William Channing’s lost closes of Edinburgh

Central Library holds three bound volumes of William Channing’s ‘Sketches in Edinburgh‘ which give his artist’s impression of tenement life in the mid 19th century. His drawings are glimpses into the past down the narrow closes and alleyways of the city’s streets and Old Town. We see higgledy-piggledy houses and tenements towering skywards, laundry hanging from windows across the walkways and local characters talking in the streets.

Brodies Close, High Street

William Channing is a little-known artist today, although it’s thought he worked as a professional theatre scene painter. Some of his drawings give an insight into his drawing technique with guidelines still visible on the paper. Many views are duplicates with first the initial sketch followed by the finished watercolour drawing. Although it’s clear the images were sketched from life over 150 years ago, there is a freshness and contemporary feel to many of his drawings.

Henry Gray’s Close, Leith

Channing’s beautiful sketches are particularly valued for their representation of the architectural elements and details of buildings and closes now much changed or long since disappeared.

You can view all three volumes of the sketches on Capital Collections :
Wm. Channing’s Sketches in Edinburgh – volume 1
Wm. Channing’s Sketches in Edinburgh – volume 2
Wm. Channing’s Sketches in Edinburgh – volume 3.

Passport belonging to John Morison Inches

One of the things that Libraries lend most frequently are travel guides, but we have in our collections much more than just books about travel. We house prints, photos, travelogues, timetables, tickets and ephemera, including perhaps surprisingly, some historical passports.

Before the age of photographic ID, the passport was a standard printed form emblazed with the Royal Coat of Arms and stating:

We, Sir Edward Grey, a Baronet of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, a Member of His Most Britannic Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council…


Request and require in the Name of His Majesty, all those whom it may concern to allow — to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford — every assistance and protection of which — may stand in need.

Staff in the Edinburgh and Scottish Collection recently uncovered one such passport made out to Mr John Morison Inches, a British subject travelling in Europe, accompanied by his wife Mrs Margaret Morison Inches.

Passport of Mr John Morison Inches

Who are the persons named in the passport? We turned first to the Library’s resources and the Scotsman Digital Archive where we found John Morison Inches obituary in its edition of 5 May 1914. We also found details of his will published in The Scotsman on 12 June 1914 where he left an estate of £49,095.

Mr John Morison Inches was well-known in Edinburgh in his time. He was a brewer and ran J & J Morison, the Commercial Brewery in the Canongate. He was traveling with his wife Mrs Margaret Inches on a possible business trip in 1911 to Moscow in pre-Great War and pre-1917 revolutionary Russia. He died soon after this trip in 1914 and left his business to his widow until his son John Morison Inches took over. Although, Margaret remained heavily involved in the business operations for many years. The brewery would eventually evolve into Scottish and Newcastle Breweries.

The passport  is currently on display in the Reference Library at Central Library.

Mary Queen of Scots documents at the Museum of Edinburgh: The daily business of being Queen

Vicky Garrington, History Curator at Museums & Galleries Edinburgh, has created the latest exhibition on Capital Collections. We invited her to tell us about this very special collection of documents:

“A group of documents believed to have been signed by Mary Queen of Scots have recently come to light at the Museum of Edinburgh. Although information about them was held on file, they were lost in storage before being unearthed during recent inventory and conservation work. After decades spent unseen, they have been photographed ready to share on Capital Collections.

Document dated 1553, signed by James, Duke of Chastlerault, stating that Mary Queen of Scots has gifted a portion of the sands at Leith for the building of a bulwark.

The beautifully handwritten documents, carefully dated, numbered and signed, relate to the busy commercial life of Edinburgh during the 16th century. Papers covering markets and the selling of meat sit alongside permits for London salt sellers to operate in the City and for the building of a bulwark (defensive wall) at Leith. The documents date from 1553 to 1567 (Mary reigned in Scotland from 1542 to 1567), and are signed variously by Mary, her then husband James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, and James, Duke of Chastlerault.

Together, the documents shed light on a key part of Scotland’s past. We all know the tragic story of Mary Queen of Scots, her eventful life and eventual execution in 1587, but in these documents we see a different side to Mary. Here, she can be seen carefully managing the everyday affairs of Edinburgh, both from France and Scotland. It’s fascinating to think of her reading through these official papers before carefully applying her signature.

