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I’m delighted to feature the first of two new posts by Steven Robb. Steven contributed an earlier post providing an overview of Edinburgh’s council housing from 1890 to 1945. He is Deputy Head of Casework for Historic Environment Scotland.  With qualifications in building surveying and urban conservation, he has a particular interest in early and interwar social housing in Edinburgh, and how new housing was incorporated within the historic city.

Northfield Crescent, a listed crescent of stone tenements

Just over a hundred years ago in October 1920, Edinburgh’s first 1919 Act housing was opened by a proud city councillor.   

In the first of two blogs I will look at Edinburgh’s particular housing issues and the ways in which the city used the Housing (Scotland) Act of 1919 to try and address them. It will then examine the three major housing estates built by Edinburgh Council, which between them provided around 1000 houses. The second part of the blog will look at additional housing provided in the city, and will conclude by assessing Edinburgh’s particular approach to housing under the Act.

The problem

Overcrowding was Scotland’s major housing problem. Edinburgh’s 1911 census found over 110,000 people living in either one- or two-room houses, which represented 41 percent of the city’s housing stock.  Almost 40,000 people were living at least three to a room.

Although Edinburgh’s average density at this period was only around 30 persons per acre, in the most overcrowded districts like the Old Town, it rose well into the hundreds, with homes in tenements and houses ‘made down’, or subdivided, to cram in more tenants.   In one block of eight tenements in St Leonards there were 186 separate homes containing 747 people; a density of 896 persons per acre.

Overcrowding was partly a consequence of Scottish building practice.  Unlike England’s rows of relatively cheap brick terraces, Scotland’s urban workers were housed in stone tenements of three or four storeys.   Such robust construction and stricter building regulations resulted in far higher build costs. 

In addition, land values in Scotland were elevated by the medieval system of land tenure (feu duties), resulting in the UK’s most expensive building land (outside London).  

To maximise returns developers built high density tenements, with their costs recouped by the highest rents outside the English capital. Rents were often paid communally by congested tenants. 

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the private sector found it uneconomic to continue building at affordable rents. To address this market failure, prior to WW1 Edinburgh Council built or reconstructed around 750 houses under legislation, including the Housing of the Working Classes Act (1890).   The City Engineer’s new ‘sanitary tenements’ had open deck-access balconies providing light and fresh air to small flats. They were popular and partly responsible for significant improvements in infant mortality and death rates. However, the cost to the Council was excessive, with compensation payments to owners sometimes costing nearly as much as the new housing.

The Rent Restrictions Act (1915), introduced after major rent strikes and civil unrest in Glasgow, together with the anticipated post-war costs of building, meant State intervention in the housing market was both inevitable and desirable.  

The solution?

The Housing (Scotland) 1919 Act looked to address overcrowding and the housing shortage under the ethos of ‘a healthy family in a healthy home’.  Scotland’s specific problems saw a far more ambitious target than England and Wales, to provide 120,000 new homes.

Acknowledging Scotland’s higher building costs, there was a lower Council cap on expenses, at 4/5 of a penny on the rates rather than England’s penny.

The Act incorporated, informally during implementation, a series of recommendations from the 1917 Scottish Royal Commission on Housing (Ballantyne Report), which, along with the Tudor Waters report, acknowledged the different conditions and traditions in Scotland. 

One of these traditions was that Scotland’s houses contained less rooms, with a custom of larger living and kitchen space doubling up as accommodation. The result was that 50 percent (but later increased) of 1919 Act houses were permitted to be the minimum three apartments (living room and two bedrooms), where England and Wales generally looked for three-bed houses. 

Again, recognising traditions, there was a toleration for housing other than cottages, as individual houses on one or two storeys were called.   Flatted blocks (four in a blocks) were acceptable and, although generally discouraged, there was even a place for suitably designed tenements.

The Scottish Act finally gained Royal Assent on 19th August 1919, but as early as November 1918 the Local Government Board (later Scottish Board of Health) had asked Edinburgh to assess its housing needs. The city responded with plans for 3000 new homes and 750 rehabilitated dwellings, a figure thought feasible within three years, if the ‘circumstances were entirely favourable’.

Edinburgh’s Town Clerk described the Act as being ‘imposed’ on the Council, and although, unlike previous legislation, it did compel action, this time the intention was Councils wouldn’t be left out of pocket, with generous subsidies bridging the difference between the outlay in building costs and rents received.  

Gorgie (386 houses)

The Council had their eye on half a dozen sites within the city but soon settled on Gorgie, where they already owned land.  

In January 1919, 50 acres of semi-rural land adjacent to the City’s Livestock Market were transferred (at £250 per acre) and James Williamson, the City Architect, drew up plans for 660 houses.  In April 1919 the Board of Health found Williamson’s proposals for gently curving streets with individual flatted blocks eminently satisfactory’. These streets enclosed areas of communal allotments and open ground.

