This thread was originally written and published in January 2022. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.
I got a new book, which is really, really interesting, not just about school buildings themselves, but about the social history that goes hand in hand with them. It’s a real work of labour and love by someone who spent much of their working life in Education in Edinburgh.
Our starting point and the starting point of the book is in 1872, the year of the Education (Scotland) Act 1872, which made primary education in Scotland mandatory between the ages of 5 to 13 (although not yet free). Previously education had variously been administered largely by the various Churches – predominantly the Church of Scotland and Free Church of Scotland – various burgh and parish bodies, charitable trusts etc. The Act consolidated this provision into some 1,000 local School Boards, which found themselves with a huge and varied array of school building stock.
Edinburgh and Leith each had their own School Boards, and they set about building programmes of new schools to meet the demand to educate the 18% of children who were not in regular education, as well as to replace the old and substandard facilities they had inherited. The School Boards were responding both to legislation and the societal pressures at the time.
And what is very relevant to the current day is the efforts they went to in utilising school building design in responding to infectious diseases. This became something of a guiding obsession for the Edinburgh and Leith School Board (later the Education Authority, and later again the Corporation Education Department) architects the first half of the 20th century; the physical structure and layout of schools was brought into service as a weapon in the war against infections diseases such as Tuberculosis, Cholera, Typhus etc.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Edinburgh School Board “Public School*” was typified by Albion Road (later Norton Park). These were handsome, imposing, multistorey monuments to education, frequently crammed in with auite some skill on the part of the architects to small and irregularly shaped plots in densly populated urban neighbourhoods. The capacity was usually around 800-1000 children.
* = note, in Scotland a Public School is a state school open to the general public, as opposed to England where it is a fee-paying one, public only in the sense it was open to pupils who could pay, rather than based on their religion or parental trade or profession.
The goal of these schools was to provide bums-on-seats capacity to educate to an ever-expanding school roll. Their planners imagined them as permanent monuments and as such the build quality was high and their finish was grand and monumental.
At the same time in Edinburgh, the “the crusade against” Tuberculosis was being pioneered by Doctor Robert William Philip (later Sir Robert). He pioneered a coordinated, multi-disciplinary approach to fighting TB. He opened the world’s first TB clinic at 13 Bank Street in the Old Town in 1887. In 1894 he opened the Victoria Hospital for Consumption (TB) in Craigleith House, which would soon grow to become the Royal Victoria Hospital for Consumption, a roll it would perform until it became a geriatric hospital in the 1960s.
Dr Philip’s integrated approach was “to isolate patients from family and friends and offer sun, fresh air and exercise“. By 1906 this provision in the City had expanded to include the City Hospital on the southern outskirts and even a farm in Polton, Midlothian, for occupational isolation. Robert Morham, the City Architect who designed the City Hospital, worked on the principal of Robert Koch that “sunlight is the great germicide“.
The British Government would not formally adopt Philip’s approach until 1912, so Edinburgh really was at the cutting edge of response and treatment at the time. The city had an unusually high rate of TB; but that’s because Philip was so successful in identifying and recording it. The post-1872 Public Schools that the School Boards had built had always paid attention to ventilation as a result of the Victorian public health obsession with miasma (“bad air”), and also there was a fundamental snobbishness about the “unpleasant odors” of poor children. Look closely at the schools of this time and there are ventilators – both hidden and decorative – everywhere.
Those ventilation cowls often hid mechanical extractors, such as Archimedes screws.
Voluntary notification for TB started in 1903 in Edinburgh. In 1907 it was made compulsory, 5 years before this was the case nationally. In 1907 Scotland’s first School Medical Officer was hired. A quest for clean air in Edinburgh’s schools started in 1906 with air quality testing. In a pioneering response, the health and education authorities worked together to tackle TB from all angles. In 1910 an awareness conference was organised for teachers and senior pupils. In 1911, 20,000 free calendars were given away in a “Crusade Against Consumption” campaign. Recognising the role that malnutrition had in weakening the immune system, in 1911 a “feeding centre” was established in a surplus school building in Fountainbridge to provide free school meals for needy children. This later expanded into a “penny meals” service for those who could afford to pay a little.
The authorities were of the conviction that you could actually stamp out a disease, not just treat its symptoms. And they saw the public health and the education departments as the tools to do this. Next, they turned their attention to the school buildings themselves. In 1904 an “open air schools movement” had started in Charlottenburg near Berlin with the Waldschule für kränkliche Kinder (“Forest School for Sickly Children”). Children were taught outside where possible and the building was designed to allow as much of the outside in as possible.
Edinburgh was not slow to recognise the possibilities and in 1911 six members of the School Board were sent on a fact-finding mission to Cologne, Munich, Zurich, Paris and Middlesex to see how to do it for themselves. On their return, such was the impression that was made that at a stroke, school design in Edinburgh changed forever. While the fully outdoor system was rejected on account of the city being “a northern temple of the winds“, they found other ways to implement its basic theories.
