The thread about the secret network of cables and pulleys hidden in your tenement walls, what they were for and how these flats have evolved over time

This thread was originally written and published in February 2020. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.

Go into the stairwell landing of a Victorian or Edwardian Edinburgh tenement and you will probably find a brass handle that looks a bit like this.

A brass handle in a tenement stair landing.
A brass handle in a tenement stair landing.

These are lifting handles for the outer stair door downstairs; pull the handle and via an elaborate system of cables, conduits, bellcranks and pulleys buried in the tenement wall, and you could magically open the front door from the comfort of your own landing.

Remains of a bell crank and cable on the ground floor passageway wall of a tenement flat.
Remains of a bell crank and cable on the ground floor passageway wall of a tenement flat.

Look down at the front door and you may be lucky to see a conduit exiting the wall and a large pulley. This is where the cable actuated by that brass handle exited the wall.

A conduit and pulley.
A conduit and pulley.

You can see in the below photo that the system is still in place. The cable actuates a chain, which runs around the large pulley in the wall to the front door. But it does not pull the door open, instead the door has a lifting latch, and through a further cable, pulleys and crank it lifts the latch, allowing the stair door to be opened from the outside.

Picture courtesy of and © Stuart Campbell,

From the outside, you worked it with an “Odell Key” or “French Latch Lifter“. You put your key in the lock and instead of turning, you lifted it, and it lifted the latch if it was the correct shape. These were increasingly common to Scottish tenements from the late 18th century onwards

An Odell key.
An Odell key.

I remember by Auntie Rita’s flat on Largo Place still had these in the mid 1980s. (I think my Mum and Dad might still even have that key. )

In the mid-late Victorian period, new tenements began to get a front door bell-pull system. You can see on the door below the big central hole for the bell pull and cable, where the later nameplate has fallen off. The small holes were for wooden “dooks” into which the fixingscrews went. Look around next to tenement doors, you’ll see these everywhere, some with pulls still.

Blanking plates over the former bell pull positions.
Blanking plates over the former bell pull positions.

When you pulled the outside knob, it pulled on a cable that ran into the wall in a conduit (tin sheet rolled into a tube). It fran first to a spring-loaded bell crank where the motion was changed from a horizontal to a vertical pull. In the stairwell walls you’ll find wooden access covers, inside of which are all the bell cranks and wires for that side of the building. Note the perished strips of tape that marked which cable was for which flat.

Bell cranks within the wall

And here’s what those cables pull on; a bell! The bell crank behind the bell would have been actuated by the cable from the front door bell pull, but also connected to another pull for the front door of the individual flat (n.b. part of this setup is the original, the bell itself is reproduction.)

A traditional tenement doorbell.
A traditional tenement doorbell.

I found the pulley hidden behind paint when we moved in. The pull handle is reproduction

Tenement flat front door bell pull.
Tenement flat front door bell pull.
The pulley for the cable connected to the above bell pull to run it up to the bell itself.
The pulley for the cable connected to the above bell pull to run it up to the bell itself.

So the end-to-end process for visiting a tenement was that your visitor arrived, pulled your bell pull at the front door to the stair and it rang the bell in your flat. You would then go and lift the handle on the landing to let them in the stair door and could check who was coming in by hollering down the stairwell when they entered!

Postmen and milkmen, council workers etc. would often have a skeleton key for the stair door lock. That’s why there’s also a bell pull at your flat door; your caller may have let themselves in downstairs (or as was often the case, the whole system didn’t work without maintenance and the stair front doors were left unlatched).

These systems long ago stopped working properly (you can very rarely find one with most of the bits still in place, it is even rarer that they all still work), and people growing up in tenement flats in the 1950s and 60s often recall that there was no bell or latch system. In modern times they have been replaced by electronic intercoms with a remote release for the stair front door lock.

It is not just entry systems that have evolved over time. Tenement flats themselves have done the same to keep up with changing fashions and attitudes to life. Let’s look at a case study of an evolving tenement over time.