Stone flatted block with additional storey on Chesser Avenue

Gorgie’s flatted blocks consisted of four houses under a piended (hipped) roof with a separate entrance to each flat.  They were a hybrid between a cottage and a tenement, and suited a Scottish desire for one-floor-living.  Cheaper than cottages, they could, virtually, be built to a garden city layout, in this case 14 houses to the acre, close to the recommended 12. 

To keep tender costs down the Council’s surveyor recommended estimates for both stone and brick, as some builders were geared up for the former, and a mix of materials might be cheaper. The first tenders for 48 houses came back in June at around £800 a house, with the stone option only 0.5 percent more than the brick.  In order to accentuate the Scottish character of the housing, against the perceived Englishness of brickwork, the housing Committee agreed to use rubble sandstone sourced from nearby Hailes Quarry, adding that ‘Scottish people wanted substantial houses’.  

Stone flatted blocks on Chesser Loan

However, after brick prices fell and cavity walling was permitted, the cost difference increased, and the Board of Health refused to pay the additional subsidies for stone. Despite their earlier support the Council soon conceded that the second phase of Gorgie could be built in brick, which was rendered to cope with Scotland’s weather, and a lack of skilled Scottish facing-brick layers.

Chesser Gardens – a street of rendered brick flatted blocks

Begun in July 1919, Gorgie suffered several delays due to lack of skilled labour, rising material costs and availability, and even a plumbers and joiners strike.  Pegged to costs, the economic rent for a two-bed house would have been around £60-65pa. The Council suggested rents of £25-27pa, but these were soon upped to £31 by the Board of Health.

With the first completions in October 1920, on opening, a councillor noted the houses were ‘commodious inside and artistic outside’ and would ‘compare favourably with any houses being built in England or Scotland’.  Noting the generous gardens in front and allotment ground behind, the councillor added that ‘The City Gardener was preparing creepers for the walls and rambler roses for the gardens.  If these houses were not Paradise, he did not know where they would have to look for such a place’.

In early 1923 the city architect’s second phase to Gorgie was built on Slateford Road. By this date the individual flatted blocks with gardens on curved streets were dispensed with in favour of cheaper tenements built facing the main road.  These three-storey rendered brick tenements provided another 108 two-bed houses. Indeed, the majority of Gorgie’s houses, around 70 percent, were the recommended minimum of two bedrooms, with only 10 percent four bed and the remainder three.

Two-bedroom tenements on Slateford Road

Today the most distinctive Gorgie houses are the first-phase chunky rubble stone flatted blocks on Chesser Avenue, especially those with an additional twin-dormered storey for the few four bed flats. They retain distinctive sweeping slate roofs with swept eaves.  On adjacent streets are a mix of rendered and stone houses with a handful of red sandstone blocks, all with generous gardens.    

Competition

In mid-1919 the City Engineer Adam Horsburgh Campbell became Housing Director, controlling Council housing delivery until he retired in mid-1926.   He insisted on combining this new role with his existing engineering job, and would soon stray into architectural work.

Despite the skills within his Department the City Architect had already been snubbed in April 1919 when the Council agreed to hold an open competition for the remaining housing sites. Early studies like the Tudor Waters Report had advised involving the private sector, and the Council had also been lobbied by the Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (later RIAS).

The competition, open to private Midlothian architects, offered four new sites with firms asked to submit the most economical designs for cottages, flatted blocks and tenements with two, three and four bedrooms at 14 houses per acre. Conditions included limited use of combed (sloping) ceilings, avoidance of rear additions, and minimum room sizes, including living rooms of 180 sq ft, principal bedrooms of 160 sq ft and ceiling heights of 8ft 6 inches (2.6m).  

In August the panel Chairman Sir John Burnet, who had previously judged a 1918 Workers Housing Competition, awarded first prize for all four sites to Edinburgh architects AK Robertson and Thomas Aikman Swan.

However, as it had been previously decided no firm should have more than two schemes each, Robertson & Swan were awarded sites at Wardie and Craigleith. Charles Tweedie was given Saughtonhall, and Fairlie, Reid & Forbes allocated Northfield.

In due course the sites at Craigleith and Saughtonhall were abandoned so sadly Charles Tweedie, second placed in three competitions, got nothing.   Meanwhile, Fairlie, Reid & Forbes, third-placed in only one competition, got one of the two surviving commissions.

Wardie (366 houses)

In April 1919 the Council purchased 73 acres of land occupied by nurseries belonging to the trustees of Major Boswall, at a cost of £250 per acre. The architects, Robertson & Swan, designed a geometric garden city plan with tree-lined streets, open spaces, and cul-de-sacs, built with a mix of cottages, four in a blocks and later a few tenements placed on main roads and closing vistas.  Over 600 trees were planted at a cost of £180.

