Ponton House: A History

Early years

The Trust owes its origin to a much earlier institution in Edinburgh, the Edinburgh Industrial Brigade Home for Destitute Boys, established in the 1800s. A pamphlet of the time ‘A Plea for Industrial Brigades as Adjuncts to Ragged Schools’ by one David Harris identifies the creation of a home in 1867 in Leith Street Terrace for street sleeping boys.

Many were found in rough conditions, overrun with vermin, sleeping in the environs of Waverley Station, in archways, and elsewhere, such as their favoured overnight spots on manure boats at the terminus of the Union Canal. The creation of the home was supported by the ‘great and the good’ of the city in the mid 1800s, and over 300 boys had been supported with basic accommodation, education and rudimentary employment support in the first few years of its existence.

Industrial Ragged Schools© City of Edinburgh Libraries, reproduced by kind permission.

Stories of some of the early residents are held in the Edinburgh City Libraries Archive, and a picture and story extract of one, Levi Prinski, is shown below.

Levi Prinski and a portion of his recorded personal history.© City of Edinburgh Libraries, reproduced by kind permission.

1 Ponton Street

In later years, a bespoke boys home, Ponton House, was built at 1 Ponton Street, Fountainbridge, in the Tollcross area of the city. Designed by the architect Frank W. Simon, it was a symmetrical stone building of several storeys, with mullioned windows and Scots Baronial corner turrets. The building housed what was by then named the Edinburgh Home for Working Lads (1897) and provided dormitory accommodation, in four tier bunks, and basic education and leisure facilities.

Homeless boys, from orphanages, or those otherwise deprived of a family environment from the Edinburgh and Lothians area were provided with accommodation and links to apprenticeships and employment. The home was located in what was then a core industrial area of the city, with tanneries, breweries and slaughterhouses nearby. This allowed residents to gain local apprenticeships in a variety of trades while living in safe accommodation which included educational support and some leisure opportunities. In its heyday 85 boys were in residence, the largest provision of its kind in Scotland.

The main part of the original building still exists, in use as housing association offices (see picture) although an earlier large brick extension to the rear was demolished in 1982, to make way for a health centre. The window arch motif in the building lives on in the Ponton House Trust’s logo, implying shelter and support for the vulnerable.

Ponton House, once surrounded by warehouses and building around the canal basin, now overlooked by the Scottish Widows offices.

Changing Times

In 1949 the accommodation was upgraded, to plans produced by Sir Basil Spence. Old dormitories were replaced by bedrooms, and shower facilities, a quiet room and a library were provided.

However, this type of accommodation also became unfit for purpose in due course, and the neighbourhood and function of the Tollcross inevitably changed in the 1960s. The home moved to new premises in Magdala Crescent in 1962, where a smaller home operated for over 15 years. The current Chair recalls being an Assistant Minister at Palmerston Place Church in the mid 1970s, forging links with the residents through the Church’s Youth Fellowship, and the residents’ occasional visit to Sunday worship, in company with the pupils of St Georges School for Girls! The number of residents was however down to a dozen in 1977, and as needs changed, even this provision became outdated.

Closure and Realisation of Assets

Decisions were subsequently made to close the home, and the assets realised from its sale, together with other investments and a legacy were consolidated to establish the endowment fund. At its inception this amounted to some £200,000, from which the Trust’s grant aid programme was first initiated. Its objectives remain those of meeting the needs of disadvantaged young people, attacking poverty and deprivation in its current manifestations in the Edinburgh and Lothians area. Indeed, a proportion of income every year is still directed to providing cash grants to needful individuals, as well as a wider programme of project funding.

While the service changed over time, on the governance front, the organisation operated as an unincorporated charitable body for many years. The Lads Home had been run by a Management Committee, backed, in the Victorian era, by a large general membership of the association. The latter dwindled to the point where only the Home Committee was operating, but the unincorporated structure was still in place in 1993. The name had however been changed from the Ponton House Lads Residence to the Ponton House Association to reflect the grant making function. In the 1990s there was an acknowledgement that the structural arrangements were outmoded and so a full charitable trust was established which still operates today.

The Future

The Trustees’ current plans include improving and widening access to the Trust’s grant aid to more organisations, and enhanced public transparency in its affairs. This is marked by the creation of this website and a clearer articulation of grant making and conditions via an online application form.