Abbeyhill – and good Colonialism

Funky art in funky nearby cafe Art and Vintage

Last month we went to Abbeyhill, in the sunshine, to an arts weekend. Not in itself the most touristy of areas of the city, it nevertheless hosts a thriving artistic community year-round. There are funky shops and cafes cheek by jowl with pubs servicing thirsty Hibs fans en route to nearby Easter Road.

And, once a year, the Abbeyhill Colonies hold an open house festival, with householders offering a range of arts and crafts for sale in their own front gardens.

There are several sets of ‘colonies’ in Edinburgh. They came from the pressing need to improve housing conditions for the working classes in the 19th century: between 1811 and 1881, the city’s population more than doubled from 103,143 to 222,059. With the middle classes escaping to the fast-expanding New Town to the north, and the new southern suburbs like Newington, Marchmont and Morningside to the south, the Old Town – today a picturesque mad dream of mediaeval architecture and coffee shops – had become a sprawling, overcrowded and insanitary place to stay. Cholera and other nasty diseases were rife.

The source I’m drawing the stats and other info from, by the way – Edinburgh Council’s designation document of the Colonies as Conservation Areas – also makes mention of the structural problems the tall tenements you see today in the Old Town suffered from. In 1861, one of them, a 17th-century building, collapsed, with one survivor being a young lad called Joseph McIvor, who was heard by rescuers from beneath the rubble, shouting, ‘Heave awa’ lads, I’m no deid yet!’ The replacement building was named ‘The Heave Awa’ Hoose’ in his honour. (You can go down that particular rabbit hole here).

Anyhoo. The Colonies were devised as a type of building that would give the occupants their own front door and a garden each, with one or two bedrooms, a parlour, a kitchen, and a separate internal toilet (or cludgie, to use the proper Scottish term). Simple as they sound, accommodation of that kind was way ahead of what many working families had to live in at that time.

Building them as double flats with front doors on opposite sides gave them their distinctive appearance – with an external stair on one side of each street only.

In 1861, the Edinburgh Co-operative Building Company Limited was formed, in the context of a strike over working hours which gave the tradesmen time and inclination to look into ways to do things for themselves. Founded by stonemasons but with input from other trades, the limited liability company soon flourished, selling shares against the prospect of the houses being sold or rented to invest in more housing and give dividends to its shareholders – in other words, a capitalist mechanism being used for co-operative ends.

An old Co-op mangle in one of the Abbeyhill Colony gardens. Note the beehive motif

The distinctive design of the houses had several cost-saving advantages: terracing them saved money on foundations and roofs, while the external stairs to the upper flats were easier and cheaper to build.

Best known of the Edinburgh Colonies are probably those in Stockbridge, off Glenogle Road. However, there are ten surviving examples of these developments scattered about the city. The better living conditions provided by the accommodation allowed the Company to boast, in 1885, that the ‘death rate’ was a third lower in their houses than elsewhere.

Nowadays the good workmanship and unique character of these properties makes them attractive to all sorts of people. And the name ‘Colony’? Opinions vary, but one explanation is they replicated colonies of social insects like bees or ants.

Rising land prices and unsuccessful developments eventually sent the Edinburgh Co-operative Building Company into decline, but its buildings remain as a testament to a time when mutual associations of workers were able to build themselves a better existence. Maybe it’s an idea we could learn from in the modern age.




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