History of the house: North British Hotel

Standing at the East End of Princes Street is the imposing building known today as The Balmoral Hotel. Owned by Sir Rocco Forte since 1997, the building has been completely refurbished and now enjoys a worldwide reputation as a luxury hotel.

But this has come at end of a long and interesting journey. Let us go back in time to explore the history and development of the building.

Edinburgh New Town development took place from 1760 until 1830 with the Nor Loch being largely drained in the 1760s and the remaining West Gardens by the 1820s. The Mound formed from the earth and rubble of the New Town construction work was started in 1781 and hard surfaced and landscaped by 1830.

Princes Street looking east, probably taken from Scott Monument, c1858. Image from Edinburgh Museums and Galleries collections.

In the 1840s three stations were built on the site of the hotel and the present Waverley Station. The first was the terminus for the North British railway from England; the second, the Edinburgh Perth and Dundee Railway was routed via a tunnel under Princes Street and the New Town to meet the ferry at Granton to cross the Forth and then on to Perth and Dundee; the third and last, was the Edinburgh to Glasgow Railway which after much debate ran through the Gardens via a tunnel under the Mound and on to Glasgow. In 1854 the name Waverley, after Sir Walter Scott’s novel applied to all three stations. The North British Railway Company took over the other two and from 1868 gradually transformed the structure of the site as demand for travel and accommodation increased.

Waverley Station and Princes Street, c1882

The building and improvement of the North and Waverley Bridges between 1892 and 1902 made for easier access from the Old to the New Town and contributed to the East End growth, as did the significant railway developments.

Waterloo Place looking towards North Bridge, showing the buildings on the site where the Balmoral Hotel now stands, c1885

The drainage of the Nor Loch encouraged the building of properties at the junction of  North Bridge and Princes Street, i.e. the current site of the Balmoral. There were early disputes as owners who had built on the North side protested that their view was being spoiled which was only settled after many court cases. The agreement allowed for properties already built or nearing completion to remain but any others further West had to be below street level to protect the view across to the Old Town. To gain some insight into the previous occupants of the Balmoral site, we’ve turned again to the old Edinburgh Post office Directories which show a history of hotels and travel companies on the site:

1846-1847
No 1  Steam Packet and Coach Office and Kerr, Wine and Spirit Merchant
No 2 Morrison City Tavern and Jas Campbell Coach Office
No 3 A Murray Turf Hotel
No 4 Croalls Coach Office (also at No 10)

1865-1866
No 1 W Kerr Wine and Spirit Merchant
No 2 John McLaren Refreshment Room
No 3 John Donald Hotel
No 4 Croalls Coach Office

1881-1882
No 1 Thomas Johnston and Alex Mctavish Bridge Hotel
No 2 A John McLaren Refreshment Rooms No 2 Wm Crawford and Sons, Bakers
No 3 Gladstone Hotel Thos Jardine
No 4 North British Railway Office

1891-1892
No 1 Thomas Johnston Bridge Hotel
No 2 Refreshment Room
No 4 NB railway Office and NB Steam Packet

1902-1903
No 1 Thos Cook and Son Waverley Station Hotel buildings
No 2 Waverley Station Hotel

A photograph in our collections, dated 1895, shows the former buildings where the Hotel now stands and shows the offices of Thomas Cook Travel Agents.

In 1889 to raise finance, The North British Railway Bill came before a committee in the House of Lords. There were objections to part of the capital raised being used to build a hotel. The main opposition to the scheme came from those who already owned or had some interest in existing hotels on Princes Street and some of the exchanges are reported to have become very personal. When all sides had presented their case the Lordships after a few minutes deliberation announced that they had decided to allow the Bill to proceed.

In 1895, an open competition to design the new North British Station Hotel was won by W. Hamilton Beattie and A.R. Scott. William Hamilton Beattie specialised in designing hotels. The son of George Beattie an architect and builder in Edinburgh. William designed the Clarendon Hotel Edinburgh (1875), the Braid Hills Hotel (1876), and in 1893, was commissioned by Charles Jenner to design a replacement for Jenners Department Store on Princes Street which had been destroyed by fire. This was opened in 1895 and is modelled on the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.  He did not live to see the new North British Hotel as he died in 1898.

North Bridge showing North British Hotel under construction, 1901

Following William Beattie’s death the task of completing his North British Hotel design fell to his assistant Andrew Robb Scott.

