Dundee Society in the 19th Century


By the Late Bill Dow

In 1871, the Dundee Police Commissioners received approval for their latest Town Improvement Act. It was the most comprehensive and far-reaching Act that had been drawn up for Dundee until that time and dealt with four main areas which may be summarised as follows:

  1. Previous Improvement Acts

The Act confirmed that there had been previous Improve­ment Acts for Dundee. It named certain of these acts and stated that certain paragraphs in these acts were still valid, whilst other paragraphs were now being withdrawn or replaced.

  1. Improved Conditions

Living conditions for many Dundonians were bad and there was a high incidence of illnesses such as tuberculosis (consumption). To alleviate these conditions, all new houses to be built along the new streets would require to meet certain minimum requirements. The floor to ceiling height would require to be a minimum of 9' 6" for ground floors, and 9' for the upper floors; buildings could have a basement (but not for habitation), a ground floor, a maxi­mum of three floors on top, and a maximum of one floor of attics.
A new slaughter house and a new market for animals would be built to replace the existing market in Lochee Road.
A new water supply would be provided from Lintrathen Loch and the Loch itself enlarged. A separate Act was raised and approved for this water supply, but the plans are bound in the same book as the plans for the new roads in (3).

  1. New Roads

Several new roads were to be created, whilst others were to be considerably upgraded. The Act specified start and .finish points for each of the new roads.

  1. Reorganisation of Wards for Dundee Town Council

The existing three wards were to be abolished and replaced by eight new wards. Each serving councillor was allocated to one of the new wards and future election arrangements were given.

In this lecture, we are mainly concerned with the new roads and the buildings erected along them. Some earlier attempts at road building require attention first. Dundee's traditional road system consisted of High Street, Nethergate, Overgate, Cowgate, Murraygate, Seagate and Wellgate.
In 1790 Union Street was planned to go to the harbour to augment Castle Street. A map dated 1793 shows properties requiring acquisition and demolition, but the street was not yet built.
In 1825 an Act was procured to enable the building of Union Street, Reform Street, Panmure Street, Meadowside and Ward Road.

Union Street was built soon afterwards and the southern portion of Reform Street dates from 1832. Twenty years after the Act, however, Edwards' 1845 map shows vacant feus along virtually the entire lengths of Panmure Street, Ward Road and Meadowside, as well as the northern half of Reform Street.
In 1851, another Act permitted the building of drains and sewers under most of the streets in the town thus vastly extending the original primitive and inadequate system. Interestingly, the drains and sewers came about 20 years after gas was first piped to Dundonians and about eight to ten years after fresh water was first piped from Monikie to Stobswell.
Gas lighting and piped water could be supplied only to people who could afford to pay for such luxuries. Because of the rapid expansion of the town during the 1840s, 50s, and 60s, mainly outwards into green fields, the three service systems were still far from complete in 1871.
The central, traditional streets were narrow, uneven, and, by 1870, unable to cope with traffic. Thus the 1871 Act aims to relieve the congestion by constructing new streets and thus creating 'through' routes. The streets were not named, but their start and finish locations were given - hence we can identify the streets by their present names. They are:

  1. Victoria Bridge and the western end of Victoria Street
  2. Victoria Road replacing Bucklemaker Wynd and running through the Ladywell to a junction with Bell Street
  3. Commercial Street from Meadowside to Dock Street - the portion from Meadowside to Castlehill was new, the part from Castlehill to Dock Street was widened
  4. Seagate and Murraygate to be realigned and widened at their western ends and junctions with High Street
  5. Gellatly Street to be widened and extended from Seagate to Dock Street
  6. Guthrie Street to be extended to join Scouring Burn at its junction with Daniel Street
  7. A street to be constructed between Union Street and the Greenmarket
  8. A street to be constructed from this last street to High Street
  9. The Halls at the east and west ends of High Street to be demolished
  10. The access from Nethergate to High Street to be widened
  11. Couttie's Wynd to be widened - to its present width!

