A Tenement with a View

As a child I was always drawn to the set of photographs taken from the balcony of my great-grandparents’ tenement flat in Edinburgh’s Dumbieykes area. Through these images I saw my grandmother morph from a gangly 1920s teenager into a young married woman in the 1930s and then as a mother in the 1940s. Fashion moved on over the decades, but the solid-looking wrought-iron balcony was a constant. I have been told that the views from the flat over Holyrood Park were spectacular, although unfortunately no-one in the family thought to photograph them. My mother credits the fresh air blowing in from Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags for the Neilsons’ longevity – in addition to my great-grandmother’s plain and wholesome Scottish cooking. Even if they did not take advantage of the outdoor space in quite the same way we would today, the family must have appreciated being able to step out onto the balcony on a sunny morning, or to simply have a place to hang up damp laundry or wet overcoats.

My Grandparents on the Dumbiedykes Balcony, c1930

My mother assures me that the ironwork on the balcony was painted dark green, but by the time I was born, the balcony, the flat, the street and in fact the whole area had been demolished. As an article in the Scotsman newspaper on ‘Lost Edinburgh’ (here) points out: By the 1970s the Dumbiedykes of old was all but wiped from the map, with stone and slate switched for concrete and steel. Sadly, a centuries-old community was displaced in the process. Like many so-called ‘slum clearances’ throughout the country in the post-war period, the replacement housing proved to have its own issues as the new high-rise estate was built using continental designs that were not robust enough for Scottish weather. It is also said that the workmen struggled to work with these ‘alien’ designs, resulting in sub-standard workmanship which has blighted the estate ever since. To be fair, however, there has recently been investment in both the buildings and the community (possibly due to the area’s proximity to the relatively new Scottish Parliament), and the views from the high rise blocks have always been an attraction.

The Dumbiedykes today (front) from Salisbury Crags

While I was growing up, my mother and her older relatives often talked fondly of the Dumbiedykes and expressed their sadness that the old stone tenements had been demolished. My great grandfather, Robert Neilson, had spent all his life there, and my great-grandmother, Catherine Neilson (née Thomson), had also lived there with her family after moving from the nearby Canongate, so they were both embedded within the community. The Dumbiedykes was an area built during the industrial boom in the 19th century to house the families who worked in the nearby factories and breweries in the East of the city (all now gone, too), and the tenements ranged from unsanitary and over-crowded buildings to relatively well-kept groups of flats, such as ‘the balconies’ where the Neilsons lived. 

My mother has told me about her grandparents’ flat in such detail that I can almost imagine to have been there myself. One of her earliest memories was sleeping in the recessed bed in the living room-cum-kitchen, and falling asleep to the comforting sound of the grown-ups chatting or listening to the radio. It must have been warm and cosy in that room as great-grandma only had an old-fashioned black-leaded Victorian range in which to heat and cook with, which was always lit from dawn to dusk, and although the floor was linoleum, there was a homemade clippy rug in front of the fireplace. My mother remembers how early in the morning she would hear the brewery workers in their clogs clattering along the cobbled stones, then later she would rise to see her grandmother in her stays, washing in the kitchen corner of the room with its single cold tap. She found it strange that her grandmother always called this sink ‘the well’. but to the Victorian generation brought up in houses without indoor plumbing, it really must have seemed like having your own private well inside the house.

Catherine and Robert Neilson (my great-grandparents), Dumbiedykes c1945

The fact that a family of twelve lived in a two-bedroomed flat with no bathroom (only an indoor toilet – a luxury some others on the estate did not have) and a living-room which doubled as a kitchen and the parents’ bedroom at night, may seem like deprivation to us today and was one of the reason the houses were not deemed fit-for-purpose by the 1960s. But when speaking about their childhood, not one of the Neilson children (many of whom I got to know well in their old age) felt they had lacked anything while growing up. There were the usual squabbles for bed space and bath water, but nothing that hinted at the kind of poverty on which the post-war town-planners focussed; although it obviously did exist, particularly as the 20th century wore on and the buildings aged. My mother does recall one winter in the 1940s when condensation ran down the inside walls, which the family re-named ‘the weeping walls’, although she cannot recall if there was any specific reason for the event. However, it is interesting to speculate what would have happened to the estate had it been allowed to remain intact. Nearby upgraded tenements with balconies which escaped demolition are much sought after today with the outside space often decorated with plants and outdoor furniture.

Dumbiedykes Rd 1950s (c) Edinburgh City Libraries

In contrast, my mother never remembers the balconies in Dumbiedykes Road being used for anything that was not functional. As it was to all intents partly a shared area that ran along the front of the buildings, it would have to have been kept as neat and clean as the stairwell (stair cleaning being a rota that the women in the block shared). This was one of the reasons my grandmother still regularly scrubbed the steps leading to her 1930s ‘four-in-a-block’ house up until she had a stroke in the early 1980s. As a child I always found it strange to see her on her knees wielding a great wooden brush and a pail of soapy water, even in the winter, but it was a hangover from the days when everyone was expected to keep communal entrances clean – perhaps even forfeiting their tenancy if they did not. For that generation of professional housewives it was also important to show your neighbours that you were not slovenly.

