October 1999

No 183

Workers were pioneers of community empowerment

A group of entrepreneurial workers who literally built a name for themselves in history are the subject of a major exhibition running into the new Millennium.

Their legacy is being explored in an exhibition being unveiled today (Friday 15 October) in Edinburgh by the Lord Provost of Edinburgh and Frank McAveety, Minister for Local Government in the Scottish Parliament.

Richard Rodger, Professor of Urban History at the University of Leicester, is the guest curator behind the project supported by the Economic and Social Research Council, Leverhulme Trust and University of Leicester


His project looks at the remarkable achievements of the Edinburgh Co-operative Building Company, formed in 1861, which introduced workers to mortgages and whose houses - almost a century and a half later - are still standing.

He said: " Not only did the Company remarkably survive its first decade of trading, it continued into the twentieth century. By 1911, after fifty years of housebuilding, the Company had built approximately 2500 houses, equivalent to 1 in every 20 new houses constructed in Edinburgh since 1862. Hundreds of builders, railway workers, printers and clerks throughout Edinburgh and Leith were introduced to mortgages, repayable over 22 years.

"Though nowadays taken for granted as a means to finance house-ownership, in the 1860s and 1870s this was an innovative move not just because it was devised to assist skilled working class home-ownership but because it challenged the supremacy of solicitors as lenders. By 1914 owner-occupiers were at least three times more common in ECBC houses than in the city as a whole.

"Most remarkably, perhaps, in an existence spanning almost a century and a half, none of the houses built by the ECBC has been demolished."

The exhibition explores a number of issues and uses archival evidence, census and company information, oral interviews, architectural plans, audio tapes and videos, and a database of 19th century residents to reveal the life of the 'Colonies', so- called because of the 'Beehive', the emblem adopted by the Co-operative Movement, which was carved on the end-walls of the houses built by the founding masons in Edinburgh.

Richard Rodger said: "The exhibition shows how academic research can enrich the cultural life of neighbourhoods. It also has direct relevance to the Standard Grade syllabus in Scottish secondary schools and teaching materials are available for secondary and primary teachers.

"It also has enormous relevance for communities today by demonstrating how much can be achieved from mutual help. With our contemporary interest in the short term and immediate results, this type of study shows how efforts to develop local community relations can have durable benefits. One of the lessons of the historical study must be that it always worth investing in local communities."

To accompany the exhibition Richard Rodger has written an 80-page book by the same name: Housing the People: the 'Colonies' of Edinburgh, jointly published by the City of Edinburgh and the Royal Commission of Ancient and Historical Monuments in Scotland.


The Exhibition, admission free, runs from 16 October until 6 January 2000 in the principal exhibition and gallery space in Edinburgh, the City Arts Centre, Market Street, adjacent to Waverley Station. The Exhibition has raised a considerable amount of money from private enterprise, including brewers Scottish and Newcastle, builders such as MacTaggart and Mickel, and EDI - a local enterprise company in Edinburgh.

For more information contact Richard Rodger on 0116 252 2586/2588. Pictures are available from Professor Rodger or via email from the Press Office.

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Information supplied by: Barbara Whiteman
Last updated: 18 October 1999 09:51
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