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ReDrawing Edinburgh: Edinburgh in 1920

ReDrawing Edinburgh: Edinburgh in 1920
ReDrawing Edinburgh: Edinburgh in 1920
Since the creation of the New Town in 1767, the City of Edinburgh has steadily grown in response to housing, utilities and transport demands. However, the changes brought about by the Edinburgh Boundaries Extension & Tramways Act of 1920 were different. The city became the largest municipal area in Scotland, expanding in size from 17 to 53 square miles and increasing its population from 320,000 to 425,000. The boundary extension took in the Burgh of Leith in the north and the Midlothian parishes of Cramond, Corstorphine, Colinton and Liberton to the west and south of the city.

Widely known as the ‘amalgamation’, but also referred to in the press and by the public at the time as the ‘union’, ‘absorption’ and the ‘annexation’ it was, and even now remains, a contentious issue. The opposition to the amalgamation from Leith Town Council is widely known, but there were 39 separate petitions lodged in Parliament against the proposal from public authorities, companies and organisations and individuals. Objections ranged from the Duke of Buccleuch’s concerns for his rights over Granton Harbour to the Midlothian Pig Trade Association’s concerns about stricter animal welfare standards. Yet all but the Leith petitioners had dropped their opposition by the summer of 1920 through negotiations with the Edinburgh Town Clerk. A key moment came in May when the proposal was revised to exclude the Burgh of Musselburgh, where the anti-amalgamation faction had finally won the argument within the local council.

The Leith Town Council argued passionately in the local press, and eloquently in Parliament through Captain William Wedgewood Benn, Liberal MP for Leith, against the amalgamation on the grounds of historical precedent, democracy, and local services.

On historical precedent, it was argued that Leith had a fractious relationship with Edinburgh for centuries. Significantly, since 1833, it had enjoyed equal status as a municipal burgh, with its own town council and provost. It was this coveted status that the Leith Town Council fought so hard to keep. It had successfully defeated a previous amalgamation proposal in parliament by Edinburgh Town Council in 1896.

On grounds of democracy, the amalgamation was principally opposed on the back of a local poll of Leith ratepayers in January 1920 proposed by the Leith Observer newspaper and organised by Leith Town Council. The ratepayers were asked a simple question, “Are you in favour of Amalgamation with Edinburgh?” and given a week to respond through a voting card; 29,891 responded with ‘No’, while 5,357 responded with ‘Yes’ – out of 39,000 cards sent out. Called afterwards the ‘Lightning Plebiscite’, the overwhelming result has entered the collective memory of Leith as a seminal moment of its history.

Finally, arguments were made on the differences between the two burghs - ‘residential’ Edinburgh versus ‘industrial’ Leith. They were too different in their economic outlook to truly work as a unified authority and the existing system of separate but interdependent town councils ensured that those differences were respected and catered for, while still being able to work together where beneficial.

Other opponents used similar arguments in opposition to the bill. Musselburgh had their own plebiscite on the amalgamation proposal in October 1919, several months before Leith’s; with a nearly 3:1 majority against. The ‘anti-amalgamationists’ in Musselburgh argued that as an ancient burgh it was capable of meeting the needs of its citizens. There was resistance from voices across the areas of proposed extension. In their petition to parliament, the Corstorphine Ratepayers demanded their “right of self-determination”. People in the outlying areas asked how could one town council equally serve, or even understand, the very different issues and priorities across the varying areas? There was a mismatch between residential Edinburgh, rural Midlothian and industrial Leith they argued. However, whilst it was true that the parishes relied heavily on agriculture, Colinton also had brickmaking and mills processing paper, snuff and cereals along the Water of Leith and Liberton had coal mining and limestone quarries and Edinburgh itself had manufacturing and industry in the form of brewing, finance, printing and rubber. Opponents in the Midlothian parishes argued for preserving their rural character against the encroachment of the city. These arguments were undercut when Midlothian County Council agreed to drop its objections after receiving assurances around Edinburgh’s plans for investment and public transport.

There were equally those in all the areas who argued in favour the amalgamation – even in Leith where the local Labour party and Trades Council approved of amalgamation as a way to strengthen local government and remove the Liberal party hegemony in the town council. The proponents argued for it primarily on grounds of progress – both in terms of what amenities, infrastructure, and services a larger authority could support but also in terms of efficiency of governance. They dismissed the arguments on historic independence as being based on a past that was rapidly becoming out of date in a modern age of local government. They disputed the democratic mandate of the Lightning Plebiscite by arguing a unified authority would be no less democratic than the current arrangement while providing better services for all. Edinburgh Town Council, in particular, also argued that the covered areas were already bound to the city in terms of human geography, with housing, utilities, and roads forming a single connected area.