I often think this strong Presbyterian streak was also what prevented people from using their balconies for rest and relaxation: they possibly wouldn’t have wanted others to think they were not busy working (if men) or cooking and cleaning (if women). Of course this meant that many housewives were trapped inside for hours on end, and I remember that my own grandmother was always finding things to do in the house, even on summer days. My mother tells me that all her adult life she would never just sit outside in the sun and relax, but only used the ‘back green’ for hanging out washing, despite the fact my grandfather was often to be found outside pottering around in their section of the shared garden.

When my great-grandmother became widowed in 1948, she soon gave up the tenement flat in the Dumbiedykes and spent the next two decades of her life living with her grown-up children. My mother tells me she spent most of the time staying with them in their two-bedroomed house, possibly because it was easier in a family with only one child. However, this meant that initially my mother had to share her bedroom with her grandmother, which was certainly not a long-term solution. Eventually my grandparents gave up their own room and slept on the pull-out sofa bed in the living room instead. This couldn’t have been easy for everyone, especially during my mother’s teenage years, and it seems that her strongest and happiest memories of her grandmother was of the time when she visited her in the Dumbiedykes. My mother’s grandfather was also a comforting and cheerful presence in those days, and my mother recalls his old comfy chair by the fire and pipe stand at the side of the range and that she would always kiss him on his bald head before leaving. 

My Mother and Grandparents, Dumbiedykes c1945

On Fridays, my grandmother would meet my mother after school and they would take the number 1 bus all the way from their suburb of Carrick Knowe, in the West of the city, into Edinburgh’s old town, a place that my mother said always looked rather gloomy and seedy on account of the blackened soot-stained buildings and narrow cobbled streets. They would leave the bus in the Royal Mile and walk down St Mary’s Street towards the Pleasance, then cut down Holyrood Road. Before they went up to my great-grandparents third floor flat in Dumbiedykes Road, they would pick up a pre-ordered copy of The Girl’s Crystal from Miss Yardley’s local shop so that my mother could be entertained when the grown-ups were talking or listening to the radio – something they did a lot in those wartime days.

My mother recalls that when she was very young and it was time to leave her grandparents’ house (if they did not stay overnight in the recess bed) she would be picked up by my grandmother, tucked under her arm like a bag of groceries, and whisked all the way down the three flights of stone tenement stairs. Apart from the injustice of it all, she mostly remembers her mother’s boney hip painfully pushing into her stomach as she leapt from step to step. Knowing my grandmother – a small, nervy, sinewy woman with a vice-like grip well into old age who was always running late – I can just imagine her pounding down those stairs, rushing to catch the next bus to get home to make my grandad’s tea or to avoid the blackout. Yet those three flights of stone steps also used to fascinate my mother as she noticed they were worn into dips at the entrance and ground floor, but became flatter farther up the stairs where there was less footfall. This is, of course, is just the sort of detail that a child would pick out, and I remember being equally taken by the strange undulations in the stones on a section of my grandparents’ front path in Carrick Knowe – the result of a botch tarmac job many years earlier which is still there today.

Ann, Catherine and Mary Neilson, with nephew, Dumbiedykes, c1930

As the middle child, my grandmother had four older and four younger siblings: the photograph above shows her with the two younger sisters, Ann and Mary. These little girls (who I got to know well in their old age) learnt to slip notes out the coal cupboard in the tenement hallway to my grandmother when she was canoodling on the stair with my grandfather. The cupboard opened at both ends so that the coalman did not need to enter the house and was an ideal way to send out messages from the living room to tell my future grandparents when tea or supper was ready and they had to come inside.

The Neilsons’ childhoods were full of such stories about the ways they would help and support each other, in particular the girls. They learnt to let in late night returnees from ‘the dancing’ and share clothes and make-up and trade allotted household tasks with each other. It must have been a very intensive way to live, which makes me wonder how my grandmother felt when she left home after her marriage, with no job or child (for the first seven years) to keep her busy.

I was always fascinated by my grandmothers’ tales of growing up in a family of nine children that the evenings with the photo album seemed to prompt. And yet I naturally assumed that my life with my own bedroom and private back garden was far superior, and possibly even said as much. For years I believed my grandmother’s childhood must have been full of deprivations and boring chores and responsibilities, when I now believe it would have been an upbringing that in many respects was richer in experience than my own. 

The Incidental Genealogist, February 2022

2 thoughts on “A Tenement with a View

  1. dalesbred

    This chapter is a delight. I love the fashions, your mother as a little child in smart coat and hat, your grandmother’s dresses. How did they keep themselves so neat and tidy with such limited facilities? You quite rightly focus on the aspect that conditions of housing are an integral part of the history of families and links together family and community history. There was also poor housing in rural areas but post-war housing regeneration seems mostly in cities. Lovely chapter, thankyou.

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    1. The Incidental Genealogist Post author

      Thanks, Marion. I am also amazed at their smart outfits. My grandmother was a dressmaker and made many of her own clothes – and my mother’s. An older sister (also a dressmaker) made my grandmother’s wedding dress based on a description my grandmother gave her of a wedding dress she was working on for a client at work. That is talent!

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