Detail view of signature of Mary Queen of Scots from a 1557 order relating to the privileges of fleshers

New information on the documents has come to light during the inventory and conservation process: two of the documents include watermarks in the paper which can only be seen when they are held up to the light. One features a goat, the other a hand holding a flower. This discovery shows how our museum objects can keep teaching us things, revealing new secrets as we work with them.”

Visit Capital Collections to see the documents and read the daily business of being Queen.

Panorama print goes on display

Thanks to the generous support of Edinburgh Old Town Association, a long ignored panorama of ‘Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside from Calton Hill’ has again found a home in the Edinburgh and Scottish Collection of Central Library.

The print depicts the view seen from Calton Hill in the 1820s and highlights points of interest.  Measuring more than 6ft in length it is full of detail not only of the architecture and town planning, but of the many people who used Calton Hill as a viewpoint.

Cleo Jones, Schools and Lifelong Learning Strategic Officer accepts a cheque from Barbara Logue, Convenor of Edinburgh Old Town Association.

Remounted and framed by Edinburgh Arts we hope many of our visitors from both near and far will appreciate seeing such a charming and informative image of Edinburgh.

Members of the Edinburgh Old Town Association who attended the presentation:
Naomi Richardson, Vice Convenor ; Rosemary Mann, Treasurer; Eric Drake, Newsletter Editor; Laura Harrington, Membership Secretary; Kate Marshall, committee member.

St Leonard’s Improvement Scheme

Our latest exhibitition on Capital Collections is a photographic survey of the St Leonard’s area of Edinburgh. The early twentieth century saw a growing concern with the living conditions of many of Edinburgh’s lower classes. From the 1920s onwards the Burgh Engineer’s Department carried out many photographic surveys of deprived areas of the city, creating both a record of what was there and a basis for the creation of new housing.

125, 127 and 129 Pleasance

A survey of the St Leonard’s area of Edinburgh was carried out by Edinburgh Council between 1927-29 in advance of the demolition and reconstruction of much of the area.

165 and 165a Pleasance (looking east)

The Edinburgh and Scottish Collection has volumes of photographs taken prior to reconstruction which covers areas such as Potterrow, Dumbiedykes, West Crosscauseway and the Pleasance. Although the images were taken to record the state of the housing, they are populated by the inhabitants of the Southside, who are captured going about their daily business of shopping, working and leaning out of windows to watch the world go by. Many of the local businesses are also represented with a wide array including confectioners, hairdressers and butcher’s shops, all decorated with a fascinating range of advertisements.

2a, and 2 Gifford Park

The buildings may no longer be standing, and although by the time these photographs were taken the area was due for demolition, you can still see signs that there was a sense of community.

There are confectioners, cafés and public houses, all seemingly still open for business, with adverts with names that are still familiar today – Rowntrees, OXO, Wrigley’s chewing gum and Camp Coffee. On the side of an old tenement we see adverts for two of Edinburgh’s many theatres, the Empire which advertises “The World’s Greatest Musical Play” The Vagabond King, and the Royal Lyceum Theatre, which was “presenting a personal visit of Henry Baynton”, a British Shakespearean actor-manager of the early 20th Century.

To view more of these great ‘snapshots’ of social history and this much-changed area of Edinburgh visit the exhibition on Capital Collections.


History of the house: 94 and 96 Grassmarket

Our house history spotlight falls on no.s 94 and 96 Grassmarket, now occupied by Biddy Mulligans Irish pub but which facade hides an interesting past.

First though, we need to set the scene and go back to the mid 19th century when the Grassmarket was a melting pot of activity and commerce.

East end of Grassmarket showing foot of West Bow, c1856

Using the old Edinburgh Post Office records we find in 1854, the occupations of Grassmarket residents included surgeon, draper, brewer and spirit dealers, baker, flesher (butcher), an Innkeeper at no 100, victual dealer, grain merchant, ropemaker, saddler, ironmonger, china merchant, stables worker and corn merchant.

By 1874 new occupations have appeared including horse dealer, tanner, tobacco manufacturer, wright, iron merchant, brass founder, cork cutter, sack manufacturer, clockmaker and saw maker.

In 1884, rag merchant, teacher, hairdresser, egg merchant are added to the variety or working lives in the Grassmarket area.

Let us look now at no.s 94 and 96.

The Grassmarket Mission was founded by James Fairbairn in 1886 for the relief of those in need. It supported the local community by providing food and clothing, and fellowship through meetings and refuge.

