There’s no business like snow business…

“Snowflakes are one of nature’s most fragile things, but look what they can do when they stick together” – unknown

Seventy years ago, in 1947 Britain suffered the severest winter for centuries. Between January and March that year, snow fell everyday somewhere in the country for 55 days in a row.

Digging out the Borders Railway in snow

Digging out the Borders Railway in snow

On 10 and 11 March, Scotland had its heaviest snowfall of the winter with snowdrifts up to seven metres deep reported. There were severe disruptions to energy supplies to homes, offices and factories and many businesses shut down temporarily.

Digging out the Waverley Line

With snow covering the track of the Waverley Line, this had to be dug out manually. Men were roped together for safety but in spite of the cold they were in everyday working clothes and some were even bare-headed and without gloves.

Job done!

The strangest thing about 1947 was that the first part of the winter was very mild, with temperatures in some places reaching 14c.

There was also other strange occurrences, lack of sun in some parts in the south and huge amounts of sun in Western Scotland. A completely dry month in western Scotland is unusual, it was unprecedented in February. In late March floods developed as the snow melted rapidly.

To view more photographs of the Borders Railway in Winter 1947 visit Capital Collections.

The Furuyama Moromasa Scroll is now available to view online!

Regular readers of this blog will have kept up with the story of our beautiful 18th century Japanese scroll. We’re now very pleased to report that you can view the full 44ft long scroll in its entirety on Capital Collections!

The scroll dates from the early 1700s and depicts the bustling theatre district of Edo, modern-day Tokyo. The artwork, entitled ‘Theatres of the East’ represents a major discovery in the ‘ukiyo-e’ school of art, and is a detailed illustration of all manner of 18th century Japanese street life.

In the Capital Collections exhibition, you can click on each image to zoom in and browse the incredible detail within each section. See if you can spot the bathhouse, the man in his tower keeping a watchful eye out for fires, a puppet theatre, tightrobe walking acrobats, a dog chasing rats away and even a pantomime horse….

Section from Central Library's Furuyama Moromasa scroll

Section from Central Library’s Furuyama Moromasa scroll

Detail showing pantomime horse on stage.

Detail showing pantomime horse on stage.

You can catch up on the Scroll story so far with these earlier blog posts:

 

Pioneering Mary – nurse and health visitor

Mary Cunningham, nurse, holding two babies at Edinburgh Royal Maternity Hospital

Mary Cunningham with babies at REMH (1914)

Edinburgh Libraries have a tradition of receiving donations of images from the public. It is a fantastic way of sharing a piece of the city’s history with a wider audience than just your family. One such donation was a photograph album of over 100 images belonging to the wonderfully named Miss Mary Morag Bird Cunningham. This was gifted to us after her death in 1978 and has recently been digitised to make the fantastic images available online. The album is a fascinating pictorial account of Mary’s career as a nurse and pioneer health visitor in Edinburgh from 1911 to the late 1930s.

Nurses from Ward 14 Edinburgh Royal Infirmary (women's surgical)

Nurses from Ward 14, RIE (1911)

Mary began her four years of  training at the Royal Infirmary in 1911 before moving to the Royal Edinburgh Maternity Hospital to become a midwife. The album has a wonderful collection of frequently informal photos of the staff and buildings of these hospitals.

In July 1917 however Edinburgh introduced an extensive Child Welfare Scheme and created the post of health visitor to implement the care of the city’s children. Mary was one of the ten women chosen to become an Edinburgh pioneering health visitor. In her album we follow her from her first day on the job through 20 years of running child health clinics throughout the city.

Mothers and children at Rosefield Avenue Lane Health Clinic

Mothers and children at Rosefield Avenue Lane Health Clinic (1930)

Find out more about Mary’s life and see many of her album’s photographs in our Capital Collections exhibition.

Edinburgh’s Modern Architecture

Yesterday we blogged about Edinburgh’s historic architecture – the world-renowned architecture of its Medieval Old Town and Georgian New Town. But what of the city’s buildings and developments over the past 70 years – its so-called Post-war Architecture?

Our next Capital Collections exhibition examines Modern Architecture in Edinburgh. During the latter part of the 20th century, construction took place across Scotland on new homes, schools, tower blocks, roads, churches and in some cases, even whole new towns. There was a commitment to improve public health and tackle poor housing. After the austerity of the 1940s and 50s, new technologies and materials combined in a period of reconstruction.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The pictures within the exhibition highlight buildings in Edinburgh constructed since 1945 that have been recognised as architecturally significant and in many instances, are statutory listed as having special architectural or historic interest. Modern architecture can be a contentious topic, loved and loathed by both critics and the public. However, the buildings here show structures representative of their time and architectural styles; buildings that perhaps haven’t been around long enough yet for their value to be appreciated by all…?

