The Barracks

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A GROUP of buildings known as ‘The Barracks’ once stood in Helensburgh's James Street, on the site now occupied by a children's play area. Built around the middle of the 19th century, they became notorious as a trouble spot.

Local historian and Heritage Trust director Alistair McIntyre discovered that local newspapers of the time frequently reported on disturbances which happened there.

Typical of such reports is this one from the Helensburgh and Gareloch Times of August 14 1895, which stated: “The Barracks on Saturday evening were fairly given over to rioting and drunkenness.

“From an early hour, it was apparent that a storm was brewing, and before 7 o’clock, hostilities opened with a skirmish among the women, which the neighbours describe as resembling a scene in a wild beast show. The noise was terrific, and the wonder is that no lives were lost.

“When the men returned from the public houses after 10 o’clock, the scene was simply indescribable, and the police were in a manner powerless. Free rents simply provide the means for such wild scenes of excess and violence.

“The evil is so deep-rooted that nothing short of a complete annihilation of these wretched buildings would produce any lasting result.

"The difficulty is to find shelter for the unfortunate inmates. Many of them are sunk so low on the social scale that it is not surprising they should be refused admission to other dwellings."

The living conditions at The Barracks, sometimes known as Fugie’s Property, were appalling, and the endurance of anyone living under such grim conditions would have been tested to the limit.

The buildings were demolished early in 1896 and the area was converted to a public playground, so the editorial had the desired effect.

Alastair has looked at Census reports, produced every 10 years from 1841, but they never refer to the premises by name.

“Clues can however be gained from the density of population, and to a limited extent, from the occupations given,” he said. “One or two Census reports, like that for 1881, describe the premises as ‘workmen's houses’, and refer to street numbers 27-33 James Street.

“As to when The Barracks were built, is difficult to ascertain, but a report in the Dumbarton Herald from 1858 makes clear that however they began, they subsequently grew and evolved over a period of some years.”

In 1841 there were quite a number of people in residence there, with a wide range of occupations, and this might have been at an early stage of The Barracks. Ten years later there is no doubt.

Twenty households were listed, the occupants including 12 labourers, masons and quarrymen, and a single boatman, a carter and a ploughman. Five heads of households were widows, including a washerwoman, laundress, dressmaker, and two paupers.

Only three household heads were born locally, with eight from other parts of Scotland and nine from Ireland. The population totalled 128 people, including 16 lodgers.

By 1861, when the property was owned by Scottish Central Railway Company of Perth and many railway workers stayed there, there were 42 households, with 206 people, and in 1881 there were 36 households, with 165 people.

They included agricultural, general, road and railway labourers, a gardener's labourer, a mason's labourer, a police commissioner's labourer, carters, masons, gardeners, hawkers, a slater, a shoemaker, washerwomen, housekeepers, a seamstress, a laundress, and a fish dealer.

Conditions remained terrible until The Barracks was demolished. The roofs of the houses were nearly all low, sometimes sloping down to four feet, and several families might occupy one room.

The Dumbarton Herald commented on November 25 1858: “The comparative good health said to be enjoyed by the inhabitants may be accounted for by the fact that they are but little in their miserable abodes.

"Even the householders do most of their work outside, and the doors of the houses seldom seem shut. That such a place as The Barracks should exist in Helensburgh, or anywhere else, is lamentable."