the next meeting in St Peter's Church. The matron appears to think that the house has a proprietary right in its own economy, and declines to favour the proposed exhibition. Glad to escape from the sickening atmosphere of some of the rooms, we make our escape to the comparatively pure air of the kail garden, and breathe more freely in a place where the odour is only that of decomposing vegetables. We have not concluded our remarks on this building, and the proceedings of the Committee and Subcommittee respecting it, but we must here request our readers not to blame the matron. She, poor woman, no doubt does the best she can. It is the system, the house, the pinching and overcrowding, that are chiefly to be condemned.

Two weeks later, in the wake of several letters in the newspaper's columns vehemently defending the lodging-house, the Dundee Advertiser published a lyrical account of the Dundee poorhouse, directly contrasting it with the Lochee establishment.


“Visit a Poor-house? Pray, excuse us. If the house is nice, the people, at least, must be disagreeable” — some of our readers will say. This is not the case in the house under the charge of Mr and Mrs Gunn. Its inmates are in harmony with the house. There are baths in the houses at the gate, baths in the hospital wards, and in the main house there are baths and lavatories in every corner, and on every flat. If the floors and corridors are white as the pipe-clay on a soldier's belt, the clothes which the inmates are dressed seem cleaner still. The women never before wore caps so snowy of tint; the men never had clothes and beds so clean. Why, then, not visit our Poor-house? It is worth seeing, if only as a curiosity of management. It is worth seeing, from motives of humanity, as well as from the useful knowledge that may be acquired by the visit. It is a harbour of refuge, where humanity sends its distressed and derelict vessels; and though many of the poor craft that take refuge there have been injured as much by mismanagement by the storms of fate, it should warm the heart of a good man to see, in what peace, and comfort, and safety, hundreds of helpless ones abide, while the waves of that battle of life, from which they have retreated, still buffet the people of the outer world. Visit Poor-house. Why not? Whatever the cant of the age may say about self-made men, poverty often demands a testimonial as success. The grasping, the hard-hearted, the miserly, the unscrupulous, too often flourish like the green bay tree, while the modest, the guileless, the gushingly generous, are jostled aside, or trodden under foot in the world's race. Not visit the Poor-house! So long as goodness may go down, so long may some few of the good be found even in a Poor-house, and so long will it be the duty of Christian men and women to soften the sorrows, and visit, even in their isolation, these poorest of the poor.

Outside the main entrance, there is a pauper porter, proud of his little authority. This broad-backed officer, bundled up in his suit of white cotton-duck, has to guard the portals of the chief building from the approach of the “unprepared.” Rattling his keys, and big with command, he bawls like a North-Easter, barks like a Cerberus that will take no sop, and uses his heaven of authority for “nought but thunder.” He is the monarch who reigns in delegated authority over all the space between the soap and water purgatory at the gates and the Elysium of the main building. Inside the entrance we turn into the Committee Room; a large comfortable room on the right. On the left side of the lobby is the Master's office, a small snug place walled round with iron pegs, on which hang as many keys. Here the big ledgers are kept — ledgers for the clothing account — ledgers for the dietary 'entries — ledgers for the classification of the inmates, with particulars concerning their arrival, and 'departure, and claims — and some of these ledgers are so bulky that they might have swallowed all the volumes of the Encyclopaedia to fatten them out to their present size. These books are so arranged that the Government-Inspector can instantly put his finger on any item of detail, or any total he wishes to know. The ordinary rooms here are exactly double the height of those of the Lochee Lodging-house; the Chapel and the Kitchen are several feet higher. The lofty Hall, which is used as a Chapel, is a dining-room also, and thus the inmates get their spiritual and their material food the same place, and may perhaps be encouraged to keep awake during sermon by a perceptible reminiscence of the savour of soup. The kitchen is a better one than we have ever seen in a nobleman's castle. You might eat off its floor and its tables have been blanched white with unsparing scrubbing. Its coppers are full of nutritious soup. On its side-tables are long lines of steaks for the invalids; and, although it is the one fish-day of the week, the great pot, containing the fish, is surrounded by a number of little ones, in which are numerous little things adapted to the appetites and wants of the sick. The interior of this kitchen is cool as is the outer air; the metal taps are polished bright; the utensils of tin are rubbed up to the semblance of electro-plate, and the ceiling is overhead near 20 feet from the floor. Near the great kitchen are rooms for meat, for groceries, for meal, and for milk. Bread, oatmeal, peas, peasemeal, barley, are there, with scales to test their weight. The Master says the Committee have found the economy of getting everything genuine. The bread is beautifully white; the meal rough, and free from admixture; the barley of a superior quality; the butter sweet; and the milk better than we can get at home. Mrs Gunn is deservedly proud of her dairy, and we need not state that the various rooms in which the edible stores are kept, are as much models of order as are the other store rooms.

