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Under the auspices of the Edinburgh Citizens’ and Ratepayers’ Union, in the Freemasons’ Hall, George Street, Edinburgh, last night, Judge Brown addressed a crowded meeting on “How the Edinburgh Poor are Housed.’’[1]

Mr Robert Usher presided, and those present were Bailies Grieve, Gibson, Waterston, Mallinson, Councillors Fraser, Wilson, Lockhart, Currie, Judge Macpherson, ex-Bailie Lewis, Mr Paten, the City Chamberlain; Mr John Weston, Police Clerk; and Mr John Nisbet.

Judge Brown said that the earliest efforts made in this city to provide housing accommodation on a large scale were carried out about 50 years ago, between 1851 and 1864, during which time enormous blocks of working men’s dwelling-houses were built at a very considerable outlay. These included such as Ashley Buildings, Chambers Buildings, Prince Albert Buildings, Prospect Street, and a great number of others of a like nature, which afforded excellent accommodation for an enormous number of our population. Despite the efforts made at that time, however, the population was found to be a rapidly increasing one, and a great dearth of this class of property existed, more particularly in the Canongate and districts, where the density of the population was extremely great, and the death-rate in consequence nearly 40 per 1000.


The name of the Rev. Dr  Begg of Newington was much associated with the agitation, as the result of which Lord Provost Chambers’ scheme was adopted.[2] Immediately before the commencement of the operations under this scheme, the death-rate of the city was about  26 per 1000, and, on its completion, it might be roughly returned as from 19 to 20 per 1000.

In 1890 the Housing of the Working Classes Act was passed, and three schemes which the Corporation promoted under the Act had been under Part 1, which provided for the clearing out of unhealthy areas by improvement schemes. Under these three schemes unhealthy areas at Campbell’s Close, the area between Cowgate and High School Yards, dark narrow closes between Cockburn Street and High Street, narrow closes between High Street and Cowgate, Potterrow, between Lawnmarket and North Bank Street, including properties in Gladstone’s Close, Lady Stair’s Close, Baxter’s Close, and Wardrop’s Court, the south side of Lawnmarket, Candlemaker Row, 18 cottage dwellings in Canonmills, an area between Fountainbridge and Tollcross on one side, and Ponton Street and Earl Grey Street. The second scheme embraced areas at Stockbridge[3] and Portobello.



The last scheme which was being carried out by the Corporation under the “Housing of the Working Classes Act” was known as the scheme of 1900, and included two areas—one situated at Paul Street and Square, and the other Greenside.

The area at Simon Square had recently been sold for church purposes. This would involve entire demolition of the rookeries which at present existed upon it, and there could be little doubt that when the prospective buildings were erected, an enormous improvement would be assured in that congested part of the city. It was found that there was no necessity for the erection of new houses on this area, and there was no doubt that the sale to the Rev. Mr Burns was the best thing the Corporation could do in the circumstances. In view of recent developments, the Corporation might have to consider whether they would relieve him of his purchase.

In regard to the Greenside area, this included the sunk flats lying below the shops in the high tenements facing Leith Street. These flats were nearly all dark and damp and unhealthy, and a most wretched  population lived in them. The areas here also included the worst of the properties lying between Leith Street tenements and the Calton Hill. These would be cleared away or reconstructed. The Corporation was still considering the exact procedure which they would there adopt.



The inhabitants had been described as the lowest stratum of society. They seemed to have focussed to this district from all other districts of the city, and the vast majority of cases were a most profligate community. They were, indeed, the type well-known in the lowest reaches of large cities, who could dig and were not ashamed to beg.[4]

They were, therefore, both unable and unwilling to pay rents, and it appeared difficult to formulate any scheme under which they would be housed with the maximum of cleanliness, but the minimum of expense, in such a way as to ensure that the more respectable citizens would in no way suffer in their health from their filthy habits and profligate lives.

It was stated, on the best authority, that the conditions in this district were almost beyond comprehension. To preserve a modicum of cleanliness required the constant supervision of a Sanitary Inspector, and, indeed, this supervision, strict and constant though it be, did not prevent the residenters from mis-using the tumble-down property according to their own inclinations and desires. An absence of fire-wood was speedily rectified by removing a portion of the flooring-boards, and other examples of a like nature might be given, in order to prove the real difficulty which existed in coming to a conclusion as to the best and safest means of housing this class of the community.



