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An introduction to Edinburgh’s social housing, 1890-1945

Steven Robb is deputy head of Casework, Heritage Directorate, at Historic Environment Scotland. He writes, here, about Edinburgh’s historic social housing 1890-1945. It was first published on the website, Municipal Dreams, here, on February 19 2019, which includes academic footnotes.

THROUGHOUT the latter 19th century, Edinburgh’s population expanded greatly. Although some new working-class housing was provided within the inner suburbs, many of the poorest still occupied badly-converted tenements in the overcrowded medieval Old Town and Southside.

Although historically uncommon in England, most working-class urban Scots (and many of the middle-classes) lived in tenements. Unlike the numerous small rooms of the terraced house, tenements often had large rooms; but, for the poor, there were fewer of them, including many one-room houses or ‘single-ends’.

1890 Housing Act

In the early 1890s, council housing for the poor was promoted by a Liberal city councillor, John MacPherson, a church-goer and temperance hotel owner. At a time when 100 families in the city actually lived underground (in vaults), MacPherson railed against the ‘thirty or forty thousand people’ living in one-room houses.

In 1893, the city instituted a major sanitary improvement (or slum clearance) scheme under the provisions of the 1890 Housing Act. 

It involved both sensitive ‘conservative surgery’ of historic buildings in the Old Town by proto-town planner, Sir Patrick Geddes, and small re-construction and new-build schemes by the Burgh Engineer, John Cooper.

Cooper’s new housing was often a sanitised version of the traditional tenement, utilising deck-access balconies for light and ventilation. He designed a new street layout in Stockbridge and several projects around the Old Town, one of the earliest being High School Yards (1896-7), east of the Cowgate. 

Here, two sandstone tenements containing 32 small flats, costing £200 each, were built, unusually with shops underneath.

The council’s housing developments were, at least partly, responsible for significant improvements in health. In the High School Yards area alone, infant mortality figures fell from a horrific 247 to 39 per 1,000 in only a decade and, between 1892 and 1910, death rates fell from 53.7 to 12.4 per 1,000.

1919 Housing Act

Despite compensation payments costing almost as much as the new housing itself, the council provided around 750 houses before the First World War.

Output increased significantly following the 1919 Housing Act, with its generous State subsidies. In the following decades, there would be reconstruction and infill schemes in the historic city, and new housing on peripheral greenfield sites or underused suburban land.

Initially, housing was either ‘general needs’, or improvement (slum clearance) housing at lower rents.

The council were quick off the mark, with City Architect, James A Williamson’s Chesser scheme prepared before the Act had passed. He primarily used the flatted block, a peculiarly Scottish hybrid between cottage and tenement, consisting of four flats under a hipped roof. 

Two ground floor flats were entered from front gardens with upper flats accessed from the sides or central close. Their relative scale allowed them to address the lower density layouts advocated by the ‘garden city movement’.

Besides Chesser, in April 1919, the council had held a competition for private architects for four housing sites, two of which progressed in 1920.

The Wardie scheme, planned by architects, AK Robertson & TA Swan, was carried out according to ‘garden city’ principles. It largely contained cottages and flatted blocks within geometric, tree-lined streets with grass verges and cul-de-sacs. Rendered concrete blocks were used instead of bricks to save costs.

The second development was Willowbrae /Abercorn, by Fairlie, Reid & Forbes. It successfully mixed tenements, flatted blocks and cottages together in a meandering, characterful plan using brick, roughcast and solid stone walling.

The housing was high-quality and well-designed but had been both expensive to build and to rent. It also didn’t cater for the poorest in society, this not being an intention of the Act.

Post-1919 Housing Act 

Edinburgh built around 1,300 1919 Act houses, but high costs resulted in the State withdrawing its provisions and building ceased until after Housing Acts of 1923 and 1924.

However, the new Acts encouraged standardisation and prefabrication to lower costs, with design or material extravagances met by councils not the State. In Edinburgh, this immediately resulted in cottages being phased out, less bedrooms and plainer, cheaper finishes.

In June 1919, the Burgh Engineer, Adam Horsburgh Campbell (1862-1947), was hurriedly appointed director of Housing to take forward the city’s programme.

This prompted criticism from arguably Scotland’s then ‘premier architect’, Sir R. Rowand Anderson, who considered the role should have gone to an architect. However, his concerns were misplaced, as Campbell was a skilled designer with previous experience building social housing in London.

Rather than wait for new housing to be built, Campbell immediately began to sub-divide vacant townhouses in the New Town and recondition Old Town tenements, at half the price of new-build. Sadly, later subsidies prioritised demolition and new-build, rather than reconstruction.

Campbell quickly realised Edinburgh’s housing problems would only be served by higher densities and returned to tenements, officially discouraged but not forbidden. In October 1923, he designed a new, three-storey example for Leith, followed by a cheaper standard tenement which could (almost) be built to ‘garden city’ layouts or linked into terraces. He also designed two standard patterns of ‘four in a block’ housing for peripheral estates.

Campbell focussed on cost-cutting and delivery by whatever means, including, in 1925, the experimental use of Dutch Korrelbeton (no-fine-aggregate) concrete, which was cheaper than brick and required only semi-skilled labour. He also sanctioned outsourcing, approving 1000 Duo-Slab concrete and brick houses from the private contractor, WM Airey of Leeds. 

