Dundee Advertiser, Friday 21 January 1870
(Letter written Jan 10 1870, published Jan 21 1870)
In another long letter, Matthew expands on a theme previously expressed in a previous letter (Matthew 1869-12-07), namely that the money saved in building the bridge at his preferred site of Newburgh should be used to improve the housing conditions of Dundee’s wretched poor.
The letter touches on many themes that are characteristic of Matthew. The first is the fiery rhetoric employed when he is convinced he has moral right on his side. He equates the high infant mortality in Dundee’s unsanitary slums to “child murder”, and the inadequate wages of Dundee’s working class to “indirect slavery”. The second theme is his conviction in the “especial vital powers” of the sun’s rays (see for example his last known letter to Darwin, and all the Ag Journal Articles which have been labelled with the word “Sun”). He believes that lack of sunlight penetrating a cloud-covered primordial earth may have prevented the evolution of higher life: “The absence of light no doubt prevents development, and excessive haze and cloud in the primary condition of our planet, owing to greater centre or ground heat, may have been the cause of the lower development of pristine life”. The third is his belief in the strong two-way connection between environment and race. Thus the slum conditions of Dundee directly induce “degeneracy of race” in the inhabitants. The fourth is a distain of “aristocratic” Establishment science: “I ought to have known that the science of man was a tabooed subject with aristocratic scientific meetings”. The fifth is a distain of Government: “Now, alas, Parliament is not merely a convenient engine for throwing the brunt of taxation upon the industrious working man, of keeping up class legislation, land monopoly, and indirect slavery after the direct has exploded”. The sixth is a disdain of organised religion: “Priests, hired special pleaders, teachers of Judo-Christianity easily, conveniently, get over this wretched condition of central Dundee, and many other evils”. The seventh, repeated in other letters of this time (see especially Matthew 1869-12-07) is a belief in the mental superiority of the Scottish race: “Thanks to the Scottish mind, a new power or force has been discovered to supersede the heavy labour necessary to produce the comforts of life”. The eighth is a belief in capitalism provided it is controlled by social conscience: “the economizing of capital being so very necessary to reform the horrible slums in the heart of Dundee city”.
Unfortunately, the British Newpaper Archive is missing all issues of the Dundee Advertiser for 1870. The text below has been reproduced from “Evolutionary concepts in the Nineteenth Century: Natural Selection and Patrick Matthew” (Dempster 1996).
SIR,— Are the energetic manufacturers of Dundee to allow the impure crowded heart to remain a lazaretto — an hospital, not where disease is cured, but where it is cultivated? It would almost seem that in the building arrangements a home for disease and misery had been intended; at least, had any architect planned it, he must have had Pandora’s box in his fancy, and taken it as a model of a city. I have seen many cities, some of them had an enough as to sanitary provisions, but none more fitted for a population check or to produce degeneracy of race then the crowded buildings, the narrow unwholesome lanes and closes of Dundee. The high mortality rate per 1,000 confirms my views. The sad imprisonment, the attempt to rear children in these loathsome dens, is not regarded in the child murder light that it ought to be. Unfortunately there are certain infectious diseases to which children are subject, and to combat which requires considerable figure in the child. How is it possible for the poor delicate sufferer, imprisoned from its birth in these loathsome fetid dens, who has never breathed a mouthful of fresh air, and seldom enjoyed an invigorating sun ray, to struggle through these trying diseases? The direct rays of the sun afford a stimulus necessary to be high development of the human vital powers, physical and mental. Artificial heat, or common fire is not enough. Artificial heat rays, unless raised to white heat, do not pass through glass or water, and even, as Tyndall says, not through transparent water gas, although through dry atmospheric air. The sun’s rays have especial vital powers. It is said that the tadpole is not developed into a frog when retained in darkness, but remains a tadpole fish, probably to extend in growth, and generate in this lower undeveloped stage.
The absence of light no doubt prevents development, and excessive haze and cloud in the primary condition of our planet, owing to greater centre or ground heat, may have been the cause of the lower development of pristine life. In the dark casements of fortresses, where soldiers’ wives sometimes reside, monstrous births are said to be not infrequent. Our window curtains and blinds ought to be removed, and the legislators of a window tax ought to have had their eyes put out. In our crowded cities, a few children, however, do escape, or pass easily through infantile diseases, it would seem from the very unwholesomeness of the slums. Here it would appear that, from the vitiated state of the atmosphere and condition of the child’s fluids, the animalcules of the infection did not find a propitious field for extension, the amount generated of carbonic acid and other impurities of crowded human life, and especially the effluvia emitted by ill-managed drains, being sufficient to poison the floating-about germs of the diseases, though the children may survive under the fetor, but with constitutions irreparably injured. The human organism is in a similar manner found to survive under an amount of mediated sulphur, mercury, chlorine gas, &c. which kills the animalcules or the germs of animalcules of various kinds of infection (not of cholera). This may account for various instances where certain kinds of infectious disease seemed to prefer health localities. The murder of thousands of children, however, every year in this country, and the degeneracy of race, caused by crowded cities, such as the heart of Dundee, demand immediate reform — cannot longer be tolerated.
