Category Archives: Dundee

19th Century Tenements in Dundee

The McHugh brothers were just in their early twenties when they left County Sligo, Ireland to try their luck in Dundee, Scotland.1 When John and Edward McHugh arrived in Dundee, they had lodgings on Scourin Burn. Edward was a tinsmith and John, my 2X great-grandfather, was a sailcloth weaver. 2 A burn is a watercourse and the name Scourin Burn, or ‘cleansing burn’ probably referred to the process of scouring (textile term for cleaning the yarn) the yarn before dyeing as the nearby jute factories used the burn for this purpose. Scourin Burn no longer exists in modern Dundee and is now called Brook Street.3

Malcolm’s Pend, from the Scouringburn, Dundee, Photograph James Valentine (1815-1879), created 1877, Courtesy Scottish National Portrait Gallery, no copyright infringement intended

The McHugh brothers were part of a wave of Irish immigrants to Dundee, a city with a thriving jute industry, which had earned the nickname “Juteopolis.” By 1850 there were 47 spinning mills and eight power-loom factories employing some 11,000 people, as well as 4,000 handlooms. Linen goods, especially canvas, were exported to the Mediterranean, Australia, America, and the West Indies.4 Jute was a versatile fabric and used for everything, including the ropes made by the British Navy, sacking, tents, gun covers, sand bags, and horse blankets.5

Work in the mills was grim with the workday lasting twelve hours, from 6:00 a.m. to 6 p.m., with additional shifts on Saturday. It was not unusual for workers to bring sacks home to sew at night. 6 Three quarters of the workers were women and children, who could be employed at cheaper rates than the men. Injuries and accidents were commonplace. Dust would be everywhere and the machinery produced heat, grease and oil fumes, leading to a condition that was known as “mill fever.” The constant noise of the machinery led to many workers going deaf. 7 The booming jute industry provided plenty of work, but there was a shortage of housing due to the large influx immigrants.  Wages remained low. Overcrowding meant that many migrants boarded with other families in cramped rooms.8

John settled in Dundee and married Mary Garrick, also from Ireland, in 1845. They both worked in the jute factories. It is no surprise that John and Mary raised their family close to the jute mills. In 1861 they still lived very close to Scourin Burn, in Henderson’s Wynd.9

West Henderson’s Wynd, looking towards the Scouringburn [Dundee]. 1877, James Valentine Photographic Collection, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: VGA-122-40a

John and his family lived in tenement housing all their lives. Tenement housing was hastily built to accommodate the rapid growth of the city due to the influx of workers. The construction quality was poor and the living spaces were small. It was not uncommon for families to share flats. As it was not profitable for landlords to build brand new affordable housing for the workers, pre-existing tenements were subdivided into smaller rooms, making living space even more crowded.10

In 1861 with 91,664 inhabitants Dundee had only five WCs, and three of them were in hotels. All water in the city was drawn from wells of which the chief, the Lady Well, was heavily polluted by the slaughterhouse. Of the total housing stock of Scotland 1% had no windows, which meant that 8,000 families were without access to natural light. “11

Tour Scotland website, no copyright infringement intended

In the photograph of the tenement above, people are gathered on the outside staircase and the platforms or “platties.” Outside staircases were a way of saving space inside the building. In the photo, you can see how tiny each of the flats are.

In the 1800s, several cholera epidemics swept Dundee. Poor sanitary conditions were a direct cause of these epidemics. Dundee was a crowded and smelly city and, as in the above photograph, toilets were outside the flats and shared by many families living in the same tenement block. There were very few public facilities available for bathing. Disease was everywhere and it was believed that foul smells carried the disease. Inadequate sewerage and drainage facilities, and poor water supplies contributed to the increasing unsanitary conditions in Dundee and with its rapidly growing population.12

By the early 20th century, housing in Dundee continued to be problematic. Even though houses without windows had disappeared by 1881, overcrowding continued to be a problem. The 1911 census reveals that 72% of Dundonians lived in crowded conditions, in a one or two roomed home. Only 32% of the population of London lived in a one or two roomed home.13  In 1911, my grandparents had seven children and were living in a two roomed flat in Dundee.

My McHugh ancestors lived in Dundee about 72 years, from around 1840 to 1912. During their time in Dundee, every member of the family worked in the jute factories. In 1912, they emigrated to Canada and found jobs in other industries.

  1. Death of brother Thomas McHugh in Sligo, Ireland, 1871. Deduced from Ancestry public member tree. To date, this cannot be confirmed.
  2. 1841 Census, Scotland, Scotland’s People, entry for John McHugh, National Records of Scotland, referenced January 2, 2021.
  3. Leisure and Culture Dundee, Streetwise: Scourin Burn, Dundee Names, People and Places’ – David Dorward, http://www.leisureandculturedundee.com/streetwise-scourin-burn, referenced March 24, 2022.
  4. National Library of Scotland, Ordnance Survey Town Plans 1847-1895, Dundee, Background, https://sites.scran.ac.uk/townplans/dundee_1.html#, referenced March 27, 2022.
  5. Dundee Heritage Trust, Genealogy Guide, https://www.dundeeheritagetrust.co.uk/, referenced March 24, 2022.
  6. Whelehan, Niall, History Workshop, Migrant Textile Workers and Irish Activism in Victorian Dundee, April 9, 2021, https://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/migrant-textile-workers-and-irish-activism-in-victorian-dundee/, referenced March 24, 2022..
  7. DD Tours, Workers of the Mills, September 16, 2014, https://www.ddtours.co.uk/archive/workers-of-the-mills/, referenced March 24, 2022
  8. Whelehan, Niall, History Workshop, Migrant Textile Workers and Irish Activism in Victorian Dundee, April 9, 2021, https://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/migrant-textile-workers-and-irish-activism-in-victorian-dundee/, referenced March 24, 2022.
  9. Statutory death registers, Scotland’s People, entry for Mary McHugh, National Records of Scotland, referenced March 24, 2022.
  10. Kolesnik, Seva, Dundee – Scotland’s Lost Industrial Empire, May 14, 2021, https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/89b65e8f684a47bab7ccc058e0bb1570, referenced March 24, 2022.
  11. Knox, W.W., A History of the Scottish People. Urban Housing in Scotland 1840-1940, SCRAN, https://www.scran.ac.uk/scotland/pdf/SP2_4Housing.pdf, referenced March 27, 2022
  12. Leisure and Culture Dundee, Cholera in the 19th Century, http://www.leisureandculturedundee.com/cholera-19th-century-0, referenced March 27, 2022.
  13. Knox, W.W., A History of the Scottish People. Urban Housing in Scotland 1840-1940, SCRAN, https://www.scran.ac.uk/scotland/pdf/SP2_4Housing.pdf, referenced March 27, 2022