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Researching Robertson’s Land

At Dundee Heritage Trust, we are fortunate to be supported by a dedicated team of volunteers; who have generously donated 1,200 hours of their time to Verdant Works and Discovery Point in 2023 alone!

For many, their time is spent greeting visitors at our five star attractions, whether beginning tours, demonstrating inspiring machinery or bringing stories to life. Others assist in dictation, research, illustration and more.

Ian has volunteered at Verdant Works for almost five years, and recently was involved in research ahead of our newest exhibition, ‘Tackling TB: Dundee Scientists Fighting the Killer Cough‘, produced in collaboration with the Wellcome Centre for Anti-Infective Research at the University of Dundee. In this blog, we invited Ian to share the findings of his meticulous research into Dundee’s tragic history with tuberculosis.

(Read the original edit of this blog post here:

‘Tackling TB’ Exhibition in Verdant Works Museum's High Mill

“In 2019, after retiring from a career in Economic Development I started as a volunteer guide at Verdant Works, which I thoroughly enjoy. I was born in Dundee and lived most of my life in the city, but on leaving school to enter the world of work, the jute industry was already in decline, and so, an alternative career route was chosen. However, as with so many other Dundonians, my parents and grandparents’ friends and relations were connected to the trade so I wanted to find out more about how it contributed to Dundee’s development over the last two centuries.

“I started initially as a Verdant Works courtyard guide, welcoming visitors from the UK and overseas to the museum. I gave them a background to the history of Dundee’s key role in the global jute industry and its impact on the city’s social and economic structure. More recently, I have been showing visitors round the machine hall and demonstrating the various processes which transform raw jute fibre through to woven fabric.”

The Loom in Verdant Works Museum's Machine Hall

“Earlier this year, the museum’s Interpretation Curator invited volunteers to undertake research for a forthcoming exhibition which would be held in Verdant Works and produced in conjunction with the Wellcome Centre for Anti-Infective Research (WCAIR) at the University of Dundee. The exhibition would explore the links between Dundee’s jute industry and WCAIR’s research into tropical and infective diseases.

“I volunteered and was asked to undertake some research at Dundee City Archives and University of Dundee Archives Department, which would provide an insight into living conditions in Dundee in the late 1800s and early 1900s that would have contributed to the incidence and spread of infective diseases. This revealed the following:

  • The 1911 census showed that 72% of people in Dundee lived in crowded conditions, in a one or two roomed home. This contrasted with 32% of people in London.
  • Overcrowding of homes in Dundee were built too close together and mixed up with factories and business premises.  This resulted in in a healthy lifestyle not being possible as inhabitants didn’t get their required share of sunlight.
  • Air smoke laden from mill and factory chimneys, disposal of refuse and human waste in ashpits and share WCs all contributed to poor living conditions and spread of infective diseases.
  • Examining a selection of Dundee Royal Infirmary admissions registers in the late 1800s and early 1900s revealed that 64% of admissions were jute workers and 50% of admissions gave Ireland as their country of birth.

“As part of my research, I also included Robertson’s Land which was also known as the ‘High Land’. Most of the tenements built in Dundee during the building boom of the late 1800s were three or four storeys high; the ‘High Land’ however, was nine stories high and was just a stone’s throw away from Verdant Works. It bordered Larch St, Urquhart St and Walton St (these streets still exist) and was built by a Mr. Robertson around 1870. Although the property was nine storeys high, the top three levels were never actually occupied, as the Fire Department considered it too dangerous and could not guarantee safety in the event of fire.”

Robertsons Land. Credit unknown.

“On each landing there were ten single-room dwellings, but only one toilet, shared by all residents living on that landing. Unusually for that era each apartment had its own supply of running water. Each apartment measured 12 feet by 12 feet – providing around 1150 cubic feet – but given that it was estimated that the 150 rooms were shared by more than 500 residents, living space was woefully inadequate.

“Such overcrowding and inadequate living conditions meant that the ‘High Land’ was a hotbed for the spread of infectious diseases. The property was finally condemned in the early 1950’s as unfit for human habitation, albeit that some people continued to live in the ground and first floor for some time thereafter. The ‘High Land’ was demolished in 1965 when that part of central Dundee was redeveloped.”

Thank you to Ian for sharing his extensive research and findings. Each statistic tells its own sad story, and opens up interesting discussions on the living conditions endured by city-dwellers in the 19th and early 20th century.

Learn more about Robertsons Land – including an intriguing court case – in our latest YouTube video.

Dundee’s Tallest Tenement

5 mins
Our volunteer guide Richard shares the tales of the 19th century building known as Dundee’s tallest tenement.

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