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Friday, February 20

How Soon Will It Be Gone?

My home town of Dundee was vandalised by a succession of town planners and dodgy councillors over a two-decade period starting in the 1960s which resulted in many old and historical buildings being bulldozed for profit.

Some of the men behind this wanton destruction of the city's heritage should have gone to jail. As a newspaper reporter for 32 years, I heard plenty of tales of secret "brown envelope" deals, mutual back-scratching and compulsory purchase orders that, somehow, seemed to benefit some councillors more than others. Unfortunately, most of this was over by the time I started the job in 1979.

Thankfully, Dundee has largely cleaned up its act but the damage that was done can't be reversed and an awful lot of the city's built heritage has gone forever. Of course, no city stands still and consequently there are still some areas that have suffered in recent years through this "improvement". Next up, I suspect, will be this 1830s building that used to be part of the Pitalpin Mill complex. The long-disused main mill building was knocked down about five years ago after a fire gutted it. The building at the top of this post was known as the West Warehouse and is basically all that's left of an industrial site that dates back to the 18th century.

In case you didn't know it, Dundee was once the jute capital of the world supplying the material all over the globe including, I believe, to the US where it was used to make sand bags during the Civil War. Pitalpin Mill was one of these jute factories but on a much smaller scale than some of the big ones the city once had. It's in a working class part of town known as Lochee and although there's really not much left of the mill complex I've tried to give you a flavour of what it must have been like in its heyday.

It actually began life as a flax mill before switching to the more profitable jute and then, in the second half of the 20th century, rayon. It closed for good in 1988. There was a proposal to develop it into flats, convert the West Warehouse into two homes and build new flats around-about but it never got off the ground.

The mill was built for a Mr James Donald - the narrow street featured here is Donald's Lane - who lived in Pitalpin House overlooking the site. Pitalpin House is still there and inhabited but looking a little out of place amongst the modern housing around it.

A week or so ago, I was driving nearby and decided to see what was left of the mill. I was very disappointed to find that it had been cleared away and the ground levelled. However, I was struck (it doesn't take much to fascinate me when it comes to local history) by the corner of the lane below, in particular, the kerb stone that I photographed.

The lane really isn't big enough for a car but its cobbles must have clattered to the sounds of a near-infinite number of horses' hooves and metal rimmed cart wheels over the decades. In fact, the kerb on the apex of the corner has been worn away by around two hundred years of horse-drawn transport.

The warehouse itself is slowly succumbing to the elements although I noticed there still seems to be a business running out of the ground floor, possibly a car garage or similar. With most of the glass broken and the roof not in the best of repair, it's only a matter of time before wind and water turn it into a sufficiently dangerous condition for the owner to apply for permission to knock down what is at the moment a protected Category B listed building. Or perhaps it, too, will be gutted by fire?

Then the developers will be able to flatten the entire site and not have to bother with converting - also known as retaining for prosperity - an old building into flats. That way, they'll make more money and one of the vanishingly small parts of Dundee that has any sort of history to it will have lost a vital link to the past.

The camerawork for these photographs was simple enough. An OM2n, 50mm f2 Zuiko and Tmax 400 developed in Firstcall Superfine developer. I got lucky with the shaft of light striking the corner of the lane when I visited. The sun is shining through a gap between two high walls and 30 minutes either way would have left it in shadow.

If the lane and building are still there when the sun gets higher in the sky, I'll make a return visit to see if I can capture a little light in the lane.


Doug H said...

Very good images. Good detail in highlights as well as shadows - not an easy task.
If you are going to document these structures, would suggest a 4X5,

Marcus Peddle said...

It's a shame that some communities and municipal governments put quick profit before historical preservation. The city of Gangneung where I live is good about preserving historical sites because tourism is the city's bread and butter. I'm rarely sad about old sections of the city being redeveloped because, although many of the houses are traditional in design, they are so run down and poorly patched up that it's a relief to see them gone. Unfortunately, they aren't replaced with new traditional style houses but concrete boxes for coffee shops.

Tom Tapping said...

Shamefully there are far to many instances of this happening across the UK. It seems that even listed buildings can be left to become derelict, with very few owners made to carry out repairs. Then they either become unsafe and fall into the hands of developers for a pittance or they just fall down.
Though the UK has many fine ancestral homes, building with either industrial or social heritage, though just as important to the future, seem to be ignored until it is too late to save them.

marco eugenio said...

very interesting story and document, precious camerawork

Jim Grey said...

Thanks for documenting this great old building. Here's hoping sane heads prevail and the place is preserved.

John Carter said...

Beautiful photos, my town has suffered a little too. Some of it by town planners and some by residents that just wanted to build a mansion so they knocked down an original house.

Thankfully, the great recession has stopped that or put it on hold. In our town any new building at least has to go through a planning review with certain historical standards. But homeowners can still rape their neighborhoods with stucco.

Hopefully, Dundee will not knock down that building. Your photos might help.

morris1800 said...

I share your cynicism Bruce if wind and water doesn't deliver quick enough I am sure someone will come along and warm the bricks sufficiently to take out the roof. But that aside I like the shots, a great spot. A spot worth a visit just after its been raining and the sun is bouncing off the wet cobble stones.A photographic fantasy of mine yet to be forfilled.

Herman Sheephouse said...

I see you've captured the logo of the dreaded YLF (Young Lochee Fleet) in the third photo Bruce! Those buggers made this area pretty much a no-go back in the 80's. Fortunately cheap drugs, gaming and the general teenage malaise have rendered them pretty much dead and buried now. They didn't half make life difficult though at one time . . .

Ashfaque said...

Hi Bruce,
A very good photo series. Not really sure, if I can use the term 'enjoy' for it though. In case you're interested, did you see that wonderful documentary on Jute by Brian Cox? IIRC, it aired on BBC few years ago.

Seeing your essay and images I'm thinking of visiting Adamjee Jute Mill in Narayanganj (Bangladesh), one the largest jute mill of all time. It's now gone. Oh well. :(

Bruce Robbins said...

Hi Ashfaque,
If you get a chance to photograph these old buildings you should definitely try to take it. They're sadly disappearing all the time.

I did catch the BBC documentary. Brian Cox is from my home town of Dundee so he was a good choice to present it.