Dundee Poorhouses

In the mid-19th Century, help and support for the poor people of Scotland was, by today’s standards, pretty horrendous. The people demanded a change in the current law (the Poor Law of Scotland), and it was amended in August 1845 in an attempt to abolish the suffering caused by such a lack of care.  Prior to the Poor Law being passed, responsibility for the “poor people” fell upon the Kirk Sessions of over 8000 parishes around Scotland; but to be eligible for their help, you had to meet very specific criteria.

In order to seek help you would have had to be penniless and/or disabled – if you were seen to be able bodied in any way, you would have been classed as a wanderer and sent on your way with a warning not to return. Individuals seeking help would have had to be residents of the Parish by birth or marriage.  As a result, groups of poor, unemployed craftsmen and labourers wandered up and down the country, seeking and demanding relief, begging where they could, and intimidating locals for money. Many resorted to crime to fulfil their day to day needs, as there were no other options available to them.

It became increasingly obvious that the current system for poor relief was just not enough and, under the amended Poor Law Act, each parish in Scotland was bound by law to establish a “Parochial Board”. The purpose of the Board was to provide “generous, adequate and regular relief” to the poor, whilst still excluding able-bodied unemployed.

On 4 November 1852 the Parochial Board of Dundee adopted a resolution that a Poor House be provided for the Parish. A “Special Committee” was appointed to determine the costs of the construction of the building, however, at the completion of construction, the committee, now with many “sub-committees”, had swelled significantly.

The Dundee Committee consulted with the adjoining parishes of Monifieth, Barry, Benvie and Liff with a proposal to combine all their resources in the construction and use of the building. The Parishes, surprisingly, declined Dundee’s offer, with some of the belief that we were ill-equipped to care for our poor.  Despite this, the Parochial Board pushed forward with their plans, and instructed the Committee to find suitable land to purchase for the Poor House.

Dundee Eastern Poorhouse

In December 1852, talks got underway between the Committee of the Parochial Board and the representatives for the Craigie Estates which were, at the time, owned by the Guthrie family – one of whom was a Governor of the Bank of England.  It was agreed that a fee of £12 per acre would be payable over six-monthly intervals in return for five acres of good land near Stobswell, on the West side of Mains Loan, just South of Clepington Road.

This offer was readily accepted by the Parochial Board in March of 1853 and, in July of the same year, in response to calls for tender, five architects submitted their ideas for construction of the Poorhouse and the real work had begun.  After much deliberation, the successful applicant was Mr William Moffat of Edinburgh who said the building he constructed would house: “800 paupers, 100 sick and 100 lunatics”.

After many revisions between September 1853 and January 1855, during which time these plans were dissected, criticised, reviewed, argued and revised at great length, finally, on 10 January 1855, they were approved, and local tradesmen were invited to bid for work. It was June of 1855 that work eventually commenced on the building, and a loan for £10,000 (around £750,000 by today’s standards) was acquired from the National Bank of Scotland. An advance of £3,000 was made with the remainder to be paid in February 1856. The advance was drained by December 1855 because the contractors were so far ahead with their work, such was the pace of their task.

On 26 August 1856 a Mr & Mrs Gunn accepted the positions of Governor and Matron of the Poorhouse. Mr Gunn’s salary was £79 per year, his wife’s £25 per year plus “the usual rations of the house”. Mr & Mrs Gunn accepted the first inmate on 19 November 1856 and on 25 November 1856, reporters from the Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser visited the Poorhouse and published the following comments:

“The Poorhouse is situated in an open and healthy part of the town at the back of Stobswell Feus. It is 210 feet long and 55 feet in width and is three storeys high. Airing yards are used to separate male and female inmates. Two acres of ground is available for inmates to supply vegetables for the Poorhouse. Various alterations are still in the making. When all arrangements have been completed the Poorhouse will be well suited for the purposes for which it was intended”.

During their time as Governor and Matron of the Dundee East Poorhouse, Mr & Mrs Gunn received 15,382 admissions between 19 November 1856 and 14 May 1878.  The first birth in the Poorhouse was recorded on 7 July 1857. The eldest person registered was given as 99 years old, admitted on 10 May 1857, but the record for the most admissions for any person went to a troubled and beleaguered soul who was admitted 43 times over a period of nearly as decade.

After the National Health Service came onto place, the Poorhouse was renamed and became “The Rowans” which, in June 1977, eventually became “surplus to requirements” of the Social Work Department, nearly 121 years after its opening. In November 1981 the grounds were transferred to the Education Department and eventually became a sports complex in September 1983.