North British Station Hotel, Princes Street, 1937

The new hotel opened in October 1902 as the North British Railway Hotel and started a tradition of setting their clock three minutes fast so that people would not miss their train.

Over the years the Railway Company changed structure and name but The North British Railway Hotel remained unchanged. However, in 1983, Gleneagles Hotel Company acquired the famous hotel and in 1988 closed it for major refurbishment. In 1990, it was acquired by Balmoral International Hotels who completed the refurbishment and in 1991 reopened as The Balmoral Hotel.

In 1997 the building was bought by the present owner Sir Rocco Forte to start his Rocco Forte Collection and there have been changes and refurbishments to the building since.

Large Dining Hall in North British Station Hotel, 1902

Over the years the hotel has played host to many important and famous visitors.

In 1918 the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, was a guest at the hotel whilst in Edinburgh to receive the Freedom of the City and an honorary LL.D from the University.

On 24 July 1919, HRH The Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII and Duke of Windsor) came to Edinburgh to receive the Freedom of the City. The Scotsman newspaper reported that he used the Hotel as his base until his departure the following morning.

In July 1932, Hollywood legends Laurel and Hardy stayed at the Hotel whilst on a promotional tour and their movie ‘The Music Box’ sceened at the Playhouse.

King Haakon of Norway was in residence for a few days in 1942 during which he opened Norway House, a residential club for Norwegians.

During the 1960s, glamorous celebrities such as Sophia Loren,  Elizabeth Taylor and Paul McCartney stayed at the hotel.

The Queen Mother was a regular visitor during the 1970s. Prime Ministers Edward Heath and Harold Wilson also visited.

And in 2007, J K Rowling completed the final novel in the Harry Potter series while residing at the hotel for a few months. This was a well kept secret and the author signed an antique bust in her room.

View from the Scott Monument of the Balmoral Hotel, Waverley Market and Calton Hill, 2010

Are you interested in discovering the history of your home? The Edinburgh and Scottish Collection at Central Library has a vast collection of material which can help you.

Read more 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
History of the house: 94 and 96 Grassmarket
History of the house: Stockbridge Colonies
History of the house: Milne’s Court
History of the house: Melbourne Place
History of the house: Falcon Hall

Emmeline Vyner: poet, psychic, dog-lover

Staff at Central Library have been archiving a box of personal papers, diaries and scrapbooks and in the process, discovering a remarkable life. Emmeline Lillian Vyner was born in Halifax around 1876. She moved to Scotland with her husband and first daughter and stayed here for the rest of her life. She was found dead in her shop in Leith in 1947 by her son.

A mother of five, she possessed a wry sense of humour and a robust outlook on life lived through two world wars. She liked to write poetry and her poems were placed in Edinburgh and Leith newspapers: romantic and natural subjects to start with then moving on to First World War poems, based mainly on the experience of the women and children left to cope at home. She was not afraid to criticise the church and the established institutions of the day and to challenge injustice where she found it with her published articles and in letters to the newspapers. When she felt in a lighter mood, she wrote humorous pieces for magazines, newspapers and lyrics for songs. She had lofty ambitions and received rejection notices from some of the biggest literary agents in Britain. She has pasted one of those rejections in her scrapbook signed by Curtis Brown. He set up the agency which still manages some of the biggest names in the literary world today.

Some of her most interesting pieces are on her activities attending psychic seances in various houses in Edinburgh and Leith in 1942. These circles were well attended by large numbers of participants and, from Emmeline’s accounts, the attendees gained a great deal of comfort from the messages from the mediums. She explains in one article that she has been receiving jealous looks from the other sitters at the number of messages she receives and explains the best way to receive messages from the spirit people. She advises not to eat flesh meat or eggs on séance days, talk to your spirit friends before you leave your house, tell them where you are going and ask them to come with you. Once you are at your circle, sit still and relax and don’t cross the legs, feet, hands, arms or do anything to close yourself up. She writes “Let spirit emanations flow from your extremities and remove your hat if you like.” Always enterprising, Emmeline has typed up these accounts on reused paper (due to wartime restrictions) and has charged between threepence and sixpence for a copy!

