Posted by: Jim Bell | March 23, 2011

Farm Worker Accommodation in the 1860’s

Whilst looking through early census return the lists of house occupiers seems neat, tidy and comfortable. The following item, from 1862, introduces a very different view of the harsh living conditions of many Stewartry people.

AGRICULTURAL LABOURERS’ COTTAGES.— Slowly but surely, says the Scottish Farmer, the small, ricketty, damp, ill-lighted, and badly-ventilated dwellings of the agricultural labourers are disappearing, and in their stead are rising dwellings more in keeping with the increase of wealth and intelligence which a quarter of a century of agricultural prosperity have brought. Some districts have advanced much further in the good work than others. In the best there are, perhaps, not more than one half of the houses of farm-servants of that one-room type which a previous generation of farmers regarded as quite good enough for their men, and the men themselves did not object to on the score of want of comfort in any shape. In other districts, however, it is still rare to see a neat new cottage for ploughmen.

The upper portion of Kirkcudbrightshire might be mentioned as one where as yet little has been done in the way of cottage accommodation. There we still find cottages built of dry stone, the walls differing from a dyke in no other way than in having some lime thrown in a slap-dash way in the interstices on the outside. Drainage there is none, notwithstanding which, the houses are often built in a hollow some feet beneath the road which runs in front of them, and, as the floors are composed of nothing but natural soil, they are in a very sloppy state in winter. A foot-square window is in many instances the only source of light, if we except the door, which, to prevent suffocation by smoke, is usually left open. Numerous houses have no grates, the peats being built up on the floor, beneath where a hole in the roof does — or rather we should say, is intended to, but does not — do duty as a chimney. As might be expected, the furniture of such houses is usually in keeping with the character of the accommodation they afford. A box-bed, and one composed of slabs from the saw mill; a chest or two for clothes, three or four stools, a couple of home-made chairs, and a clock of the description there known as a “wag-at-the-wa’,” are often all the plenishing. The inmates are not to blame, for any better would be sadly out of place, and glued articles would be destroyed in a week in such hovels. In these wretched dwellings there can be little or no real home comfort.

The occupants, too, are not an ignorant class at all. There is no county in Scotland where education is so highly appreciated, the children beneath those miserable roofs receiving a good school instruction, Latin and French being often added to English in the case of boys. We doubt, however, whether the people are so fully alive to the miseries of their accommodation as their class in some other counties would be. We say this, because we find respectable tradesmen with a bit of land, a couple of cows and an account at the bank, living in houses with little more pretension to comfort. This is no valid excuse, however, for proprietors in Kirkcudbrightshire neglecting that which landlords in other counties are beginning to do. When we make a thorough inspection of the condition of the farm-servants in Kirkcudbrightshire — as we hope to be able to do during the summer or autumn—we trust we shall be able to report more favourably upon the county generally than concerning the small portion to which we paid a hasty visit the other day, and where we noticed no change within the last fifteen years, except, indeed, that some old houses had been knocked down and no new ones erected in their stead.

External Link

Building news and architectural review 1862 – Google Books

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