The Inch: Edinburgh’s ‘Garden City’, Bill Cook

WE were that family. Over the decades, five generations living in what The Scotsman newspaper described as the worst slum in the city.

The bottom of Calton Hill back then – for me, the early 1950s – was a lot different to the bottom of Calton Hill today. Families often lived what were commonly known as ‘room and kitchens’: literally one room with a kitchen alcove; with one cold water tap, no bathroom and outside communal toilets.

Overcrowding was not uncommon. My parents and four older brothers had an attic flat with a single bedroom. My own grandmother raised 13 children in an apartment with two walk-in cupboards that served as bedrooms. 

So, when my parents had the chance to move to a newly-built home boasting three separate bedrooms, an inside bathroom and front and back gardens, you can imagine their reaction.

But it wasn’t a house in any old development, it was a house in a district heralded as ‘Edinburgh’s Garden City’ when the plans for it were first revealed in 1946. 

Although a few of Edinburgh’s earlier schemes had somewhat reflected garden city principles, The Inch was regarded as exceptional and has been described as Edinburgh’s finest post-war ‘garden city’.

In 1952, the then publication, Edinburgh Today, declared the district as “…one of the few modern suburbs in which we can take pleasure and pride”. Two years later, the Scots cultural organisation, the Saltire Society, described The Inch’s cottage houses as “… the best-designed local authority housing in Scotland”.

Indeed, Edinburgh Today went further, saying “…this new community is a great improvement on anything that has been undertaken in the city before”. 

The new residents of The Inch housing scheme were largely drawn from the tenement slums of Edinburgh.

Like my family.

The Inch architect, David Stratton Davis, specifically laid out the streets so that residents could enjoy views towards Arthur’s Seat, the Braid Hills and the woods of Craigmillar. 

Houses were built around the site’s existing mature trees. Indeed, Stratton Davis had some 500 more trees planted some two years before the first residents arrived. 

Not only were greenspaces located throughout the scheme, the amount of land given over to parkland was quite unprecedented. A third of The Inch development included its own, dedicated park.

The recreation facilities were fantastic. We had tennis courts, bowling, putting greens and cricket wickets, football and rugby pitches. We even had a sizeable nine-hole pitch-and-putt golf course. In addition to all of this, the Edinburgh Corporation (the forerunner of the The City of Edinburgh Council) also established educational playing fields at Kirk Brae, just north of the houses.

The Inch was a self-contained community. In stark contrast to some pre-war schemes, it had ample shops, including a butcher, fishmonger, grocer, hairdresser, pharmacy, Post Office and a newsagent. 

It had its own doctor’s surgery and, adjacent to the shops, a dedicated medical clinic for mothers and their children. It had its own schools (one occupying the historic Inch House), its own public house and a public hall. These amenities again were very much an improvement for those first new residents.

The scheme was sited adjacent to Old Liberton’s villages and was effectively enclosed on all sides by farmland, parkland, playing fields and countryside. People talked of moving out into the country. If not using the open recreational spaces within the scheme or playing in The Inch Park, children would venture out to Liberton Dams, the Blackfords or the Braids. This was something that was altogether new and exciting for families. 

No wonder The Inch featured prominently in municipal engineer, Stanley Gale’s book, Modern Housing Estates (1949). Gale observed that the designs for both the site and the houses successfully retained the area’s semi-rural character. 

He said: “It’s obvious, that a progressive policy of good housing, abundant open spaces… is highly advantageous in terms of human life and wellbeing.”

The creation of The Inch was the direct result of the progressive vision of post-war town planners and politicians. The Inch very much reflected the ‘utopian’ principles of Scotland’s war-time Secretary of State, Tom Johnston. 

Despite the challenges of post-war Britain – the labour and material shortages, the financial pressures – the temptation to just pack houses in was resisted.

The Edinburgh Corporation had succeeded not just in building houses; it built a thriving community in its own parkland. 

The city had created an exceptional living environment. I, for one, am truly grateful. 

Bill Cook is a retired chartered engineer and a Fellow of the Institute of Engineering and Technology. He is a former local authority councillor (Liberton and Gilmerton) and financial lead for the local authority, and was a Scottish Labour candidate during the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections.

Picture credit: the author

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