Edinburgh’s Historic Architecture

To mark the 2016 Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design, we’ve dug into the Library’s archive and pulled out some fantastic examples of Edinburgh’s historic architecture dating from the early twentieth century all the way back to the sixteenth century.

register-house-edinburgh

Register House by Robert Adam

The exhibition on Capital Collections highlights many significant buildings across Edinburgh’s World Heritage site by world-renowned architects. Amongst those represented are Robert Adam and his design for Edinburgh University’s Old College and Register House, William Henry Playfair’s Greek Doric design for the Royal Scottish Academy, and Sir Robert Rowand Anderson’s McEwan Hall and Catholic Apostolic Church in Broughton Street.

catholic-apostolic-church-broughton-street

Catholic Apostolic Church by Sir Robert Rowand Anderson

Browse online and see Edinburgh anew!

On this day – HMHS Britannic, the largest ship lost in World War One

Our latest Capital Collections exhibition is a unique personal record of the sinking of HMHS Britannic during World War One.

HMHS Britannic was the third and largest of the White Star Line’s Olympic class of vessels. She was the sister ship of RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic and was intended to enter service as the transatlantic passenger liner RMS Britannic.

Originally the ship was to be named ‘Gigantic’, but due to the loss of the Titanic, her name was changed. The White Star Line knew if they were to keep ahead in the race across the Atlantic, the new liner would have to be more magnificent than her predecessors.

HMHS Britannic - page from Sheila Macbeth Mitchell scrapbook

HMHS Britannic – page from Sheila Macbeth Mitchell scrapbook

Britannic was launched just before the start of World War One but never operated as a commercial vessel. In 1915 this huge luxury liner, the new jewel in the White Star Line, was requisitioned, painted white with a red cross on each side, and fitted out as a hospital ship. On the morning of 21 November 1916, on her way to Naples and on only her sixth voyage, she was shaken by an explosion caused by an underwater mine. She sank 55 minutes later, killing 30 people. 1,065 people survived, rescued from the water and lifeboats.

Photograph of survivors from HMHS Britannic taken at Fort Manoel, Malta

Photograph of survivors from HMHS Britannic taken at Fort Manoel, Malta

There have been many stories surrounding the sinking of the Britannic, some saying that she was transporting weapons to allied forces and so was a legitimate target for the German authorities.

Newspaper clippings showing coverage of the Britannic sinking

Newspaper clippings showing coverage of the Britannic sinking

Mysteriously, when film-maker Jacques Cousteau first attempted to locate the wreck, he could find no trace of it in the position marked on the British Admiralty chart. Britannic’s true position was eventually found some 6.75 nautical miles north-east of the charted position and had been deliberately misplaced to prevent any further investigation of the site.

The wreck of the Britannic lies in about 400 feet of water and was first explored by Cousteau in 1976. The water is shallow enough that scuba divers can explore it, but as a listed British war grave, any expedition must be approved by both British and Greek governments.

In 1996 the wreck of HMHS Britannic was bought by maritime historian Simon Mills. When asked what his ideal vision for the wreck would be, he replied, “That’s simple – leave it as it is”.

And so HMHS Britannic has lain at the bottom of the sea, off the coast of the Greek Island of Kea undisturbed for a hundred years.

Explore Sheila Macbeth Mitchell’s scrapbook for an amazing first-hand survivor’s account of the terrible event.

Sheila Macbeth Mitchell story (part 2)

This is the 2nd installment in the Sheila Macbeth Mitchell story, from the scrapbook kindly donated for digitisation by her family. The scrapbook is available to view in its entirety on Capital Collections.

In November 1916, military nurse Sheila was in Southampton ready to join the HMHS Britannic on what was to be her sixth and final voyage. Time on board the Britannic began as normal. On returning to the hospital ship, Sheila wrote:

Leave up – so back to Southampton to join our ship. Such a relief to find the same cabin and room-mate, and to see how homely it is now looking, with my chintz cushions and our nice jar of brown beech leaves.”

They were en route to pick up wounded troops via Naples where they re-fuelled and took on more supplies. The nurses were kept busy getting ready 3,000 beds and keeping fit:

“One of the sergeants gives us a gymnastic class each morning on the boat deck, much to the amusement of the M.O.s, who come up and take snapshots of us when looking most ridiculous and unable to retaliate”.

Page from Sheila Macbeth Mitchell scrapbook (section)

Page from Sheila Macbeth Mitchell scrapbook (section)

It was on the morning of 21 November when passing near to the Greek Island of Kea, that a loud explosion echoed around the ship. Sheila recalled:

“Up late – so only managed to get two spoonfuls of porridge before: Bang!  and a shiver right down the length of the ship. Of course we all knew what it was! We had thought too much about torpedoes to be surprised to have met one at last. When the siren sounded, I went off to my cabin for my belt, and took my pillow, eider-down, and the first coat I could pick up…”.

