This blog explores the story of the Thistle Property Trust's work in refurbishing the Top of the Town, led by architect Eric S. Bell, and the subsequent redevelopment by town planner Frank Mears.
John Allan & Social Reform
In 19th century Stirling, several prominent architects emerged and shaped the architecture of the burgh, including John Allan, who had moved from Fife in 1870. Living at the Top of the Town, he became an advocate for housing improvement and social reform. Around 1883, he published A Practical Guide on Healthy Houses and Sanitary Reform, written to be “available for all classes”. He believed that physical and mental health went hand-in-hand with improved and affordable housing for all.
There are dwellings in Stirling, where in these days of cruelty to animals is forbidden, no-one would house a dog, or a horse, if he wished to maintain its health. Fancy infants born, dying and bred up under such conditions? (Letter from John Allan to Stirling Observer, Saturday 17 Jan.1914)
You can find out more about John Allan and his work by downloading our publication on Allan, John Allan: A Man of Original Ideas, or visiting our online exhibition.
The Thistle Property Trust and Eric S. Bell
The Top of the Town’s decline began as far back as 1603, when King James VI of Scotland was also crowned King James I of England. He promised to return to Scotland every three years after his coronation at Westminster, but he only returned once before his death in 1625. Without a monarch and a court, the wealthy noble residents of the Top of the Town departed, but the population of Stirling continued to increase as Scotland became more industrialised. The top of the town’s once grand buildings were then subdivided into housing for the city’s workers.
In the 19th century new green suburbs with wide streets were being created for Stirling’s middle-classes, and tenements and cottages were built for the less wealthy. Stirling was advertised as a healthy alternative to living in smoggy cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh, and travel across Scotland became much easier when a railway station was opened in Stirling in 1848. Despite the increasing wealth of Stirling’s middle classes, the conditions in the Top of the Town worsened. By the 1920s, the medieval buildings were crumbling after years of neglect and the area had become a densely populated slum.
Photograph of Eric S. Bell taken c.1933-1935. Courtesy of The Stirling Smith Art Gallery & Museum.
St Mary’s Wynd, which had some of the worst living conditions in Stirling, looking towards Broad Street, taken in the 1920s. Courtesy of The Stirling Smith Art Gallery & Museum.
Baker Street. Courtesy of The Stirling Smith Art Gallery & Museum.
On 7th December 1928, Scotland’s first property trust was formed in Stirling. The Thistle Property Trust (TPT) purchased and refurbished the historic buildings in the Top of the Town area to provide decent and affordable family homes. The driving force behind the TPT was the Stirling branch of the National Council of Women, which was founded in 1895 in response to poor working conditions for women at the time. The TPT also created allotments in the St John Street area and installed a merry-go-round for local children. In a future blog post we’ll find out more about the pioneering women who established and ran the TPT.
The TPT were selective; they did not “take over any and every property”, it had to be “bad enough to need overhauling” and also “good enough to be worth the effort.” The TPT believed that “such old property when rendered sanitary is better that any new ‘flimsy’ which can be offered as an alternative”, as the traditional buildings were “stronger, less liable to be damaged”, cheaper than constructing new housing, and more convenient as they were located nearer to their tenants’ work. (Excerpts from The Scotsman, Monday 29 April, 1929, “New Housing Crusade in Stirling”)
By 1933, the TPT had reconditioned an impressive 44 houses, housing 55 people. At this point, many inhabitants of the Top of the Town were moving out to newly built council housing, some of which were designed by Eric S. Bell, who was also the TPT’s architect.
Born in 1884 in Warrington, Bell’s father was Colonel William Bell of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who had been stationed at Stirling Castle since 1881. In 1903, Eric S. Bell was working for Glasgow architects John Burnet & Son whilst studying at Glasgow School of Art and, during the First World War, he served as Captain in the Gordon Highlanders. Post-war, Bell began practicing as an architect in Stirling, becoming the architect for the TPT as well as the first President of the Stirling Society of Architects. He was also a Trustee of The Stirling Smith Art Gallery & Museum. He died at his home in Stirling in 1973 and fittingly, he was buried in the Valley Cemetery in the Top of the Town.
You can find out more about the modern ‘Scotstyle’ social housing being designed by architects including Eric S. Bell via this Stirling Archives blog post: Homes fit for heroes - Raploch Housing plans, 1937 (stirlingarchives.scot)
Jubilee Housing, Raploch. Courtesy of Stirling Archives
Frank Mears plan for the rebuilding of Baker Street, c.1940. Courtesy of The Stirling Smith Art Gallery & Museum
Broad Street Elevations. Courtesy of Stirling Archives
Despite the enormous efforts made by the TPT, Stirling Burgh made a compulsory purchase of a large number of properties in the Top of the Town. Sir Frank Mears, an innovative town planner, was responsible for the redevelopment of the Top of the Town between 1936-1953. He aspired to create modern cities which retained and conserved significant buildings, with sympathetic design and materials to be used in new buildings within historic areas. Mears was inspired by his Father-in-Law, Patrick Geddes, whose work in Town Planning in Edinburgh made him internationally renowned. Mears’ designs were completed by his partner Robert Naismith and Stirling Burgh Architect Walter Gillespie after Frank Mears death in 1953. Mears created plans for new housing to replace the demolished buildings, following the lines of the earlier streets. His designs also incorporated vernacular features like crow- stepped and Dutch Gables, and used traditional materials such as slate.
Whilst the work carried out by Frank Mears and his colleagues in the middle of the 20th century was pioneering, the approach taken would differ from current planning ideas. If it was designed today, an area like this would have more mixed-use commercial units on the ground floor, as well as more public green spaces.
Stay tuned for our blog post on the women who ran the Thistle Property Trust.