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