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The Tenement Family Life

The typical Aberdeen tenement is granite-built, three or four storeys high, with an attic storey expressed as a mansard, where the roof pitch is very steep; in fact, the slates are hung almost on the vertical, and there is a stair at the back, which a passage connects to a door on the street.  Otherwise, it is similar to tenements in other Scottish cities, with back greens and shared WC’s giving onto open plots.  Thousands of tenements still exist, but thousands more have since been demolished, partly as a result of the 1917 Royal Commission which found that “the housing accommodation in Scotland was undoubtedly a serious cause for concern.
One of the many Aberdeen Tenement Courts - note the corner has been filled in diagonally and the top made difficult to climb - this was to discourage public nuisance in such dark corners at night - such as fornicating couples - urinators or worse, Footpads. Shawls and aprons, babe in arms, and comforting hands in a rubble strewn yard.  The cast iron gutter down pipe dispenses on to the yard or Backie.

Pestilence - Historically there were regular out breaks of plague, cholera, typhus, amoebic dysentery, small pox, tuberculosis and leprosy. A leper hospital, first mentioned in 1363, was set up out side the Burgh on Spital Hill but was in ruins by 1661. A town ‘scaffyngir’ (scavenger hence ‘scaffie’) was appointed in 1494, financed by a tax of 1d on each house or merchant’s booth or stall. The start of Housing Rates and Business Rates

Preview thumbnailLodge Walk circa 1930 in this picture runs into Queens Street abode of Lord Byron and Bert Sinclair lived on the first floor above the Archway through a door on the left under the arch.  Bert was a Crown and Anchor specialist an illegal gambling school which congregated at Murcar dunes near the Brig o' Don.  my old man was his Bouncer, Lookout or Personal Guard.  During one Police raid Dad wisely picked up the Gambling Stakes while all else were making their escape along the beach and between the dunes.  The Crown and Anchor set a leather Cup, Poker Dice, and cloth board was kept it the 'hoose' in 32 Castle Terrace above the Robertson's 'Chipper' in the Attic Rooms of a four storey tenement.  Bert went on to become a respectable and wealthy Turf Accountant and purchased a handsome house on Anderson Drive.

I can recall as a wee laddie fae Garthdee exploring what I considered the wilderness across on the south side of the Dee, known colloquially as 'the blue hillie' or properly as Banchory Devenick, where we imagined a wild frontier and us wee heroes as commandos stalking the enemy.  Of a Sunday morning whilst crawling thro the undergrowth as silent as a pee in your pants like all accomplished commandos we chanced upon a group of men, in a small abandoned quarry area, playing some sort of giant board game, except it wasn't snakes and ladders!. Wads of notes changed hands regularly. Somehow or other we had got past the lookouts posted at intervals across the known tracks and approaches to the quarry. We only were aware of these 'heavies' after we arrived at the scene and became aware of them moving around in the undergrowth as they cracked twigs etc with their movements. After a 5 or 6 minutes watching the play we decided that given the size and demeanour of the heavily over-coated guards that discretion was the best option and we slipped away, again unseen - Anon

Broadgate or Broad Street was the main street of Aberdeen according to Parson Gordon’s map of 1661, lying as it did between the main route north, the Gallowgate and the main (and only) route south via the Green, Windmill Brae and the Hardgate. The old town of Aberdeen never had a High Street as such, probably because St. Katherine’s Hill stood in the way of the most obvious route for a High Street, from the ‘Mither Kirk’ of St. Nicholas to the Castlegate.  A previous resident of Broad Street was the young George Gordon, later Lord Byron. He was born in London in 1788 and was named after his maternal grand father George Gordon of Gight Castle in Aberdeenshire. The child was brought to Aberdeen in 1790 by his mother Catherine Gordon, after her worth less husband ‘Black Jack’ Byron, had dissipated her inheritance, resulting in Gight Castle being sold to the nearby Gordons of Haddo. Mother and child lived in lodgings at No.10 Queen Street then moved to No.64 Broad Street. Young George attended the Grammar School at its original location in Schoolhill until 1798, when he inherited his father’s brother’s title and returned to England to continue his education at Harrow, where he was bullied on account of his club foot and Scottish diction.  A familiar theme.
The average number of inhabitants per house was reckoned at 14.8 persons. In the St Nicholas Parish the average was 16.8 persons per house. This level of congestion and over crowding arose because the city’s population was expanding much faster than its geographical boundaries; from 26,992 persons in 1801 to 71,973 in 1851 and to 153,503 in 1901.

