Property, Poverty and Urban Dynamics

March 3, 2022 | Blog
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by Richard Rodger (University of Edinburgh)

This blog is based on the authors which was recently published on early view:

Children standing in front of tenement in Calton. Available at

In his Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith captured a central dynamic between economic power and urban development. ‘Civil government’, Smith observed, ‘so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or for those who have some property against those who have none at all.’[1]

Poor relief in Scotland was minimalist in comparison to England where the costs of pauperism were met by property owners who paid poor rates.  There was no such system in Scotland. Able-bodied men and childless women were ineligible for poor relief.  Instead, as the Royal Commission on the Poor Law reported in 1844, parsimonious Presbyterianism prospered with the ‘discriminating hand of charity’ used by the kirk to address moral improvement.  As a later account explained:

      1. ‘The law of Scotland… is that when a man has been starved to the point of illness and incapacity to work he may be relieved at the public cost, but so long as he retains so much physical strength that he can be called able-bodied he must be allowed to starve.’

P. Wright, Proc. of Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow, 24, 1894-95, p.61.

The combination of industrialisation and urbanisation put untold stress on the inhabitants of nineteenth century cities which, in the case of Edinburgh, had doubled in population between 1801 and 1831. Boys and girls from one-roomed houses were lighter, smaller, and more susceptible to skeletal and other physical conditions than their classmates from two-roomed homes, who in turn were lighter than those in three-roomed homes, and four-roomed houses, and so on.  Mortality rates were inversely correlated with numbers of inhabitants per room, and thus a proxy for poverty.  A series of cholera epidemics and endemic public health risks induced the byelaw makers – the rich and politically powerful – to accept the case for intervention.

Four major institutional changes ensued in the 1850s.  The Ordinance Survey in 1853 published detailed one inch to the mile urban maps which enhanced the legibility of the city. The Registrar-General for Scotland collected and published details of births, deaths, and marriages and thereby facilitated statistical analyses of mortality from 1855.  Edinburgh became a unitary authority for the first time in 1856 by consolidating a number of minor jurisdictions.  And an entirely new local tax base was created by the Act for the Valuation of Lands and Heritages in Scotland 1854. This stated that, ‘One uniform Valuation be established’ in Scotland and that assessments in each burgh and county were to be levied according to the ‘Real Rent’ of such lands and buildings, which were to be ‘annually revised.’

The Valuation Act provided the authority for robust administrative data collection which in 1860 yielded a city-wide dataset of 33,996 rents for residential properties (Figure 1).  Excluding institutional, trust, and tied homes, provides a database of 26,499 owner-occupied and tenanted residential properties in Edinburgh.  Since every property was assigned a current market value, irrespective of tenure (whether owner-occupied, tenanted or ‘tied’) a number of revealing patterns and relationships can be identified in relation to the internal structure of property and power in the city.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the valuation data is the possibility to make fine distinctions between the average annual rents paid by several hundred trades and professions  (Figure 2). The affordability of rent had to be carefully and conservatively calibrated relative to incomes since in Scotland rentals were fixed for a year from Whitsunday.  To default on payments was to risk distraint of tools and house furnishings by the landlord in lieu of rent.  Eviction was an omnipresent reality.

Figure 1. Annual Rents of Selected Streets, Edinburgh 1860. Source: per article

Female property ownership is one example of the fine grain of the rental valuation data. Overall, women owned 23 per cent of the number and value of Edinburgh properties, and obtained average rents 1.3% above that of male landlords. Property held exclusively by married, widowed or unmarried women (i.e. not jointly with men) was virtually identical (each 29 per cent), though unmarried women obtained rents averaging between £2 and £4 p.a., per property more than their sisterhood.

Figure 2. Annual Rents of Selected Occupations, Edinburgh 1860. Source: per article

While an analysis of Valuation Rolls significantly advances an understanding of the dynamic elements and socio-economic composition of the city in the second half of the nineteenth century, historically it also provided a predictable, more equitable, index-linked source of municipal funding. This in itself this was a source of reassurance to the British Treasury that interest and capital on loans obtained by civic authorities from the Public Works Loan Board for capital projects could be repaid. Similarly, when subscribing to municipal bonds, local investors were assured of annual dividends for local capital projects, and in so doing, the Valuation system preserved a degree of civic autonomy. Perhaps there are some 21st century lessons here?


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[1]       Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Book V. part  II.