Tenement ending a vista along Boswall Avenue

At the end of 1920 work began on 360 houses, but the Council only developed the western side, the eastern half being developed privately.

Plan of Wardie. Only the western side was completed under the 1919 Act

Unusually, to combat high brick costs, the houses were built with unrendered concrete blocks, provided by the Unit Construction Company of London. This early use of concrete was purely on cost, the tenders (for £408,246), being £12,000 cheaper than brick. The tender worked out at around £1130 a house, but by March 1921 costs had risen with the first batch of 300 houses coming in at around £1300 each.  The largest four-bed cottages in Wardie would eventually soar to £1600 each, with critics considering them to be worth only £300 once the building boom was over. Their economic rent would have been £100pa but they would be let for, the still substantial, £44pa.

Cottage with original door and windows

Contractors were accused of profiteering, an ugly accusation in the aftermath of World War One, but the system didn’t encourage parsimony.

The letters page of the Scotsman newspaper saw a flurry of taxpayer complaints.  Critics judged Wardie as too remote from trams, schools and shops, whilst the houses were labelled ‘shoddy with small pokey rooms’.  Others even grumbled that the rooms were too small for their furniture.

Having said all this, the housing was popular and would be oversubscribed, with 10,000 initial enquiries for Wardie’s 360 houses, perhaps before the high rents were set.

Scotland’s climate put paid to Wardie’s experimental concrete block housing, and by 1928 all 360 of its increasingly damp houses were roughcast by the Council at a cost of £10,000.

Tree-lined grassed verge in Boswall Avenue

Today the estate is popular, with Boswall Avenue’s tree-lined grass verges perhaps Edinburgh’s best approximation of the garden city ideal.  The houses are in an Arts and Crafts style with natural slate swept hipped roofs and generous garden space.  There is a good variety of designs and mix of house types.

Northfield (322 houses)

In April 1919 the Council agreed to acquire 40 acres of agricultural land from the Duke of Abercorn’s Duddingston estate at £300 per acre. 

In June 1920 the architects Fairlie, Reid & Forbes exhibited their ‘admirable housing scheme’ for 320 houses at the Royal Scottish Academy.   It was thought likely to ‘produce a pleasing and picturesque ensemble upon the rising ground at the base of Arthur’s Seat’.

The firm was specially created for the competition. Reginald Fairlie was a noted Arts and Crafts architect who would later design the National Library, and became a specialist in Roman Catholic churches. George Reid & James Forbes would become Scotland’s foremost interwar school designers.  

The plan is sophisticated, belying its lowly competition place. On the highest point is a large circus ringed by cottages – almost a cul-de-sac – but connected to the other streets by small pedestrian link paths – which bisect the estate. There is a raised pedestrian entry path on the busy Willowbrae Road, planted verges, generous gardens and open spaces.  

Expensive semi-detached cottages on Northfield Circus, a large cul-de-sac with central park

The first tenders, in March 1920 suggested 196 cottages and flatted blocks could be built at an overall cost of £210,000 making a two-bedroom house £950 and a four bedroom house £1100. Again, costs rose quickly. Later estimates saw a four-bed cottage costing between £1360 and £1400.  A Scotsman article judged these ‘phenomenal costs … preposterously and impossibly high’.

Flatted blocks with brick and tile detailing

The cost of these cottages led to later phases of the estate being built in three-storey tenements. Between March 1921 and December 1923 around 130 tenements were built, all with gas for heating and electricity for lighting.    

Stone tenement with communal open ground in front
Details of stone tenements

Northfield’s planning is sophisticated and the housing attractive and hugely varied, both in use of materials from facing brick, rendered brick and stone, to the rarely duplicated house patterns. Fairlie’s Arts and Crafts eye is evident in the stone boundary walls, decorative stone piers and carved timber gateposts, as well as in the stone tenements with relieving arches and brick and tile detailing.  The tenements here served as a prototype for the Council’s later work in the city.

Details of stone wall and timber gateposts

In next week’s post, I’ll look at the council housing schemes inherited by Edinburgh from Leith and Midlothian and offer an overall assessment of Edinburgh’s approach to the 1919 Act.

Sources

A Grierson (Town Clerk, Edinburgh), ‘Housing Schemes in Edinburgh’ in Thomas Stephenson, Industrial Edinburgh (Edinburgh Society for the Promotion of Trade, 1921)

John Frew, ‘”Homes fit for heroes”: Early Municipal House Building in Edinburgh’, The Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland Journal, no 16, 1989

Town Council Minutes and City Chamberlain’s Reports, Edinburgh City Archives

Scotsman Newspaper Archive

Lou Rosenberg, Scotland’s Homes Fit for Heroes, Garden City influences on the Development of Scottish Working Class Housing, 1900 to 1939 (The Word Bank, 2016)