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The Five Streets in the twentieth century

With thanks to Hugh MacKay

Mayfield Terrace, Alfred Place, Blacket Place, Blacket Avenue and Dryden Place exist in a peaceful enclave between two main roads. There are original stone pillars at four of the five entrances. Many of the buildings are listed and are referred to in detail in architectural and historic guides to the city as well as in the History of the Blacket Association Area elsewhere on the Blacket Association website. However this article celebrates the people who have lived here during the twentieth century and records some of the experiences of the community during this period.

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This is an impression of what life in the Five Streets has been like. In the future, as the contributors to these memories leave the area, this will be a means by which these old streets reveal their secrets.

There is much literature dealing with the buildings, but these residents recognise the people and we make this the area it is. When interesting lives are being lived around us we want to know. Where we have missed out on getting to know a neighbour who is shown to be cosmopolitan, eccentric, brilliant or just plain kind we are sorry. A sense of community and a willingness to make friendships are what I am celebrating in this article.

Privatisation in 1903

As Queen Victoria's reign drew to an end the perimeter of the Blackets was defined by the gates where we still see the gate pillars. Beside four of them were lodges. One on the corner of Minto Street and Blacket Avenue has since been demolished, when the Earl Haig Home for Old Soldiers (now Strawberry Hill Nursery) was expanded. Three remain, all off Dalkeith Road at Blacket Place, Blacket Avenue and Mayfield Terrace.

I have John Fraser's letter of application for the post of gardener from the 1880s ['wanted a married man without family to keep the shrubberies and avenues of Blacket Place and Mayfield Terrace, stating age, employment and giving references as to sobriety and general good character']. John worked for a number of people in the area and produced references from three residents in Blacket Place and Dryden Place, along with one in Duncan Street. He was 'sober, industrious healthy and obliging', and he got the job. This meant being allowed to live in Aln Lodge [on the corner with the Avenue] at no rent while in service, and a wage of £14 per annum. Nothing about his ability as a gardener. Doubtless he retained his work for individual proprietors as well.

In 1899 the Committee of Residents decided to remove all the gates. These were attached to the pillars, and in 1903 the lodges were feued. Thus we assume that the gardeners were dismissed. The word 'feu' means sell. Owners were referred to as feuars, hence the name of the association was then The Blacket Feuars. The ownership of the shrubberies was transferred to the local authority who in theory took over maintenance.

The Blacket up to and during the Great War

Within the boundaries, the five streets had stone-flagged pavements with stone setts on the roads. The gas street lights were lit by hand. Occasionally the marks of matches can still be seen close to the locations of the lampposts in the city. The houses were still relatively young. Mostly two or three resident servants would look after the owners and their families. One can imagine a calm, well-tended neighbourhood. But much would have changed with the outbreak of the Great War. How many young men from the five streets enlisted? I have no information.

I have seen a newspaper article indicating that Zeppelin L14 carried out a raid on Rosyth on the night of 2/3 April 1916. It dropped its remaining bombs on the city and it is claimed that one landed within the Five Streets. Even if it was small, it must have been a shock for the residents. Certainly one passed over Holyrood Park and did drop small bombs in the vicinity. While there is no record of damage here it must have caused some consternation! Ten Serb orphans were housed at 42 Blacket Place. They and many more were rescued by British and French boats from the Adriatic ports. They were part of the mass of defeated Serbs who trudged over the mountains to seek sanctuary after the Austrian invasion of their country. These boys were accommodated from 1916 by the then owner. They were given an education at George Heriot's school. Their descendants visited the school and the house in 2016, with a team from Serb TV. This was a follow-up to an earlier TV programme. The back garden of 42 Blacket Place became, in the recollections of the families, a small rugby pitch. The drawing room was 'the boys dorm'.

Newington House in the Avenue [since demolished and replaced by student accommodation] was used as a hospital for war wounded. Those who were able to take walks brought the consequences of war to the residents of our streets. Some patients felt compelled to wear gas masks, not believing that they were no longer on active duty. Some 142 of those who were moved to this part of town died from their wounds and are buried in Newington Cemetery. (Newington Cemetery also has fourteen war graves from the Second World War.) Other cemeteries have more War Graves. Looking at that generation of residents, how many died and how many survived?

Interwar and more war

The interwar period is characterised by the General Strike and the Depression. However the middle class of Edinburgh was probably slightly protected. House prices in the street did not fall. Edinburgh's economy was reasonably diverse and some people flourished. But there were signs of change. During the 1930s many people began to leave Germany. They moved first to London but were sometimes recruited by Edinburgh University. The Five Streets were by this time attracting university professors and lecturers, and this was seen as a pleasant and not too conspicuous, little area.

The Second World War would have drawn in many recruits to the armed forces. Enemy aircraft were more of a feature as the civilian population was involved in the struggle. Most obviously, the railings were removed. The government thought they would be melted down to make tanks. But it seems that vast amounts of Georgian and Victorian cast iron was allowed to rust and then was dumped in the Firth of Forth. Phyllis Kerr of 9 Mayfield Terrace writes that her husband to be, Gordon, served as a piper in the 51st Highland Division:

... He knew that his family had moved from Preston Street to Mayfield Terrace in 1943, but had never been there. Just before D-Day, unexpected leave was granted and of course he could not let his family know. In the middle of the night, he eventually found the street, but THE BLACK-OUT! Gordon couldn't see a thing. No idea where number 9 was, SO [what an inspiration] out came the pipes and he struck up Black Bear and Hieland Laddie!

In great delight, out rushed his family and nearly all the neighbours! What a celebration!

