A walk down memory lane to visit a notorious Perth estate

Anthony Camilleri spent his first 16 years in what was then labelled 'Scotland's most deprived area', Hunter Crescent in '¨Perth. Today, extensively renovated, repopulated, and rechristened, Fairfield has long since shaken off its grim past. To ensure that its lurid, sometimes tragic, often comical, history is not forgotten, Anthony has written a memoir of growing up there in the 1970s and 1980s, Hunters: Wee Stories from the Crescent.
CatrioAnthony Camilleri spent his first 16 years in what was then labelled Scotlands most deprived area, Hunter Crescent in Perth.CatrioAnthony Camilleri spent his first 16 years in what was then labelled Scotlands most deprived area, Hunter Crescent in Perth.
CatrioAnthony Camilleri spent his first 16 years in what was then labelled Scotlands most deprived area, Hunter Crescent in Perth.

Designed as Neo-Georgian tenements, Hunter Crescent housed its first tenants in 1936. For decades it was home to a thriving community, yet by 1981 it was notorious. A key turning point was the local authority’s decision to replace the gardens with bleak concrete landscaping in the 1970s. Failure to update the scheme’s heating and insulation, lack of maintenance, environmental decline, empty homes, uninhabitable homes, deprivation, drug abuse, and rising crime all played their part. In 1986 unemployment on the scheme hit 80 per cent. Educational achievement, health and life expectancy were all low. With a mass of social problems and hundreds of unlettable properties, the scheme’s population bottomed out.

Broadcaster and writer Stuart Cosgrove, raised on the “rival” Letham housing scheme, wrote the foreword to Hunters: Wee Stories from the Crescent. He contributes a story he was told about Hunters by his uncle Billy, a fireman.

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“In the 1980s, housewives and single mothers had come to realise that they would be rehoused in Letham, and get a better council house if their own home was deemed uninhabitable. Some had taken it into their own hands and set fire to their own homes, rushing them and their children to the top of the housing list. One day the alarms went off in the fire station near Feus Road and my uncle led the emergency response team to the site of the fire. When they got there a woman and her two children were sitting on top of all their worldly objects: the carpet had been rolled up neatly, the kitchen utensils were boxed away and the family’s television set and stereo unit were neatly stacked together. When the fire engine arrived, urgently unravelling hose-pipes and fire blankets, the woman said, ‘It was a close thing. We just got oot in time’.”

Anthony’s memoir is a humorous and affectionate look back at Hunters between 1967 and 1984, but it pulls no punches: these were grim times.

“One lady who was a youth worker in the scheme told me that the day she walked into Hunter Crescent, she couldn’t help but notice everything was grey – the sky, the streets, and the buildings. Her first encounter with a native of the Crescent was a small boy playing with a box of matches sitting in the street looking up at her: ‘Who are you? ... No another f’g Quaker?’ he said.”

Rachel and Fred Camilleri moved into 11D Hunter Crescent in April 1967. After renting a one-bedroom flat in Perth’s Shore Road for £1.10s, they were delighted to move up in the world to what was then a desirable part of town, even if the rent was a steep £2 a week. “The following year I was delivered by the stork. It was 1968 and it was still safe for storks to fly over Hunters’ airspace. Three years later my brother John was brought home by my mum in an ambulance – storks refused to land by the start of the 1970s,” says Anthony.

In those days the scheme was full of colourful characters, like the Italian, Piccolino, who sold toffee apples and puff candy to local children. “You would hear him first, blowing his whistle like he was at a rave. It was a sight never to be forgotten: a man dressed in a railway jacket and hat (that was his day job) on a push bike with a plastic box tied to the front and carrier bags for collecting empty bottles, which were the unofficial currency of Hunters, blowing the whistle and shouting: ‘Toffee apples – come and a getta puffa a candy!’.

“He would say: ‘Finda me 20 lolly sticks, I give you free puff candy’. He was way ahead of everyone when it came to being eco-friendly and saving the planet, as he would pick up dirty lolly sticks and reuse them – without washing them. Sometimes when he was drunk he would be trying to sell his merchandise at eleven at night. You would hear the whistle and see the silhouette of a man on a bike swaying from one side of the road to the other.

“He didn’t always have a bike. He sometimes used a tiny van but every time he came into Hunters with the vehicle, gangs would start rocking the van and almost tip it over – it was like a scene from a western with the Apaches trying to turn a wagon over. Piccolino would spoil the illusion by shouting in Italian: ‘Affanculo bastardy’.”

Another local legend was St Johnstone footballer Willie Cockburn. “There was a paper van he drove that used to come around on a Sunday selling newspapers, rolls, and scratchcards – before there were scratchcards. They were like a wee window in an advent calendar. I remember my dad winning £40, which seemed like a fortune back then.”

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The ragman was a vital component in the Hunters economy. “That was a very simple transaction. You gave him old clothes and in return you got a gobstopper, a bouncy ball, a balloon, or a goldfish – the only problem was some kids took their dad’s Sunday suit (I say Sunday suit, it was more than likely their suit for wearing when they had to go to court) or their mum’s wedding dress. It was also common practice for people to have their washing stolen (known as ‘snow dropping’) and sold to the ragman.”

Hunter Crescent: Wee Stories from the Crescent 
is published by Tippermuir Books at £9.99,

Dr Paul S. Philippou is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of History, University of Dundee