I’m delighted to feature the second of two new posts by Steven Robb. Steven also 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.
In last week’s post, I concentrated on the main three 1919 Council estates at Gorgie, Wardie and Northfield. In this part, I will look at 1919 Act housing built for Leith and Midlothian, which was inherited and taken forward by Edinburgh in 1920. I will also look at the new homes created from existing buildings, concluding with an assessment of Edinburgh’s approach to the 1919 Act.
Leith and Midlothian
In 1920 Edinburgh absorbed Leith Corporation and several suburban areas within the County of Midlothian, inheriting 1919 Act housing planned by these authorities.
Leith had planned sites for over 200 houses, but by September 1920 had only started three tenements on Ferry Road. Designed by Leith’s Burgh Architect, George Simpson, and judged to be ‘houses of artistic design’, the initial choice of tenements was rare in 1919 housing. A further nine houses were built round the corner in Clark Avenue.
Leith also received, towards the end of 1923, 66 new flats in tenements designed by Campbell. Situated on St Clair Street, off Easter Road, these tenements had two small two-bedroom flats on each landing, and due to Campbell’s space planning and the ‘most rigid economies’ cost only £350 a house, showing how far costs had fallen by this date.
Edinburgh inherited schemes by Midlothian County to build pockets of housing including 48 houses at Longstone, and other modest developments at Corstorphine, Gilmerton and Davidsons Mains. Midlothian engaged the private architect David McCarthy, best known for designing the city’s Veterinarian School. His two storey houses were both plain and small, as Midlothian had argued strongly for the right to build no more than two bedroom houses.
Reconstruction & Conversion
Scotland’s 1919 Housing Act was not only focused on building new homes; there was also a distinct focus on rehabilitating, or reconstructing, buildings for housing. Edinburgh’s overcrowded and decaying Old Town contained a number of many-storeyed historic tenements, several of which were in very poor condition.
Reconstruction works were led directly by the City’s Housing Director (and City Engineer) Campbell. The projects had become favourable after new provisions within the 1919 Act meant acquiring properties for demolition or reconstruction limited owners’ compensation payments to solely the value of the cleared site.
Intended as a cheaper option than newbuild, in many cases the reconstruction could be undertaken at around half the price of new build, with the subsidy often covering all costs.
Old Town tenements in the Cowgate, High Street, West Port, Dumbiedykes and St James were purchased and reconstructed, often with rear additions removed, to provide around 120 small flats. The flats in the centre of town were close to jobs and amenities and proved popular with tenants. Sadly, the legislation later changed so that no part of a retained building could be subject to a housing subsidy, to the great harm of the city’s heritage. Thus, later projects in the interwar period were mainly ‘conservative surgery’ schemes involving selective demolition and rebuilding housing in historicist styles.
An unusual use of the 1919 Act subsidies was the conversion of former army huts into homes, again at around half the price of permanent new houses. Early in 1920, as part of a nationwide project, a demonstration house was displayed to the public in the centre of St James Square. The hut had been converted to a three bedroom house by the Ministry of Munitions. It consisted of a timber structure on a brick base, lined and roofed with asbestos with internal concrete walls and was designed to last twenty years.
The demonstration house was obviously well received, as the Council went on to purchase 52 huts from the Ministry at a cost of £7470. The Council proceeded to convert these huts into 140 homes which they called ‘bungalows’, but we might alternatively call pre-fabs. They were sited in London Road, Meadowbank and Iona Street off Leith Walk, and included the St James Square example, itself converted into two homes. They were given to applicants, including, appropriately, ‘married ex-servicemen’ who were ‘clamouring’ for houses.
The 1919 Housing Act saw Edinburgh (and its recently acquired neighbours) build around 1300 new homes, with another 260 from reconstructed city tenements and converted army huts. The total cost was over £1.5m with over 80 percent of expenditure borne by the State.
