A brief history of the Colonies

The group of stone terraced houses known as The Colonies of Stockbridge was the first of several ‘colonies’ to be built in Edinburgh during the second half of the nineteenth century. All but one of these colonies were built by the same company – The Edinburgh Co-operative Building Company – which was formed in 1861. The other ‘colonies’ are to be found at Dalry Road, Abbeyhill, North Fort Street, Restalrig Road, Slateford Road and Shaftesbury Park. (To read more about all of them, see the list of books at the end of this article.)

A close look at the Stockbridge Colonies houses reveals a number of clues relating to their history. For example, the names of six of the terraces tell us about some of the people who helped to promote, found or run the Edinburgh Co-operative Building Company (ECBC). A good place to start is Reid Terrace, the first of the terraces to be built by the Company, and named in honour of Hugh Gilzean Reid – a newspaper editor who gave the help and encouragement needed to the group of stonemasons who went on to form the ECBC.

Among those who were involved in running the ECBC in its early days were Daniel Kemp (governor of the city poor house), David Bell (joiner), James Collins (stonemason), David Rintoul (stonemason) and James Colville (stonemason and first manager of the ECBC). All four of them have terraces named after them, as does Hugh Miller, the celebrated stonemason, geologist, journalist and champion of the cause for housing reform in the city. Miller died before the ECBC was formed, but his contribution to the cause was recognised by his fellow tradesmen when they named the second terrace in his honour.

Although his name does not appear on any of the terraces, the Reverend James Begg was a key figure in the story of the houses. He played a central role in the cause for housing reform, and in promoting the ECBC, and it was he who laid the foundation stone for the first house to be built at Reid Terrace. Begg, Reid and Miller were all members of the Free Church and believed strongly that only if people could live in decent housing could they also live morally and physically healthy lives.

Collins Place was the fifth terrace to be built, and the plaque high on the gable end bears the name Glenogle Park, which was chosen for the ‘colony’ by the ECBC directors. The same name (Glenogle) was given to the main road (originally called Water Lane), and to the house and two terraces at the east end. It may have been chosen as a gesture of goodwill to the Haig family, whose land the houses were built on, and who had an estate called Glenogle in Forfarshire. Also on Collins place is a carved head (identity not known), and a plaque showing symbols of the stonemason’s trade.

Above the upper and lower gable-end windows on Kemp, Avondale, Teviotdale, Balmoral and Dunrobin Places are beautifully carved stone plaques depicting the tools of various trades, such as decorator, plasterer, joiner, smith, carter, plumber and slater. Not only were men of these trades employed by the ECBC, they were also represented among its shareholders and first residents.

What these trade plaques signify is the pride the Company took in the fact that it was a worker co-operative. It was founded on the principle that those who worked for the Company would also own shares in it, and any dividend they received on the shares could be put towards the cost of buying one of the houses.

Shares in the ECBC cost £1 each, and the houses cost between £100 and £130 to buy, depending on whether they were low or high doors. Potential buyers were asked to put down £5 deposit for a house, and Property Investment companies were persuaded to lend the balance of £95-£125 on security of the title deeds. This sum could be paid off in instalments over 15-20 years, thus making it possible for anyone with a modest but regular income to afford to buy a house. In fact, some houses were bought then let to others, but most of the buyers and tenants were people who worked in various branches of the building trades, or other manual occupations.

One other clue to the operations of the ECBC can be seen on the wall of 17 Dunrobin Place. The plaque here tells us that the building of Glenogle Park took from 1861-1911. In fact, most of the houses were built by the 1870s but it wasn’t until the turn of the century that Dunrobin, Balmoral and Teviotdale Places could be completed at the north end since the land was originally occupied by the ECBC’s building yard. This yard was where the stonemason and joinery work was done, and where the manager had an office and a stable for his horse. By the time the yard was demolished and the three terraces completed, planning regulations required bathrooms to be included in the houses, so they differ from the earlier houses, which had only a WC.

At Bridge Place shops were built on the ground floor to provide goods and services for the local Colonies residents, and faded signs for some of these can still be seen on the walls above where the shop windows would have been.  Well into the 1980s, the building at the road end of Hugh Miller Place was used as a shop which sold a range of grocery products.

In the decade or so after The Colonies were built, as many as 2000 people lived there , such was the size of the families at that time – many with over four children and two adults, and some with as many as eight. In the early years, the houses were all lit by gas, as were the street lights, and cooking and heating of water was done on an iron range in the kitchen. The double sinks could be used for washing people as well as clothes, and coal was kept either under the external stair, in a coal cupboard off the hall, or under the kitchen floor (in the lower houses).

Older Colonies residents can still recall the days when the streets were full of children, and when rival groups from either end built and lit bonfires. At the end of the Second World War, parties were held in some streets in celebration, and for many years a garden fete was held on the drying green beside Reid Terrace. The tradition of holding local events continues to this day, with local quizzes, a garden competitions, street sales, carol singing and river clean up days being fixed features of the annual Colonies calendar.

The houses began as an experiment, the success of which far exceeded anything the pioneer builders could have dreamt of. The ‘colonies’ they built at Stockbridge and elsewhere in Leith and Edinburgh housed over 7000 people at one time, and all of them still stand today, some of them (at Stockbridge and Dalry) now being  ‘listed’ (i.e. specially protected buildings of architectural or historic interest).

Written by Rose Pipes (Colonies resident)

Further reading (none of the books are in print, but all are available from the Edinburgh Room of the Central Library, and Stockbridge Library)

The Colonies of Stockbridge, by Rosemary Pipes (1984, second edition 1998)
Housing the People, by Richard Rogers (1999)
No Whistling on a Sunday, compiled by the Stockbridge Colonies Oral History Group (1993, revised 1999)
Happy Homes for Working Men: and how to get them, by The Reverend Dr James Begg (1866, second edition 1872)
Housing the People: an example in cooperation, by Hugh Gilzean Reid (1894).

Edinburgh’s Colonies housing the workers by Richard Rodger (2011)