The rooms for habitation are of three classes — rooms for the bedridden; dormitories, large and small, for the use of those who are able to go about; and sitting rooms, apart from the dormitories, for the men or women to remain in during the day. The House is partitioned down the middle, to keep apart the wards the respective sexes; and the corridors are closed by doors of clouded glass. None of the rooms are less than thirteen feet in height. During the day the windows of the dormitories are kept partly open; and, as bed time approaches, fires are lit at each end to air the rooms, and prepare them for the admission of the sleepers. In these sleeping rooms there is separate bed for every inmate, and in each bed the mattress is plump and clean; the blankets seem, four-fifths of them, as good as new; the sheets and pillowcases are bleached to a remarkable purity of colour. It is the new and unused sheets alone that look yellowish, for they, when bought, are not thoroughly bleached; but they rapidly whiten under the thorough washings they get here. The larger dormitories are for the healthy and well-behaved; the smaller ones are for those whose ailments of body or of temper would make them likely to disturb their companions. The bedridden are well nursed, and some of these have their clothing changed several times a day. The sitting-rooms are for the use of such as are although well enough to sit up, not well enough to be employed. These rooms contain no beds, and each room is a good cheering fire. The old men delight having their rooms very warm. The temperature in their rooms is about 60, and they would have it higher were they not prevented by the ventilator at the top. In the women's room there is a brisk-looking old lady of 101, and among the men there are several between 90 and 100 years. We observe that, wherever we go, the people look comfortable, and that whenever the master and matron shew their faces they are greeted with a smile. Kindly inquiries and comforting words they utter, and the poor souls under their charge are well pleased to see them. The healthy are either employed about the house, or in the garden, or in the line of workshops the rear of the building. Some of the men and women, in white aprons and armsleeves, act as nurses, cooks, messengers, and cleaners, in the house. Others are the workshops, where teasing, winding, tailoring, smithwork, washing, and laundry work are being carried on. Of children the house there are but few. The boys are sent out into the country at an early age; but, in a room, which is small for the purpose, we find a few lads under a teacher. These lads are remarkably well advanced, and are as forward for their age as though they had been at expensive schools. But they look pasty and heavy, they lack colour and sprightliness, and would be no worse for a little library of interesting books, a little singing over their arithmetic, and a little play.

One reason for the excellent state of things the Poor-house is the magnificent liberality of the Chairman of the Board. The place seems to have won upon his kindly sympathies, and he treats it with an almost paternal regard. Where the regulations of the Board of Supervision fail to allow of such things as he thinks the House requires, he cuts the knot by paying the cost out of his private purse. “These sheets are really very excellent,” says the visitor, and he learns that they are but part of a large quantity presented to the House by Mr Molison. “This pump is ornamental and handy-looking; but have you not Monikie water?” “O yes,” responds the Master, “we have Monikie water all over the House; but this pump is handy for the back premises, and as a stand-by against times of frost; and it was put down at the cost of Mr Molison.” But the greatest of the Chairman's gifts is the Hospital — a building worth more than a thousand pounds. A hospital for the helpless sick was greatly wanted. The borrowing powers of the Board did not allow of any money being borrowed for such a work, so the Chairman, with equal spirit and generosity, took the whole cost upon himself. At each end of the great main house new structures have arisen, and each structure contains a number of admirably arranged rooms for the helpless sick; and, besides these rooms, there are closets and baths in profusion. The chambers are for from two to six beds each. In every chamber there are all the desirable improvements of modern bedrooms. Ventilators; fixed washing-basins, which fill and empty by a touch of the finger; neat fire-places; beds specially made for the class of occupants for whom they are designed; and baths and closets put outside the door show that no expense has been spared to make the Molison Hospital complete. Our readers have now been supplied with two widely different pictures of the parochial treatment of the poor. They have had a picture of the Liff and Benvie House; they have had another and far different picture of the Dundee House, and if they have any doubts as to the fidelity of the respective pictures, must beg of them to go and see for themselves.

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