From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes

DARKNESS, DAMPNESS, DILAPIDATION AND DESPAIR

Pat Rogan, who has just died aged 92 and whose obituary we carried two weeks ago, was a local politician of pivotal significance in the drive to transform Edinburgh’s housing conditions in the mid-twentieth century. He spearheaded a major programme of slum clearance in the central areas of the city and the provision of thousands of new homes which included the building of Wester Hailes.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr Rogan a couple of years ago when carrying out some initial research into the history of Wester Hailes. He was good enough to give me a copy of a speech he had delivered to a housing conference entitled: Rehousing The Capital – The Crusade Against Edinburgh’s Slums, and I’ve included below a number of extracts from it which give a vivid insight into the huge problems and challenges which had to be addressed.

Then 90, he spoke quietly with controlled passion as he recounted stories about the appalling conditions that many in Edinburgh were living in half a century ago – filth, disease, vermin infestation and buildings in such disrepair that, in some cases, walls were literally falling down about people’s ears. Just how bad the state of the slum housing was became starkly apparent to him within a few weeks of being first elected in 1954.

“One very wet and windy night, a deputation, consisting of half a dozen folk from a tenement in the Canongate, arrived at my door. Their roof was looking badly, their houses were almost flooded and what was I going to do about it? I didn’t know what to do, but I accompanied them back to their homes so that I could see the extent of the damage. I found their complaints were not exaggerated. People were huddled in corners trying to avoid the worst of the downpour, while efforts had been made to protect their belongings, especially their bedding. Among those unfortunates was a young mother who that very day had returned from hospital with her new-born babe.”

Trying to find help, he went to the local police station only to discover that there were no emergency services to deal with the problem although complaints about leaking roofs came in every time there was heavy rain. In order to do something to try and alleviate the situation, Pat opened up the yard of the building firm which he managed, found a couple of tarpaulins, took them up onto the roof, and, “with the help of a couple of men from the tenement, spread them over the worst of the rotten slates”. That was all he could do there and then but it was the night Pat Rogan’s crusade began.

Immediately, he set out to find why such conditions were tolerated.

“The first thing I discovered was that the owners had abandoned the property because they were unable to meet the maintenance costs…I also discovered that, throughout Edinburgh, scores of tenements had been deserted and, in some instances, whole streets of properties had been abandoned by their owners. Meantime, City officials were trying, in a half-hearted way, to trace the owners and serve notices regarding their duty to keep their houses wind and watertight. As many of the owners had left the country, the task of finding them was almost impossible, and, as the Corporation was most unlikely to be compensated for repairs, the unfortunate occupiers of the run-down houses were left marooned.”

The Planning Department informed Pat to his disgust that no clearance and rebuilding work was envisaged in his Holyrood ward for at least twenty years. But the situation was about to change because of a near-disaster which received wide publicity and highlighted the highly dangerous state of many of the slums. In Pat’s ward there was an abandoned building in Beaumont Place whose owner had refused to carry out repairs and, instead, had offered it to the Corporation for the price of one penny. Because of this it became known as the “Penny Tenement”. One night in 1959, a large bulge appeared in the gable wall of the Penny Tenement and a few hours later it collapsed. Luckily none of the occupants were killed but Pat was quickly off the mark to follow up the implications:

“In the City Chambers, I asked the Town Clerk who would be responsible if anyone was killed or injured in a similar mishap. A week later, he came back with the legal answer that Edinburgh Corporation would be responsible! This information sent alarm bells ringing, so immediate inspections on all doubtful properties were ordered by the City Engineer. This move brought quick results and, within nine days, 101 families were removed from dangerous homes and re-housed in safer surroundings.”

The programme of slum clearance had been well and truly kickstarted and Pat was in the forefront of it over the coming years.

“All in all, that was a most exciting time. Everyone was caught up in the hectic job of finding new homes. The enthusiasm of our officials was marvellous and previous apathy was cast aside. The urgency of indentifying dangerous buildings went on at a high speed and the Dean of Guild Court, of which I was a member, was in constant demand to visit suspect properties and adjudiacate, where necessary, over disputes regarding their stability.”

However, that was only half the answer. Lots of new homes had to be provided and there was a serious shortage of building land. In 1962, Pat became Chairman of the Housing Committeee and this was the first challenge that he faced.

“In the immediate post-war years, Edinburgh had erected 4,000 prefabs – the largest number of any city in Scotland – and these houses were occupying valuable land, at a very low density. It was estimated that, by removing them, we could build 10,000 houses on the sites made available.”

This policy was not popular in certain quarters, not least amongst the prefab tenants themselves but Pat saw to it that a programme of demolition and rebuilding was swiftly implemented: “the need for houses was great and the reward was a production of houses never before achieved in Edinburgh”.

It was as part of this programme that the present-day Calders was built on the site of an old prefab scheme. But the redevelopment of those sites could  not, on its own, provide the massive amount of housing needed to replace the slums. It was then that Housing Committee turned to available greenfield sites on the periphery to make up the shortfall, the largest of which was Wester Hailes.

In previous articles on this blog we have highlighted the flaws in the system-building solutions utilised by some contractors in order to construct Wester Hailes as quickly as possible. But the tremendous pressures Council leaders such as Pat Rogan were under to get people out of slum conditions with the minimum of delay should not be forgotten. At the time, those methods of construction seemed to offer an infinitely preferable solution to the set-up that Pat inherited when he took office.

“… the whole situation was aggravated by a slow-moving house building programme. The method of tendering for new housing didn’t help matters. At that time, tenders were accepted on an individual trade basis with each contractor, or sub-contractor, responsible for his own work, the overall control or supervision being left to the officers of the Town Council. This involved the Town in arithmetical checking of all these separate tenders before contracts could be awarded. But, worse, at the monthly progress review, we were told repeatedly that delays were caused by certain contractors who, impeding the whole works, would blame lack of labour, shortage of materials, or lack of cooperation from other trades. I was instrumental in having this changed, so that one main contractor was appointed. He was held responsible for all sub-contract work and would be answerable for delays or bad workmanship.”

And, as to the other main charge laid against the Council when Wester Hailes was first built – the almost total lack of facilities – Pat Rogan, for one, had been well aware of the vital importance of providing these and, in his speech, he offered a revealing explanation as to why, despite his position as Chair of the Housing Committee, it never happened.

“In retrospect, many improvements could have been made on the housing crusade of thirty years ago. Unfortunately, wholesale developments were not controlled entirely by the Housing Committee. In preparing a large scheme, land had to be allocated for a school but , time and time again, and years later the land was not used. Requests to include libraries, community centres and recreation facilities were never received from those committees and provision of shops – the responsibility of the Finance Committee – was usually left to the good sense and judgement of the City Architect. This mean that many new housing estates were deprived, at the beginning, of amenities that would have made life more comfortable.”

To me, hearing Pat speak and reading his words was a salutary reminder of the enormity of the problem and all the pressures and constraints he, and those working with him were faced with as they laboured to wipe Edinburgh clean of its terrible slums. To many people nowadays, the conditions in these would be almost unimaginable. They are perhaps best summed up by Pat himself quoting conversations with one of his officials:

“When discussing housing with him, he often spoke to me about one of his predecessors…who defined a slum as “Darkness, Dampness and Dilapidation”. I have not heard a better description, unless one adds the word “Despair”.

– Roy McCrone

Advertisements

Comments are closed.