With his engineering eye, he also trialled flat-roofs, timber and steel construction and reintroduced deck-access balconies to some tenements.

Ebenezer MacRae

Campbell provided around 4,500 houses (built or planned) but worked himself ill with his two jobs, and 16 hour days. On medical advice, he refused a two-year extension as Housing director alone and retired early in June 1926. Anderson finally got his way when Edinburgh’s recently-appointed City Architect, Ebenezer James MacRae (1881-1951), absorbed the additional housing role.

Politically, the same year MacRae took charge, Labour first emerged as a force in the city, and, to counter this, Edinburgh developed a loose anti-socialist coalition of Tories and Liberals termed the ‘Moderates’ then ‘Progressives’. 

Although proficient at slum clearance housing, they would be lukewarm in supporting general-needs housing, considering this was the role of the private sector. Despite railing against public spending, they were content to directly loan or subsidise private builders who constructed over 11,000 houses for rent or owner-occupation between the wars, continuing support even after beneficial subsidies were removed.

This position was vindicated by central government who withdrew general needs subsidies between 1933 and 1935, the focus moving solely to slum clearance and overcrowding, addressing the very poorest in society.

In post, MacRae immediately cancelled Campbell’s experimentation, returning to traditional masonry construction with pitched slate roofs. His direct control of housing was music to the ears of Edinburgh’s trade unions who had opposed Campbell’s involvement of the private sector, semi-skilled labour and moves away from separate-trades tendering.

Like Councillor MacPherson, MacRae was a religious man, the son and grandson of Free Church of Scotland ministers. He had a charitable view of humanity and a strong desire to provide the best housing possible to help tenants better themselves. His horror of overcrowding gave him a healthy zeal for daylighting.

Although subsidies favoured brick, covered in roughcast for Scotland’s climate, in the historic city MacRae made a special effort to build ‘in keeping with surrounding buildings’ and, where possible, built solid stone walls for frontages and visible gables.

Where Campbell and MacRae may have differed on their rehousing methods; Campbell favouring quick fixes against MacRae’s concentration on quality, both shared a desire to see tenants housed near their workplaces.

MacRae also saw tenements as the answer but his use of denser developments, even on peripheral sites, sometimes failed. At Niddrie Mains, a slum clearance estate on the very edge of Edinburgh, 2,000 houses were built, entirely with three-storey tenements together with (literally) a handful of shops and other amenities.

It never really prospered, but Prestonfield, built at the same time, did, perhaps because it had a careful mix of tenements and flatted blocks, and was nearer workplaces and established communities?

The Department of Health were still wary of subsidising tenements, especially those over three storeys, and several schemes were delayed or had to be redesigned. However, MacRae persevered, and in the year ending 1936 had delivered over 1,100 houses, 88 per cent of which were within tenements.

MacRae’s team first used Campbell’s standard pattern housing for peripheral work, including his flatted blocks, which MacRae saw as a compromised ‘English’ solution.

However, in the early 1930s, he expanded his repertoire, introducing new designs and layouts with some influence from Europe, the fruits of his numerous continental trips. 

These culminated in his influential role in the ‘Highton delegation’, which led to the ‘Report on Working Class Housing on the Continent’ in 1935.

However much MacRae may have admired the planning and ambition of contemporary European housing, he disliked the austerity of international modernism and found fault with their flat roofs and cantilevered balconies. He considered four-storeys high enough and found the ‘Germanic’ communalisation of services and amenities unsuitable for Edinburgh.

‘The Report on Continental Housing’, together with the 1935 Scottish Architectural Advisory Committee Report, did, however, lead to change. MacRae shared the report’s desire for less-drab layouts and better architecture, together with enhanced community facilities.

He designed several higher-density perimeter blocks set around communal courts at the Pleasance (1934) and Craigmillar (1936). Where space didn’t permit such layouts he planned linear street-facing blocks. Architecturally, they were enhanced by changing storey heights, building planes, and canted corners, bays and staircase towers. As centrepieces to new estates, he introduced feature crescents at Saughton (1932), Granton (1935), Craigmillar (1936) and Warriston (1936).

A subtle touch was the introduction of horizontal stone banding at first floor level, likely sourced from Vienna or Berlin.

MacRae’s last major developments include Piershill (1938) and West Pilton (1938).  

Piershill (pictured), arguably his masterpiece, used a near-continuous snake of three and four-storey, largely stone, tenements angled to address its south-facing site. It was European in plan but unashamedly Scottish in design.

On the city’s periphery, the plans for West Pilton comprised 2,000 houses and proper community facilities, with a giant circus ringed with stone tenements as a centrepiece. 

Sadly, the Second World War intervened, with timber unattainable and bricklayers lost to defence work. Work recommenced in 1942 to a greatly-diminished specification and much increased cost, but space for promised community facilities was seized for temporary housing.

By the time of his retirement, in 1946, MacRae had delivered around 12,000 houses, as well as important studies on Edinburgh’s historic buildings, a precursor to the listing system. 

His departure came just as subsidies for private housing were discontinued and council housing gained the ascendancy, but it also saw the end of the authority and power of the City Architect, with the first major post-war housing estate being offered to open competition.

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