Housing in Edinburgh

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Edinburgh Street
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In Edinburgh, the inhabitants were crowded into buildings from four to fourteen storeys high. Each floor had a tiny apartment rented to a family. The stairs used by the tenants were narrow and squalid. It was necessary to take care not to trip over the body of a vagabond or a drunk asleep on the stairs. Rich and poor lived together under the same roof. The middle classes took over the fifth or sixth floors and left the lower and upper floors to the workers and craftsmen. Very often, the ground floor was taken up by shopkeepers. Large colourful signs were hung from the outside of the building to attract customers.

The apartments were generally too small for large families and their servants, and this cohabitation sometimes caused problems. Because of the limited number of available rooms, the bedroom also served as living room. In his book A Journey to Edenborough in Scotland 1705 (Edinburgh, 1705; rpt. Edinburgh, 1903) the English traveller, Joseph Taylor, expressed his disgust at the sight of the mess and filth which prevailed in the apartments of Edinburgh:

The lodgings are as nasty as the streets, and wash’t so seldom, that the dirt is thick eno’ to be par’d off with a Shovel. Every Room is well scented with a close stoole, and the Master, Mistress and servants lye all on a Flour (sic), like so many swine in a Hogsty. (134)


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A servant
A Guide to the Georgian House (Edinburgh, 1995)
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In these buildings, running water did not exist and all water required for housework, cooking, and washing had to be carried up in buckets and tubs. When the building only had four or five floors, the problem was rapidly overcome, but transporting water became a real chore from the fifth floor up. In Edinburgh, water carriers took charge of supplying each family with water on all floors in exchange for a small fee. This popular system would not disappear until around 1780.

The apartments were heated with wood or coal. Pedlars sold the mistresses of the house ’spunks’ (fire-lighters), that is to say pieces of wood, about 20 centimeters long, coated with sulphur at each end. Familiar figures in the streets of Edingurgh, “The hawkers traversed the streets with loads on their backs, and knowing the, spunks to be an absolute necessity, climbed the long stairs of the tenements, inquiring, ’ony spunks the day, mistress? a ha’ penny the piece or three a penny.’”(James H. Jamieson, Edinburgh Street Traders and Their Cries, The Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, 2 (1909), 219). On Winter evenings, parents, children and servants sat near the fire in the main room, and enjoyed its kind warmth for a long while, before going back to their cold and damp bedrooms.

It was not rare for these lodgings of doubtful cleanliness to be infested with bugs, fleas, and other noxious vermin, so much so that certain apartments were put up for rent with the endorsement free from bugs to attract potential lodgers.