In 1957 three professionals approached the University of Edinburgh’s Social Science Research Centre requesting a study of the North Edinburgh communities in which they worked; they were concerned they were failing. These communities, some of the most deprived in the city, were the product of a programme of social housing which the council had begun in the 1930s. Many of the residents had been relocated from the slum clearances of Leith which was incorporated into the city of Edinburgh by the controversial Boundaries Extension Act 1920.
The Social Environment Research Unit was established and a team of university researchers spent three years interviewing, observing and interacting with local residents and organisations. The project yielded over 400 interviews with residents and non-residents, local events and community meetings.
Cherry Suites and Coal Fires
The audio recordings unfortunately do not survive but the researchers summarised each interview and meeting that took place using a technique known as “Process Recording”. This technique means they included observations about the interviewees’ surroundings and also incidental occurrences. In many instances they also record family background and circumstances. This technique paints an anecdotal picture of the interior and exterior landscape of these new estates: Cherry 3 piece suites, brand new televisions, coal fireplaces, artificial fruit, TB, hire purchase salesmen, enyclopaedia britannicas, Wagon Train and Emergency Ward 10. The legacy of the Second World War looms large, with fractured families, fathers on disability allowance, unable to work, and memories of mothers bringing up children alone and on little income.
The results of the project were collated in “Social Environment in Suburban Edinburgh” by the SERU’s Director Geoffrey Hutton and Edinburgh University’s Professor Tom Burns. But what can these summaries tell us about how residents in these communities felt about their new lives at this point in time, the effect of their local environment including, for many interviewees, the contrast with the environment from which they were forcibly resettled.
One of the most prevalent emotions in the summaries is anxiety, social anxiety in particular. Many of the residents were relocated from slum areas in the city centre and were anxious to hide their past. This in turn lead some of them to isolate themselves from their neighbours.
The increased space, while an obvious improvement on their previous accommodation which often saw whole families sharing one room, residents found themselves with more rooms to furnish and became targets for the persistent hire purchase salesmen peddling the latest modern conveniences or fashionable wares. One interviewee remarked that her young daughter was anxious and frightened going to sleep in a room by herself having been used to sleeping with her siblings. Sleep disturbance was in fact common and is referred to as the cause or symptom of some of the anxiety. The soundproofing in the new houses was bad, perhaps due to the underfloor heating, with residents reporting they could hear the television from several flats above them. Neighbours would use the rubbish chutes at all times of the night, children played in and around the stairs and vans selling groceries and other goods would drive round with their hooters blaring, all contributing to the level of noise often the source of disagreements between neighbours.
The contraceptive pill was not yet widely available and with many interviewees avoiding birth control altogether for religious reasons, married women, already struggling with large families, faced the monthly anxiety of potential pregnancies. One interviewee confided that her GP had recommended birth control to her as a method of alleviating her anxiety and she hoped her husband might agree if there was a health benefit for her. Teenage pregnancy was also an underlying concern for families with older children with rumours rife about the behaviour of pupils at the local senior school.
Many of the residents were re-housed from Leith and with a few exceptions they all remembered the area fondly, despite the appalling living conditions. They felt neighbourly relations were better, there was no competition, no suspicion. Whole families often occupied the same block of flats for generations, there was a shared history. One of the researchers dismisses this as fantasy and believes that in fact neighbours were in and out of each others flats in Leith out of necessity not necessarily out of friendliness. With more space on the new estates and with less shared history there was less need for this sort of dependency and indeed some residents welcomed a rest from the constant social interaction synonymous with tenement living.
However, the new estates were not well served by public transport or local amenities and in an age before mobile phones and widespread car ownership they could be lonely places. Young mothers and the elderly, in particular, reported feeling isolated.
“In a tenement you feel closer to your neighbour. In a house on your own you’re really on your own”
They had been used to being a short walk from shops or relatives and friends but now found themselves cut off from others for most of the day.
One of the interviewers noted the boredom experienced by young mothers stuck at home with young children and nowhere to go, many expressed a desire to go out to work when their children started school. A local health visitor remarked on the widespread use of tranquilisers for bouts of weeping bouts, irritability and sleeplessness.
The summaries allude to a lot of anger directed towards the Corporation. Many of the residents were given no choice about the type of house they were allocated and were often relocated with no assistance or instruction. One family commented that they had been in their house several weeks before they discovered how to work the heating. Many were not given the chance to view their new home prior to moving in. They found themselves with gardens to care for with no appropriate tools or equipment; some of the gardens were not planted or divided up and it was up to the tenants themselves to erect fences. The pram lockers were damp and not fully enclosed allowing in dirt and dust. They had complaints about the workmanship of the housing – badly fitting do0rs, windows rusting, dampness – the lack of local shops, bus shelters, post boxes and safe outside space for children to play. Those residents in newer estates such as Pilton and Muirhouse expressed dismay at the sheer volume and density of the housing, something they hadn’t been made fully aware of prior to moving. One of the residents, who was hoping to move as soon as possible, noted that there was “a distinct air of disgruntlement” throughout the area and referred to the “sheer physical dourness”.
There is, however, also happiness and joy to be found within the interviews and many residents were clearly overjoyed with their new accommodation. For some it was an opportunity to escape the dirt and overcrowding of the city centre. Parents hoped it would be a healthier environment for their children. They had space, indoor bathrooms, privacy for the first time. One of the residents living near the top of one of the high rises is quoted as saying:
“What more could you want, to look out of the front windows onto the Pentland Hills, look out the back windows over the Firth of Forth – beautiful, beautiful”