The records of Janet Robertson’s early life tell us that she lived in the dirty, densely populated tenements of Edinburgh’s slum district. Edinburgh suffered the effects of rapid population growth and industrialisation during the years leading up to Janet’s expulsion in 1841. When just a child, Janet would have witnessed a dreadful epidemic of cholera that swept through the city. It was most virulent in the overcrowded areas that housed those fleeing rural poverty for the city’s Old Town. Typhus and other diseases swept through the appallingly dark, damp and unhygienic tenements and alleys. An influx of Irish migrants seeking refuge from the potato famine added to the population pressure.
With new building activity concentrated in the New Town, the growing population of poverty-stricken crowded into the old tenements that were subdivided to house whole families in single rooms. In the 1840s Edinburgh’s Old Town reportedly had the most unsanitary living conditions of any other city in Britain at the time.
Some, however, would argue that Glasgow might equally claim that title. Quite by coincidence, I have in the last couple of days started reading Deborah Swiss’s book The Tin Ticket – The Heroic Journey of Australia’s Convict Women. Her first story is about the young Glaswegian Agnes McMillan, abandoned to the wynds of Glasgow’s slums. These extracts paint something too of the life Janet Robertson would have faced as a young girl in Edinburgh’s slums.
Agnes saw a world of cobblestone and brick, full of misery and manure. Coal particles stung her eyes at every blink. Each sip of water she drank from the brackish public well carried the risk of dysentry or typhoid fever. She and everyone else who lived near the mills coughed out pieces of black grit breathed in from Glasgow’s raging industrial fires. Neighbours overhead tossed their garbage out the windows onto the walkway. Most had witnessed some unfortunate soul drop dead in the street or on the job. The grey-eyed five-year-old had already proven to be lucky, since half the Scottish children born in 1820 had already been laid in the ground by their parents. In the slums, dunghills and raw sewage blanketed the crowded space with a sticky black glaze. This was Agnes’ playground and schoolyard.
Children dashed around the wynds playing tag, hide-and-seek, and peever —the Scottish version of hopscotch. Boys picked up sticks to bat whatever they could hit in the air. An old barrel hoop started a contest for who could spin it the farthest. Street waste offered an abundance of possibilities for games and entertainment.
…. Among the labouring class, a child’s role included the duty of earning a living. By age seven, Agnes would have been expected to contribute to the McMillan household income. Every penny mattered. Children her age, and younger, worked full time as chimney sweeps or factory workers, hired for the ability to reach small crevices and machine parts.
Sadly, Janet was to loose five of her own children in childhood but those who survived certainly had a better start in life than she had.