Preview thumbnail Walker Road Torry - another haven for Fowlers

Typical of a tenement building - three storeys and Attic accommodation within the roof space.  Central rear orientated staircase with windows at half landing level,  A chimney flue for each room and open grate fires with cast Iron ovens in the living room and fire fenders of brass or copper plated wood to contain any coals that may fall through the grate.  a brass rail attached to the mantle piece served as a drying rail and a fire hazard. Water supply to each rear lower storey room and perhaps in the landing or half landing of the Attics.  The Backyard or Backie at the rear with outhouses and dykes may have had two outside toilets and a communal washhouse.  Each home would have their own wash day and all clothes boiled washed and dried on the same day to leave the 'backie' clear for the next user come rain or come shine.  The Landlords were anonymous and the rents cheap, but still difficult to meet with low wages and intermittent work.  High density living with up to 5 people of various sexes living in 2/3 rooms with little more than 200 square feet total area in which to keep wardrobes - coal, food, pots and pans and washing and casual toilet facilities.  In the attics there were few places where you could stand upright.  Insulation was minimal and coal always too dear to burn alone and all waste was placed on the back of the fire reducing the detritus to dust which also had to be stored for the 'Dustmen' to remove once a week.  But good for Hogmanay first footin and communal New Year parties!

The Garrets - below where the gutter line was the floor and the walls sloped in line with the roof with the lower 3 feet providing eaves storage cupboards.  The only place a man could stand was at the centre position where the 'but and ben' lath and plaster partition was for about 30" either side and the approach to the Mansard or Dormer Window.  The cavities were alive with mice and rats and the cat would be thrown in to the void keep order.  No insulation - or toilets and often no running water.  Snow shed from such high pitched roofs in a thaw was a real hazard to pedestrians and the 'shoosh' pre-warning sound had to be heeded very promptly.

The Gallowgate in 1930 with classic bowed dormer windows to the Attics. My mother used to clean such windows by pushing the sashes up and sitting on the sill while washing the glass above her 5 storeys up - till finally warned as to how old the wood frame was.  Solid Stone Built Houses that stood the test of time but with little comfort.  Some commerce is underway between the cart driver and the lady in the Doorway while 2 children sit on the steel hoop wheeled cart drawn by a white Clydedale horse - lets hope the the brake was on. That appears to be a bus approaching uphill and note the early tall Gas Lamps with braced Reflector stanchion and ladder rests.  Cyclists still ignore the right of way.
The congested old streets and wynds became filthy, infested, stinking and diseased. The courts and closes branching off the Gallowgate were described in 1883 as the dingiest and most unwholesome of any British town. Across the whole Burgh there were still in 1883 some 60 narrow lanes and 168 courts or closes of a breadth of seven feet at most.  The relic of a horse drawn buggy and the pushcart age.

Housing in Aberdeen greatly improved in the 20th century. In the 1920s and 1930s serious slum clearance took place. Between 1919 and 1939 some 2,955 slum houses were demolished. Some 6,555 council houses were built. The former slum dwellers were re-housed in the many council houses built in the city at that time. Many private houses were also built in Aberdeen between the wars such as those in Kings Gate and Angusfield. The city's boundaries were extended in 1934.

File:Matthewhay.pngMatthew Hay's role in Aberdeen's Slum Clearance

Hay’s career in Aberdeen was not limited simply to the lecture theatres of the University. In 1888, he was appointed the city’s Medical Officer of Health. It was in his capacity as the Medical of Health that Hay made an important contribution to solving the public health issues of Aberdeen’s working class housing problem through the promotion of the Aberdeen (Housing of the Working Classes) Improvement Scheme 1894.  Since the enactment of the Public Health (Scotland) Act 1867,
 local authorities had been empowered to appoint Medical Officers (the term 'Medical Officers of Health' came in to use later) and to raise money by local rates for public health purposes.  Aberdeen were exceptionally represented by pioneering Medical Officers:  Matthew Hay. He laboured tirelessly to improve the public health and housing of the City.  The fact that Hay is not widely remembered today should not detract from his valuable contribution to the development of public health and Aberdeen’s programme of urban regeneration. Not only was he the originator of the Aberdeen Joint Hospitals scheme (a world first in the organisation of hospital care and medical teaching), but he was also a key figure in the working class housing improvement scheme adopted by Aberdeen Town Council in 1894.  At the time of his death in 1932, Hay’s national importance was in no doubt. In his obituary, he was described as ‘one of the best known medical men in the Kingdom’ who would be remembered in Aberdeen for the excellent work he carried out while he was Medical Officer of Health for the city from 1888 to 1923.   During the 35 years that he held that important post he carried out and paved the way for many important schemes for the general health and well-being of the City.