Grassmarket Mission, c1920

With financial support, Fairbairn bought the site at 94 Grassmarket and in 1890 commissioned architect James Lessels to build the Mission Hall. Fairbairn was one of eight Trustees and also Superintendent of the Mission.

At this time many properties in the area were very dilapidated and could have been classified as slum dwellings. One study in the 1860s for the Canongate, Tron, St.Giles and Grassmarket  recorded that of the single room homes surveyed as many as 1530 had between 6 and 15 people living in them. This overcrowding was made worse by the practice of taking in lodgers, necessary to enhance meagre incomes.

Some people turned to drink to try to escape the harsh realities of their existence and environment. It was principally the children of these families and homeless people who the Mission sought to help.

A later survey in 1913 recorded that Edinburgh had 7106 one roomed houses where 94% shared a common WC and 43% a common sink.

In 1930 the Mission bought the building next door at number 96 and converted it to contain a new Mission Hall, an up to date kitchen, a clothing department and flats upstairs all of which allowed it to expand the services it could provide.

After World War Two the number of people requiring support and help fell due to the assistance provided by the agencies of the new welfare state and the rehousing of families from the city centre to new outlying council estates. As a result, the Mission reached the point of being underused and with costs increasing due to regulation changes, staffing and maintenance, in 1989 it was decided to sell the properties.

The important work of the Mission however continues with its involvement in the Grassmarket Community Project, a joint venture Charity with Greyfriars Kirk and New College Students.

Discover more about the Grassmarket Mission’s history and activity today.

View of Grassmarket and Hub from the Apex Hotel, 2007

During the 1990s the buildings at 94 and 96 became a pub and applications were made to alter and restore 101-107 West Bow to form an extension to the hotel at 96 Grassmarket.

Biddy Mulligan’s pub now occupies numbers 94 and 96 and continues the tradition of being a place where people come to meet and receive hospitality, albeit now on commercial terms. Next time you’re passing, look up, and you’ll see the ‘Mission Hall’ sign still visible above the door.

Read other articles in this ‘History of the house’ series:
History of the house: King’s Wark
History of the house: Bowhead house
History of the house: Nicolson Square and Marshall Street
History of the house: White Horse Close


A stitch in time – WEA tapestry commemorates Central Library’s history

Today at Edinburgh Central Library, we are celebrating the completion and display of a tapestry marking our 125th anniversary. The Workers’ Educational Association Stitching Times group embroidered the tapestry. They began work in the autumn of 2015 – the 125th anniversary year of the opening of the library.

Central Library – 125 years in stitch

Founded in 1903, the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) is a charity dedicated to bringing high quality, professional education into the heart of communities. WEA are the UK’s largest voluntary sector provider of adult education. Their goal is to widen participation in education and they are committed to education with a social purpose.

Archie Campbell, WEA Area Education Manager says:

“The WEA’s Scottish headquarters is in Edinburgh and we have been very fortunate to have built up a strong and mutually beneficial relationship with Edinburgh Central Library. This partnership goes back several decades and is one WEA feel privileged to be involved in and are keen to nurture and develop. Learners circumstances, learning requirements and the ways they learn (in particular the use of I.T.) change over the years but the WEA will always look to work closely with Central Library to ensure learners are able to access high quality adult education opportunities in a friendly and welcoming environment. The beautiful tapestry the WEA Stitching Times group have produced is fitting testament to this and we are absolutely delighted it is to take pride of place at the library and be viewed by so many library users and visitors.”

Rebecca Mackay, who leads the Stitching Times group added:

“The WEA Stitching Times group began about six years ago with a project for the Museum of Edinburgh, and we call ourselves Stitching Times because our community projects over the years have had an historic connection which we not only stitched into a visual expression but also researched. Our group has its work in the collections of the Museum of Edinburgh – notably in conjunction with their Maude Pentland archive – and on display at Riddles Court. Our commemoration tapestries for the Women of World War One have been exhibited across the country at numerous Library and WEA events. It was a great honour when the Central Library and the WEA approached us with a request to develop an embroidered tapestry celebrating 125 years of Edinburgh Central Library. We are delighted with its completion. It has been a labour of love by many hands.”

‘EPL’ detail taken the gates at main entrance

The tapestry is on display on the main staircase at Central Library. It shows some fantastic details from the library’s history including Daisy Carnegie, the library cat, and the only baby born in the library.