Sir Henry Duncan Littlejohn: ‘The Report’ 1865
With the meagre resources made available to him by the Town Council – just one clerk to assist – Littlejohn undertook his groundbreaking factual research into both death rates and disease within the burgh. This work encapsulated in his ‘Report on the Sanitary Conditions of Edinburgh’ – since described as a “classic in the literature of public health” – was completed by 1865.
Littlejohn undertook his research on the basis of 19 sanitary districts of Edinburgh which he, himself had defined and delineated. After careful fact-gathering and analysis, he was in no doubt about the need for fundamental changes to many aspects of life in the Old Town: “Our poor are so lodged, that to inhale the atmosphere in their houses is enough to produce a lethargic depression, to escape from which is but to be exposed to the temptations of the High Street and the Cowgate.”
A single comparison serves to highlight the accumulated sanitary problems of the Old Town. Mortality rates in its 5 sanitary districts were at best (St Giles) 28.8 per 1000 and at worst (Abbey) 37.1 per 1000. By contrast the Upper New Town had a rate of only 17.38 per 1000 and the Lower, 15.47 per 1000.
His recommendations for improvements fell into two distinct divisions: those requiring municipal authority interventions; and those necessitating changes to the habitual practices of the Burgh’s inhabitants. Within the first category he included:
- decreasing overcrowding in dwelling-houses by limiting the numbers of residents in apartments
- lowering the height of tenement houses
- demolishing ruinous buildings
- house improvement including the introduction of gas and water and routine cleansing of common stairs
- opening up the worst localities by creating new streets at right-angles to ease cleaning and create space for new accommodation for the poor
His report, a factual and comprehensive study, presented to the Town Council’s Lord Provost’s Committee, in 1865 bore fruit within a couple of years. Lord Provost William Chambers (1865-1869) was clearly moved to act upon Littlejohn’s work and was the driving force behind the 1867 City Improvement Act, Edinburgh’s slum clearance scheme. The subsequent work of opening up the old closes and creating 10 new streets went ahead at a cost of £285,000. As a noted academic has recently put it, “The anxiety of the directionless 1850s was replaced by detailed information in the 1860s which reassured the civic elite in the 1870s”. (Richard Rodger, The Transformation of Edinburgh [Cambridge University Press, 2001] p.441)