The Scotsman 1 August 1932

In 1831, the small-pox being very prevalent in Aberdeen, it appeared to the medical attendants of the dispensary, that in visiting among the poor, they possessed peculiar facilities for encouraging among them the practice of vaccinating their children, which was too generally neglected. It was therefore resolved to give attendance weekly at the dispensary for the purpose of vaccinating children.

black_abrdeen_1892.JPGMounthooly Smallpox Hospital list of patients, 1872 - 1875 Mounthooly smallpox hospital was a temporary hospital, opened to deal with the smallpox epidemics that afflicted Aberdeen in the early 1870s.  As the managers of Aberdeen Royal Infirmary could not  provide accommodation for the number of inhabitants infected with the disease in December 1871, responsibility fell to Aberdeen Town Council as the local authority under the Public Health (Scotland) Act 1867.  The Town Council opened the hospital in January 1872 in adapted premises at Mounthooly formerly occupied by the Bon-Accord Chemical Light Company.  The hospital was placed under the management of the Medical Officer of Health and initially employed 14 members of staff.  The hospital remained in use only during epidemics: from January to August 1872, April to  October 1874, and December 1874 to 16 June 1875.  By the outbreak of the next smallpox epidemic in July 1877 a permanent hospital for infectious diseases, later known as the City Hospital, had been erected by the Town Council.  The temporary hospital buildings at Mounthooly were sold off in 1882.

The Epidemic Hospital was to become the City Hospital in later years.  Upper Commerce Street is named Park Lane here.

The register is primarily of interest to those pursuing family history.  It provides details of the 400 inhabitants admitted to the hospital during in the epidemics, including whether or not the patient died.  As the register also notes the occupation and place of residence of each patient, it can also be used to trace the progress of the disease through families in the crowded courts of Victorian Aberdeen, the status of those affected and the level of mortality in each outbreak.

This fascinating list of Names, Occupations and Addresses is an indication of the random selection of this disease that affected all manner of people from Servant and Tradesmen to deaf and dumb orphans some cured some died. Sometimes whole families perished.  Jute mill workers from Broadfords and Grandholm Mill.  Forgotten streets and addresses like Windy Wynd.


Patient Lists

Poor Houses and Woodend Hospital

Poles Pulleys and Wash-hooses

A typical 'dour' Backie (Backyard) normally housed a communal Toilets and Laundry Washroom complete with chimney stack, copper and firebox for boiling clothes.  lighter stains were washed off with soap on wooden/glass rubbing boards in wooden sinks which amazingly held water. An assortment of left over Mangles which would compress and drain surplus water from clothes before being hung out to dry in the communal drying lines.  Each family of the tenement had their wash day which could be traded with another if other pressures failed to permit its use.  Poor families would earn extra pennies by doing someone else's washing for them.  The vacant wash 'hoose' would provide a secret place for children to explore intimate areas of each others bodies but they were often sighted going in only to be discovered 'flagrante dilecto' by a vigilant nosey parker housewife.  Entrance to such 'Backies' would be by closes or dark foreboding lobbies.

Interesting roof scape here with what appears to be a semi circular light tube worked in to the slate roof with a deal of expertise.  Or is an illicit Still.  The typical 3 sided dormer sash windows to the attic rooms were dangerously in need of maintenance and could be only cleaned with a great deal of personal risk.  Guttering and cast iron down pipes were equally neglected due to the height and lack of ladders.  Higgledy- piggeldy rough granite infill to exterior walls with dressed stone at the corners.  Communal Door with flagstone walkway and cobbled setts would provide a an interesting background to a very cramped, spartan life style within these poorly insulated, very drafty and often rat infested homes.  Brick built outside wash -house with chimney stack.  Still widely lived in up to the early 1950's before slum clearances were the order of the times.  Typical life style in Fittie, Commerce Street, Castle Terrace, and Virginia street.  Outside toilets only.

The 1930s started the Shuttle Lane slum clearance.  Situated between East North Street and Frederick Street, before the local families were re-housed on new estates. These houses were typical of the cramped, overcrowded tenements to be found in most Scottish cities.  Large families would be crammed into 1 or 2 rooms. There might have been a shared toilet on the landings or more commonly outside in the back yard. Infectious diseases such as diptheria and scarlet fever could be spread rapidly with such close contact of families, and infant mortality was high. There was often no drying green so many tenements had rod washing poles which could be slid out of windows with clothes like bunting when needed. Each family would have their allocated day to use the wash house. Washing clothes was a laborious affair as the mother, maybe with the assistance of an older daughter, would stoke and light the coal fired copper, and trek back and forth with water from an outside tap. Washing would be done by hand on scrubbing boards and if the weather was bad, then it would have to be hung inside in the main room to dry in the heat of the coal fire on a brass rod on the mantlepiece. However, it seemed that community spirit was warm and close neighbours helped each other in times of crisis. This was a bond that would be broken when families were re-housed in the modern housing estates.

