History of the Blacket Conservation Area
Making way for the villas
For many years Edinburgh's expansion was held back within the walls of the Old Town. These constraints, however, began to be loosened from the mid-18th century, with the development of the New Town to the North and access to it facilitated by the construction of both the Mound and, at the east end of Princes Street, the new North - and soon, South - Bridges (crossing the old Nor Loch area, now occupied by Princes Street Gardens and Waverly Station). The next wave of expansion was to be prompted, at the beginning of the 19th century, by the further extension south of the new Bridge road, whose route bisected the lands of Newington, within which what is presently known as the Blacket Conservation Area is located. There it was that Edinburgh's first real suburban villa-scape was to be created.
Bell and Newington House
The central part of the site which makes up the Blacket Conservation Area was acquired - in its then largely rural - form, as the 'lands of Newington' by the distinguished Edinburgh surgeon, Benjamin Bell of Hunthill, in 1803. Here, in 1805, he built his own mansion, Newington House (see illustration), in fine landscaped grounds and also set about establishing the City's first large-scale residential development to the south, where those with the resources might realise “the desire for a house like one for a country gentleman, but more modest and closer to the life of the town”.
Bell, however, died within three years, probably before his own mansion was fully completed. Newington House was then purchased by Sir George, Stewart, who held it until 1822, under an arrangement allowing part of its grounds to be disposed of for building, subject to the firm constraints which had already been placed upon any commercial developments.
The early houses
In the meantime Bell's son, George, was proceeding with developments on other parts of the Blacket site and it was within the first twenty-five years of the 19th century that houses were erected along each side of the new Minto Street. Also over this period terraced houses and villas were being developed along Gray Street and the surrounding side streets to the west of Minto.
Plans for the “five streets”
Then, in the 1820s, George Bell commissioned James Gillespie Graham - who had been responsible for planning Moray Place in the New Town - to draw up plans for a series of new streets to the east of Minto, over an area which was, in a subsequent promotion, to be described as commanding “the best access and drainage supplied with water from the public pipes...within the bounds of police, and, well watched and lighted”. The result was to be a grid, laying out 'five streets', between the two north-south highways of Minto Street and Dalkeith Road, comprising, Blacket Place and Blacket Avenue, Alfred Place, Dryden Place, and Ross Street - later renamed Mayfield Terrace.
The plans provided for a range of, mostly, detached and semi-detached residences, each with their own gardens, within what was, in effect, an early 'gated community', surrounded by high stone walls and guarded by lodge-keepers, housed in smaller gatehouses, at each of the five main entrances to the site. The feu charter sought to ensure the maintenance of residential amenity by banning "any manufactory of soot or blood, breweries, distilleries, tan works, kilns or any manufactory which could be regarded as a nuisance."
Edinburgh’s first villa-based inner suburb
Thus, over about fifty years from the 1820s on, starting in Blacket Place, was born Edinburgh's first garden villa-based inner suburb. The gothic entry gates and lodgekeepers are long gone (though most of the gatehouses and ornamental gate-pillars remain), but the area still retains much of its original residential coherence and profuse greenery.
Some of the dwellings and residents
In an area characterised, for the most part, by handsomely-designed and built stone villas, there are several Grade 'A'-listed buildings of national/international importance including: the fine Arthur Lodge (1827-1830, architect possibly Thomas Hamilton, designer of the old Royal High School on Calton Hill) on the corner of Blacket Place and Dalkeith Road (Andrew Usher, the Edinburgh brewer and donor of the Usher Hall once lived here); and 23 & 25 Blacket Place, with their characteristic multi-coloured stone detailing (architect Sir James Gowans). There are also many more Grade 'B' and 'C'-listed properties.
Belleville Lodge (now a nursing home), at the junction of Blacket Avenue and Blacket Place, had one of the largest gardens on the site (in which a cow was kept in the 1880s - though the neighbours drew the line at a new-build byre). Some of the villas have also housed the famous: David Octavius Hill, the pioneer photographer, who helped found the Royal Scottish Academy, lived in Newington Lodge, on the corner of Mayfield Terrace and Dalkeith Road. Dr Joseph Bell, the inspiring teacher of Arthur Conan Doyle and, allegedly, an early model for Sherlock Holmes, was the first resident of 44 Blacket Place. 16 Blacket Place was the one-time home of Dr Hans Gal, the composer and musicologist. For nearly 50 years, until 1986, Mary Newberry, daughter of the Director of the Glasgow School of Art and one of the last personal acquaintances of Charles Rennie Macintosh, lived at 13 South Gray Street.
Bell's Newington House on Blacket Avenue, was later to be occupied by Dr J Bartholomew of the famous map-making firm, whose neo-classical Edinburgh Geological Institute (now converted to apartments, as Bartholomew House) was opened in nearby Duncan Street in 1911. From 1915, Newington House became a centre for the Scottish National Institute for the War Blinded but eventually fell into disrepair and was demolished in the 1960s (The site was then purchased by the University, which built student flats there).
Across Dalkeith Road.
To the east of Dalkeith Road within the boundaries of the Blacket Conservation Area, lie several major buildings, two of note which are in University of Edinburgh ownership. The 18th century Salisbury Green Mansion, set within the Pollock Halls site, and the fine early Victorian Abden House, off Marchall Place (both of which now form part of the University's student accommodation and conference/function facilities. Abden House, until the 1960s, was the official residence of the University's Principal & Vice-Chancellor
Across Minto Street.
To the west of Minto Street, on the other side of the Conservation Area, is the district covered by the West Blacket Association, comprising both sides of Minto, Gray and Middleby Streets, much of Duncan Street, the south side of Salisbury Place and the north side of much of West Mayfield. The area is principally - but not exclusively - residential, containing, in addition to the handsome early 19th century villas and terraced houses, a number of commercial enterprises and public buildings, most notably in the form of the modern National Library of Scotland centre, at the corner of Salisbury Place and Causewayside.