Liff and Benvie Poorhouse

This establishment eventually became known as “The Western Poorhouse” and was set up in 1864 on the basis that it could accommodate 200 paupers on a site known to modern day people of Dundee as Logie Secondary School (the school opened on Blackness Road in August 1929). The completion of the building and a subsequent formal opening took place on Tuesday 5th April 1864 at a cost of £7,000, which, by today’s monetary standards of inflation, is somewhere in the region of £620,000, so, as you could imagine, it was a big deal.

The cost of the upkeep of a pauper in the Poorhouse was 7 shillings a week and it cost eight shillings for each lunatic, as they required much more diligent attention and care. This money came from Poor Law Assessment Rates, collected from owners, tenants and occupiers of property in the area. The design of the Poorhouse was such that the men’s apartments were situated to the West end of the building and the women’s to the East. At the extreme end of each section, residencies were reserved for male and female lunatics respectively.

By the end of the 19th Century it was mostly elderly, frail or insane individuals who were sent to the Western Poorhouse, whilst those who were young and fit were sheltered in Eastern.  At the end of 1914, the last of the paupers who lived in the Western Poorhouse were transferred to the Eastern Poorhouse so that the buildings of Liff & Benvie could be readied for military occupation during World War 1 (1914 – 1918).


What was it like in a Poorhouse?

Meals in the Poorhouses were very unsatisfactory to say the least, but still offered the poor something warm in their bellies during their stay.  The book “The Life & Times of Logie School” gives us an insight into the mundane, but lifesaving meals provided to the residents of the Poorhouses.

  • Monday – Broth, Beef and Bread
  • Tuesday – Pease Soup, Dumpling and Beef
  • Wednesday – Broth, Beef and Bread
  • Thursday – Irish Stew
  • Friday – Rice and New Milk, with Bread
  • Saturday – Broth, Beef and Potatoes
  • Sunday – Fresh Fish, Pease Soup and Bread

It was no easy feat to be accepted into the Poorhouse, as we found out at www.fdca.org.uk.  Firstly, you had to go looking for relief – it did not come to you.  Your journey started at your Parish, and, if accepted, you would then continue on to what was known as the “probationers’ stage”.  This still did not guarantee you a permanent place of residence, as, once you were on the probation ward, you were stripped, washed and then sent to bed to await medical assessment.  Only if you passed the assessment were you allowed into the ward proper – otherwise you were sent to work in the Poorhouse or, as was mostly the case, sent away altogether.

For those seeking refuge in the Poorhouse through means of working, life was akin to prison.  As a way of “paying back” for the privilege of being housed by the Poorhouse whilst not meeting the criteria for admittance, those who chose to work endured 8 hours a day of labour – stonebreaking for the “worst inmates” and sack sewing for the others.  The idea behind these punitive tasks was to discourage people from seeking refuge in the Poorhouse whilst able to find work outside of its confines – and, for the most part, it worked like a charm.

Friends of Dundee City Archives also posted an extract on their site from the “Dundee Year Book 1886 – 1890, which describes with perfect clarity, the usual sight at the entrance to the Poorhouse”…mothers, with children in their arms, and little dirty boys and girls hanging to their skirts; young men and women, pinched with hunger and weary worn by tramping about; and elderly persons of both sexes, hardly able to creep along the streets. All of them appear to have been beaten in the struggle for existence.” [p.124].”

This vivid description was applied to not only those seeking refuge, but also those wishing to visit some inside.  Life was grim both inside and outside of the Poorhouse for many people, and was not solely restricted to Dundee.  With an institution of this size, cleanliness was next to Godliness.  Nobody passed through without a decent hosing down, regardless of age, sex or ability.   It’s not hard to imagine how dirty some of the people who turned up at the Poorhouse gates must have been, so it is of no surprise really that people were stripped and scrubbed – despite their protestations and terror!

One of the more memorable, and well-known of the poorhouse residents was Margaret Gow (or Mags, as she was more commonly known).  Having been arrested for drunkenness and assault over 250 times in her lifetime, Mags was a feisty, fiery Dundonian woman with a right hook as quick as her tongue.  Frequently in and out of the poorhouse as well as prison, when she worked, Mags scraped a living as a fish “cadger” – selling fish on the streets, usually by shouting her lungs off to anyone who would listen – and probably always ready to give someone a hard clout!

Find out more for yourself at www.fdca.org.uk.

– DD Tours operates walking tours in Dundee city, covering dark local history such as wars, battles, murders, diseases, riots, disasters and executions. Walk with us for an unforgettable storytelling experience.


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