The Night Side of Dundee – Part 8

This is part 8 of 8 of the Night Side of Dundee articles. These are a series of articles we came across while researching for our Riddled tour (running March to May 23) which is all about the vice, vermin and venereal disease in the city. We mentioned these articles on our tour, but to let you all see the full story we transcribed these 8 articles for you. Click here to see the full series, or click here to start at part 1.

The articles are all very long-winded (we bet David was being paid by the word!) so if you’ve made it this far, well done, you deserve an award for making it to the end of these!

THE DUNDEE COURIER AND ARGUS, Tuesday December 22, 1863.



If the Directors of the Dundee Model Houses are not great favourites with the fair sex, we conceive they are very ungraciously treated. While in the Overgate they have, at considerable expense knocked two or three old houses into one large rambling establishment, and made that establishment clean, comfortable, and airt as it is possible to make old fashioned tenements in a crowded locality; while they have done all this, in order that the humble and distressed of their own sex may find a snug shelter from the elements, and a good bed in which to rest after the labours of the day, they have done infinitely more for their female proteges.  Obtaining at considerable expense a building which was once devoted to the housing of the maimed and the sick, and which is large enough to accommodate a German Prince with his whole Court, retinue, and army, they have converted it into a house for the female denizens of the factories and the mills. Here, at the almost ridiculously low sum of tenpence per week, any female deriving her livelihood from honest labour, and who is willing to abide by rules of the establishment, may find a home which, for comfort and cleanliness, can scarcely be equalled anywhere.

Here, after the day’s labour over, the mill girl, fatigued with her work at the spinning-frame, or the weaver who has been working and watching for many a long hour at her steam-loom, and when her head is still throbbing with the effect of the monotonous clank-clank, may find bodily rest and mental peace. Everything that can be desired in an in-door domestic life is furnished to the inmates; comfortable reading-rooms, for those who desire a quiet hour over a book or an hour’s seclusion from the busy hum of voices in the eating-rooms; spacious halls, cool and airy in summer time, and well warmed in cold weather, are open to those who like to sew and knit in company; eating-rooms whose floors and tables are washed and scrubbed such a pitch of high Dutch cleanliness that the fastidious epicures need not scruple to eat their off the bare boards; kitchens fitted with all appliances and means for cooking plain food; lavatories with bright metal basins, unlimited supplies of water, and snowy towels; dormitories, large and some small, but all sweet, clean, and ventilated, and containing beds on which the finest and most capricious lady might repose in comfort.

We suppose that some of our readers may think this description overstrained, and that, in our desire to speak well of a good institution, have drawn considerably upon our imagination. So far from that being true, we have, if anything, hardly done justice to the merits of the establishment presided over by Mrs Leslie. Let any of our sceptical readers take the first opportunity of visiting the King Street Lodging House, and their doubts as to our veracity will at once vanish. Let them enter the house by the side door communicating with Mrs Leslie’s own apartments; and if they dismiss from their memory the knowledge that the building they are inspecting is a lodging-house for work-girls, they may naturally suppose that they are going over a first-class boarding-school. And boarding-school it actually is, for in one of the large sitting-rooms a school is nightly held, for the instruction of all who choose to attend.

In nothing but the quality of the food their humble resources compel the inmates to eat, does the treatment the female model lodgers receive differ. When they leave for their work in the morning, they know that handmaids appointed to attend on them will snugly “make” their bed, and put the dormitory to rights. They have the assurance that, if they come home to breakfast, a substantial repast Scotia’s “halesome food” is ready for them. At dinner-time they know savoury kail is awaiting to recruit their energies for the rest of their labours. Porridge they can have ad libitum at eveningtide; and if all we have described is not good attendance and comfortable accommodation, we should like to know what fastidious young ladies would like. Although all that the Directors order Mrs Leslie to provide in the shape of food is confined to porridge and kale; no restriction is imposed on the lodgers. If they were to take a notion for a hearty feed off some of the expensive delicacies in Mr Hean’s shop, they are quite at liberty to do so, only anything beyond the regulation porridge and kale must be cooked by themselves. Cooking utensils are provided, hot water always ready for that great solace of the fair sex, the afternoon cup of tea.

It was tea-time we visited Mrs Leslie’s family, and found them all orderly, but very cheerful. Every eating room was well filled, and a fragrant steam was hovering over the heads of the assembled damsels while the air was heavy with the fragrance of red herrings and American sprats. From the redundancy of short petticoats and “short-gowns”, the majority of the ladies at the tea-table and in the kitchen seem to be millworkers and steam-loom girls; but a few were dressed in the orthodox long garment of female attire, and these we were told were stay makers slop sewers. The utmost harmony seemed to prevail, but many of the expressions which were wafted on the fishy and teay breeze were far from becoming to female lips. Indeed, some of the young ladies in Mrs Leslie’s establishment are, if the truth must be told, rather given to profane swearing, and will clench an argument with as round an oath as the most dissolute of that hard swearing race the troopers could indulge in.