In terms of services and amenities, the comparisons between Edinburgh and Leith town councils during the debates were complicated by the fact that the two provided different services in different ways – which both were keen to point out for their advantage. Edinburgh had theatres and a public library system, where Leith did not. Leith had an electrified tram system where Edinburgh used the cable-car system which resulted in the so-called ‘Pilrig Muddle’ where commuters had to shift between the two tram systems. Leith had better public health population statistics but relied on Edinburgh’s hospitals for specialist services. The overarching point, which went in Edinburgh’s favour, was the complexity of providing services to an expanding urban population split between different town and parish council areas.

Finally, Edinburgh Town Council committed in their proposal to investing in the amalgamated areas to bring them up to a common standard across the city. These totalled £122,880 (approx. £5.53 million in today’s money) and included standardised lighting, a new public hall for Leith, bowling greens for Corstorphine and Liberton, park improvements for Leith and Colinton and new gymnasia spread across all amalgamated areas.

Campaigners also pointed to a new efficiency of governance. The amalgamation proposal would reduce the existing 17 separate public bodies to just 3 – the Education Authority (schools), the Parish Council (health and social work) and the Town Council (everything else). Subsequent reforms in 1929 would reduce this further to just one single all-encompassing town council. In the proponents’ eyes, this simplification would create savings by minimising legal and management costs and strengthen services.

Finally, there was one argument that was present in much of the proponents’ case; that of geography. Leith had nowhere to expand in 1920. To meet growing Leither demands around health and sport, the town council was required to rent land off Edinburgh to build both a new hospital at Seafield in 1906 and a golf course in Craigentinny in 1908. Leith already had a population density twice as high as Edinburgh’s and struggled to find suitable land in its boundaries to build any substantial further accommodation.

Due to the way Edinburgh Town Council had acquired land and encroached on Leith during the intervening 24 years since the last attempt at amalgamation, there were examples of streets, buildings and even tenement flats being split by the boundary line between Edinburgh and Leith. ‘The Boundary Bar’, (now the Bier House, on Leith Walk) is still famous for its legend of having different entrances and different serving times at opposite ends of the bar to resolve the problem of being located within two separate licensing jurisdictions.

While the Midlothian parishes were not surrounded by Edinburgh, their designation as the ‘suburban district’ implied recognition of their ties to the city, providing local coal and produce as the city’s larder. While mansions and estates of Edinburgh’s elite had existed for centuries in these areas, the growth of public transport and the spread of utilities during the 19th and early 20th centuries had brought more middle-class residents. They worked in the city and used its services but returned home to the rural periphery. It was only fair then, that they contributed towards the city’s maintenance and development. This population drift was spurred on by landowners and private housing developers keen to turn rural land into property sales and rental income. Most of the 19th century saw Edinburgh Town Council switch between either playing catch up or speculator by seeking minor extensions to its boundaries to cover new communities like Roseburn and Dalry and swallowing up existing but expanding communities such as Duddingston and Restalrig. Yet in the 1920 amalgamation proposal, it had decided to seek to incorporate whole parishes instead. The thinking was to provide the city with enough space to both keep on top of the continued population drift for the foreseeable future, as well to give it room to embark upon future ambitious housing schemes, which came about in the 1930s (e.g. Craigmillar and Stenhouse), 50s (e.g. Inch, Oxgangs and Silverknowes) and 70s (e.g. Wester Hailes). The new expanded city would be able to undertake town planning in a more strategic way and also bring its more rigorous standards in housing and industry to the outlying areas.

With the arguments laid before it, Parliament considered the matter and approved the proposal, turning the bill into the Edinburgh Boundaries Extension & Tramways Act of 1920. What had been discussed daily in local halls and newspapers throughout the city during the first half of 1920, became an occasional reference by the end of the year – except in Leith.

This exhibition attempts to provide a glimpse into what 1920 Edinburgh looked like, to show the differences and similarities between the various areas and to see how much city life has changed in the past 100 years. The pictures show a clear disparity between the rich and poor and the difference in lifestyle between city dwellers and those living in the suburban countryside.

This Capital Collections exhibition is part of a wider project to commemorate the anniversary of the Act. The Redrawing Edinburgh project is a collaboration between Edinburgh Archives, Libraries, Museums and Galleries and representative groups from the local communities of Bridgend, Colinton, Corstorphine, Cramond, Gilmerton and Inch, Leith, Liberton and Longstone.

You can find out much more about the 1920 Boundaries Extension & Tramways Act and the history of the affected areas by watching videos in the ReDrawing Edinburgh playlist on Edinburgh Libraries' YouTube page.