The people who helped shape Edinburgh Libraries: the tradesmen who built Central Library

When the doors of Edinburgh Central Library were formally opened on Monday 9 June 1890, it was the fulfilment of many years preparation.

Selected design for Edinburgh Public Library, elevation to George IV Bridge and plans for third and fourth floors, by George Washington Browne, 1887

In our collections, we have two volumes of handwritten ledgers kept by the then Clerk of Works, William Bruce, which record in detail the building works as they progressed.

Clerk of Works’ record books for Edinburgh Public Library

We know from the record books that preparation work had begun as early as 1879 when it was recorded that “Official tests of Pentland Cement” were being methodically undertaken. The pages are filled with neat notes with details such as the amount of cement used, how many days the cement had been set for, and the amount of shrinkage.

On the 18 November 1887, the following words appear at the top of the page:
“The contractors began operations on the 17 Nov…. excavating area of site and carting away stuff”.
So began the building of Central Library.

In the 2 years and 7 months it took from start to finish, many different trades and tradesmen worked on the building. Thanks to the detailed notes by Bruce, we know that at times there were up to 137 tradesmen working on site each day. Building sites in the late 1800s didn’t conform to the same standards of health and safety as they do today. From newspaper reports and an entry in one of the volumes we know that serious accidents occurred. An article in the Edinburgh Evening News of 10 August 1889, describes how:
a plasterer engaged at work at a ceiling inside, fell off the scaffold on which he was working and sustained severe bruises to his back and arms”.

A volume entry dated 14 April 1888 records the tragic death of a workman on site:
a labourer fell from a scaffold about 11ft high in staff staircase, and was killed”.

Note (front) found on Central Library roof in 1974

Note (reverse) found on Central Library roof in 1974









The Clerk of Works refers frequently to the architect, ‘Mr Browne’, in his record books, but few other tradesmen are named individually. However in 1974, while work was being carried out on the roof of the library, evidence was found naming 3 plumbers who worked on the building. A torn page from a diary dated September 1889 was found. On it, written in pencil, are the names of 3 plumbers, T. McLaren , Hugh Brown and G. Cairns. Clerk of Works, William Bruce noted that on 9 November 1889:
“The plumbers work is still delayed by the rubbish on the Reference Library floor”.
Perhaps while they waited to continue, the plumbers took the opportunity go and enjoy the view from the roof, leaving their signatures behind…

Edinburgh Castle and the Grassmarket from the roof of Central Library, 2008

Read all the articles in this series of ‘The people who helped shape Edinburgh Libraries’:

George Washington Browne: architect

Robert Butchart: City Librarian

Andrew Carnegie: steelmaker and philanthropist

Henry Dyer, engineer, educationist and Japanophile

William McEwan: brewer and philanthropist

David Mather Masson: scholar and biographer

Thomas Ross: architect and antiquarian

Charles Boog Watson: local historian and antiquarian

3 thoughts on “The people who helped shape Edinburgh Libraries: the tradesmen who built Central Library

  1. Are these records available to the public? My grandfather was a stone mason near there at that time. I hoped to find evidence of some of his work? Thanks, Phil Rooney

    Mary Philomena Donnelly Rooney



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