52 Marchmont Crescent

52 Marchmont Crescent—nine flats on three storeys above two main-door flats; built around 1880 in the Scots baronial style mandated by the Warrender family, on whose grounds the tenements that would form the middle-class suburb of Marchmont were built.

Former residents include:

1965—M J Payne-Watson, who often went on holiday to Crieff and was dismayed that a burnt-out building had been left to disfigure the town’s James Square for years. He thought it would make a good car park and wrote to the local paper with this suggestion, which was ignored.

1946—Thomas Sinclair, a bus driver who drove his double-decker bus into a wall, demolishing it, to avoid a tractor coming out of Murderdean Road, just north of Newtongrange. “Many housewives were injured.” He was fined £4 for driving without care and attention.

1930—Nathan Ginsburg, a Russian Jew who came to Edinburgh as a young man around 1900, making a living as a travelling jewellery salesman. He did well and, by the time he became a naturalised citizen, in 1906, he was able to register his profession as “financier”.

In 1910, he got married to Annie Levy. They had two children, Louis and Mabel.

Louis won a scholarship to George Heriot’s school, where he performed excellently and was named dux  (a title awarded to the highest-ranking student) in his final year before studying mathematics at Edinburgh University and becoming a successful actuary with Standard Life.

Mabel got engaged to an accountant named John Rosenbloom, but, before they were married, she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She died in a nursing home at the age of twenty-nine.

1915—Thomas Purves, a grocer’s son who enlisted soon after the outbreak of the first world war and moved between regiments before being commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Tank Corps and sent to the western front.

In March 1918, he was camped in Havrincourt wood, which became an inferno of burning trees when the Germans shelled it. Through his “prompt and heroic action” he and his crew managed to move most of the battalion’s tanks out of the wood before they were destroyed.

The next morning, Thomas’s company was ordered to attack German troops who were massing nearby. They encountered them at half-past-four that afternoon, near the ruins of a farm, shortly after which Thomas was killed when his tank was hit by an artillery shell.

Thirty members of the battalion were killed that day. Only Thomas’s body was identifiable—the other men had been blown to pieces—and he was the only one to be buried in a grave, where he still lies, about three miles from the field where he died.

1906—George Neish Bell, a fifty-five-year-old law cashier whose broken body was found in the back garden of no.54 (one of the tenement’s main-door flats) on a Sunday afternoon in December. He lived in the top flat, three storeys above, and had evidently fallen, or jumped, from his bedroom window.

Mr Caithness, who lived in no.54—a gardener who had spent twenty-four years as a superintendent of a cemetery in Aberdeen—carried George into his house and called a doctor, but there was nothing to be done. George had been killed instantly when he hit the ground.

A reporter from the Evening News arrived to find a crowd in the street—people who had heard of George’s death as they returned from morning church services. He made the usual inquiries but found that “the neighbours are extremely reticent about the affair.”

It seemed that George “had associated very little with the other folks in the stair, and they in turn did not seek his confidence or company.” But it’s hard to live an entirely private life in an Edinburgh tenement and, of course, they knew certain things about him.

For instance, the previous week, George’s young wife—a Glasgow woman, twenty years his junior—had moved out. More: she had lived with him for only two weeks, even though they had been married in August, almost five months before.

Had she left him, or had he sent her away? No one knew. What they could say was that George had married the woman—Nellie May—two months after the death from cancer of his older sister Isabella, who had kept house for him for over a decade.

This much the reticent neighbours told the reporter. They chose not to share any suspicion they might have had that Nellie May had perhaps been brought in simply as a replacement housekeeper but had not enjoyed the position.

And they kept to themselves the circumstances of the death of George’s first wife, Margaret, twelve years before, although a search of the news clippings would have revealed the story, published in 1894 under the headline “A SAD DEATH IN EDINBURGH”:

“A sad accident occurred last night in the Warrender Park district of Edinburgh. Mrs George N Bell, the wife of a solicitor, who had been in poor health, appears to have suddenly become dizzy, and fallen out of a window of the top flat of her house at 52 Marchmont Crescent. She died soon afterwards from her injuries.”

She was buried in the Grange cemetery. George’s sister Isabella was buried in the same lair. And then, finally, so was George.

1903—John Brown, missionary teacher in the Edinburgh Society for Teaching the Adult Blind to Read, whose duty was “to seek out the blind, visit them in their own homes, teach them to read with the finger and supply them with books from the Society’s library free of charge”

John began his work in 1857, teaching the Moon and Braille systems of raised characters. By 1891, the society had more than 11,000 titles in its library, and was helping around 380 blind people in the city to “be possessed of and read the Word of God.” (Most of the society’s books were single chapters of the Bible. The ones that weren’t were improving works such as “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, “The Sinner’s Friend” and biographies of church figures.)

John laboured at his mission unceasingly for the remainder of the century, dying of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1903, aged 78.

1893—Miss M Peddie, who supplied a testimonial for Harness’s Electropathic Belt, a tight-fitting band with embedded copper and zinc discs that apparently produced a therapeutic electric current when acted upon by the wearer’s own sweat.

(Image from the Wellcome Collection.)

She was quoted in an advertisement as saying: “I am sure you will be pleased to know that I have derived great benefit from wearing your Electropathic Belt. I have worn it constantly, the pain is gone completely, and I also sleep better at night.”

Given that Cornelius Harness , the inventor of the belt, was an unscrupulous fraud who was eventually sued into bankruptcy, and that the contraption itself had—of course—no effect whatsoever, it’s possible that Miss Peddie was entirely fictitious.

Number 50, the ground-floor-left flat, was the home of James Johnston, who moved there in 1902 after a long career as a tailor in Edinburgh, London, Liverpool and elsewhere. He enjoyed ten years of retirement before dying of liver cancer at the age of sixty-nine.

An article in a tailors’ trade journal remembered his “homely and kindly disposition” and said that “his tall, erect and dignified figure will be much missed” by his friends in Edinburgh. The article used biographical details contributed by James’s eldest son—also James; also a tailor—who was killed five years later, in the battle of Arras, in northern France. James’s other son, Andrew, died just over a month after that, in the battle of Messines, in Flanders.

Number 54 (ground floor right) was, as detailed above, three storeys below the flat of George and Margaret Bell, so its back garden witnessed the end of their lives. Before, that, in 1891, the flat was the birthplace of George Macalister, the son of a Free Church missionary in Jaipur, India.

George became “one of the most brilliant students in his year” at George Watson’s College, got a degree in philosophy from Edinburgh University and immediately enlisted in the Royal Scots Fusiliers, who sent him to Salonika, where he was killed within a month.


  1. Terrific  work as always, Diarmid. As a longtime resident first of Marchmont and then of the Southside, I’m always particularly interested


  2. George Neish Bell sounded like an interesting person. I have discovered that in 1861 when George was 10 years old, he and his 14 year old brother were swimming near the docks in the River Tay in Dundee. The older boy got swept away by the current and George was unable to save him. George was rescued by a Mrs Kennedy using a boat hook and it was five days before his brother’s body was found.

    His first wife Margaret Hendry Robertson was only 3 years old when her mother died. Two years later her father remarried. In 1889, three years after she married George, her father, step-mother and seven of her eight siblings/half-siblings all emigrated to the USA where every one of them remained for the rest of their lives.


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