Cumberland Street today has a quiet and calm atmosphere, a street of residential Georgian elegance. Yet it also stands as a reminder of how close the city came to losing some of its greatest assets.
The street is part of the northern extension of the original New Town, masterplanned by architects Robert Reid and William Sibbald between 1801-2. As with the first new town there was a hierarchy of streets, with Great King Street and Royal Circus intended as the grandest addresses. The scale and size of Cumberland Street was smaller, with cheaper housing for well off tradesmen. Following on the same royal theme as other New Town streets, it was named after the Duke Cumberland, the fifth son of King George III, famous for his success in defeating Bonnie Prince Charlie at the battle of Culloden in 1746.
The first buildings were designed by Thomas Brown in 1822, but it was not until the 1850s that the street was completed. It consists of three-storey main door tenements, with a few shops added in Victorian times. It is constructed of the same Craigleith sandstone as the rest of the New Town, but there are some distinctions between the west and east side of the street. The west side being slightly grander with more architectural features, such as deep channels between stonework on the ground floor known as ‘rustication’, fan lights and cornices over first floor windows.
The inhabitants of Cumberland Street throughout the 19th century were middling prosperous folk, cabinet makers, tailors, dressmakers and grocers. In the 1840s a teacher of fencing lived at number 24, a Professor of Oboe at number 53 and James Ballantyne an ‘orientalist’ at number 60. But by the 1940s this has started to change. Slowly but surely the tenements were subdivided by landlords eager to increase the rent from their property, and very little was done to repair or improve the facilities.
Things came to a head in the 1960s as the council started a programme of housing improvements, and a report highlighted the alarming state of decay and terrible conditions for the residents. An entire block of Georgian tenements was earmarked for demolition as slum housing. However, in 1973 the newly formed Edinburgh New Town Conservation Committee stepped in to save the street, and managed to convince the council that the cost of repairing the tenements would be substantially less than demolition and rebuilding. Working with the Drummond Housing Association and dedicated residents, they were able to offer grants to transform the street back to its original condition. The buildings, once black and decaying, were revived and the unity of the Georgian architecture was renewed through the restoration of windows, railings, and most noticeably, the stonework.
Today Cumberland Street is seen as an integral part of the New Town, and even features in the 44 Scotland Street novels. The Cumberland Bar is a firm favourite with many characters, particularly Angus the painter and his dog Cyril, who has his own ‘beer bowl’ kept behind the bar. However it is worth remembering that its story could have been very different. It was only the actions of a few dedicated people which saved its Georgian elegance.