It’s her delight in children and dogs that really shines through her journals and scrapbooks. In her work as a cinema pianist, she rails against playing for two hour features with only the shortest of breaks but she delights in the mornings that she played her piano for the children’s features. She loved to hear all the children singing along to her piano and deliberately played tunes they would enjoy although she said that, due to the noise, a brass band might have been a better accompaniment! Dogs she loved, especially old English collies, and her charming article on dogs and their affinity with their masters is illustrated with four photos of Rough, her own example of the breed. She states the reasoning powers of dogs is quite evident and provides several examples of dogs doing just that. The funniest is an Alsatian called Prince whom, upon hearing his mistress’ wish for a fur coat from her husband, promptly went out the door and stole her a mink coat that had been left out to air by a neighbour!

We are glad Emmeline Vyner settled in Scotland all those years ago and left behind so many different types of writing. It has been fascinating to see a glimpse of how an ordinary person dealt with the Great War through poetry and then found support through spiritualism to carry on through the Second World War, brought closer to home by Leith air raids and rationing. We are so glad that we have had a chance to read her papers, her newspaper articles and her scrapbooks and make a connection with such a lively and resilient character.

 

Take a step back in time with Edinburgh Collected to the 1960s National Coal Board Computer Centre

Back in May 1963, the National Coal Board opened a state-of-the-art Computer Centre at Sighthill featuring the latest technology. It’s no longer there but thanks to photographs taken on the day we can see just what that technology looked like, and how much it has changed!

National Coal Board , Sighthill – Official Opening, 1963

The photos show massive big pieces of machinery, churning out reams of paper. Operators sitting in front of machines featuring rows and rows of switches. Computer equipment that is taller than those standing next to it. One thing you do notice, is that most of the equipment is being operated by women.

Staff member operating computer at the official opening of the National Coal Board Scotland Computer Centre

The images have been added to our Edinburgh Collected website where we encourage anyone to upload their photographs. Anyone can share their pictures and memories to Edinburgh Collected whilst contributing to the City’s digital heritage collections.

Although the Coal Board photos were most probably taken by a professional photographer, the bulk of photos on Edinburgh Collected have been taken by amateur photographers. They offer a more personal perspective on the past but can still capture areas of Edinburgh, or perhaps industries, factories and activities that no longer exist.

The images in this scrapbook were all added to the site by The Living Memory Association, who have shared over 3000 images on Edinburgh Collected so far.

Nowadays everyone takes photos on their phones, and that’s where they stay. So why not have a look and put some on Edinburgh Collected?

History of the House: Melbourne Place

Today the site is occupied by a bank and a hotel, but step back nearly 200 years and the corner of George IV Bridge was very different. For one thing it was called Melbourne Place, named after the 2nd Viscount Melbourne, who was Prime Minister from 1835-41.

Melbourne Place and Victoria Terrace

Searching through copies of Post Office directories, which are available from our Edinburgh and Scottish Collection within Central Library, we can see that it was home to various businesses including in 1837, Alex Ferguson, Wholesale Confectionery and Lozenge Manufactory, who had its premises at Number 1 and 2. As well as making various confections ranging from medicated lozenges and boiled sugar sweets, it was there that the famous Edinburgh Rock was manufactured. Packaged in tartan boxes and different from the normal lettered Blackpool Rock, it had a crumbly texture and came in various pastel colours.

Another well-known name appears in the 1846-47 Post Office Directory, Kennington and Jenner. One of the other resources available to library users is Findmypast. In the 1851 Census, in number 7, the head of the household is listed as a Charles Jenner, unmarried aged 40 and stating his occupation as a Draper Master employing 35 men, 28 women and 9 boys. We know that when fire destroyed the original Jenner’s Department store in 1892 there were around 120 people employed by the firm who were housed on the premises. Was this an earlier “boarding house” for employees? Listed in the Census, together at the property with Charles was a Housekeeper, a House Porter, a Chambermaid, a Table Maid, a cook and 30 Drapers Assistants!

Demolition of Melbourne Place

By 1852 The Royal Medical Society had taken over number 7 Melbourne Place. The RMS was formally constituted in 1737, providing a meeting place for medical students with the purpose of enhancing their education, and flourished in its educational and social provision. Its contribution to medicine was recognised with the awarding of a Royal Charter 1778. It remains the only student society in the United Kingdom to have attained this distinction. The Society retained its position at number 7 until 1965 when the buildings on Melbourne Place were demolished to make room for office buildings of the Midlothian County Council.

