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History of the Blacket Conservation Area

Making way for the villas

For many years Edinburgh's expansion was held back within the walls of the Old Town. These constraints however began to be loosened from the mid-eighteenth century, with the development of the New Town to the north. Access to the New Town was facilitated by the construction of both the Mound and, at the east end of Princes Street, the new North and, soon, South Bridges (crossing the old Nor Loch area, now occupied by Princes Street Gardens and Waverly station). The next wave of expansion was to be prompted, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, by the further extension south of the new bridge road. This route bisected the lands of Newington, within which what is presently known as the Blacket Conservation Area is located. It was there that Edinburgh's first real suburban villa-scape was to be created.

Old Newington House

Old Newington House from Historic South Edinburgh by Charles Smith - reproduced by permission of Birlinn Ltd.

Benjamin Bell and Newington House

The central part of the site that makes up the Blacket Conservation Area was acquired - in its then largely rural form - as the 'lands of Newington' by a distinguished Edinburgh surgeon, Benjamin Bell of Hunthill, in 1803, for his sons. Here he set about establishing the city's first, large-scale residential development to the south, where those with the resources might realise 'the desire for a house like one for a country gentleman, but more modest and closer to the life of the town'. The first notable development in the Blacket area, built in 1805, was Newington House, located within a site of eight and a half acres. Newington House was to provide the focus around which the Blacket area was developed. Benjamin Bell died in 1806, before the rest of his plans were realised. Newington House was then purchased by Sir George Stewart, who held it until 1822, under an arrangement allowing part of its grounds to be disposed of for building, subject to the firm constraints that had already been placed on any commercial developments.

Plans for the “five streets”

It was Benjamin Bell's son, George Bell, who commissioned a leading architect, James Gillespie Graham, to draw up plans for the new streets in the Blacket area. At that time (1825) Moray Place in the New Town was being built according to James Gillespie Graham's plans. In the Blacket area he lay out 'five streets' in a grid, between the two north-south highways of Minto Street and Dalkeith Road. These comprised Blacket Place and Blacket Avenue, Alfred Place, Dryden Place and Ross Street - later renamed Mayfield Terrace. The plans provided for a range of mostly detached and semi-detached residences, each with their own gardens, within what was in effect an early 'gated community', surrounded by high stone walls and guarded by lodge keepers, housed in smaller gate houses, at each of the five main entrances to the site. A feu charter sought to ensure the maintenance of residential amenity by banning 'any manufactory of soot or blood, breweries, distilleries, tan works, kilns or any manufactory which could be regarded as a nuisance'.

James Gillespie Graham started with Blacket Place, where semi-detached and individual houses were each to have their own columned doorway. Under the feuing conditions, the value of the houses erected was not to be less than 600. Also in 1825 the stone pillars and gates, at the Minto Street and Dalkeith Road ends of Blacket Place, Blacket Avenue and Mayfield Terrace were erected. A porter's lodge was planned at each gate to ensure seclusion and safety in this select development.

The Blacket area was further subdivided into smaller lots, according to James Gillespie Graham's feuing plan. By 10 October 1825 the new feus were advertised in the Edinburgh Evening Courant: 'These lands command the best access and drainage and are supplied with water from public pipes ... [they are] within the bounds of police, and are well watched and lighted. For the benefit of the feuars it has been resolved to keep present approaches and porters' lodges in Minto Street and Dalkeith Road, which will secure to the several lots within the gates all the privacy and convenience of country residences and will render them more desirable than any yet offered to the public. Advantageous terms will be given to the builders in respect of the period of entry, advances of money, if required, and other points.'

The northern part of Blacket Place was developed around the 1830s and contained semi-detached and individual properties. The introduction of horse-drawn buses and the opening of Newington railway station in the mid-nineteenth century accelerated development in the area. The properties towards the southern part of Blacket Place were developed and the majority of the large Victorian villas on Mayfield Terrace were built.

Blacket Map 1826 Blacket Map 1852 Blacket Map 1877

The Lands of Newington and Bellville. Click to expand.

