Sanitary improvements to the urban framework of Edinburgh had got under way in the later 19th century with the work initiated by the Burgh’s first Medical Officer of Health, Sir Henry Duncan Littlejohn. (An outline of his life and work is available to view on this website under ‘Exhibitions’ on the ‘Discover the Records’ tab) Other improvements – including slum clearance – followed in the early 20th century along with the increase in ‘general needs’ housing developments. These were responses to the growing shortages of dwellings within the city.
On the one hand the insanitary state of some of the then housing stock demanded a remedy. On the other, “slum clearance” – quite an emotive title – both in and around the Old Town was even at the time frowned upon by those anxious to preserve the character of ancient Edinburgh. One answer was what had become known as ‘conservative surgery’, an approach much less drastic than wholesale clearance and redevelopment. To a more limited extent, this was the method used with the St Leonard’s schemes of 1927 & 1929.
Located to the south of the Old Town of Edinburgh with a dense concentration of substandard housing, St Leonard’s
quite naturally became a candidate for remedial treatment. A series of wonderfully graphic photographs of the area prior to any improvement work survives within Edinburgh City Archives. These illustrate the magnitude of the problem faced by the Council
The overall approach was designed to move most of the residents out to purpose-built housing in the new schemes on the outskirts of the metropolis leaving the cleared areas to be redeveloped with lower density housing and increased public & private open spaces. The apparent dereliction of parts of the area as shown in the photographs, dictated a two stage approach with the 1st sanitary improvement scheme promoted in 1927 and the 2nd two years later in 1929.
Under stage 1 about 750 dwellings were cleared affecting 2600 residents who were rehoused primarily in the new Prestonfield estate. It involved 15 sites which were located roughly between Nicolson Street and the Pleasance. Stage 2 finally received central government endorsement in 1931 and, because of a building boom and a labour supply problem, took shape over the course of the 1930s. This was a bigger operation than the 1927 phase involving the clearance of 24 sites, 1600 dwellings, displacing 5600 residents and relocating most of them in the new Niddrie Mains estate. Although some of the original tenants were resettled in the area it is thought that this amounted to only around 10-15%.
The photographs, maps of reference drawn up for the redevelopments (see example here) together with the housing committee minutes and files preserved in the Archives give a comprehensive picture of these schemes and their impact on the urban and social character of the capital in the 1930s.