Although this fell far short of the 3750 home envisaged, it was abundantly clear the circumstances were not ‘entirely favourable’. The State had embarked upon the largest country-wide public housing programme ever seen in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic World War. Dormant building contractors, reduced numbers of skilled tradesmen, and a sudden demand for scarce building materials led to spiralling costs. By the beginning of 1921 labour costs had risen by 300 percent, but the city still struggled to find builders. Joinery, lime and plaster costs had risen by 250 percent, brick costs had doubled and even the cost of carting materials to site had risen by 350 percent. Edinburgh suffered particularly with costs up to 70 percent higher than the Scottish average. As a country, Scotland ended up building around 25,500 houses, only 20 percent of its, admittedly more ambitious, target.
Oversight and approval from the Board of Health elongated the process, but the City still hoped for a subsidy extension to allow them to reach their targets (although some questioned whether the targets had been set too high). However, in mid-1921 State expenditure was drastically curtailed with ‘Geddes Axe’ cuts.
Over time the building market had begun to reach some form of equilibrium, and costs had started falling sharply in 1922. However, by this date it was forbidden to start new schemes, and expansion of existing schemes was confined to minimum standards to cut costs. Very sadly, at the point where criticism of expensive housing had ceased to be an issue, the subsidies were withdrawn.
As built Edinburgh’s 1919 Act housing provided a specifically tailored version of the garden city ideal, differing from many other Scottish towns and cities by using a mix of cottages, flatted blocks and tenements.
In Scotland around 63 percent of all 1919 Act housing was within cottages, but Edinburgh’s percentage was closer to half that. Seen by many in the city as an imposed English housing model, cottages were initially used at Wardie and Northfield but their high costs saw them being phased out throughout the life of the Act.
Instead, around half of Edinburgh’s 1919 Act housing would be built within flatted blocks, the hybrid between cottage and tenement. This was far in advance of a Scottish average of only 31 percent.
Another Edinburgh anomaly was the use of the tenement, far in advance of a very low Scottish average of 6 percent. This was especially evident in the latter phases of Gorgie, Northfield and Wardie which all used three-storey tenements. Edinburgh’s Housing Director had set out his stall as early as March 1921, determining that tenements of ‘up to date design and arrangement’ were the undoubted solution for the ‘poorest and lower middle classes’ in the city, allowing them to live near their workplaces. They could be ‘provided at less cost and with greater convenience’ than the cottage type of dwelling on the city fringes.
Less use of cottages also meant smaller flats, with over 65 percnt of Edinburgh’s 1919 homes built with only two bedrooms, with the Scottish average at 57 percent. Edinburgh had 16 percent of its housing with three bedrooms, well below a Scottish average of 35 percent. The remaining 20 percent were either one or four bed. Such figures may be considered ungenerous in comparison with the expected accommodation south of the border, but it was supposedly demand-led and still represented a quantum leap from the one- and two-room houses of the overcrowded city centre.
Stone was Edinburgh’s dominant building material, but it was only used extensively in Gorgie, and sparingly, (but to fine effect) at Northfield. Gorgie was consistently lauded as an example for stone building well into the interwar period. Although not unknown in the city, brick was still seen by many as an English material, and, with the exception of a few facing brick blocks at Northfield, was almost always covered in pollution-resilient grey harl. Edinburgh’s experimentation with unharled concrete blocks at Wardie didn’t pay off.
The design of the housing used Arts and Crafts styling with wet dash harling, rubble stonework, natural slate bell-cast roofs and multi-pane sash windows. The layouts were inventive, varied and attractive with generous green infrastructure, including large gardens, grass verges, trees, parks, open spaces and allotments.
So far so good, but the 1919 Act housing was not as transformative as hoped, with only a small dent made in the city’s horrendous overcrowding figures. Housing the very poorest wasn’t the concern or intention of the 1919 Act, and the Council soon sheepishly admitted the rents being sought set the housing way beyond the reach of many working-class families.
Although some councillors were keen to impose low rents, others had concerns over the gap between actual and economic rents. In any case they were at the mercy of the Board of Health who insisted on higher rents (upwards of £30pa) to keep subsidies low. Edinburgh set out to prioritise ex-servicemen with families, but an ability to pay the high rents would arguably become more important than homes for heroes. If paying high rents was not enough, the (then) peripheral locations required additional costs to travel to work and amenities.
