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History of the Hilltown Article

The Hilltown – from early times to 1850


It can be said without fear of contradiction that the Hilltown is the one district of Dundee which figures in all Dundonian's minds. Their view of the area ranges from affection to wariness. Certainly when I arrived in Dundee in the mid 60s it had a somewhat interesting reputation. This was emphasised for me by something I encountered when out on a survey of the Hillltown backlands. Going into a back court I found my way obstructed by a stout wooden plank which was suspended at chest height on two ropes so that it could only be pushed aside if you were going into the back court. What on earth was this barrier for? It soon became evident, for as soon as I entered the court I found a large, brown horse grazing on the back green.

To define where the Hilltown as a district starts and finishes is very much in the eye of the beholder and you can get as many answers as people you ask. But for the purposes of this article the Hilltown area has been defined by Victoria Road in the south, Dens Road to the east and north and Constution Road/Law Road//Leng Street/Milton Street in the West.

The early history....

The origins of the Hilltown, which was at various times known as Bonnetmaker Hill and Rotten Row, go back at least to the sixteenth century. Established outwith the regulation and custom dues of the Town Council, the Hilltown was encouraged by the Constables of Dundee as an early free trade zone. Thus traditional Dundee trades, such as the Bonnetmakers and the Bucklemakers congregated here. However being outside the City wall this part of Dundee suffered particularly badly in 1645 due to the depredations of Montrose's army when he laid siege to the city and again in General Monk's sack of the city in 1651.

However it seems to have recovered by 1678 when views of Dundee show the Hilltown quite clearly as a row of buildings running north from the city and flanked by the broad slopes of Forebank with its long fields running north/south. A contemporary map shows that at this time the mansion of Hillbank House and the smaller Bonnybank House were already in existence. The original Windmill Tavern was also established around this time. In 1743 Dundee Town Council decided to provide a better water supply to the city utilising the Lady well at the bottom of the Hilltown as its source.

The next evidence of the growth of Hilltown is the maps produced by Crawford in 1776 and 1793. The 1776 plan clearly shows frontage buildings erected on both sides of the street located on two strips of land about 200 feet deep which were known as the East and West Riggs. These ran north from the Lady Well to roughly where Ann Street lies today. But there were obviously pressures for development and in 1789 David Maxwell sold the lands of Hilltown to the City. In the 1793 plan Hilltown is shown as Rotten Row and lying outside the town wall. At the south the east side of Dallfield walk was developed. There was also some sporadic development around Rosebank where the lines of Rosebank Street and Constitution Street could now, be seen although the latter ended at Rosebank Street.

1800 -1850....

The Woods plan in 1821 is probably the first decent plan of the city which can be relied upon for any detailed understanding of the Hillltown. At this time Hilltown started from a triangular space at the top of the Wellgate which linked with another space to the west around the Lady Well. This kind of urban meeting space was very characteristic of Scottish towns of the time and give credence to notion that the Hilltown was a community in its own right.. From there Hilltown ran north, its two frontages being a classic example of ribbon development. Only to the west where Dallfield Walk was beginning to parallel Hilltown was there any significant development in depth. However town improvements were clearly on the Dundee Council's mind by this time for north of the Walk was a large area of open land entitled "Town property".

To the east of Hilltown some decent sized houses had been built to the north of Bucklemaker Wynd ( the present Victoria Street), chief amongst which was Bonnybank House. To the north of this Hillbank House was identified as the property of Mr Weir, whilst everything else came under the heading of the Lands of Clepington.

The rapid expansion of Dundee's population was leading to pressure for development all around the City leading in 1827 to a scheme to enlarge the supplies of water taken from the Lady well. Mathewson's 1834 plan of proposed improvements recognised the housing potential of the Forebank and Maxwelltown areas. It proposed a large area of residential crescents on the grounds of Hillbank House topped off at the north by a large curved terrace reminiscent of Georgian Bath. Sadly, none of these rather attractive ideas came to fruition. However the proposals for a grid of roads around Dens Road did largely come to pass, as did the establishment of the Hilltown United Free church, which opened in 1838 as the first church in the Hilltown.

By 1847 the population of Dundee had reached some 73,000 and the Hilltown community was now strongly established.. The west side of Hilltown was still largely in the form of frontage development but behind this and further to the west, the Dalfield area had grown considerably. Dalfield Walk, which ran north from Dudhope Street now culminated in a large, bow-fronted mansion. Just before this Arthur Street connected directly with the serpentine curve of Laurelbank via Sidney Street.

However on the eastern side below Ann Street, development was already much more intensive. The frontage was continuous and a great deal of backland development had taken place on the East Riggs. To the east of the Riggs things were much different with the Forebank area being dominated by large houses with extensive gardens looking south over the Tay estuary. One of these was specifically noted as being the property of John Laing Esq.. This pattern of large houses and gardens continued east to the line of Lambs Lane. To serve this growing community the construction of the Church of St Mary, Forebank was put in hand in 1850

To the east of Forebank laid a triangle of intensive development dominated by Laing's Power Loom Manufactory, which appropriately was bounded by Laing Street on the northand Cotton road on the west. This area was part of the industrial development of the valley of the Dens Burn, an important source of water when piped water supplies were not readily available.

East of Hilltown and to the north of Ann Street lay Maxwelltown where the number of tenements constructed between Wellington Street and Jamaica Street was such that they now had their own church in the form of Maxwelltown Parish Church To the east of this, between Wellington Street and Hillbank Street, Hilllbank House still stood in solitary splendour, although its grounds were already being planned for new streets . North of George Street (now North George Street), were to be the planned streets of Robert Street, Craig Street and Rose Street none of which were actually developed due in part to the arrival of Bowbridge works in 1857 This occupied an extensive area up to Dens Road. North of Dens Road, which at this time ended at Provost Road, one looked north across the open country which constituted the estates of East and West Clepington.

The upper part of Hilltown had at this time little in the way of backland development and still had many individual houses in its frontage. The only exception was a triangle of somewhat sporadic building lying between Strathmartine Road and Mains road which was at this time known as Smithfield. To the north of what is now Constitution Road, lay extensive orchards and a curling pond but little else.

But times were changing and the last bonnetmaker had left the Hilltown by 1848.