I never pass through the wretched, filthy passages of the heart of Dundee, and see the poor, pallid, feeble children — dwining atomies — creeping about in those unwholesome dens — to them, horrible prisons — but that I feel a sentiment of self-blame, of self-reproach. This feeling of self-approach that the sight of evil, especially remediable evil, generates seems common to all whose feelings are not blunted by custom, by every day observance. I ask myself, do I do my duty in not striving more to reform this horrible evil? The purist, natural sentiment expressed by the promulgator of Christianity was ‘Let little children come to me,’ this was clearly in the sympathetic sense.
At the soi-disant science meeting, held at Dundee more than two years ago, I proposed that the Society should devote a day with me to an excursion to the central parts of Dundee to obtain some knowledge of the condition of humanity in the city itself in which their conference was held — a city excursion such as this being, as I thought, calculated to give more important scientific knowledge then their country excursions to the seats of neighbouring nobleman. The scientific meeting did not respond to my invitation. I ought to have known that the science of man was a tabooed subject with aristocratic scientific meetings.
I look upon the crowded, impure heart of Dundee as a horrible altar where every year hundreds of little children, like hecatombs of cattle, are sacrificed. Surely unwholesome buildings, murdering a hundred times more victims than unwholesome food does, should also be legislated against. If laws already enacted do not empower city Magistrates to do their duty as to this, they ought to agitate for extended powers. It is lamentable that with the finest natural position for a city — a site upon the sunny slope of graceful hills, looking down on the most beautiful arm of the sea and richest land prospects that the whole east side of Britain affords, of yore obtaining the name of Bonnie Dundee — it is, indeed, lamentable that a great part of the city, with wide space eastward and westwards to extend, if required, for miles, from Broughty to Invergowrie, should be so wretchedly huddled together as in no way to benefit its admirable position, but, on the reverse, to be noted for crowded unwholesomeness — all natural advantages, superior ventilation, sunny position, rich prospect of land and water, all walled up. Priests, hired special pleaders, teachers of Judo-Christianity easily, conveniently, get over this wretched condition of central Dundee, and many other evils. They have managed to throw the guilt of this upon original sin, which is only to throw it on the Deity. This is rather unfair, as we ourselves are the guilty parties and have the power of reform if we had the will. Thanks to the Scottish mind, a new power or force has been discovered to supersede the heavy labour necessary to produce the comforts of life, so as to inaugurate a new condition of humanity, the benefit of which ere long must be extended to the working man, by giving him fewer hours for labour and more time for intellectual advancement. Now, alas, Parliament is not merely a convenient engine for throwing the brunt of taxation upon the industrious working man, of keeping up class legislation, land monopoly, and indirect slavery after the direct has exploded. We have seen the sad destruction of human life and property, and entailed debt on the North American States which now depresses so heavily on American industry and human progress, a natural consequence of the legal removal of direct slavery too long delayed, producing a disastrous explosion. This is a warning to us to reform indirect slavery in time, that we may escape a similar explosion even more disastrous, owing to a great proportion of our population being engaged in manufacture, to whom peace, order, credit, protection of property is a first necessity. Is it to be expected that human sufferance can hold out much longer under such wretched habitations as those of our city working men? In the above account I have not alluded to the effect that such vile dwellings have in leading the family head to habits of public-house dissipation, poverty, and in morality, or to all a mother’s care being expended in vain, her hope and anxieties ending in affliction.
I regard to the town of Dundee, how is its improvement to be affected? Had I the laying out of this city primarily as a manufacturing seat in the splendid sight, as a model for cities having a sloping rise of position to a south or south-west exposure, I would have arranged the working men’s houses in streets of single row, and only two stories high, with the roofs as flat as possible, with the street road behind, and a garden of the breath of the house in front, the streets rising in terraces from the water side or the foot of the rise, so that every house would command a view southward over all the fine prospect which the frontage afforded, each head of a family having, as in most parts of England, a separate house — a fashion which Scotland ought to adopt; the manufacturing buildings to be where there were flat spaces and water supply. The fine gradual rise of the ground from Broughty to Invergowrie would afford space enough for the city arrangements. As things are, we have no remedy but to pull down the obnoxious slums, and to form new, open, well-ventilated streets. Money, at 3½ per cent, should be raised by Government security for this purpose.
But I must stop here. The reader will easily adapt to what I have said to the present scheme of throwing away an enormous amount of capital upon a wild fancy of bridging the Tay Firth, in order to place Dundee on the great south and north and east and west lines of Scotland, when the same can be done farther up the river in every respect more advantageously, and that less than one-third of the cost — the economizing of capital being so very necessary to reform the horrible slums in the heart of Dundee city. The communication by water of the east portion of Fife and Newport is already, or at least can easily be made, more convenient and cheaper than the bridge could be, even were it to succeed. I am astonished at the inertness of the Harbour Board in regards to the almost irreparable injury to the Harbour that the bridge is calculated to effect by causing a sand deposit in front. This I have already pointed out in a former letter. I have, therefore, to solicit a little further consideration on the subject by the Wormit bridge proposers, already it would seem taking form as a company, and I would strongly advise them to come a little further west where a practicable site for the bridge awaits them. Were a line bought directly from Falkland Road Station, not around by Ladybank, this line would, I believe, be shorter by Newburgh to Dundee than round by Wormit, while from Ladybank it would, it seems, be only half a mile longer — only one minute delay for security and cheapness. I have only expressed one-half of what I intended to state and may in a future letter recur to the subject. I am &c. —
Gourdiehill Errol, 10 January 1870.