63 Slateford Road

63 Slateford Road—a 19th-century tenement of three storeys of flats over shops, whose residents, for most of the building’s life, woke every morning and went to bed every night breathing the rich malty smell from the Caledonian brewery across the road.

Former residents include:

1951—Margaret Laidlaw, who had moved to the stair from a nearby tenement just before world war 2 in order to keep house for her younger brother, William Watt, a policeman whose wife, Amy, had died of a sudden devastating infection at the age of 47.

Margaret’s husband, Francis—a sheet metal worker who made boxes for gas meters—had died five years previously, at the age of 49, from a blood clot in his lungs following gall stone surgery.

Her sons had grown up and left home; her brother William’s were in their teens. It made sense for the two surviving parents, brother and sister, to form a single household, especially with the war on.

In the spring of 1951, Margaret began suffering bad heartburn. By the time she saw the doctor, the cancer in her stomach that had been causing the problem had spread to other organs. She died in the autumn, aged 66.

William remained on his own in the flat, dying there of liver failure in 1965, at the age of 71.

1928—Ann Fraser, a housekeeper, who died of stomach cancer at the age of 59 in the flat where she had grown up, having outlived her mother and father, who had died there long before her.

The fact that her father, Alexander Fraser, had been the head gatekeeper at the nearby slaughterhouse was the only fact about her life deemed worthy of mention in her death notice.

1927—Miss M Cameron, the youthful treasurer of the West Edinburgh Liberal Association, who organised the group’s annual summer picnic for 9 June in the grounds of Craiglockhart House, with “DANCING, MUSIC AND SPORTS”.

It rained that whole day—“a wretched weekend”; heavy showers, without a break. “Until the late evening, a slight fog prevailed, and the weather was cold.” The city streets were empty, the grounds of Craiglockhart House deserted.

The West Edinburgh Liberals met instead in a hall of the Corn Exchange, where, in lieu of dancing, music and sports, they listened to the constituency’s former MP, Vivian Phillipps, give a long speech about rates relief.

In a couple of weeks, it would be the first anniversary of the death of Miss Cameron’s mother, Mary, with whom she had lived. That weekend turned out to be warm and bright.

1915—Isabella Maxwell, the wife of a retired coal merchant, who learned just before Christmas that her twenty-seven-year-old son, James, had joined the Australian Imperial Force in Adelaide.

He had been rejected on his first attempt, on account of his defective teeth, so he’d had the bad ones pulled and that had ceased to be an impediment. He trained in Australia for six months before being shipped to the south of England—eight weeks on a troop carrier.

He spent the autumn, winter and spring in camps on Salisbury Plain, going absent without leave twice, for a week at a time, for which he was docked a month’s pay and given 165 hours detention. Towards the end of 1916, he was admitted to the military hospital in Bulford with syphilis, receiving a fifty-seven-day course of treatment. His mother didn’t have to know about that.

He was sent to France in March 1917, joining his battalion on the Hindenburg line and going absent without leave again for a week in August, for which he was docked a further two weeks’ pay.

He fought in Bullecourt and Ypres, and survived the battle of Polygon Wood, in which more than four thousand men from his division died, the troops advancing over “a field of corpses”, but was killed a week later. The telegram that Isabella received had no details, and said he died “in France or Belgium”—the army wasn’t quite sure; they never found his body.

After the war, the Australian Government included James’s name on the bronze panels in the war memorial in Canberra and sent Isabella a pension of 40 shillings per fortnight to compensate for her loss.

1909—Alexander Fraser, the chief gatekeeper of the municipal slaughterhouse, by the Corn Exchange. Shortly before he retired, he was witness to a humiliating incident in the 1906 election campaign of Will C Smith, a Liberal Unionist politician who was standing for election.

Smith had arranged to address a meeting at the slaughterhouse but turned up to find only two reporters at the gate to hear him, along with Alexander, who was of course paid to be there.

The Evening News said: “After waiting for some time, Mr Smith had a walk round the slaughter-houses, and then recognising the hopelessness of being able to get any of the workmen to listen to him, he left.” (He subsequently lost the election.)

1900—James Hunter, a restaurant manager who, while taking an illicit shortcut through a passage that led from Queensferry Street Lane to the Albert Hall on Shandwick Place, fell into a large hole in the floor, “sustaining personal injuries”.

The hole had been made by a builder, Peter Barton, who was making “certain alterations” and hadn’t believed it necessary to put up any barriers because he hadn’t been expecting any trespassers who weren’t looking where they were going to come through the private passage.

James took Peter to court, suing him for £500. He settled for £45.

Number 59, the ground-floor-left premises—now Shandon Spice, an Indian takeaway—was Scott’s Dairy in the 19th century, then a confectioner’s.

In the 1930s, it was taken over by the family of Domenico Di Rollo, who had opened an ice cream shop in Musselburgh in 1899 after leaving his home in a small village in the impoverished rural hinterland between Rome and Naples.

The Slateford Road gelateria soon became a fish & chip shop, managed by Joseph Di Rollo, who, just before world war 2—when it became clear that supplies of cod and haddock were going to be scarce—took part in a brief attempt to popularise the use of herrings in fish suppers. 

Joseph died in 1979, having established several cafés in south Edinburgh, and so never saw the Asteroids and Space Invaders machines that were installed in the shop shortly thereafter and were fixtures throughout the 1980s.

Number 65—ground-floor-right—was Thomas Thomson’s stationer’s shop at the turn of the 20th century. In 1901, Ada Addison sent her 9-year-old daughter to a nearby fruiterer’s shop for change of a £5 note. When the fruiterer wouldn’t help her, she went into Thomas’s shop—unwisely.

Ada owed Thomas £4 5s, which Thomas deducted from the £5, giving the girl 15s change in an envelope.

Ada went immediately to the shop and demanded the money back, saying she was not ready to pay her account and calling Thomas a thief. He refused to give her anything, and she took him to the small claims court.

The sheriff took a dim view of Thomas’s behaviour, saying that it was obvious that the £5 note had not been intended as payment for the account. He agreed with Ada that Thomas had more or less stolen the money, and made him pay it back, with expenses.

Four years later, a presumably entirely unrelated fire at the front of the shop destroyed Thomas’s stock.

The next business in the premises was Archibald Williamson’s drysalter’s—a place selling chemical products such as dye and varnish, as well as dried, salted and tinned foods. It closed down in 1933 after another fire burned out the basement stockroom and the shop itself.

Joseph Di Rollo had been looking to expand from number 59 and took the place over. His Shandon Café operated there until sometime after his death, expanding into the ground floor of the neighbouring tenement.

The entire row of shopfronts that the Shandon Café occupied is now Taste Good, a Chinese restaurant run by Peter Lau, which uses number 65 as a storeroom and has converted the basement into a dining area.

The removal of supporting walls in the basement caused subsidence that sent terrifying cracks through the plaster in all the flats above, but remedial work secured the structure, ensuring that the tenement will outlive the Caledonian brewery, which closed forever in 2022.


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