Greenock’s geography was both a blessing and a curse. Its location on the Firth of Clyde made it a major port and shipbuilding centre. The first harbour was constructed in 1711, Scotts shipbuilders were established one year later and Greenock prospered from the Atlantic trade (and slave economies) of sugar and tobacco. But the town’s situation – a narrow strip of flat land to the shore backed by steeply rising hills to the south – made expansion difficult and helped bring about some of the worst housing conditions in Scotland. The first response was simply to build housing at density; a later one was high-rise. Both, as we shall see, were found wanting.

Greenock 1856

This 1856 map of Greenock gives some idea of its confined topography

In 1800, Greenock’s population approached 18,000; by 1901, it was 67,645. Its commercial wealth and elite ambition were demonstrated in the burgh’s Municipal Buildings, completed in 1886, whose Victoria Tower stands 75 metres tall – a proud one metre higher than Glasgow’s own City Chambers. The £197,000 cost was enormous – the debt was finally cleared in 1952 – but political responses to the town’s slum housing problem were far more dilatory.

View from above Cathcart Street over Cathcart Square to the Municipal Buildings, with the Victoria Tower to the right of Cowan's Corner and the Mid Kirk spire of 1781 to the left Dave Souza

The Municipal Buildings and Victoria Tower (to right) and Mid Kirk © Dave Souza and made available under a Creative Commons licence

That problem was well documented. In the 1860s, when its crude death rate was peaking at 420 per 10,000, the Registrar-General described Greenock as the ‘unhealthiest town in Scotland’ with the highest numbers dying from diarrhoea, dysentery, cholera, and ‘Fever’ (typhus and typhoid) in the country.  Cowgate, in central Greenock, was described by the Workingmen’s Sanitary Association, founded in 1865, as: (2)

one continuous privy from one end to the other. One could hardly believe its disgusting state. Literally it would be difficult to walk on the foot pavement without soiling one’s feet with human ordure.

The Association found half the homes it surveyed comprised one room with an average of six occupants.

Back court, West Quay Lane

This image of a backcourt in West Quay Lane dates from 1935 but serves to illustrate the continuing appalling housing conditions suffered by those living in inner Greenock

Official responses were, as we shall see, legion but often equivocal. A 1864 Privy Council report prompted by a typhus epidemic believed it: (2)

fair to say that there is every disposition of the part of the authorities to do something to remedy the sanitary evil. It so happens that their very prosperity has produced a state of things that has caused the high mortality. The increase in population in fifteen years is more than 30 percent. In spite of this increase there has scarcely been any rise in the number of registered poor, but no proportionate increase of houses for working men.

An 1865 report from Dr Buchannan, a Government Inspector, blamed ‘excessive mortality’ on the ‘deaths of children … produced in Greenock in remarkable numbers’ and the outbreak of typhus on ‘overcrowding and the dirty habits of the people’.  A ‘Ladies Sanitary Association’ proclaimed its mission ‘to redeem the humbler classes from low tastes and squalid habits’.

We might forgive those alleged dirty and squalid habits given that Buchannan’s own figures estimated 9414 people crammed onto 20 acres in Greenock’s Mid Parish, the equivalent of 300,000 per square mile. (As a point of comparison, the figure for Manilla, currently the world’s most densely populated city, is around 120,000.)

The overcrowding at least was real and government legislation – albeit permissive and largely ignored – was emerging to deal with the problem of urban conditions nationally. The 1866 Labouring Classes Dwellings Act allowed municipalities to purchase sites and build and improve working-class homes. It also allowed councils and philanthropic housing associations to borrow money at preferential rates from the Public Works Loan Commissioners.  These powers were strengthened in the 1875 Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act. Greenock itself had secured a private Police and Improvement Act in 1865.