Lothian Regional Council Chambers from Victoria Terrace

In 1975 the building became Lothian Regional Council Chambers and when Lothian Region was dismantled in 1996 the building was taken over by the City of Edinburgh Council, and provided a temporary home for the Scottish Parliament from 1999 until 2004. This building was demolished in 2007 to make way for a new Missoni Hotel (now Radisson Collection Hotel) complex and the largest Bank of Scotland branch in Edinburgh together with two Royal Mile shops and a Pizza Express restaurant.

Hotel at corner of George IV bridge and Victoria Street

Are you interested in discovering the history of your home? The Edinburgh and Scottish Collection at Central Library has a vast collection of material which can help you.

Read more 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
History of the house: 94 and 96 Grassmarket
History of the house: Stockbridge Colonies
History of the house: Milne’s Court
History of the house: Falcon Hall
History of the house: North British Hotel

Libraries Week focus: Edinburgh Collected

Join in this Libraries Week by sharing your pictures and memories of Edinburgh on Edinburgh Collected!

Edinburgh Collected (www.edinburghcollected.org) is a community archive for the city where everyone can browse and enjoy this growing online collection of pictures and memories.

Venchie Fun, 1983 from the Sentinel newspaper, picture memory shared by From There To Here

However, if you sign up for an Edinburgh Collected account, you can upload your own written or picture memories and save your favourite memories to scrapbooks. By joining Edinburgh Collected you’ll be contributing your memories to the city’s heritage collections and helping us to preserve and make history for the future.

My Brother Alec, aged 5 years old, is amongst these 30 children photographed, 1934, picture memory shared by Dean Village Memories

Memories could be from childhood or from yesterday. They all combine to create an online living history for the city.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Edinburgh Collected or need a helping hand to get started, contact the Libraries’ Digital Team via informationdigital@edinburgh.gov.uk or 0131 242 8033.

History of the house: Milne’s Court

In the 1540s, Henry VIII mounted a military campaign to intimidate the Scots into agreeing to the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots to Henry’s son, Edward. Henry’s troops had instructions to ‘put all to fire and sword’. This so-called ‘rough wooing’ did not succeed but at the beginning of the 1600s, the city of Edinburgh was still recovering from the damage caused by the English forces.

The land available for building was constrained by the city walls and the answer was to build upwards, resulting in buildings of 8 to 12 storeys appearing on the slopes down to the walls. During the 1600s, the city also had a series of major fires and in 1700 a huge fire in Parliament Close spread up the High Street destroying some 15 storey buildings.

Perspective view of the Castle and City of Edinburgh, with the towns of Leith, Burntisland and Kinghorn. (Click to zoom in.)

At the same time, the population was increasing and the demand for housing was rising. In 1700, Edinburgh had some 25,000 citizens, a populace which grew to 50,000 by the middle of the century and to over 80,000 by 1800. (To give some contemporary context to these numbers, Murrayfield Stadium can accommodate 67,000 people.)

Milne’s Court, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh, c1910

Many of the old houses were in a state of collapse, streets and closes were dirty and in need of maintenance. New regulations were introduced to widen and improve entry to the closes and wood could no longer be used for the framework of buildings. The Council used its powers of compulsory purchase to acquire land for new developments. They intended to imitate the style of one of the Old Town’s more desirable locations: Milne’s Court.

Milne’s (or Mylnes) Court was built in 1690 by Robert Milne of Balfarg, the Royal Master Mason, and the 7th member of his family to hold the title. The development had an open central court instead of narrow closes and was the first of its kind in Edinburgh.  (You can see the date 1690 above the entry to the court from the Lawnmarket.)

At the time the building was an example of the best in desirable accommodation and the 1694 Poll Tax return indicates that many of the residents were middle-class professionals. James Court, built between 1723 and 1727 by James Brownhill was intended to imitate the style of neighbouring Milnes Court, offering exclusive apartments round a courtyard.

Some Milne’s Court residents of that time also have a connection with the ill-fated Darien Company. In the 1690s, Scots were buying goods from the East valued in today’s prices at more than £10 million. Seven residents, James Balfour, Merchant, Cunningham, Solicitor, McLurgg and Allan, Deans of Guild, Alexander Gibson and Milne, and James Byers in 1695 were among the original investors in the Darien Company to trade with Africa and the Indies from Panama. The venture, however, was doomed from the start due to a lack of knowledge of the requirements to operate in the region.  A mixture of inadequate supplies, tropical diseases, hostile local tribes and Blockades by the English and Spanish Navies resulted in the total collapse of the Company. The failure had a severe effect on the Scottish economy which was reduced by around 25%.

