Ward Road, Dundee is a familiar route for me as I head into the centre of the city. I must have passed No 31 the Salvation Army Hostel many times without giving a second glance, until the surprising discovery that it was the final home of my great-aunt Jane Laing.
Salvation Army Home, Ward Road, Dundee - Ref: WC1314 from Photopolis Collection, www.leisureandculturedundee.com/photopolis
Jane Allan Rennie was born on the 15th of September 1894 at Belnagoak, Aberdeenshire, the Rennie family farm. Her mother also called Jane Allan Rennie registered the birth and no father’s name was recorded. A month later her mother married Alexander Laing on the 26th of October 1894 at Methlick.
The Laing home life was chaotic - Jane's younger brother Alexander and sister Alexandrina had died within days of each other in 1900, their causes of death asthenia, ulceration, and marasmus – terms that indicated undernourishment and poverty. In November 1901 her parents appeared in court accused of failing to provide their children with sufficient food or clothes. Her mother Jane was sentenced to a month in prison and father Alexander was released without charge and the family spent the next six years in and out of the Aberdeen poorhouse.
The admission and discharge registers tell a difficult story with the parents charged with cruelty, the family often homeless and Alexander accused of desertion then suffering a leg injury that prevented him from working and looking after his family. The last entry is August 1907 when Mrs. Laing and her four children, including Jane, discharged themselves.
Jane’s whereabouts for the next two years are unclear but in February 1909, aged 15 she was admitted to Dundee Rescue Home and Metropole for women.
Contemporary descriptions in The Deliverer and Record of Salvation Army Rescue Work (June, September and December 1908) spare no punches in the description of the inhabitants and life in the Home.
“On the north bank of the Tay, ten miles from the German Ocean, stands “Bonnie Dundee”. We have no quarrel on a question of beauty with the “Geneva of Scotland” as the ancient borough has been called. Broadly speaking, Dundee stands where she did in this respect. Our point is that Overgate on a Saturday night, notwithstanding her preservative of sober, wholesome, and hard-working inhabitants, does not add to her charms. For confirmation ask anyone….ask Mrs. Adjutant Skinner, or any other Salvation Army Officer of the locality who has lifted, yes literally lifted – many a gin-sodden woman from the gutter.”
The Industrial home in 1908 housed 33 girls and 3 babies, a mix of first offenders who chose the home over prison; others recovering from a dependence on alcohol; girls who were beyond the control of their parents and others “anxious to rise on stepping stones of their dead selves to higher things”.
The Metropole provided accommodation for 55 boarders and the Lodging House or Working Women’s Hotel provided ‘homelike’ shelter to 66 respectable working girls and women.
So how did Jane end up in Dundee?
Her parents and siblings were in Old Deer, Aberdeenshire when the census was taken in 1911. However, we do know that her step-sister Maggie Ann Laing was a domestic servant at Ballumbie to the north of Dundee in 1911 – did the two oldest girls travel south together or did Jane follow Maggie in search of a better life?
Her admission gives no clues but does confirm that she was neither an offender, a ‘drink case’ nor had she been in other homes.
The Adjutant and staff were there to help women who needed "a friend at any hour of the day or night". In the Home, the women were employed in housework, sewing, and laundry duties with the aim of teaching the skills and attitude to help them find employment in domestic service once they left the Home. Even after leaving, the Service Girls’ Officer kept in touch to support them in their new roles.
Jane never had the opportunity of employment as five months later she died in Dundee Royal Infirmary from Pulmonary Tuberculosis. Her death registered by Sarah Alvey the Salvation Army Home warder recorded both her parents as “unknown”.
Jane’s life had been a mystery for many years – Grandad believed his sister left home to train as a nurse and it took a methodical search of Scottish death records and the assistance of the Salvation Army archivist to piece together her sad story. A story shaped by disrupted home life and poverty but one that hopefully ended in a more caring and compassionate environment.
Poverty is a great enemy to human happiness; it certainly destroys liberty, and it makes some virtues impracticable, and others extremely difficult.
Samuel Johnson in a letter to Boswell 7 December 1782
General Register of Poor, Aberdeen Poorhouse. pp.143,182., Aberdeen Archives.
Salvation Army International Heritage Centre Archives. www.salvationarmy.org.uk/international-heritage-centre