Phyllis Kerr (of 9 Mayfield Terrace) on the post-war period

'I came here as a bride in October 1948. There were of course cobbled streets [stone setts] and the lamp posts were much lower than the present ones - the lamp enclosures being of a kind of pyramid shape.

'Looking back, I don't think any of the houses were divided. Quite a number had cooks and maids, the latter wearing starched white aprons and white frilly caps. It was definitely not the done thing for the lady of the house to answer the door and certainly not to be wearing an apron! At No. 26, a very very handsome lady of aristocratic appearance [Miss Cotton] had a Shetlander as cook and her daughter as maid. They knew everything that was going on in the Terrace. I was told the rather sad story of Miss Cotton arriving to live in Scotland from Ireland after an ill-fated romance. She was a lovely lady and very kind to me.

'Miss Williamson of No. 16 was a nurse and companion to a very elderly gentleman who left the house to her when he died. She lived there for several years. The original owners of No. 9 were three maiden ladies, and after them an artist lived there on his own until the outbreak of the Second World War. The little flat at the Minto Street end of the Terrace [left-hand side] was occupied by a young naval officer and his wife, with whom I became very friendly. The flat was beautiful, like a little palace. They moved on when they were expecting their first child.

'Coming from Minto Street the first large house on the left before Blacket Place had a tennis court before the war. Then crossing Blacket Place the next house was owned by tall, elderly Mrs Barlas. She took an interest in my small boys [born between 1949 and 1952]. She pointed to the Coach House, as she called it, where a double garage now stands, and said it used to hold a carriage when she was a little girl, and every Sunday the family coachman brought their horse from the stables in Dalkeith Road [I think that is Romero Place now] and drove her and her parents to church. My boys and I used to go to these stables and were allowed to feed the horses.

'You have probably heard of the shops on Minto Street: butcher, greengrocer, newsagent, post office, chemist, Edinburgh and Dumfriesshire Dairy and McVitties the baker. Up at Salisbury crossroads there was a policeman on point duty, who used to salute the boys as they crossed, and this was duly returned.'

Post-war period

Mrs Lily Budge, before she became Countess of Galloway, was housekeeper to Professor McIntosh and his family at 32 Blacket Place in 1951. She and her son Brebner were given rooms in the basement. Angus McIntosh was Chair of English Language at what was then 'the University'. He had a twinkle in his eye and a full gentle voice and manner. He is fondly remembered.

Richard Ellis, the Professor of Child Life and Health, lived at No. 18, just round the corner by the letterbox. He was a friend of Angus and got to know Brebner, who informally adopted the Ellis family. The house was described as being splendid with oriental rugs, polished floors, oil paintings on the high walls and antiques. The family also owned a house in Hertfordshire and a country cottage 12 miles from Edinburgh. In 1958 the house was sold to Peter and Sheila Bartholomew. The family firm Bartholomews was five minutes' walk away in Duncan Street. It so happens that we have records of the prices paid for 18 Blacket Place:

  • 1899 1,475
  • 1933 1,100
  • 1937 1,500
  • 1947 5,000
  • 1958 3,800
  • 1983 78,000
  • 1986 160,000
  • This does not reflect price rises during the last 14 years of the twentieth century. However the generous Ellis family clearly did not sell very successfully!

    Returning to Lily Budge, after making some moves she married the Earl of Galloway. He subsequently stayed in a guest house in Blacket Place, which he referred to as a 'rat hole' and Blacket Place was 'an utter washout'. An address was not given.

    Business use of the area

    There were a number of commercial establishments in the post-war period. It is difficult to trace them and I do not offer a complete list, but there were [and in two cases still are]:

  • Scottish Episcopal Retirement Home, at 40 Blacket Place
  • Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society, at 12-14 Mayfield Terrace
  • Belleville Nursing Home, in Blacket Avenue
  • Thomas Burns Home for Blind Women, in Alfred Place
  • Mrs O. Wightman ran a nursing home at 23 Blacket Place [Ron Butlin, the author and poet, spent his childhood here. He says he was thinking of this property when he wrote Night Visits.]
  • Guest house, at 32 Blacket Place [the Polish proprietor stored pots of geraniums in his basement during winter and then filled his front garden with them in summer]
  • Guest house, at 11 Blacket Avenue
  • Guest house, at 13 Blacket Avenue
  • And most importantly Newington House, built by the original landowners as the centrepiece of the Five Streets, in accordance with their plan of 1806.

    Miss E. Ford Ranken

    One of the most redoubtable among the residential proprietors was Miss E. Ford Ranken of 8 Blacket Place. Her parents first bought the house at the time of the Great War. I understand she was engaged to a soldier who sadly died in action. Her father took what I believe is the earliest photograph of the street from his front door, on a snowy winter's day in 1921. Miss Ranken inherited the house and continued to live there until her nephew John Cruikshank, in turn, inherited it from her in the 1990s.

    Those who know the streets will have admired the fine tree in the front garden. On one occasion, Miss Ranken heard tradesmen at work outside, went to investigate and found work had started to chop down the tree. She demanded the written instruction from the council. She then discovered that the tree in the front garden of 8 Mayfield Terrace was the one named for removal. Fortunately, 'her' tree was saved.

    She may also have chained herself to one of the stone pillars in order to stop it being removed. The council believed the pillars were too close together and wanted fire appliances to be able to enter by any of the five entrances. Miss Ranken apparently said that, like Mayfield Terrace, every front door was opened by a uniformed maid.

    In the 1960s David Beveridge of 3 Dryden Place organised informal cricket. The bowler would run up Dryden Place and bowl at the 'wicket' drawn in chalk on Miss Ranken's wall. This speaks to the sporting instincts of the Cowie, Flendley, Micklem, Bartholomew and Beloff boys. But Miss Ranken was not amused!

    more to follow...

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