Scotland's History: Tenement Housing, Carnegie Street, Edinburgh

By the mid-nineteenth century Scotland’s towns and cities were facing a housing crisis. The sudden growth of industrialisation drew in thousands of migrants from the countryside and Ireland looking for work at an uncomfortable rate; between the years 1801 and 1841, for example, the population of Glasgow rose from 77,000 to 275,000 and Dundee from 26,000 to 60,000. Where towns and cities could not provide adequate housing for their new populations, people were forced to live together in cramped tenements. Evidence of this can be found in the valuation rolls, which list the owners, tenants and occupiers of buildings across Scotland.

The sudden rise in population led to severe overcrowding and poor sanitation which spread disease. Census returns from 1861 revealed that 71% of Scottish homes consisted of two rooms or fewer, and housed 64% of the population. A study of Edinburgh in 1862 found that in the areas of the Canongate, Tron, St Giles and the Grassmarket some 1,530 people lived in single homes, which each housed between 6 and 15 people. Nationally the average was five people to one single room.

Whilst the census records list everyone living in a property on one specific day every ten years, the valuation rolls also provide insights into social aspects of housing. Furthermore, they may reveal more information than the Post Office Directories, the only other annual listing of householders.

Take for example, no 21 Carnegie Street, part of a tenement on Edinburgh’s Southside, which was developed in the early nineteenth century. The Post Office Directory for 1895-6 lists just one person at no 21, Mrs Alexander, but the valuation rolls tell a different story, listing the names of no fewer than 27 other inhabitants. These individuals were mostly skilled workers, including two painters, four masons, four cooks and a seamstress. A typefounder and a maltman represent the then extensive printing and brewing industries in the capital. Also at no 21 were charwomen and labourers. Almost all of them rented their flats, where they lived in cramped and unhealthy conditions. The 1891 census reveals that the 69 adults and 47 children on the stair mostly lived in flats that only had two rooms with one or more windows. A few households only had one room with a window: the so-called ‘single-ends’, in which a whole family lived in one room that served as kitchen, bedroom and living space.

Landlords who lived elsewhere were a common feature of Scottish tenements. Mrs Christina Alexander was perhaps the only resident owner in the tenement. She occupied one flat with two windows, and rented another flat to Alexander Hailstones, a watchman. In 1891 she had lost her husband James Walker, an attendant at the Museum of Science and Art in Chambers Street, and she died in 1898.

The rolls also help resolve the discrepancy between the 1891 census, which lists several householders at no 18 Carnegie Street, and the 1901 census, when the same people are at no 21. This seems to have happened because the tenement was renumbered sometime between 1891 and 1895 in connection with the construction of the Deaconess Hospital on the north side of the street in 1894. Carnegie Street was heavily redeveloped in the 1960s.

For further information about the valuation rolls mentioned in this article, please see our guide on valuation rolls.

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