Here we have a mid-1890s tenement flat layout, as it was built, of the sort aimed at the lower-middle classes probably. It has fancy features like a bay window, its own toilet and a bath, hot and cold running water (from a coal back boiler off the kitchen range, and possibly a gas-fired water heater for the bath). And the whole place was plumbed in with gas lighting.

The 1897 tenement, with room for 4 double beds.
The 1897 tenement, with room for 4 double beds.

To the front, we have a large “parlour” with an elaborate fireplace, an “Edinburgh press” (the recessed cupboard in the wall) and a bay window. This is the sort of room for entertaining guests in. Not every day use, so not what we may think of as a “living room”. The Edinburgh presses are interesting in themselves; they are used generally as cupboards or book cases, but they are actually bricked up doorways that were used during construction to allow the builders and tradesmen to pass easily between flats in adjacent blocks.

The Parlour.

To the back, another large room, which combines the functions of kitchen, dining and living rooms. It has a large press/pantry, another “Edinburgh press”, a large coal-fired range with a back boiler for hot water, a Belfast sink in the window and a recess for a double bed.

The main room of the tenement.

This is the room where you do most of your “living”. Apart from the range and the sink, there’s probably no built-in “kitchen units”. Think a sideboard, perhaps a free-standing worktop. There will definitely be a table and chairs to eat at, and perhaps a couple of arm chairs which could be pulled up to the fire. Certainly for the man of the house to have his smoke and read his paper at.

Here we have a very long and narrow bathroom, *just* wide enough to take a toilet and a bathtub. The handbasin was probably over the bathtub in the corner and there may also have been a gas-fired water heater over the bath. Half of the headroom in this room here was taken up by an enormous zinc water header tank. over the bath end of the room.

The bathroom

The master bedroom above has such fancy features as a small fireplace (probably rarely, if ever, used), its own window and a basic cornicing. The only other room with cornice is the Parlour. Generally if you look at a tenement flat, the original importance of the rooms in descending order can be established by looking at the cornicing from biggest and fanciest to smallest to none at all.

There are two “box bedrooms”. These rooms are sized to take a double bed and not much else, there are no external windows, instead there are fanlights into the hallway (box 2) or the adjacent rooms (box 1).

Box bedrooms.

And in the hall there is the “lobby press”. Press is an old Scots word for a cupboad built into a recess (in Scottish Gaelic it is preas, pronounced more or less the same). One of its main functions is to store all that coal for your fire places. No coal? No hot water, no cooking, no heating. There would be boards you could insert and remove as the coal level dropped to better access it. The kitchen press acted as a larder, and was a relatively cool and dark place to keep your food.

The “presses” or cupboards.

So there you go. It’s not a very big place by some standards, but for the time it was. And there was ample room for 4 double beds, or different combinations of such. People had less possessions so needed less storage rooms, so those box rooms weren’t really for boxes.

Over time the flat would have been modernised, with coal ranges being replaced by a fireplace purely for heating, and a gas or electric cooker put in. Electric water heaters would have been added for the kitchen sink, with electric or gas fires to heat the other rooms. But the basic layout remained unchanged for about 100 years.

“Phase 2” of the flat’s evolution. The old kitchen/dining/living room loses its fireplace (where the range was) and becomes the principal bedroom. A gas boiler for hot water and central heating takes over the Edinburgh Press. A modern fitted kitchen is fitted in the 1st Box bedroom, the 2nd becomes a spare room and store room. The “Parlour” becomes the everyday living and dining room. The 1990s flat has 2 double bedrooms.

Phase 2.
Phase 2.

“Phase 3”. The former bed recess in the main bedroom is combined with the old 2nd Box bedroom to form a much larger kitchen, which itself is knocked into the front room to create 1 large open-ish plan cooking/eating/sitting room. Sound familiar? It should, that was the original layout, but reversed.

Phase 3.
Phase 3.

And that odd angle built into the house? That’s because this flat is on the turn of an L-shaped corner building, and it’s not quite a 90 degree join between streets. They ingeniously squeezed a box room and bedroom into the awkward angle, with the stairwell in the core of the building. The basic tenement form was infinitely flexible to different sizes and shapes of building plots, despite the apparent homogeneity of them to modern eyes.

Angles explained

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