“We were kept hanging over the side of the ship for a long while, as the Vice-Captain, who was looking after the lowering of the boats, had to dash off in the middle to call back some fourteen or fifteen firemen, who had gone off from the poop deck in a boat which should have held about eighty-four persons. They were made to come back to pick up a number of men who had jumped over-board…… We did not realize that while we were hanging over the side of the ship, the whole of the fore part of her was under water – we might have been more frightened if we had seen it. The Captain called out to hurry as she was sinking fast. In our boat, we got well away from the sinking ship and busied ourselves with the wounded, whom we picked out of the water”.

The Britannic disappeared fifty-five minutes after she had been hit. As no help had come yet in answer to the S.O.S. calls, Sheila and the rest of the medical crew waited until there was no likelihood of more explosions then sailed back to where the ship had gone down to see if they could find more survivors. After a time, they saw three trails of black smoke in the distance and knew that help was on the way. These were three British ships the Foxhound , Scourge and Heroic, and after three hours in a lifeboat, Sheila was taken on to the Scourge , a torpedo destroyer. Whilst waiting as sailors rowed around making a final search for survivors, Sheila saw a sailor pulling a chair bearing the White Star emblem from the water:

and gave me a part of the back, which I guarded safely under my coat… they gave us all the food they had – tea, dog-biscuits and oranges out of sacks…Several of them gave us their cap-ribbons as souvenirs”.

Cap ribbons belonging to sailors from the rescue boats.

Letters and cap ribbons belonging to sailors from the rescue boats.

After a few hours towing the lifeboats, they were transferred to HMS Duncan then on to a French ship Piraeus, and then transferred to the Russian Hospital in Piree [Piraeus] where after a few days they were:

hurried away to Malta on the hospital ship ‘Grandtully Castle’ as Athens was getting a little too exciting for us….. After four days, when we were very happy – knowing we were at last on our way home – we reached Valetta, where we were met by the P.M. and all put into ambulances and sent to the different Hospitals on the island”.

After seventeen days on the island, they boarded HMHS Valdivia and set sail home to England.

Telegram sent from Athens with message 'SAVED - SHEILA MACBETH'

Telegram sent from Athens with message ‘SAVED – SHEILA MACBETH’

Sheila ends her recollections:

On Boxing Day we got into Southampton at about 9 am and left the boat after lunch as she had to go off to France that afternoon. We all crowded into the Waterloo train, where we were met by Miss Becher (The Matron-in-Chief) who told us that we might proceed to our homes to await further orders.

So ended my days as a refugee – at any rated for this trip”. 

After her serving on the Britannic, Sheila nursed the wounded in France. In 1919 while on holiday in Switzerland she met her future husband John Fowler Mitchell who was home from leave from the Indian Civil Service.  They were married in 1920 and returned to India where three of their four children were born. As a memsahib during the British Raj, she had to learn how to cope with a large household of servants and their dependants. They stayed in India until 1935 when John retired.

Scrapbook page of wedding photos for Sheila and John Mitchell

Scrapbook page of wedding photos for Sheila and John Mitchell

At the age of 86 Sheila answered an appeal from Jacques Cousteau for survivors of the sinking of the Britannic, and Sheila Mitchell flew to where Cousteau had located the wrecked ship on the bed of the Aegean. She was the only survivor who ever visited the wreck. She arrived on the Calypso, using the ship’s small helicopter, determined to retrieve an alarm clock and ring she had left in her cabin! With her she had brought her scrapbook filled with photos and notes. Sheila was able to give him her clear memories of the sinking. She even descended to the seabed in Cousteau’s mini submarine to see round the wreck. As the star of the film Cousteau in Search of the Britannic, she greatly enjoyed a six week publicity tour of the United States. One American fan in her seventies wrote to her:

Mrs Mitchell, you have made me realise that I have been wasting my life”.

For many years Sheila and John, who was a founder member of the Scottish Genealogy Society, systematically recorded all the pre-1955 inscriptions in numerous Scottish kirkyards, creating an invaluable record for people tracing their ancestry. They are commemorated with a bench in the Archivists’ Garden at the National Records of Scotland. Sheila was appointed MBE for her services to genealogy in 1980.

Bench dedicated to Sheila and John Mitchell, in the Archivists' Garden

Bench dedicated to Sheila and John Mitchell, in the Archivists’ Garden

Sheila Macbeth Mitchell died on 15th February 1994, aged 103.

Read the first part of Sheila’s story and view the full scrapbook online via Capital Collections.