Mrs Leslie says that poor girls are not so much to blame for this habit as the inexperienced visitor would suppose. She has found in the course of her experience that the girls who work in factories and mills which are overlooked by steady and religious men (and Cowgate readers know that many factory overlookers deserve this character), are scarcely ever guilty of swearing. Those, however, who are employed in mills where the foremen and overseers are addicted to hard swearing become hard swearers also. Often, in remonstrating with her profane subjects she is told—”weel, I canna help it, Mistress Leslie. fu can ye expeck me to be ony better fin I hear naething else but cursin’ and swearin’ frae mornin’ tae nicht.” Now, think this is a subject which ought to receive the special attention of millowners and manufacturers. They will surely admit that the discipline of their establishments can be kept up without their overlookers launching forth vollies of oaths.

We are inclined to suppose that swearing is a proof of bad discipline, and that oaths are often resorted to, as well as bursts of passion because of acts of carelessness which never could have arisen had the system of supervision been undeviating. We firmly believe that foremen who respect themselves, will respect those who are under them and from the control of such men better results may be expected than from the hardest swearing Hector that ever took his Maker’s name in vain. So far as can be ascertained by Mrs Leslie. the character of the generality of her lodgers is good. Many of them are hard-working girls, who send home as much of their earnings as they can spare. These are also regular church goers, and many of them are communicants. The rules as to hours are in fact so strict, and the Matron exercises such a watchful care over her guests, that it is very difficult for a girl to indulge in dissolute habits without detection.

All have to be in the house by quarter past ten. The first instance of inattention to this rule is passed over; the second brings down on the offender a severe reprimand, but if it is repeated a third time, the culprit is expelled. Many of the lodgers have been with Mrs Leslie for years; a few have been fourteen years under her care and we cannot but look on this long residence as an ample proof, not only of the excellence of the model system but also of the kindness and attention of the Matron. The shelter of the house is sought not alone by young women, but sometimes by elderly females. One poor old creature who had been in the house for some years, and who gained a livelihood by going messages, gradually became so frail in body and mind, as to be incapable of work, but the Directors kindly allowed Mrs Leslie to keep her on the establishment. Generally speaking, the inmates display great kindness to newcomers, especially if the latter are unprovided with money. The Directors allow Mrs Leslie to credit such persons both for lodgings and food. till they obtain work, but the lodgers will often contribute from their own scanty stores towards the sustenance of the impecunious strangers.

Many of the girls are very industrious in their leisure hours, but others like better to read cheap periodicals than to sew, and these are dependent on their more active neighbours for dressmaking, stocking-knitting, and other sartorial necessities. Of course, among the many guests Mrs Leslie has had under her care there have been some drunkards, and she has had considerable difficulty in restraining these poor creatures. To the credit of the Directors, these unfortunate women are not at once turned out. They are permitted to remain for a time, until it is seen whether the regularity of the establishment and the effect of observation by so many companions, may not wean them from their bad habits. This system has in some cases been attended with considerable success. One poor creature knew her own weakness, and prayed Mrs Leslie to remove everything she possessed out of reach. Accordingly, whenever she lapses, Mrs Leslie, to save them from the pawnshop, takes the victim’s dresses and underclothing away, and as she works in the house for slop shops she is kept indoors until the fit has passed off.

We have heard it said that the better class of females employed in the factories would not go to the Model Lodging House, but we suspect the assertion must be based on the knowledge that girls belonging to the town do not resort to the establishment. We believe, however, that girls who do not belong to Dundee prefer the Lodging House, and the sight of great numbers of bulky and well-made clothes chests seemed a proof to us that many of the lodgers were to be ranked as respectable factory workers. At the present moment the house contains 195 inmates, but, from the low rate charged for accommodation, the establishment is not a remunerative speculation for the Directors. We do not suppose that the girls could receive as much attention to their wants, or as comfortable accommodation, in the best conducted of the private lodging houses for less than threepence a night. Now the Directors have only charged tenpence week for lodging, and one and threepence for porridge and milk morning and evening, and broth at dinner time from Monday morning till Saturday (all cooking done by the lodgers themselves on Sunday.)

Thus, if we allow the sum of one shilling and sixpence for their food Sundays and extras during the week, it will be seen that a girl living in the Model Lodging-House can live on three shillings and seven pence per week. There are none living in the house who do not make at least six shillings a week, and even those could afford to pay more than tenpence for their lodgings. So generous, however, are the Directors that the lodgers who have only about six shillings a week pay less than tenpence. This generosity is, we think, misplaced. Such an institution ought to be more than self-supporting, and we are pretty sure that were the price a little higher, the mill girls would think more of the house. Were the rate for girls on full time raised to one shilling per week, we believe none of the inmates would grumble, and there would be some likelihood of the receipts keeping pat with the expenditure.

Ever since the King Street house was opened, the expenditure has outrun the receipts very considerably; but even under such a discouraging state of things, the Directors have spared neither effort nor expense to make the establishment attractive. A short time ago the house was re-painted throughout, and entirely new bedding furnished. This added to the original debt on the establishment, and we see no prospect of this being liquidated unless the Directors become a little more just to themselves, and a little less generous to their protegees. In these days of fancy bazaars and amateur theatricals and concerts for the benefit of various societies, we wonder some of the young lady and gentlemen friends of the Directors have never taken into their head the propriety of levying contributions on the community in order to liquidate the debt on the Model Lodging-House in King Street. The opinion book kept Mrs Leslie is filled with praises of the establishment, and we should really like some of the visitors who style it “truly a Model Lodging- House,” to try what they can do in a substantial sense to make the establishment a great success, and to relieve the Directors from the debt their generosity has imposed upon them.

– 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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