‘Slum Housing’ to Museum: The History of 12 North Street
12 North Street is an important building for exploring the social history of St Andrews. Once the site of terrible living conditions for generations of fisher families, its restoration is an excellent example of early building preservation in Scotland
The recorded ownership of a property at 12 North Street can be traced back to the sale of a house on the site in 1723, with a building possibly existing as far back as the late 1500s. The house was mainly let out to local fisherfolk by wealthy merchant landlords. It was divided into four rooms that housed up to ten people each. There was no running water, with an outside toilet and washhouse shared between 8 families. These ‘slum housing’ conditions reflected the poverty of the fishing community located at this end of St Andrews, traditionally known as the Ladyhead. In 1935, the local council marked the house for demolition.
The house was purchased in 1937 by James Scott, a local architect, saving it from demolition. Scott’s renovation combined both 12-16 North Street and 18-20 North Street into a single house. The original style of the building was largely retained, although the internal spaces were altered. Several tenants stayed with Scott during his ownership, including Polish soldiers billeted in St Andrews during the Second World War (1939 – 1945). The house was also a popular venue for local artists to collaborate throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
The property was sold to St Andrews Preservation Trust in 1961 with numbers 18-20 being sold privately by the Trust. In 1982, the Trust converted the house into a museum. As a large presence in the lives of generations of local families, the house was a perfect setting for amplifying local histories.
“the alterations which have been affected comprise one of the best illustrations of what can be done towards preserving old buildings I have ever seen.” Medical Officer of Health (June 1938)
Front entrance of 12-16 North Street in 1937 with its three front doors. The lime harling on the exterior walls was removed during the 1937-38 restoration to protect the stonework. Photographer: G Bottomley (Nor.S 126)
Timeline in vinyl for wall:
1723 12-16 North Street sold by Alexander Bell, first recorded owner
1842 Dr John Adamson reports unsanitary conditions at east end of North Street
1935 Town Council recommends demolition of 12-20 North Street, as part of ‘Slum Clearances’
1937 12-20 North Street purchased and restored by James Hoey Scott
1961 St Andrews Preservation Trust purchases 12-20 North Street
1982 Preservation Trust open public museum at 12 North Street
Although evidence suggests that a building existed on this site during the late mediaeval period, it is likely that 12 – 20 North Street was built in the late 17th century.
The earliest recorded owner of the house was Alexander Bell in 1723. Six separate owners followed before it became the museum you stand in today. One of these owners was Alexander Kay, a local grocer and tradesman. In 1937, ten years after his death, his wife Mary sold the family home to the architect James Hoey Scott, who sympathetically restored the house.
The oldest window in the property is that on the right of the fire escape on the first floor. On the ground floor, the inner entrance door is original.
The census records of 1851-91 indicate that 12-16 North Street was a four-roomed dwelling, each room containing one family of up to eight persons. They tended to be owned by wealthy tradesmen who let the properties to fisher families. In 1842, a report for the Poor Law Commission illustrated the poor sanitation and overcrowding endured by the inhabitants.
‘The east end of North Street… is covered with offal of every kind and upon the back of many of the houses there are dung-hills filled with mussel-shells, dung from pigsties, &c’.
In 1936, another report stated that 12 – 20 North Street, “ is unfit for human habitation. Action should accordingly be taken under section 16” – section 16 being a demolition order.
Clearances of Houses
Between 1933 and 1938 the Town Council undertook a programme for dealing with insanitary houses. Many old houses were demolished.
In 1937, the year that The St Andrews Preservation Trust was founded, local architect James Hoey Scott, submitted plans to the Town Council for the reconstruction of 12-20 North Street. Although Scott’s plans were somewhat idealistic, they served as a good example to other restorers and to the newly-formed Preservation Trust.
Scott plans would see the conversion of eight dwellings into one house. This was the first attempt in St Andrews to preserve the characteristic features of burgh architecture. It was one of the earliest such restorations in Scotland.
The plans were passed by the Council who relaxed the provisions which required ceiling heights to be no lower than 8 feet. This allowed Scott to retain the original ceiling heights on the ground floor.
A keen antiquarian and painter, Scott wanted to keep many original features. The memel joists and panelled doors, probably added in the eighteenth century, were retained. The joists were left exposed, and on the first floor the attic floor was largely removed to create a drawing room open to the roof beams. Depsite retaining some period features, the interiors were altered considerably in order to modernise them and create one house. The front garden is a later addition, and the extension at the rear of the house, which Scott referred to as, ‘the sun room’, now houses the chemist shop display.
Once the restoration was complete, a medical officer reported to the Town Council in June 1938 that it was, ‘the best illustration of what can be done towards preserving old buildings I have ever seen’.
The establishment of a town museum was first mentioned in St Andrews Preservation Trust minutes in 1956. The Trust obtained the building in 1962.
James Scott first offered 20 North Street to the Trust at the cost of £5000. After enquiring as to whether Mr Scott had any objections, it was agreed to convert the property back into two separate properties and to sell 18-20. The Trust purchased 20 North Street from Mr Scott at a cost of £5000, and it was agreed that the property at 18-20 should be sold for no less that £3000. Miss Janet Low, of the famous Dundee supermarket chain William Lows, funded the conversion.
In 1962, the St Andrews Preservation Trust divided 12-16 and 18-20 into two self-contained buildings. The first building was to serve as the Trust’s headquarters, while the second was sold as a privately owned house, subject to conditions to safeguard its architectural features in the future.
Life as a Museum
For many years, members of the Trust staged Summer Exhibitions in 12 North Street. The popularity of these, and the increasing number of bequests, led to the establishment of a permanent museum in 1981, at the time, the only public museum in St Andrews. The museum’s first full season was in 1983 and in 1991, the first full-time curator was appointed.