6 Brighton Street

6 Brighton Street—a five-storey Georgian tenement, built around 1821. Notable former residents include:

1957—Winnifred Kelly, a 33-year-old woman, “worried and depressed”, who, on a January afternoon, stole gloves and stockings from a shop on Princes Street, then went to a shop in Frederick Street where she was caught putting a raincoat into her shopping bag. £7 fine.

1924—John Newton, who was arrested after spending many days in South Castle Street “shouting and bawling” about the Bolsheviks in Leith who, he said, “were telling lies regarding who had brought about the great war.” He told the Police Court that he used to write poetry, but had ceased to do so since he had taken to speaking in the streets and said that he would “denounce the Bolsheviks in every street in Edinburgh,” which caused laughter among the spectators. He was fined 10s.

1904—Elizabeth Hall, whose husband, George Dickson Hall, had divorced her because she was always drinking and getting into debt. George married a young widow a few years later and died of throat cancer before six months had passed.

1898—John Cairns, who was welding rivets at the top of a 20ft wall in Waverley station when he fell, fracturing his spine. He was taken to the infirmary, where he died the next day.

1897—Donato Antonio Zottarelli, harpist, who arrived from Italy with his mother Arcangela and brother Francis sometime around 1889, married a local woman called Barbara, and had five children.

Donato died of a brain bleed at the age of fifty-nine, in 1915; his son John was killed in the battle of Passchendaele in 1917; and, in 1930, his widow and remaining children—who, as unmarried adults, lived together in a flat in Marchmont—all changed their names to Menzies.

1897—James Boyle, a house painter who often beat his wife, Catherine, and frequently locked her and their children out all night. A constable who visited the flat after she lodged a complaint said it was in “a wretched condition—nothing but a cellar.” He noted that “there was not a scrap of food in the house, and nothing in the way of furniture except a dirty old half mattress without any covering” and that “the children seemed starving and presented altogether a pitiful sight.”

An officer from the children’s shelter said much the same thing, adding that “the children were almost naked and their bodies very thin and emaciated, although clean.” He said “the wife was clean and sober, but seemed a heart-broken, ill-used woman.”

It was found that James earned 36s a week but gave his wife the wholly insufficient sum of 6s 9d, spending the rest on drink. He was sent to jail for three months. (Of course, that would have reduced the 6s 9d to zero. Who knows what the family did for money during his imprisonment.)

1896—William Johnston, a principal officer at the Waverley market, who was found dead in his office there at 10 o’clock one Saturday night. His colleagues had seen him looking well sometime around 8. “Fatty degeneration of heart”, wrote the medical examiner on the death certificate, beside the column where William’s wife signed with an “X”, because she could not read or write.

1877—Mr Mawdsley, a butler, and his wife and daughter, who supported themselves by renting out rooms in their flat at the top of the building.

One afternoon in October, a fire in the chimney of the neighbouring tenement, which was quickly extinguished, set fire to a wooden beam above the ceiling of the Mawdsleys’ house, which burned unnoticed within the attic space for hours until it set the whole roof on fire.

By the time the fire brigade arrived, the whole flat was in flames, and, shortly after, the roof fell in. The manual and steam engines “threw a vast quantity of water on the burning mass, much to the loss of the occupiers of the houses below, whose furniture must have suffered materially.”

After the fire had been subdued, the police discovered among the wreck in one of the rooms “a quantity of human bones, very much charred,” which, to everyone’s great relief, turned out to be specimens belonging to medical students who had lodged with the family.

1877—Mary Robertson, who died of a heart attack aged fifty, alone in her flat, with no family to bury her. Her body was given to the medical school for use in anatomy lessons.

1841—John Thomson, a photographer who travelled to China and the far east in the 1870s and, through his later work photographing London’s street people in the 1880s, became a pioneer of documentary photojournalism. (He is commemorated by a plaque beside the stair door.)

Two Manchu soldiers with John Thomson. Credit: Wellcome Library.

1829—Rev Lauchlan MacLean, chaplain to the blind asylum, lunatic asylum and the lock hospital for women with venereal disease, two-thirds of whose patients were aged between fifteen and twenty, and the youngest of whom was nine.

Lauchlan was a proponent of the benefits of preaching the gospel to the insane, and his approach, which he set out in a book called “Benighted Pilgrims” was adopted by several Victorian asylums.

The tenement was built in the garden of the Trades Maiden Hospital, a boarding school for “the daughters and granddaughters of decayed craftsmen”, which stood there for the whole of the 18th century.

In 1826, when the tenement was quite new, one of the flats was an office and lecture hall of the Lying-in Institution, the city’s first centre of midwifery, run by physicians from the Royal College of Surgeons.

There had been some resistance to the establishment of the Institution in 1824, mostly from the Edinburgh Society for the Relief of Poor Married Women of Respectable Character When in Child-bed, a female-run charity that gave assistance with home births to those who needed it. A supporter of the Society wrote: “In 99 cases out of 100, a canny houdie”—(Scots for an untrained midwife or sick nurse)—“and a fair allowance of wholesome nutriment are of more benefit to poor lying-in women that all the Doctors and drugs our famed city can supply.”

But the real concern was that, because the Institution was organised by men, the views, wishes and insights of women—the ones organising the care as well as the ones actually giving birth—would be ignored. A supporter of the Society wrote: “Unless the selection of proper objects be placed under the control of female delicacy and the nature of the relief to be administered be committed to female investigation and tenderness, the Institution … will never do half so much good as the Society.”

Nevertheless, the Institution soon absorbed the Society. Oversight of the delivery of babies was entirely taken over by the surgeons, a “Committee of Ladies” was given the simple, non-medical task of taking in donations of clothes and managing home visits, and there was no more talk of canny houdies.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s