Martin's Lane, from Green to Kenny's Wynd

Streets - Less than half a century ago, the only approaches to Aberdeen were, from the south and west by the Windmill Brae and the Green, and from the north by the Gallowgate, and the streets in general were inconvenient, from their narrowness and the badness of the pavement, which consisted mostly of irregular causeway or round stones. About the end of the last century, a street was opened from Broad Street to North Street, which facilitated the entrance from the north, as North Street runs along the foot of the Port Hill, over which the Gallowgate passes. Soon after, Marischal Street was opened from Castle Street to the Quays, and it was the first street in Aberdeen that was paved with dressed stones; but its steepness renders it inconvenient.

About the beginning of this century, a turnpike road having been made to Inverurie, a new line of approach to the town was obtained, by opening George Street, through the middle of what had in former times been a loch or pool of stagnant water. But the grand improvement of Aberdeen in this respect was not effected until several years later, when a new approach was made from the south by the opening of Union Street, and from the north by means of King Street, both of which are spacious streets, which pass right into the middle of the town, both opening into the Castle Street. And it cannot be looked on as the least of the benefits which Aberdeen derived from the opening of these streets, that, in order to their formation, it was necessary to remove a considerable number of houses, which were huddled together in a manner that renders it difficult to conceive how the town could be ever free from pestilential disorders. In order to avoid the inconvenience and danger of the steep descent of the Windmill Brae, and the equally steep ascent of the Shiprow or Netherkirkgate, the hollow through which the Denburn flows was spanned by a magnificent bridge of three arches, one of which has a span of 132 feet, while the others (which are concealed by being built over) are of 50 feet each. Union Street, which is carried along this bridge, is also carried over two of the old streets of the town, viz. the Correction Wynd and Putachieside, [The intervening space till it reaches St Catherine's Hill, part of which was removed in opening the line, being tilled up by embankment, so that Union Street is considerably raised above the Green, which lies alongside of it.] and by the opening of St Nicholas Street, which connects it with George Street, the access is rendered easy and direct from the north into the centre of the town.

The Mannie in the Wa allegedly depicts William Wallace.- no doubt an old Graveyard piece made in sandstone perhaps salvaged from St Nicholas Churchyard and incorporated in the Tower Wall Fabric.  The old Wallace Tower Bar magnificent cobbled street of the Nether Kirkgate with Men on a Mission and to the right where shoppers stand was Barnets Fruit Shop (one of two the other in George Street where we could get chippet pears from a near relative and rotten peaches to supplement our vitamin C intake.  The left road leads under Union Street to the Old Green a Market Place in its day every Tuesday i think.  The lane on the right led through to George Street and St Nicholas Street.  Magnificent dilapidation. Up from there stood the 'Hen Hoose' a pub for ladies,  only otherwise named the 'Banks of Ythan' - a local river north of Aberdeen - The Dee, the Don and the Deveron were its sisters..

Aberdeen has good natural drainage facilities, but has been slow to turn them to account. In 1865 there were but two or three common sewers in the new principal streets, besides the Denburn, the Holburn on the South, the Powis and Tile Burn on the North, and a few tinier rills. Furnishing water-power to numerous works, these streams threw up the filth that they received: the Denburn, too, though often in summer almost dry, and though the outlet, within 600 yards, of between 40 and 50 minor sewers, was disposed in cascades, and carried along an ornamental channel. Small wonder to find it described as 'highly polluted,' as 'bringing down to its mouth at the Harbour a thick and fetid slime that exhales, at low water, great volumes of poisonous gas: 'nay, even in the best quarters of the city some houses were solely drained into back-garden cesspools. Much has been done since then: the Denburn in its lower course having been covered over, and £62,695 expended during 1867-72 on the purchase of old, and the construction of new, sewers within the municipal bounds. In 1875, however, these works were described by Mr Alexander Smith, C.E., as far from perfect, 'the main sewers having been laid in zones, almost on dead level intercepting sewers with reversible outfalls, instead of being laid in a position to take advantage of the natural outfalls.'  By one of the four main sewers 44 acres of the Spital lands were successfully irrigated in 1871: and in 1876 it was proposed thus to utilise all the sewage of the low-lying parts of the city, 624 acres being required for the purpose.  Two schemes were laid before the town council, the cost of one being £31,221, of the other £29,540. In 1880 a surplus of £130 remained on the sewerage account, and of £336 on that of the public health.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013