Streets (vii) and (viii) are now Whitehall Crescent and Whitehall Street respectively, but their present layouts were achieved only after numerous options were considered.
Slides were shown of all these streets, most dating from when they were new.
All the new streets were paved initially with granite 'setts', placed in sand and surrounded with tar. This is to be compared with the modern High Street and Murraygate where the new granite blocks are placed on reinforced concrete rafts and surrounded by cement. Presumably no Clydesdale horses with iron shoes and pulling carts with iron rimmed wheels are to be allowed over the present High Street!

As well as showing the new streets, additional plans showed how the ground on both sides of each new street was to be divided into suitable sized plots for feuing. Many buildings were designed privately but the plans had to be submitted to the Burgh Surveyor for approval. This resulted in a fairly uniform external design for buildings in Commercial Street, Whitehall Street and the widened portions of Seagate and Murraygate.
In Victoria Road, only the Victoria Chambers, between Hilltown and the present Ring Road, showed this 'standardised' design favoured by Mackeson. The tenements and factories along both sides of Victoria Road show a variety of different designs.
Virtually all the new buildings had ceiling heights in excess of the minimum standards. Ground floor rooms had ceiling heights of around 11 feet, while those on upper floors had heights of 10 feet to 10 feet 6 inches. Ceilings on the ground floor of modern buildings are eight feet high and seven feet nine inches on upper floors. The high ceilings gave a large volume of air in each room and this was believed to cut down the chances of infection from consumption.
The Dundee Directories of the 1870s, 80s and 90s show that shops such as G L Wilson's, confined originally to the ground floors and basements, spread upwards over the years through acquisition of the flats above. The upper floors provided residences, mainly three or four roomed houses with lavatories and, in some cases, bathrooms. With virtually no public transport system, it made sense to stay in an up-market house in the middle of the town. However, as public transport became more widely available from the 1880's, the central shops flourished, particularly on Saturdays, and their expansion became a priority. Since all the ground floor space had been leased, the additional space was obtained by absorbing the tenements above.

Draffens and Justices, between them, acquired the upper floors of the west side of Whitehall Street with the exception of the floors served by close No 11, which are owned to this day by solicitors.
At the sides of the new roads, the only buildings which broke the rule about a ground floor and three upper storeys were those built on the south side of Whitehall Crescent on both sides of the Gilfillan Church. The Tay Centre Hotel, formerly Mathers, and the General Accident office both have four storeys above the ground floor and the hotel has an additional attic.
Victoria Street, the Bridge, and Victoria Road were all built by 1878 when lines were laid in them for steam trams. Commercial Street, Seagate and Murraygate were complete by about 1880 but the erection of buildings continued into the 1880s.
Whitehall Street and Whitehall Crescent date from the late 1880s.
Were our Victorian ancestors merely interested in architectural and artistic improvement of the town? Up to a point, yes; but beyond that point the interest was in profit.

The 'give-away' is the route by which Victoria Road joins Meadowside. From Dock Street, where cargoes were unloaded from ships, Commercial Street is easily graded but Meadowside, which is virtually level to Bell Street, becomes steep - formerly 1 in 11 to Victoria Road. So our ancestors brought Victoria Road down to meet the widened east end of Bell Street about 80 yards from its east end. By doing this, they avoided the steepest part of Meadowside and created an inclined plane, with a maximum gradient of about 1 in.20, to run from Dock Street to Victoria Bridge.
A Clydesdale horse could now pull its cart and four jute bales from the docks to Victoria Bridge without the use of trace horses. Many of the new jute works were just beyond the Bridge. The horse's reward was a drink from the horse trough at the top of Victoria Road. Even in the 1930s, when there was considerable motor traffic, it was common to see three or four horses following each other up the incline and then crossing over to the wrong side of the road to drink at the trough. Their carts formed quite an obstruction to south-bound traffic.

In the west, by extending Guthrie Street, a very easy inclined plane was created through Whitehall Crescent, Whitehall Street, Nethergate, Lindsay Street, Ward Road and Guthrie Street to the jute works around the Lower Pleasance, Douglas Street and Session Street.
The end result was good buildings and extremely useful streets. Unfortunately with the exception of Victoria Road, Victoria Bridge and Victoria Street, the whole lot will become redundant when the area within the inner ring road becomes a pedestrian precinct, and the town centre becomes a desert.


Iain D. McIntosh, 2022