Morton Terrace SN

Morton Terrace

The political disposition of those who ruled the Burgh of Greenock was to favour private provision through the model dwellings promoted by philanthropic housing associations and their patrons.  The foundation stone of the first tenement built by the Greenock Provident Investment Society was laid by builder and Burgh Provost (mayor) James Morton in 1865. The impressive terrace that emerged was named after him. (The local football club also took the name Morton, either in recognition of Morton’s early patronage or because many of its earlier players lived in the terrace.)

Octavia Cottages SN

Octavia Cottages

Another benefactor was Sir Michael Robert Shaw-Stewart: a baronet, heir to the local Ardgowan estate – still in family hands – and Conservative MP for Renfrewshire until 1865. Shaw-Stewart feued* land at Hillend at the low rate of £16 an acre for the erection of 28 cottages on East Crawford Street. In the event, most of the Octavia Cottages (presumably named after his wife, Lady Octavia Grosvenor) soon ‘came to be owned and occupied by those in a higher position in life than the working classes they were intended for’. (3)

Shaw-Stewart also supported a scheme of ‘six divisions of self-contained cottages of brick, English-style, with a small garden and green attached’ at Bridgend in east Greenock. This too, despite larger ambitions, failed to develop from small beginnings. However ‘model’ the dwellings, it was obvious that philanthropic housing could not build housing either at the scale or in the form required by those who needed it most.

In 1877, the Burgh became the first in Scotland to apply the slum clearance and rebuilding provisions of the 1875 Act although it did so with some reluctance. The land acquired for slum clearance was unsuccessfully offered for private redevelopment leaving the council with no option but to undertake the scheme itself which commenced in 1886.  Twenty-one blocks were built in Dalrymple, Shaw, Duff, and Brynmer Streets containing 197 one- to three-room tenements, 290 rooms in total. With WCs shared by up to three families, washhouses by six to twelve, this was by even the normal standards of the day basic housing – but housing conditions in Greenock were far from normal. (4)

Royal Naval Torpedo Factory Greenock Scotland

An early image of the Royal Naval Torpedo Factory

Those standards came under further unexpected scrutiny in 1910 as a result of what some dubbed ‘the English invasion’. Due to a Government decision to centralise production (and presumably reflecting fear of the growing military might of Germany), the Royal Naval Torpedo Factory was opened in Greenock in 1910. This involved the transplantation of around 700 workers from the Woolwich Arsenal in south-east London. The incomers, it was said by one local historian: (5)

brought many prejudices with them. Prejudices about our Churches, our climate, our habits and customs and, perhaps most of all, about our houses.

A Woolwich View of Greenock published in 1910 would seem to confirm their negative views at least: (5)

many of the so-called houses … are, in our view, quite unfit for habitation by our people. We think for our purposes they may be considered non-existent. The great number of bare-footed and bare-headed children who frequent the streets at all hours of the day and late and night was, to us, a pitiful sight.

The Greenock Telegraph replied that ‘Scots boys nearly all run barefoot in the warmer months of the year’ and, with less sympathy to the hardiness of working-class natives, that ‘our slumdwellers are not always the poor, to a large extent they are the improvident’.

The Admiralty acknowledged the genuine discontent existing among its transplanted workers – the undeniable shortage of housing of all sorts and the reality, as one commentator noted mildly, of ‘the tenement system of the district not meeting with the southern ideas’ – but hoped initially that the private sector and housing associations might fill the breach. (7)

Around 56 two-storey houses were built by the Scottish Garden Suburb Tenants Limited and the Gourock and Greenock Garden Suburb Tenants Limited before the war but, objectively, as the town’s population reached 75,000, the housing crisis remained severe. Of 14,500 occupied homes, just 30 were vacant and some 686 were acknowledged – presumably by standards lower than those of the Woolwich workers – unfit. An estimated 1373 new houses were required.