The gross outlay up to Whitsunday last (1902) in connection with the whole of the dwelling-house improvement schemes carried out within recent years by the Corporation of Edinburgh amounted to £209,680 10s 2d, from which there fell to be deducted receipts for properties, &c., sold, amounting to £32,515 19s 8d, leaving a net capital expenditure of £177,164 10s 6d.[5]

This, at first sight, seemed sufficiently large, but comparison with the amounts spent by some other local authorities under the same heading, it disappeared into comparative insignificance. For example, the amount of outlay incurred for the provision of working men’s dwellings by the Corporation of Leeds within the past five years exceeded £600,000. The actual sum which Glasgow Corporation had incurred in carrying out improvement schemes was at present not easily calculated, but the extent of it might be gauged from the fact that, only a few months ago a Provisional Order, empowering the expenditure of an additional £150,000, was obtained by the Improvement Trust there.

The highest amount which in any year had been charged was £6716 17s 9d. This was equal to .642d per £ on the rates. The average rate during the 10 years, including this year, had been .446d, or under ½d per £. The estimate for the year was .544d, or slightly over ½d per £. Of the above sum of £177,164 10s 6d, the cost of the erection of new houses and the improvement of old houses, excluding the value of land upon which the houses were built, was up to Whitsunday last £69,390 14s 2d.

The average charge to the ratepayers per annum for the last six years to meet the deficiencies on the dwelling-house improvement accounts (for interest and Sinking Fund contributions) in respect of the cost of new buildings, and the estimated values of sites, after crediting the net account of the rents had been .132d, or one-eighth of a penny per £. The highest charge was for the current year, being .228d, or under ¼d per £. One half of these rates was payable by owners and one half by occupiers.



The net income from rents, after paying all expenses. including maintenance, repairs, factorage, &c., showed a return upon the outlay of about 3 per cent., and the small sum which goes upon the rates was practically only for the contributions towards the liquidation of debt for capital expenditure. The capital expenditure was up till last year paid off at the rate of 1-30th each year, but in the current year and in future would be paid off at the rate of 1-50th each year.

The amount of income received in respect of these properties compared favourably with the returns obtained by other Corporations, such as London and Glasgow. The rental amounted roughly to between ls and ls 7d per week per 1000 cubic feet, according to locality and other circumstances. If they compared this rental with that charged, say, by the Newington Building Company for their property at Causewayside, they found that, in the latter case, the rental was ls 6½d per week per 1000 cubic feet, and was therefore somewhat higher than that charged by the Corporation.


Registered lodging-houses might be taken as the first group. Of these there were 30 existing in the city and they offered accommodation for nearly 3000 persons. Each of these was charged rent of 4d per night, in return for which he or she received comfortable and clean accommodation, and the advantages of residing in the house during the day, with all facilities for cooking, &c., which these prices afforded.

These facilities, in most lodging-houses, were very great, and during the past few years a very marked improvement has most certainly taken place in regard to all of them.

A considerable number of years ago, indeed, in 1879, the Corporation obtained power in a municipal Act to measure all small houses of not more than three apartments, and with cubic capacity not exceeding 2000 feet, and to fix a ticket upon the doors indicating the total capacity of each, and the number of persons which each was capable of accommodating. This work had involved the measurement of nearly 23,000 houses, and the affixing of tickets to over 8000 of them.



In striking contrast to the excellent arrangements, as a result of the strict supervision, which were found existing in registered lodging-houses, there was a type of house, of which nearly 500 exist in the city, chiefly in the lower localities of it, known by the title of “house-let-in-lodgings.”

In the majority of cases these consisted of comparatively old tenements, which were taken at a low rent by a person known as a “house-farmer,” and, by him or her, let out at weekly rents to poor tenants. Hack-renting of the most exaggerated description was the order of the day in connection with these places, and the poor lodgers submitted to the excessive charges made, no doubt actuated by several motives, but possibly chiefly in order to avoid the strict sanitary supervision which is exerted over “registered lodging-houses.’’


During the last 10 years the death-rate in the city had been reduced by between 8 and 9 per 1000. The importance of that might be realised when stated that, roughly speaking, about 3000 fewer deaths occurred in the city last year than occurred in it 10 years ago.

He was aware that the highly satisfactory death-rate which existed last year—indeed, the lowest except one for the last 40 years—had been ascribed to many causes; even bowling greens have come in for share of the credit; but the real cause was the clearing out of slum areas.

In 1892 the mortality in the district was 36 per 1000 previous to the improvement scheme being entered upon ; the last year after completion of this, 25 per 1000; in High School Yards from 53 per 1000 it fell to 18.15 per 1000; in Tron Square from 52 per 1000 to 26 per 1000; in Potterrow from 36 per 1000 to 21 per 1000.