The new schools would be built on larger plots so that they could be just one or two storeys tall. They would be a single classroom deep to allow cross-ventilation and natural lighting from both sides. The buildings would be on the north of the plot to put the playground in the warmth and light of the sun on the south. They also looked at schools as being less permanent temples to education, but more transient. They should be adaptable, cheaper to build, have room to expand as required. Bricks, wood and glass wood take over from the traditional, solidly conservative Scots masonry.
The first of these new schools are typified by Balgreen and Stenhouse. They were only 2 storeys, with expansive glazing to the south and (originally) open verandas to the north. The classrooms were arranged along a “spine” for through ventilation with facilities such as offices, cupboards and toilets at the ends. They were built of brick and steel, but the conservative outlook of the authorities was impressed upon its architects and they still had traditional slate roofs and ventilator cowls, bricks hidden behind harling and restrained classical ornamentations in stone. They were designed for the City Corporation by the former School Board architect, John Alexander Carfrae.
Carfrae was the architect for the School Board of Tollcross Primary School in 1911, and while it featured external walkways and verandas to the rear, this was more about the access to the classroom being in the open air – a rather common Victorian feature in “sanitary” housing for the working classes – rather than the wider ideas about layout employed in Balgreen and Stenhouse.
The City Architects developed these ideas further into a “standard” school, with the south facing playground and classrooms, two storeys with facilities but to the rear / north, but arranged as open arms rather than a spine. Craigentinny, Craigmillar, St. Francis’, Granton and other schools all followed this pattern.
The adoption of this standardised design and the new construction methods also reduced costs. The 700 capacity Stenhouse and Balgreen came in at £43 per pupil. The “standard” schools of 800-1000 pupils reduced it to £27-32. But although the architects and accountants had gotten the upper hand in those designs, those desirous of a more pure interpretation of the “open air movement” managed to get their way with one school, that of Prestonfield.
The design of Prestonfield was “outsourced” to the Derbyshire school architect Bernard Widdows and even the casual eye can see from the map how different it is, arranged on a courtyard with all round verandas.
Apart from the ends of the public façade to the south, it’s a single storey, almost unique at the time for Edinburgh. As an English architect, Widdows was confident enough of in the use of his materials not to hide the bricks away behind harling. The red tiled roof was also a novelty. There were wide verandahs along the sides (now boxed in), with folding glass doors on the inside of the courtyard to open the rooms up to the fresh air. Three miles of underfloor heating pipes kept the place warm and children were encouraged to sit on the floor as a result.
The inner courtyard had a sculpture in its centre, and each classroom was given a unique colour. Sadly all this came at an expense, and at £50 per head – almost double that of the City Architect’s “standard” – the experiment was a one-off. But all these schools were fundamentally the concept of the pavilion wards of Dr Philip’s consumption hospitals in a classroom format.
These principals also carried over to nurseries for the poorer neighbourhoods, including the Princess Elizabeth Child Garden of 1929 in Niddrie, again with the open verandas.
And in 1935 the Children’s House, also in Niddrie – Niddrie was where many people relocated from the slum clearances of the insanitary Old Town and St. Leonard’s were rehoused, and they brought the health problems inherited from their old neighbourhoods with them. You can see how the whole windows swing out and each room has a door onto the playground.
Robert Philip died in 1939 at the age of 81. In his later years he declared TB to be “on the run” in Scotland. Since 1901 the death-rate for pulmonary TB in Edinburgh fell from 165 per 100k population to 48 per 100k in 1950 and from non-pulmonary TB from 87 per 100k to 5 per 100k.
Philip made took all sorts of enlightened approaches to his “crusade”, one of which was hiring Miss Agnes Craig in 1906 as a health visitor. Edinburgh (and perhaps Scotland’s) first female public health visitor. It was Agnes’ job to go into the home and explain and persuade people (mainly women) to implement preventative measures. “Her tall and stately figure was a familiar one in working class districts where she proved to be a welcome and understanding visitor.”
Dr Phillip’s Royal Victoria organisation was merged with the City’s public health department in 1913 and Agnes continued her work, retiring in 1934 after 28 years’ tireless service. We are very lucky to have a picture of her at her work in a 1950 report by the Corporation.
Anyway, the moral of the story is that over 100 years ago they knew about the importance of an integrated public health response and good ventilation and school design to combat airborne infectious diseases. And they did something about it.
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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur
[…] A previous thread looked at how Edinburgh’s school planners and public health officials utilised the design and layout of schools in the war against infectious diseases in their Crusade Against Consumption (Tuberculosis). But they were also designed to try and stamp out something else; left-handedness! […]
[…] time; there was a real concern about the spread of infectious diseases, particularly tuberculosis, and huge efforts were being made in school design to try and deal with it. It also reduced costs as internal corridors were not […]