A new landscape?

I’ve just moved to Leith, in Edinburgh, and have become intrigued with the history of the area and of my tenement building in particular, so I’ve begun to do little internet research to see what I can find out. I don’t consider myself an historian (my background is in archaeology, and specifically in prehistoric archaeology), but I do love looking at old maps and searching out information about places that I know. For me the fascination is in discovering gems of information about familiar places, imagining what they may have been like in the past and discovering the depth of history that exists within the places we see and experience everyday, whether that is prehistoric activity or more recent events. We don’t often think about the fact that our familiar streets and landscapes have enormous chronological depth, but they do. Our daily landscapes are made up of layers upon layers of human history, experience and activity. They did not just appear fully formed, but instead have been created, modified and remade countless times – urban and rural alike. This is not just a simple case of one layer of activity laid directly upon an earlier layer, but later activity making use of, removing parts of and remodelling elements of earlier landscapes and activities. Picking apart the different elements of the past is one of the things that makes the study of the past so fascinating.

A typical row of Leith tenements. This street is on the Leith side of the old divide between Edinburgh and Leith – Pilrig church at the end of the street stands on the boundary. These tenements are of a similar date and appearence to the one discussed in this post.

I have always lived in one city or another, and sometimes like to think about what familiar streets may have been like before taken into the urban landscape. The fields and hills and small topographical features, so familiar to those who lived and worked there, now gone forever. Before formal land ownership, the landscape of trees and vegetation known by communities, perhaps with small patches of cultivated ground scattered through a wooded landscape. The untamed lands experienced by hunter gatherers, who would have known the best places to hunt deer and find wild seeds and berries. Altogether a very different landscape to the one that I know today, but nevertheless modified and influenced by generations of human activity even before being turned into a landscape of stone and tarmac. And what of the first generation of people who lived in what would have been a newly urbanised part of the country, those who lived in my tenement building, in my flat? What would it have been like for them? How would their experience have differed from mine?

If we turn to my tenement building, a quick look at the historic maps of this area (on the National Library of Scotland’s website) indicates it was constructed somewhere around 1910. I’m guessing it would have housed workers and their families employed in the many industries in this area. The mapping evidence suggests that the street was laid out sometime in the early 1890s, before my tenement building was constructed, linking Leith Walk and Easter Road. Prior to that this, the area comprised gardens and fields lying between the city of Edinburgh and Leith. The tenement buildings, then, must have grown up alongside it over a period of perhaps 20 years. The urban landscape, therefore, would have been very different for those first urbanised inhabitants and it would have been a changing landscape – from an open landscape of gardens and fields, to a roadway through open fields with a few tenement buildings at the western end (the tenements at the west end of the street were laid out first), with construction starting at the western end and gradually infilling (though apparently not sequentially from west to east) until the entire street was lined with buildings, apart from a park laid out as a square in the middle on the northern side and an area of industry on the southern side. This was an era of few (or no?) cars, of trams and heavy industry. The air of Leith would have been filled with the smoke and dirt of the extensive manufacturing industries in this area, and the soundscape filled too with the clatter of the industries and of human traffic, rather than the motorised transport that I hear today. Therefore, although the streetscape may have been similar, it was a very different place from the one that I know today.

Returning to my tenement, the building itself is of solid sandstone construction. Having recently moved from a flat in a 1970’s building, it is striking how much more solid this early 1900 building is. This is reinforced by the fact the stairs of the building are built on large steel girders embossed with the name Glengarnock Steel. There’s no doubt that this building was made to last! This name has intrigued me since I moved here. A quick internet search identifies Glengarnock as a village in North Ayrshire, near the west coast of Scotland, the nearby steelworks taking its name from this village. The steelworks themselves were founded (under a different name) in 1840 and finally closed in the 1980s. You can see some fascinating images, taken in 1978, of the semi-derelict steel works on the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland’s website. When the photographs were taken the steelworks were still in operation, but at a much lower capacity with only around 200 people employed there. So it seems that a west coast factory supplied the massive steel girders that were used in the construction of this building. Coming from the west of Scotland, this is a highly satisfying connection(!), and reminds us of the wider connections that Leith and Edinburgh had to the rest of the country, if not to the rest of the world.

Glengarnock steel

Another noteworthy detail in my building is the one old bell pull that survives outside one of the flats on the first floor. All the rest in the building have been removed, but this one remains, a reminder of the fixtures that have been lost over the years. It is not unusual to see the survival of rows of old door bells (no longer in use – the modern-day buzzer equivalents mounted on the nearby wall), with their accompanying name plates outside the main entrances of some Edinburgh tenements. However, in my building, it appears that the door bells were mounted inside the building by the door into each flat. The one on the second floor is the last, lonely remnant.

And what of those who lived there? I’ve searched the 1915 valuation rolls on Scotland’s People website (http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk), and this tells me that the building was owned by G&R Cousins, 14 Waverly Place, Edinburgh, per L.S. Gumley and Davidson, 89 Leith Walk, Leith. Yearly rental values of the twelve flats in the building vary from £12 to £12.9s (I wonder how that compares to today’s rent?). The occupations of those living here include a coppersmith, a groom, engineer, grocer, printer, tramway servant, marine stoker, postman, tailor, spinster and widow (I particularly like the way in which spinster and widow could be occupations at this date; I wonder how these two women supported themselves). Quite a varied list of employment. The valuation rolls, though, only list the head of the household, not all of those living in a property, so I also searched the 1911 census and found my tenement building here. Unfortunately it does not give flat numbers, but if I assume that the individual flats in the building are listed sequentially, then my flat was occupied by Charles Archer, his wife Margaret and their three children – 13 year old Alice, 5 year old Douglas and 2 year old Charles Junior (They must have moved away by 1915 as the valuation roll names the head of the household as an Alexander Masson. Many of the other names in the building change between 1911 and 1914, suggesting a relatively transient population). The bigger age gap between Alice and Douglas may be explained by the fact the census tells us that Charles and Margaret have had five children, but only three of them are still alive at the time of the census in 1911. Something not uncommon in the early 1900s. Charles is a railway clerk, originally from Dundee, all the rest of the family were born in or around Edinburgh. Considering that I live in a small one bedroom flat, it must have been quite crowded, and this family are not alone in this, with some similar sized families in the same building. What a change from today, where all the flats are occupied by either single folk or couples, there are no children living in the building and, as far as I can tell, more than half of the flats are owned by those who live within them. So it is not just the physical landscape of this street that has changed, the personal and social landscape has altered too.

Extract of the 1911 census

Extract of the 1911 census

It is interesting to think of Charles, Margaret and their three children living in my flat, and to consider how different life must have been for them. There is much remaining that would have been familiar to them – the outside view across to another block of tenements must be much the same, probably the general layout of the flat, the same walls (though repainted many times in the intervening 100 years) – but much has been altered too. The fireplaces, for example, have been covered over and replaced by central heating, though I’m made aware of their presence on a windy day when I can hear the wind whistling down them, behind the modern blocking; a reminder of the chronological depth to my small, simple flat. I wonder what became of Charles and Margaret, where they moved to after the 1911 census and what happened to their children. Did they all survive to adulthood? Was the move away from this tenement to a larger, more spacious place? I guess I will never know, but I’m pleased to have discovered the names of some of those with whom I share this flat, separated by the distance of over 100 years. For we do share our space with the memories and lived experiences of those who came before. We are just the next in a long line of generations who have lived within and experienced this landscape. It is humbling to remember that and to remind ourselves of the depth of human history that we stand upon.

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