In the third part of Rehousing The Capital, Pat Rogan shares more stories about slum life in the Edinburgh of the 1950s, how he publicised the atrocious conditions to which people were subjected and, in particular, how the emblematic Penny Tenement disaster kick-started a major programme of slum clearance.
…While answering queries from constituents, I was often asked to visit families where the parents were illiterate, but were anxious to lodge a housing application form. I would procure a form, fill it in for them, and then would deal with any subsequent correspondence; so their privacy was respected. It was my custom to visit these constituents on a Sunday morning, so that I could explain matters to them directly. One Sunday, while going my rounds, I entered a fairly dark tenement, and, following my usual custom, I knocked on the door of the house I was visiting, shouted my name, turned the handle (no locked doors in these properties) and entered. Instead of meeting the family I wanted to see, there were three men in the house, standing around a table covered with bottles of whisky and cartons of cigarettes. I then remembered I had heard, earlier that morning, that a local pub had been “turned over” the previous night. Before I had the chance to say anything, one of the men said, “Och, it’s only Pat!” Another said “Do you want a bottle of whisky?” I asked about the family I had called to see, and were informed they were in another house upstairs. Fifteen minutes later, when I came downstairs, the loot, and the culprits, had gone!
In my efforts to speed up slum clearance, I approached our Planning Department, and to my disgust learned that no action in Holyrood Ward, my ward, was contemplated within the next twenty years. Then one night, when I was having a chat with a reporter from one of our two local papers, I recounted to him some of the miseries endured by my slum-dwelling constituents. He was interested, and very soon stories began to appear about the hidden face of Edinburgh, and the citizens who were compelled to live in repulsive conditions. Before long, the rival Edinburgh paper approached me, and from then on, I supplied both papers with horror stories that highlighted the obscenity of our slums. The publicity embarrassed the ruling party in the Council, and culminated in a “Panorama” programme, revealing the slums, which featured a little girl talking about the mice that ran over her feet when she was preparing for bed. Festival-conscious Edinburgh was outraged, and plans were made to provide more money for the housing rate fund contributions, and so accelerate the housing drive. This assistance was very welcome, but not enough!
However, help was on the way, and it arrived in a most peculiar fashion. I mentioned earlier that there were many properties in Edinburgh that had been abandoned by their owners. Such was a tenement located in Beaumont Place, within my ward; its owner, a Mr Rosie, refused to carry out repairs, and, when pressed to do so, offered the tenement to the Town Council for the sum of one penny. Thereafter the property became known as the “Penny Tenement”. One night, towards the end of 1959, I was called out to the Penny Tenement because the occupiers were alarmed about a bulge which had appeared in a gable wall. As the hour was late, I advised them to remove themselves and their belongings towards the middle of their houses, and I would inform the City Engineer first thing in the morning. Around four o’clock in the morning, I received a call (from a priest who was returning from a sick call) that the gable had collapsed. Fortunately, the injured were few, but the tenement had to be evacuated, and temporary accommodation provided. This near-disaster received wide publicity, and again focused attention on Edinburgh’s slums. I may tell you that, at that time, a rather shocking story went the rounds in Edinburgh that I was seen running away from that tenement with a pick and shovel!
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. During this rapid movement of families, we unearthed many social tragedies that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. In the Dalrymple Place area, we found two young women and their babies living in a cellar, their bedding being mattresses on the stone floor. They earned a living by street-walking, each mother taking it in turn to look after the babies while the other one went to work. An old man was found living in a house that had been closed some time previously. He was unable to fend for himself, and he depended on the help of another old man to keep him supplied with food, and an odd bottle of beer.
As a result of this movement, debt collectors were given a sore time. At first the Corporation supplied the collectors with the new addresses of the debtors, but this was soon stopped, no doubt much to the delight of many families. Furniture removals were undertaken by the Town, vans and lorries from the Cleansing Department being pressed into service. The Lord Provost, as with all his predecessors, had his own benevolent fund, built up over the years to a sizeable sum. Because of the sudden upheaval to their lives, a number of near-destitute people came to me for help, and the Lord Provost responded most generously.
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 identifying 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 ajudicate when necessary over disputes regarding their stability…
Copyright: Pat Rogan