However, by the mid 1800s, Milne’s Court had lost its middle-class residents and was a far less desirable place to live. The last person of rank to be recorded as living at Milne’s Court was Lady Isabella Douglas in 1861. The 1871 Census described it as  ‘a densely populated square… very dirty’.

Entrance to Milne’s Court, Lawnmarket, c1903. On the left of the picture above, taken at the entrance to Milne’s Court, is Blake and Co., a plumbers and gasfitters at no. 519 Lawnmarket and on the other side is J. Gilchrist, greengrocer at no. 515.

If we examine part of the Public Census for 1901, around the time the above photograph was taken, we discover how diverse the occupants were. Looking at 17 of the properties at no. 1 Milne’s Court, 14 have only one outside window while the other three have two.

The ages of the residents vary from 8 months to 72 years. There 22 males and 29 females. Looking at a few of the residents in more detail –

Marie Balie (22) and her sister Catherine (18) live together with no other family members and work at a cone factory.

Jane Williamson is a widow aged 67 living alone and she works as a hardware hawker.

George Mackay (34) lives with his wife Caroline (31) and children, Thomas (7), George (4), and Catherine (1). He is a furnace man.

Margaret McGabie (46) a widow lives with her daughter (19) and a boarder Annie Warrington (20). Margaret and Annie are rubber shoe makers and Mary is a machinist in the rubber industry.

William Tullis (56) is a house painter living with his wife Isabella (49). The members of their family are Robert (22), a plasterer, George (20), a vanman and Isabella (17) a painter’s machine girl, John (15), a message boy and Agnes (12 ), a scholar.

Andrew Jack (68), a self employed vermin exterminator lives with his wife Helen (64) and two boarders, James Tait (16), a message boy and James Logue (7), a scholar who was born in Lanark.

The state of the buildings continued to worsen and in 1960 the City Engineer declared the north-east part to be unsafe and issued a 21 day warning for its demolition.

The University of Edinburgh expressed an interest in acquiring the building leading to plans to stabilise it being drawn up and passed by the Council Planning Committee in only 10 days. Aided by donations from Harold Salvesen and Philip Henman, Milne’s Court was restored as student accommodation which opened in 1969 and remains as such today.

Read more 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
History of the house: 94 and 96 Grassmarket
History of the house: Stockbridge Colonies
History of the house: Melbourne Place
History of the house: Falcon Hall
History of the house: North British Hotel

Are you interested in discovering the history of your home? The Edinburgh and Scottish Collection at Central Library has a vast collection of material which can help you.

Craigmillar Steam Laundry

Our latest Capital Collections exhibition showcases a wonderful collection of photographs of The Craigmillar Steam Laundry.

Initially formed as the Edinburgh Steam Laundry Company, when a property was bought in West Craigmillar on West Saville Terrace, the laundry opened in July 1883 as the Craigmillar Steam Laundry.

Craigmillar Steam Laundry, Edinburgh – ironing and finishing department

By 1891 the laundry was handling over 30,000 articles of clothing a week. It was described as “the largest, best arranged, and most perfectly equipped establishment of its kind in Scotland”. The laundry used state of the art equipment including steam driven washing machines and hydro extractors which were a type of spin drier. In addition to cleaning, ironing, and finishing the clothes, the laundry dealt with a whole range of materials including carpets and curtains. All finished goods were dispatched in the company’s horse drawn vans. By the late nineteenth century, the laundry employed over 130 people.

Craigmillar Steam Laundry, Edinburgh – delivery cart

As the twentieth century progressed, the company began buying up other laundries, and the original Craigmillar site was redeveloped. In 1951 the company took over the Caledonian Laundry, and in 1958 opened a petrol station on the Craigmillar site, which was later followed by a car showroom in 1960.

By the early 1970s the company had 6 laundries around the Edinburgh area all using automatic coin operated machines.

Craigmillar Steam Laundry, Edinburgh

The West Saville Terrace property was sold in 1978, and the remaining buildings were let to their tenants as the company became a property letting agency. The company was then sold to Cala Homes in 1986.

View the full collection of images of this remarkable snapshot into past working lives on Capital Collections.