Article written by John Miller
and first published in the Largs and District Family History Society Newsletter Spring 1998
Today’s houses, with luxury kitchens and bathrooms, fitted carpets, central heating and all the modern labour-saving devices, are a far cry from the homes the working class in Scotland occupied some 100 years ago, particularly in the mining and ironworking areas of the country. Built by the coal and iron masters to house their employees in close proximity - very close proximity - to their mines and ironworks, the houses were structures containing the very basic necessities and amenities
In " SCOTLAND SINCE 1707 - THE RISE OF AN INDUSTRIAL SOCIETY ", R. H. Campbell says. " The mining areas had a long-standing tradition of harshness. The most lasting legacy of this phase of expansion was the miners row - the best example of defective standards of housing ." The miners and ironworkers rows and squares were built around the middle decades of the 19th Century, 1830 to 1860 approximately. They were extremely simple in design, stone built, normally with stone from a local quarry, one storey, slate roofed structures with the minimum facilities. John Benson writing in " BRITISH COAL MINERS IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY " describes the miners houses as: " A dreary collection of boxlike buildings arranged in monotonous rows, each identical with the next. R. H. Campbell in " THE IRON INDUSTRY OF AYRSHIRE " makes the comment : " The row was all pervasive in Ayrshire in the middle of the 19th Century ".
In North Ayrshire a typical example of one of these ’ dreary collections ’ of houses was Ardeer Ironworks Square in Stevenston, built to accommodate the people employed in the adjacent pits and ironworks Ardeer Ironworks were erected by Merry and Cuninghame in 1853 and the houses that formed the square shortly thereafter. Everybody called it " The Square ", sometimes the " Auld Square ", for a " new ’ square had been built a few years later adjacent to the Glasgow and South West Railway, named, appropriately " Station Square ".
Ardeer Square consisted of four rows of houses in a rectangular shape with three other, smaller rows, situated inside the rectangle. One small row containing only three houses was known as the " Gaffers Raw " and had the luxury of enclosed gardens front and back. In the centre of the Square there was no village green or play area, only a large water reservoir used to supply cooling water to the furnaces which were no more than 200 yards distant. There were some 130 houses forming the Square plus a company store and public house. Of the houses 80 were single apartments only numbers 61 to 66 comprised a lodging house - known by the residents as " The Model " - run by a lodging-house keeper on behalf of the company to house bachelors, and the remainder of the houses were two-apartment dwellings. The roads were unmade, unmetalled, stoury in warm weather and deep in glaur in the wet, with no street lighting whatsoever until a few gas lamps were erected in January 1936 - not long before the residents were decanted into new housing ! Commenting on the street lighting installation a journalist wrote; " There is now no longer any need to spark matches or grope about in the dark when passing through Ardeer Square " . Separating the houses from the road was a dirt "pavement " and a syvor - a sheuch - supposedly to carry rainwater to a system of drains which regularly became choked and increased the hazard of walking in the glaur.
There was no internal water supply in any of the houses, no toilet, and bathrooms were; completely unknown. Across the dirt road, contained in one single brick structure, of which was for the use of the residents of six houses, was a wash house, a midden and a very dry lavatory for the use of the mates in the six households, while, inside the wash house was a water closet exclusively for female use. In addition the building included six coal cellars, three on each side. all the houses were identical internally, with roughly plastered walls, and flagstone floors. They had one outer door only and one window for each room. Lighting was chiefly by paraffin lamp although the two apartments in some cases had gas light but only in the front room. Cooking was done on an open fire; a fortunate few had a range. All had an iron bar set across the chimney above the fireplace from which dangled two or three hooks to hang pots. Beds were " set-in " the wall two in the front room of the two apartments, and one in the smaller back room. When water was required for any purpose it was brought into the house in an enamel bucket filled from the tap in the wash house. Hot water could only be obtained. by boiling a kettle on the open fire or range. After a meal the dishes had to be washed in bowl or basin on the table top and the waste water then carried outside and emptied down the storm drain.