Serpentine Walk II

Serpentine Walk

In 1911, the Corporation resolved to build new homes and 41 were completed in a large tenement block on Serpentine Walk by 1913. Pressure to improve and build was maintained by a Workers’ Housing Council formed in 1912 and, with the greater powers and resources of officialdom, by a Royal Commission on Scottish Housing instituted in 1912 and a Housing Enquiry into Greenock carried out by the Local Government Board in 1914.

The latter found 780 currently occupied houses (accommodating 3300 people) unfit for human occupation and some 469 so-called ‘back properties’ or ‘backlands’ – infill development to the rear of already overcrowded and substandard tenement homes. It called on the Burgh to renew its housebuilding programme by committing to a further 250 new homes immediately with 250 built annually in succeeding years.

Roxburgh Street

Roxburgh Street housing in the 1960s, part of the Kennedy Collection at the McLean Museum  © Inverclyde Libraries, McLean Museum and Inverclyde Archives

The outbreak of war in August 1914 and the priority given to military production generally stymied such ambitions but the significance of Greenock as a naval supplier secured it favourable treatment. A new municipal housing scheme opened in east Greenock in November 1916 featuring ‘houses of the cottage type’ at around 13 to the acre.  The Government paid 12 percent of the scheme’s total cost with the stipulation that the 144 houses on Roxburgh Street (since demolished) would be let to Admiralty employees for at least two years. Further homes on the site were promised after the war. (8)

Grenville Road, Gourock

Grenville Road, Gourock © Thomas Nugent and made available through a Creative Commons licence

In 1916-17, 200 more houses and flats were built in Greenock and neighbouring Gourock at the instigation of the Local Government Board for Scotland, half of them directly provided by the Government’s Office of Works in the Reservoir, Rodney and Grenville Road areas of Gourock. The latter took their inspiration from the larger ‘Garden City’-style development sponsored by the Admiralty in Rosyth where a new naval dockyard had been established in 1908. Among these were the first houses built directly by central government, a precedent fulfilled on far greater scale under the pressures of total war by the 1000 new homes built in 1915 on the Well Hall Estate in Eltham to accommodate the expanded workforce back in Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal. (9)

The promise to build anew at war’s end was one that would be fulfilled and its implementation – in Greenock and across Britain – would owe something to the example of the burgh before and during the First World War. We’ll follow the ongoing story of Greenock’s council housing in the interwar period in next week’s post.

* The Scottish system of feu holding, eventually fully abolished in 2000, required that those who acquired land were required to pay an annual sum for its use to its original owner. Feu duties in Greenock, ranging from £20 to £70 per annum, were – in a reflection of the shortage of suitable land for construction – unusually high which caused additional problems for new housebuilding.


My thanks to the McLean Museum and Art Gallery of Greenock for permission to use the image of Roxburgh Street.


(1) This quotation and other details are drawn from TW Hamilton, How Greenock Grew (James McKelvie and Sons, 1947); the statistic and causes of death from Michael Anderson, Corinne Roughley, Scotland’s Populations from the 1850s to Today (Oxford University Press, 2018).

(2) Robert Murray Smith, The History of Greenock (Orr Pollock and Co, 1921). An online edition has been provided by Inverclyde Council Libraries, Museums and Archive Service.

(3) Smith, The History of Greenock and the report of the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Industrial Population of Scotland Rural and Urban (1917)

(4) William Thompson, The Housing Handbook (National Housing Reform Council, 1903)

(5) Hamilton, How Greenock Grew

(6) Republished in Greenock Housing Conditions, 1885-1914 (Jordanhill College 1978). The responses of the Greenock Telegraph are drawn from the editions of March 24 1910 and October 28 1912.

(7) Ewart G Culpin, The Garden City Movement Up-to-Date (The Garden Cities and Town Planning Association, 1913)

(8) ‘Greenock Municipal Housing’, Daily Record, 22 November 1916

(9) On Greenock and Rosyth, see Henry Roan Rutherford, Public Sector Housing in Scotland, vol 3 1900-1939, University of Glasgow PhD 1996