This is the second part of the text of a speech given by former city councillor Pat Rogan to a housing conference in the 1970s in which he recounts his battles to transform Edinburgh’s housing conditions.
In the first part, he explained how he came to be elected a councillor; his shock and dismay at discovering the true extent of the squalor and distress of slum life; and the reasons for the proliferation of these slums in the centre of the city.
In the following section, he tells of the struggles people faced to cope with the slum conditions; the lengths they went to in order to try and find a better home; and his dealings with Council officials – some sympathetic, some not.
(N.B. To fully appreciate one of the stories, you have to know that No! No! Nanette was a popular musical comedy film of the 1940s.)
…But there was one loophole in the regulations, and it was exploited deliberately, but legally. At that time, if one was foolish ehough to find a room and kitchen, or a single room, no matter how cramped and uncomfortable, and without proper facilities, one was then considered to be housed, in the view of the Council, and then had to wait until the house collapsed or was chosen as being unfit for human habitation. On the other hand, if one was clever, and instead of house-hunting, took refuge with one’s parents, or found furnished accommodation, then one was regarded as “homeless”, and shot to the top of the queue, although the living conditions were much superior to those enjoyed by the slum dwellers. This anomaly I placed repeatedly before the Finance Committee, but it took a long time before they appreciated the unfairness of the letting system, and amended the regulations, to give those living in unfit houses a better share of the new homes being built.
Private house-building was restricted because vital materials were earmarked for municipal work, the only exceptions being the conversion of large houses into flats, but here too I suspected valuable materials were diverted from local-authority schemes.
But 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 trades 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. This move proved worthwhile, but meant the removal of contractors who were not big enough to assume control. A list of subcontractors had to be submitted and approved, before the main contractor could employ them.
At that time, the housing section of our Health Department was controlled by a man named James Robertson,who for many years had worked in that department, and had a tremendous knowledge of Edinburgh’s slums. Pre-war, he had supervised many slum-clearance schemes, but his efforts were now blunted until such time as the removal of unfit houses could be renewed. But he proved himself useful in other directions, especially when measuring houses where valuable points could be gained by the occupants for overcrowding. Where he felt the need was urgent, and a family should be rehoused as soon as possible, his measuring tape would shrink, and the dimensions he submitted would ensure the early removal of a suffering family. I called on his help regularly when severe cases of overcrowding were brought to my attention, and he responded magnificently. When discussing housing with him, he often spoke to me about one of his predecessors, a Mr Allan Ritchie, who defined a slum as “Darkness, Dampness and Dilapidation”. I have not heard a better description, unless one adds the word “Despair”.
The slums of the ‘fifties and ‘sixties, which had been festering from pre-war days, were truly hideous, and, in addition to the general discomfort, the families who occupied them had to contend with infestations of vermin, as well as regular outbreaks of dysentery. A pamphlet was issued by our Health Department, advising slum-dwellers how to control dysentery by the use of disinfectants, which included wiping down the toilet cistern chain after use. One bewildered woman, whose brass chain had long since gone, asked me, “How do you disinfect a piece of string?” “Burn it!” I replied.
Every Thursday night, I and my two ward colleagues held a surgery when around fifty people would turn up, the majority to plead for help in getting a house, or to ask us to find out the latest position of the house waiting list. It was always the womenfolk who turned up at these meetings. In many years as a councillor, I don’t think I met any more than a dozen men seeking help with a housing problem. The stories from these anxious wives and mothers were desperate and heart-rending, and the more often I heard their sad tales, my frustration and anger rose accordingly.
As an example of their desperation, a young woman came to see me one evening, accompanied by a toddler, and obviously she was expecting another child. She explained that she lived in a single room on the top flat of a run-down tenement, and, because of the badly designed staircase, she had difficulty in moving her pram up and down the steps. But that day she had been in Tron Square (a small housing scheme off the High Street, built after the First World War), when she noticed a certain house with boarded windows. If I could arrange to have the windows repaired, she would undertake, free of charge, the cleaning of the house, before accepting the tenancy. Her offer – and she was aware of the circumstances – left me speechless, because the house in question had been the scene of a brutal double murder about a year previously. A man named Robertson had just been released from jail, and returned to the house in Tron Square, where he met his wife and two teenage children. Almost immediately he attacked, with a knife, his wife, and killed her. His young son, trying to escape through the window, was also killed, but fortunately his daughter, although injured, managed to escape. Robertson was tried at the High Court in Edinburgh and, on the 23rd of June, 1954, he was hanged at Saughton Prison. He was the last person in Edinburgh to be executed. I took the woman’s case to our house-letting chief. He too was astounded at her courage had the house repaired, cleaned and painted, and granted her the tenancy.
Not all house-letting officials were so understanding. One such was a fellow called Connette, and he, like an army quartermaster, acted as if he owned the houses. One could approach him on behalf of a homeless family, and tell him the most harrowing tale, the kind of story that would bring tears to the eyes of a traffic warden, but his reply would invariably be, “No, sorry, councillor, but the answer is no, no.” Eventually he became known as “No! No! Connette”. As an answer to obstinate officials, a special sub-committee of three senior councillors was set up, whereby councillors could plead their case when they were dissatisfied by an official’s ruling. I took full advantage of this concession, and appeared regularly before this sub-committee…
Copyright: Pat Rogan