Feus and feuding conditions in the Blackets

The feuing conditions for the whole Blacket area illustrate the concern the Bells had to conserve amenity throughout the estate. For example, the owners were even to have privacy from the gatekeepers' lodges, where the design of these buildings ensured that the windows faced away from neighbouring houses.

The initial feu charters had been granted in the 1820s and 1830s by George Bell [called the Feudal Superior] to either the builder of each house or the first owner [who was referred to as the Vassal]. The obligations in the title were for all time coming, unless varied by agreement. Bell as Superior specified what was to be built, prohibited extra houses in the garden and made it difficult to divide or externally alter houses. He undertook to build five porters' lodges at the entrances on Minto Street and Dalkeith Road, to maintain them and to have constantly a gatekeeper in each of them. There was never however a lodge at the junction of Minto Street and Mayfield Terrace. There is a ground floor flat there, which probably served the same purpose. All this was the responsibility of the Superior, who collected feu duty of slightly more than £8 per annum.

Mr Bell should have thought of the shrubbery. This fine avenue of trees leading up to Newington House was to be the approach to the new houses. Who was to maintain it? Mr Bell planted the large trees, which in many cases are still growing, and then seems to have at least mentally handed over the shrubbery to the residents. In 1836 there was a group of residents, who are referred to as the Blacket feuars, i.e. people who pay feu duty and are neighbours. Doubtless matters were resolved as long as Mr Bell was the Superior, but in the 1850s the Superiority was sold and the proprietors had to deal with the new Superior, the British Linen Bank.

A Minute of the meeting on 21 June 1861 of proprietors and tenants of Blacket Place resolved to invite residents in the more recently formed Lower Blacket Place and Mayfield Terrace to enjoy:

... the Ornamental Belts of Avenues and Shrubberies. They have formed one of the chief attractions for those who have chosen their residences within the gates. The cost of maintenance had, when born by Upper Blacket residents alone, been £1. 10 shillings per person per annum. With the completion of more houses the cost would drop to 4 shillings. I think you will see that it is in the interest of every Proprietor within the gates to join in maintaining all the Avenues and Shrubberies, in order to preserve the value of his property. Every proprietor of the new houses . contributes to the fund . The new residents were signed up and this informal obligation to pay w as informally enforced.

Thus to quote from a letter:

... referring to the conversation which I had with you when I met you on the Mound, I now write to say that on the understanding that it is to be regarded as a voluntary assessment . I am ready to pay.

Personal visits were made and a list of non-payers was subsequently reviewed. However a later Minute shows only one late payer.

The lodge keepers

The bank as new Superiors in the 1850s appear to have wanted nothing to do with the lodge porters and their lodges. Originally the lodge keepers would have been a sort of security guard. They opened the gates in the morning and clipped them to the railing. However 'wicked children unclipped them so that they swung and caused damage'. The lodge keepers also shut the gates at night.

As the city extended south and the police were of more use, in July 1852 the main purpose of the Minto St/Blacket Avenue lodge keeper was altered. (This lodge was demolished after the Great War when the building to the north on Minto Street was turned into an Earl Haig Home.) He was to take charge of the shrubbery, keeping the grounds, plants, trees and shrubs therein. He was also instructed to:

prune the ivy, turn the soil and generally keep the whole in neat and gardener-like style. He will see that the scavenger does his duty in keeping the roadway clear, extra sweeping as required. He will maintain the set of garden tools, permit no clothes to dry in the lodge gardens. He will endeavour to prevent suspicious-looking persons, beggars and hawkers from prowling about the avenues and call a policeman in the event of nuisance, mischief or annoyance. He must keep an eye on all children including those of residents. He must keep a memorandum of the names and nature of any injury. If a resident's child misbehaves he must note the event. And if it is serious, he must report it to the parents and civilly request them to endeavour to prevent a repetition. Next time it is a report to the local policeman. The lodges must be maintained in a neat and tidy condition.

The lodge porter was given free board in his lodge and £1 per month. He could earn additional sums by cleaning snow (£3 per annum) and taking on extra commissions for the residents (where he charged individuals three shillings an hour). Poor relief and burgh assessments were also paid by the residents on behalf of the porter. This applied to the lodge on Minto Street/Blacket Avenue, and it is assumed that the bank dealt with these costs for the other lodges.