The children were normally bathed in the wash house after the week’s laundry was completed.A fired wash boiler was in the corner of the wash house and when the washing of clothes was over the boiler was refilled and heated and the degriming of the bairns began. This took place in the wooden wash tub - the " bine " - where at. least two layers of skin were scrubbed off with hot water and carbolic soap. Most familes had a tin bath tub stored beneath a set-in bed, which the adults used in front of the fire after the weans were in bed. Keeping bodies and clothing in a reasonable state of cleanliness was a never-ending task, In dry weather the stour, from the roads and the furnaces, including coal and iron ore dust, was everywhere, drifting into the homes despite the most diligent efforts of the housewife. Wet weather maybe. " laid the stour " but it also - turned walking surfaces into a sticky glaur which was inevitably carried into the house. Under these cramped crowded, insanitary, primitive living conditions families of 8, 10 and even more , children were born reared and there is little doubt that the conditions must be held responsible in a great measure for the high incidence of infant mortality and the high rate of infectious diseases prevalent in the period before the first World War. The Medical Officer of Health for the County of Ayr in 1912 reported that the Northern District of Ayrshire had 284 cases of infectious diseases reported. 62 of these cases occurred in that part of Stevenston Parish in which Ardeer Square is situated, and headed the list of number of cases reported.
The single outer door was of a heavy solid construction and it certainly needed to be, On the upper part of the door’s outside face a steel plate, about half-an-inch thick and twelve inches square, was fasted by means of four half inch coach bolts. This was the miners and ironworks " alarm clock" ! The company employed men called " chapper-up " who went round the Square in the early morning and, using a 7 pound hammer, " chapped " on the metal plate to rouse those within from their slumbers. The men employed in this capacity must have enjoyed some vicarious pleasure from then chapping as all the door plates were hollowed in the centre; evidence of the power and energy put into the hammer strokes.
All the raws and squares had their company stores and Ardeer Square was no exception. Situated at the entrance to the Square, the general store and the licensed premises were the first two parts of the right hand raw, known as the Furnace Raw. Both premises were run by a manager on behalf of the company and everything deemed necessary for day to day living was stocked under their roof. On the gable wall of the raw at right angles to the store was a metal notice, by order of the company, prohibiting the entry of anyone or any vehicle from entering the Square for the purpose of selling, " coke. coal or-provisions of any kind ". Until the passing of the Truck Act in 1831 the coal and iron masters had paid their employees in goods ( Truck ) instead of cash. The workers were given a token which could only be exchanged for goods in the company store, The Truck Act of 1831 was the first of several Acts of Parliament passed to prevent this abuse of the working man’s labour. It was illegal, after the Act, to pay wages for manual labour in anything other than coin of the realm. despite these Acts many of the employers continued in their old ways for some considerable time and when eventually forced to pay their workers in cash made sure they got their cash back by forcing purchases be made in their company stores. Both the Ardeer store ran a credit system - a " slate " - for purchases made and the amount owed to each establishment was deducted from the wages due at the end of the week. Many an individual found, to his sorrow, that after a week’s back-breaking toil they had little or nothing to pick up in wages because of their profligate use of the slate. Truly, if you worked for the company, and were housed by the company, you certainly owed your soul to the company store!
The decline of the coal and iron industries between the two World Wars resulted in the closing down of pits, the closing and eventual demolition of ironworks and the consequent demise of the raws and squares. The various Housing ( Scotland ) Acts between 1925 and 1936 instigated a surge in the building of modern style houses and the clearance of housing areas designated as unfit habitations or slums. The miner and ironworkers raws and squares came into this category. Ardeer Square came under such a clearance order in 1935 and from the Spring of 1936 the residents began to trickle away to new housing schemes The Ironworks had already been demolished in 1934: the Square itself however, was not demolished until August 1946. In 1913 on behalf of the Ayrshire Miners Union, Thomas McKerrel and James Brown undertook an investigation of Ayrshire miner rows and submitted their report to the Royal Commission on Housing ( Scotland ). At the conclusion Of their comments on conditions in Ardeer Square the report says: " We desire to draw the attention of the Commissioners to the effect of these housing conditions on the health of the People "
It was almost a quarter of a century later before the " health of the people " was improved by their exodus from the "raws".
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