So, rather than the Old Town poor, the new estates attracted the aspirant upper working and middle classes. A glance at the 1925 Valuation Roll for Boswell Avenue, admittedly Wardie’s best street, shows several clerks, engineers, a civil servant, geologist, lecturer, surveyor, engineer, excise officer and a Chief Armourer (me neither?) paying up to £44pa. Tenements were often allocated to those paying lower rents, but the 1925 Valuation Roll for Northfield shows tenement rents of between £31 to £37 with clerks and civil servants, an accountant, teacher, artist and engineer, besides occupations such as painters, joiners and a warehouseman.
An often overlooked part of the Act’s housing were the 120 or so houses achieved through the reconstruction of older buildings (and another 140 through reused army huts). As well as reflecting a strong conservation sensibility within the city, these ‘stitch in time’ conversions saved many of the city’s aged tenements that would otherwise have disappeared. Today we applaud the reuse of these historic buildings, but Campbell, who noted that ‘health was greater than history’, appears to have viewed the work pragmatically, as cheap fixes to give people improved homes as quickly as possible.
Conscious of the 1919 Act’s failure to house the poor, a few years later a Council memo noted that unless new housing models were developed the:
betterment of the slum dweller is doomed to a further postponement, with consequent ill health, low vitality, loose morals, and criminal habits, which are but part of the penalty we pay for suffering the continuance of slums within the boundary of our city.
Such models would be developed with new housing acts in the 1920s and 1930s, when overcrowding and slum clearance to assist the poorest became a priority, and the private sector were warmly encouraged by the Council to provide general needs housing for the clerks and armourers.
However, subsidies in the next housing Acts of 1923, and especially 1924, were far less generous, with surplus expenses shouldered by the Council. In the majority of schemes densities went up and the quality of design went down. By the early 1920s Campbell was arguing for one-bedroom flats of 485 sq ft, well below accepted minimum standards.
Plain flatted blocks and tenements designed to limited patterns took the place of expensive cottages, which would not be built again in the city until after WW2, notably at The Inch. Until the early 1930s repetitive estates of facsimile designs would replace the varied architecture and sinuous layouts of the 1919 Act.
Today the three main 1919 Act estates remain popular, with many houses privately owned. However, Right to Buy wasn’t a recent phenomenon, as 1919 Act provisions had allowed over a hundred council houses to be sold off before the second world war.
All the estates have suffered to some extent by the scourge of off-street parking, with the removal of boundary hedges and paved-over gardens, sadly and pointlessly eroding their essential greenery and garden suburb character. This really is unforgivable.
Most sash windows have gone, but the masonry walling and steep natural slate roofs largely remain in good order. Although none of the 1919 estates has yet been designated a conservation area, and only one stone crescent at Northfield is listed, (and deservedly so) there is a general appreciation of their quality, and the generosity of their planning. Perhaps, now the estates are a century old there may be some moves to recognise their significance as a part of the city’s twentieth century history ?
Scotland’s 1919 Act housing followed a different approach than England, and within the country, Edinburgh pursued its own bespoke path.
The city provided high quality homes within modified garden city layouts with a variety of handsome designs and materials. In addition, parts of the overcrowded historic city centre were regenerated with the refurbishment of ancient tenements.
By planning a housing mix that included smaller flats within flatted blocks and tenements, instead of simply concentrating on large peripheral estates of land-hungry cottages, the city limited urban sprawl. This was part of a strategy, at least in the Act’s later phases, that saw tenements in the ‘inner belt’ of the city as the solution to house the city’s workers close to workplaces and amenities. Campbell’s approach was followed by his successor EJ MacRae, but where large peripheral estates had to be built, they often floundered.
Above all Campbell believed in prevention rather than cure. His solution to the acute medical problems present in slum housing was to build ‘healthy houses for the people’. This, he maintained, was ‘the best Public Health Insurance’.
The capital suffered unduly from the high costs and labour shortages of the post-war period which sadly limited the numbers of homes built and reconstructed. It also saw a later dip in quality and space standards, that would accelerate throughout the 1920s with cost cutting and policy changes.
However, although it didn’t solve the city’s overcrowding problems, and their depiction as Paradise is undoubtedly a high bar, a hundred years on much of Edinburgh’s 1919 Act housing remains amongst the best social housing the city has ever created.
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)