It is not clear what the other lodge porters did. Possibly they simply paid a full rent and attended to their gates, opening them in the morning and closing them at night.

Following a meeting in February 1861, the residents sent a fine memorandum to the bank:

The present arrangement between the Superiors and the Feuars in a very awkward one; the Superiors being at the expense of planting and pruning all the large trees and keeping up the fences while the Feuars attend to the ground under the trees.

At that time the Superiors paid £4 yearly towards gardening costs, and the residents suggested an alternative of the bank paying £15 towards maintenance of the shrubbery. The bank however stuck to the title deeds and would not do more than it had to.

On 14 March 1871 John Fraser wrote in a job application that he was 58 years old, married with no children and had been a gardener locally for 25 years. He did not say whether he had a weakness for strong drink but his copperplate is superb!

The shrubbery

Many current residents have a particular interest in the choice of plants for the shrubbery. In 1880-82 there are receipts for 49 Austrian pines, 52 Cupressus lawsoniana, some box trees, 12 Aucuba japonica, 12 green hollies, 12 English yews, 12 Portugal laurels and yet more Austrian pines. Additional gardeners were sometimes needed: for example, there was a vast purge in 1874 with 16 cart journeys on 15 January, then 34 two days later and the same for each of the next two days and finally only five carts on 22 January. The ground around the large trees seems to have been dug up and emptied. Then there was the planting in April of an earlier stock of shrubs with 50 laurels, 4 Aucuba japonica, 6 plain boxes, 12 yews, 2 American spruce, 20 green hollies and 100 'shrubs lots'. In total £9 0s. 4d.!

Planning issues

At this time there were still no planning laws. Application had to be made to the Dean of Guild Court for a building warrant for new works. This meant that the intentions of a neighbour could be revealed from the plans at the council offices. Thus, when James Robertson who lived at Belleville Lodge wanted to build a byre in the 1880s, a special meeting of residents was held and they found there was not much they could do. However they instructed a committee to 'take such action as might be necessary'. James Somerville wrote to Robertson that it was unanimously agreed that the proposal was 'objectionable'. Mr Robertson professed that he had no idea that the proposal would be 'obnoxious' and withdrew it. So all was well.

In a Minute of February 1861 it was noted that David Bryce, Architect, had appropriated 14 inches of ground at the southeast corner of the main Avenue. There is no plan but this may have been on the north section of Blacket Place. At any event a house was being erected there, then the shrubbery, then the fence and this last was being repositioned over a small part of the pavement. The residents sorted that out. Then there was a letter ten years later reporting that David Bryce:

is now in infirm health ... but by the gross negligence of the Superiors Mr Bryce has done great injury to the property in our neighbourhood by erecting inferior houses and otherwise.

It seems that Bryce purchased a plot from the bank as Superiors and was able to persuade it to include the shrubbery between the plot and the pavement of the road. This is probably where 9 Blacket Place was erected. The letter suggests that 'our neighbour Mr Dryden should be introduced to the Superiors as a substitute'.

The additional storey at 40 Blacket Place caused some dissent. This was at the turn of the twentieth century and the owner of the house was a senior office holder in the association. Here the alteration was accepted. The Superior also had a role in this as title deeds had to be considered.

Local infrastructure

The roads, pavements and drains had not yet been adopted by the local authority but, being newish, maintenance does not figure in costs. The roads were topped with granite setts, which are still evident under the tarmac. The pavements were stone slabs. On 19 December 1898 the committee noted the absolute necessity of making strong representations to the local authority regarding street lighting of Blacket Avenue (still not sorted).

New gates were expensive - one side of a double cost £86. Maintaining the timber fencing was typically 27 out of total expenditure in 1883 of £47. Contributions were received from 101 feuars totalling £20 4s.

The nineteenth century ends with the gates possibly being removed from the gate piers. The residents are paying their subs and mostly things are well. Here the records end. Either the secretary was not particularly energetic or matters depended on only a few individual initiatives.

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