New book about Edinburgh’s colonies follows enterprising group of stonemasons

Richard Roger at the Dalry colonies.
Richard Roger at the Dalry colonies.
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BUILDING work had ground to a halt throughout Edinburgh. Not a chisel or trowel was in use, half-built houses were abandoned and stonemasons and joiners sat at home wondering if they’d ever work again.

This was not the Capital at the height of the housing market collapse a few years ago, when developments were mothballed along with skilled workers, but Edinburgh in 1859, when a demand to reduce the working day from ten hours to nine led to a strike and a lock-out of all workers from building yards and sites by their employers.

The colonies in Stockbridge

The colonies in Stockbridge

It was stalemate, until an enterprising group of stonemasons – with the backing of social reformers and church members – decided to go it alone, to set up their own co-operative building company, and to build affordable homes for working people which were fit for habitation.

Two years later the first foundation stone of an Edinburgh colony house was laid in Stockbridge’s Reid Terrace, and a revolution in house-building was begun – a revolution which has lasted 150 years even if in that time prices have risen from £153 to around £300,000 today.

“It is remarkable that not a colony house built by the Edinburgh Co-operative Building Company, has failed the test of time,” says Professor Richard Rodger, author of a new book, Edinburgh’s Colonies, which traces the lifespan of the ECBC from its humble origins to major player and then its drift into obscurity after the First World War. “They are all still standing, some are even listed by Historic Scotland, yet at the time they were built there were those who didn’t believe the whole project would last.

“Even those in Stockbridge, built on a flood plain, are still going strong. It’s a real testament to the design and the skill of the masons who put the colonies together.”

Stockbridge was the first place the ECBC looked when it wanted land to start its new project. It had sold shares in the company for £1 and had many major investors who, filled with Victorian moral zeal, believed passionately in improving the lives of the poor, especially the working poor, who had been forced to live in unsanitary tenements in the Old Town.

Their plan was certainly radical at the time when working people’s lives were ruled by private landlords and ignored by those in authority.

While the local council was happy to sponsor civil engineering improvement schemes, such as George IV Bridge and Waterloo Place, which would help advance the city’s business interests, there was no desire to build homes for the poor. Indeed in 1861, the first council houses in McLeod Street and High School Yards were still 30 years away.

“You have to wonder why these men would take it on themselves to start up this business,” says Prof Rodger. “But they were frustrated with their employers, on whom they were dependent for their wage and therefore for the standard of housing they could afford. Most of it seriously impaired quality of life, and in fact hastened death.

“Then there was the encouragement and support they received from prominent church figures and newspaper editors and there had also been the introduction of limited liability for companies which meant there would be a ceiling on any losses incurred.

“Most crucially Edinburgh was about to embark on a period of rapid expansion. There were new railway depots and warehousing facilities being built in Haymarket and Dalry, Abbeyhill and other fringes of town and the slaughterhouses, rubber mills and breweries at Fountainbridge and Slateford, meant that more people were being employed in these areas and so needed to be housed close by. Few workers were better placed to understand this change in the city economy than builders.”

It was the Haig whisky distillery which attracted the ECBC to Stockbridge, and the directors sold the company a 1.7 acre site at the east end of Glenogle Road, which was then called Water Lane. For a £20-a-year fee they could build on the land, bounded on both sides by the Water of Leith, a river which had been condemned by Lord Palmerston as “in a worse condition than the Thames”.

According to Professor Rodger the fact that the homes were first built in Stockbridge and then Dalry could have given rise to the “colonies” name, as at the time they were very much on the outskirts of the city where land was cheaper. “However, more likely it’s to do with the co-operative movement itself, which has a bee hive as a symbol, which can be seen on the facades of houses at Dalry and Shandon. It represents the collective spirit of co-operation.

“And even the street names evoke tightly knit groups, either in the families of trees at Shaftesbury Park, Restalrig and Hawthornbank in Leith and flowers in Shandon, reforming politicians in Dalry and the founding ECBC members in Stockbridge.”

In the first year eight colony houses were built and sold and two further plots of land were obtained from Haig. In the second year 54 houses were built and sold. By the third annual general meeting in 1864 a total of 132 houses had been built and sold at Stockbridge. Overall sales in the first ten years amounted to £156,000 – equivalent to more than £10 million in today’s prices.

“The houses were incredibly popular,” says Prof Rodger. “The design was new – and later much copied, even to the barley twist design of the garden railings. It was simple, tightly packed rows of homes with external balcony access to the upper house. Inside there were innovations too, a sink, toilet, storage space – luxuries for those who came from the squalid tenements. Mind you, they still packed a lot of people into them. They were one or two bedroomed but most people took in lodgers and they had large families, so they were still full of people.”

He adds: “They really were for skilled workers, but to afford them they would take a mortgage with a property investment company, which would loan the balance of the purchase price, after a £5 deposit was paid. This then meant a payment of £13 a year for 14 years – only £2 per year more than the annual rent of such houses.

“So workers on a modest but relatively secure wage could take immediate possession of an ECBC house. It was a really good deal and introduced so many people to home ownership.”

Over the lifetime of the ECBC – it eventually dissolved in 1954 losing out to the expansion of council housing and the suburban demand for bungalows – 2300 houses were built at 11 sites: traditional colonies at Stockbridge, Dalry, Hawthornbank, Abbeyhill, Shandon and Shaftesbury Park (where stairs became internal and bay windows were introduced) and larger homes at Restalrig, Hermitage Hill, Barnton, Glendevon and flats in Ferry Road.

And although he is an expert of economic and social history at Edinburgh University, Prof Rodger admits to having a personal connection to the colonies. “I always knew about the colonies as my father, grandfather and great-grandfather lived in Reid Terrace. In fact my great-grandfather, William Rodger, a plasterer, lived for almost 30 years at 40 Reid Terrace, just a few doors from David Rintoul, the stonemason who was one of the founders of the ECBC and its first chairman.

“The experience of living in the colonies was seared in their memories and I think those who have lived in or near an Edinburgh colony will know of its special character. In an age when local identity and community participation are less valued I hope that my book will contribute to a sense of the past, not just among those who now colonise the colonies but those who have an interest in how the past fits together with the present.”

Edinburgh’s Colonies by Professor Richard Rodger is published by Argyll Publishing. To order your copy for only £11.99 with free P&P visit or call 0131-620 8400.


THE formation of the Edinburgh Co-operative Building Company needed influential backers and the Reverend Dr James Begg was one such.

A Free Church minister, he was a notable social reformer and campaigner for improvements in housing conditions for working people. He encouraged the founding of the ECBC and was later chosen to lay the foundation stone of Reid Terrace, the first colony built in Stockbridge.

The street, however, was named after journalist Sir Hugh Gilzean-Reid, a lifelong campaigner for the co-operative movement who helped the stonemasons set up the company.

And although Hugh Miller committed suicide before the ECBC was formed, the mason, geologist, writer and editor of Free Church paper The Witness was still honoured by the naming of Hugh Miller Place in Stockbridge for his influence in raising awareness of the need for more and better housing for working people.