LIKE A dormant volcano, it was a disaster waiting to happen, but sadly the authorities failed to act in time. The Penny Tenement collapse of 1959 left 19 families homeless and prompted the eradication of Edinburgh’s slums.
The 5-storey “Penny Tenement” at 6 Beaumont Place had threatened to fall down for decades. It was situated in St Leonards, a district of the city, which, along with neighbouring Dumbiedykes, had long been regarded as a slum.
Many of the buildings here - the Penny Tenement included - had been hastily constructed on poor foundations in the early 1800s.
Fast forward to the 1950s and 6 Beaumont Place was in a perilous state of decay; sections of its gable end were missing, and it had been propped up by huge timber struts for over 20 years.
Even the building’s landlord, Mr D. Rosie, knew it was doomed. He had attempted to sell it to a local MP for one penny after being faced with hefty repair orders - lending the block its memorable name.
By all rights, the authorities should have torn it down decades ago, but rather than wait for the wrecking ball, the neglected tenement would bow out all on its own.
At 5am on the morning of 21 November 1959 the back wall of the Penny Tenement came down with a tremendous crash.
Terrified residents were woken immediately. Many of them, including a two-year-old infant, fell with the rubble through the floors. The two-year-old’s mother, Mrs Betty Brock, sustained severe leg injuries while jumping from the third floor to save her young daughter. Luckily, she was able to pull out the child from the debris with only a minor cut to the head.
In another flat, Three men managed to leap out of their beds just in the nick of time and watched as support beams from the floor above came crashing down on their mattresses.
“Dangling in the air”
One man who thought he’d “had it” was 27-year-old John Kernachan, who lived in a flat on the third landing with his wife and her family.
Mr Kernachan said at the time: “I was in bed and was awakened by a scream from my wife. I opened my eyes and saw the whole wall going away. I got out of bed and the floor caved in. I found myself falling through a hole and I threw my arms and saved myself from falling farther by holding on to the floor with my fingertips.
“My legs were dangling in the air.”
Most of the building’s residents had less dramatic escapes, managing to rush out safely to the front of the street and into the bitterly-cold, November morning air. Many of them were without clothing.
The fact that the Penny Tenement’s 19 families were evacuated without any casualties was a minor miracle - or was it?
Things could have been very different if not for the efforts of Holyrood district councillor Pat Rogan.
Speaking to a housing conference in the 1990s, Mr Rogan recalled the precautions which had been undertaken only hours prior to the disaster: “One night, towards the end of 1959, I was called out to the Penny Tenement because the occupiers were alarmed about a bulge which had appeared in a gable wall.
“As the hour was late, I advised them to remove themselves and their belongings towards the middle of their houses.
“In the morning, I received a call that the gable had collapsed.”
Having grown up in a dilapidated tenement on West Richmond Street in 1919, Mr Rogan had been fighting to provide better housing for Edinburgh’s working classes since before the war.
But by 1959 the time for talking was now over: “Surely at last this should waken up the Rip van Winkles in the Corporation,” commented one Beaumont Place woman.
Thankfully, the Penny Tenement collapse did prove to be a catalyst for change.
One day after the accident, a complaint was sent to the Secretary of State for Scotland by Edinburgh’s Labour representatives. It placed the blame squarely on the city’s Tory majority for “procrastinating” for too long over the question of slum clearance.
The incident received a great deal of publicity, even prompting a Panorama documentary, in which a young girl living in an insanitary city tenement spoke about the mice which scurried over her feet as she prepared to get into bed each night.
Edinburgh’s authorities realised enough was enough, and they were fortunate that the Penny Tenement collapse had resulted in no fatalities, as the late Pat Rogan recalled in 2009: “We were told (at the time) the Corporation would be liable if there were any deaths from collapsing buildings.
“Within a matter of months, 6,000 slum properties were cleared.”
One by one, the dilapidated Georgian and Victorian slum dwellings of St Leonards and Dumbiedykes would be demolished, with communities dispersed en masse to new peripheral housing estates dotted across the city.
By the end of the 1960s, most former slum residents were living their lives in clean, spacious, modern homes, free of damp, vermin and the threat that their walls might suddenly cave in during the middle of the night.