Whereas 10 years ago in Lawnmarket district the infantile death-rate was 161 per 1000, last year it had fallen to 60 per 1000; in High School Yards, whereas it had reached 247 per 1000, it last year amounted  to 39 per 1000; in Tron Square it fell from 200 per 1000 to 35 per 1000; and in Potterrow from 125 per 1000 to 47 per 1000.



Judge Brown illustrated his remarks by means of an exceedingly interesting series of lantern slides from photographs specially taken. At the close of his address an opportunity was given for questions.

Mr Isaac Scott asked the Judge whether he approved of the present system of meddlesome espionage in regard to the domestic arrangements of working people. He referred to the supervision of the Social Union, and declared that no self-respecting man, no matter how poor, would take a house where he might have an interfering lady come in and criticise the washing of the children. (Laughter.)[6] The Judge warmly commended the work of the Social Union, and stated that he had heard a man thank God that his wife had been taught how to cook and how to keep the house clean. (Applause.) Mr Scott: That is not an answer. (Applause.) Judge Brown: I do approve, and I am glad to say that most of my colleagues in the Council are of opinion now that the Union affords them the best results both for the Corporation and for the people who live in the houses. (Applause.) Mr Scott replied that he could prove that there was considerable displeasure among the people. The lecturer said that he believed what Mr Scott said, but if they were to do any good amongst a certain class they must really deal with an iron hand.

Mr Queen characterised the housing schemes as an extravagant misuse of the ratepayers’ money, and declared that the money had been devoted, not  to solving the health problem, but to compensating handsomely slum proprietors. The committee did not understand the housing question. Was it not a public health question, and should they not have proceeded under the Public Health Act instead of under the Housing Act? Why not compel the proprietor to put his property into good order? (Applause.) The lecturer explained that all they could do till a year ago was to condemn the property. They could not compel the landlord. Queen: You could. (Some disorder.) Judge Brown: I beg your pardon, Mr Queen, you could not; you could condemn the property. It was closed and left alone. Mr Queen: Mr Chairman, Mr Brown does not know the law. (Laughter and applause.) Mr Connell: I happen to be a lawyer, and I confirm Mr Brown. (Hear, hear, and applause.) Mr Queen: Mr Chairman, lawyers would confirm anything. (Loud laughter.)


Mr Queen proceeded to ask whether the increased rent had anything to do with the failure of many of the dispossessed tenants to take the new houses, and Mr Brown answered that he had no doubt that in some cases that was so. but not in every case by any means. The increased rent, moreover, meant increased accommodation and improved sanitary arrangements.

A gentleman in the audience requested Mr Brown to withdraw the expression that the working classes were all dirty, and Mr Brown with some earnestness denied that he had employed an expression capable of such a meaning. He was once a working man, and had too great a regard for working men. (Applause.)

In answer to another questioner, be said that so far as he knew, the houses without plaster had been a success, although he had heard of complaints. Asked whether tradesmen receiving more than 25s a week inhabited any of the Corporation houses, Mr Brown told the story of a drunken tradesman who had been reclaimed by moving into one of these houses, and who had been induced to give his wife all his wages instead of the 15s which she used to regard herself fortunate if she received. That man, he believed, went out with a satin hat and a white shirt, and he was not going to be the one to say that he must remove because he was a sober man. It might be the right thing, but he was not going to take the responsibility of saying it. It had been the salvation of that man. (Applause.)

Votes of thanks closed the proceedings, which had been of a prolonged nature.

Edinburgh Evening News, 1 April 1903

[1] For Brown’s credentials, see S (6.11.09).

[2] On Begg see DNB, last accessed 12.12.20.

[3] Bedford Square.

[4] One reading of the DSL suggests ‘could dig’ might have meant were intelligent, last accessed 12.12.20.

[5] A sum equivalent to about £14M today.

[6] The Rev. David Watson founded the interdenominational Scottish Christian Social Union in 1900. He wrote, ‘What do we mean by social advance? We mean the advance of the Kingdom of God in its glorious entirety—not merely improving physical conditions, social betterment, righteousness, happiness. The Kingdom of God has often been preached exclusively as a spiritual ideal. In recent days it has been frequently preached as a social ideal. In reality it is both.’ David Watson (1911) Social Advance: Its Meaning, Method and Goal (London: Hodder & Stoughton), p. 24.

Map: Ordnance Survey, 1896; reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.