Case Study: Miners Rows

The rapid growth of deep-coal mining in the 19th century necessitated the building of thousands of mining villages to house the expanding working population. Former agricultural communities across the central belt were quickly transformed into industrial complexes. The successive Acts of Parliament regulating the industry, and the annual reports that underpinned them, provide a fascinating insight into the changing perspectives on social values. Nowhere is this more evident than in the study of workers’ housing where the complexities of working relations are demonstrated through bricks and mortar.

In a modern context, homes are invariably considered private domains; at the height of industrial activity, workers’ housing was quite the opposite. Mining villages were at times a source of almost paternal pride for mine owners, and at others, a way of penalizing their workforce. The annual reports of Hugh Seymour Tremenheere, Parliamentary Commissioner recorded that in 1854, the houses at Rosehall belonging to the iron and coal works of Messrs. Addie, Miller and Rankin, afforded occupants approximately 70 cubic feet of air per person due to overcrowding, poor ventilation and meagre accommodation which contrasted sharply with the contemporary entitlement of an adult male prisoner who was afforded a minimum of 500 cubic feet in each cell.

Skares, Miners’ Rows (c) HES

The majority of mining cottages were owned by the employers and rent was levied in proportion to the living space available. One significant exception was the Duke of Buccleuch’s estate in the Lothians where accommodation was freely provided until the general rising of 1842 which severed the trust between employee and employer. The pervading nineteenth-century view expressed in the annual parliamentary reports was that a better standard of accommodation resulted in a better quality of workforce. Indeed, in the early developments at Gartsherrie, many of the potential workforce declined employment on account of the lack of day school provision (an action that was described by Tremenheere as ‘distinctly Scottish’). This sentiment did not lead to a dramatic improvement in living conditions. Civic buildings such as schools, libraries and shops were created largely at the miners’ expense and even as late as 1910, many communities still lacked access to water, proper drainage or garden grounds and lived in damp, overcrowded conditions.

Many of the miners’ rows still in existence today, many of them physically improved by extension, are viewed as bijouxand desirable accommodation for two people. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, they  might have housed  a family of six. The hierarchies of accommodation reflected the hierarchies of the workplace. Streets were assigned by standing in the community – the migrant workers largely grouped in the less desirable areas to contain their influence. The notorious Mungo MacKay, Mine Manager at the Lady Victoria Colliery, docked wages for poorly kept gardens and this practice was commonplace across the mining community. Accommodation was dependent on employment and there is plenty of evidence that testifies to the ruthlessness of employers – 34 of the widows of the Blantyre Mining Disaster, Scotland’s worst mining incident which claimed approximately 206 lives, were evicted within six months of the accident.

Archaeological research may reveal the manner in which mining communities inhabited and personalised their living spaces and challenged the dichotomy between public and private living space.

Return to Section 7.2 Household and Home

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