Niki Vermeulen

Nov 242020
 

2 St Mary’s St, EH8 8AA

2 St Mary`s Street
2 St Mary`s Street

2 St Mary’s Street was the first building erected under the 1867 Edinburgh Improvement Act. The act was the achievement of William Chambers (1800-1883), Lord Provost of Edinburgh and Sir Henry Duncan Littlejohn (1826-1914), the first Medical Officer of Health for the city. In 1765, Littlejohn published his Report on the Sanitary Condition of the City of Edinburgh, in which he demonstrated, using innovative statistical methods, the effects of population density, poverty, and sanitary conditions on the health and life expectancy of people. The Report helped persuade city officials to act. Legislation was passed to widen streets, clear congested housing sites, improve water supply, and monitor more closely the quality of food, among other things. However, in practice, the Improvement Act was used to legally demolish the poorest tenement dwellings in Old Town, which were replaced by housing for artisans, tradesmen, and the `superior` working classes. The large-scale slum clearance, although celebrated for its sanitation improvements, reduced the amount of available housing and displaced much of the city’s poor, ultimately shifting, rather than solving, the housing problem.

Upper College Wynd before demolitions, by Archibald Burns, 1871 (Scottish National Portrait Gallery)
Upper College Wynd before the demolitions associated with the City Improvement Scheme,
photograph by Archibald Burns, 1871
(Scottish National Portrait Gallery)
Crumbling houses on Cowgate by William Donaldson Clark, c.1860 (Scottish National Portrait Gallery)
Crumbling houses on Cowgate near the pillars of George IV Bridge, photograph by William Donaldson Clark, c.1860
(Scottish National Portrait Gallery)

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Nov 242020
 

240 Canongate, EH8 8AD

Chessel's Court
Chessel’s Court

The High Street was the main public space and spine of the original town structure, with enclosures (or ‘closes’) situated on either side. Each enclosure consisted of a dwelling at the top and gardens behind, extending towards the fields further down the valley. As the population grew, the gardens were built over, and, by the 17th century, virtually all green space had disappeared. Dwellings off the street front were accessed through narrow ‘wynds’ and ‘closes’. Chessel’s Court is one example of the 19th-century urban regeneration efforts led by the botanist, philanthropist, pioneer sociologist and town planner, Sir Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) and the Edinburgh Social Union. Geddes and other members of the Union worked closely with architects and local residents to rescue derelict inner-city tenements and transform them into livable spaces; an approach he termed ‘conservative surgery’. This involved creating a network of small community gardens on available open spaces in Old Town, bringing inner-city residents back in touch with nature, light, and air. A botanist by training, Geddes believed that people and their environment evolved together, and the human misery and degradation seen in Edinburgh`s Old Town could be reversed by the systematic improvement of the living conditions of its inhabitants.

More green space towards the top left end of the courtyard.
More green space towards the top left end of the courtyard
Edinburgh Bird`s Eye View looking West c.1450 AD. By Sir Frank Charles Mears, member of the Edinburgh Social Union, 1910.
Edinburgh Bird`s Eye View looking West c.1450 AD, speculative sketch of the historical town showing gardens and fields behind the closes on High Street. By Sir Frank Charles Mears, member of the Edinburgh Social Union, 1910
(© The University of Edinburgh).
Patrick Geddes in Lasswade (© The University of Edinburgh)
Patrick Geddes in Lasswade
(© The University of Edinburgh)
Children working in garden, photograph by Patrick Geddes 
(© The University of Edinburgh)
Children working in garden,
photograph by Patrick Geddes
(© The University of Edinburgh)

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Nov 242020
 

145 Canongate, EH8 8BN

Scottish poet Robert Ferguson (1750-1774)
Scottish poet Robert Ferguson (1750-1774)

The famous Scottish poet Robert Ferguson (1750-1774) died tragically when he was just 24 years old. In the years before his premature death, he suffered from bouts of depression taking the form of debilitating religious guilt. While out on the town with his friends he took a fall, which caused a serious head injury. Because his mother (then his only living parent) was unable to care for him, he was committed to the Edinburgh Asylum for Pauper Lunatics, where he later died in his cell. Fergusson’s incarceration and death inspired physician and joint founder of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Andrew Duncan (1744-1828), to establish Edinburgh’s first public lunatic asylum in Morningside. Duncan had been one of the physicians treating Fergusson and was appalled by the conditions in the asylum. In a letter to the Scottish Sheriff Deputy he wrote of his experience of his visits with the poet that it “afforded me an opportunity of witnessing the deplorable situation of Pauper Lunatics even in the opulent, flourishing, and charitable Metropolis of Scotland”. By establishing the asylum in Morningside, Duncan contributed to Fergusson’s legacy, not just as a brilliant poet, but as someone who had a lasting impact on public health in Scotland.

 Portrait of Robert Fergusson by Alexander Runciman, about 1772. (National Galleries Scotland)
Portrait of Robert Fergusson by Alexander Runciman, about 1772.
(National Galleries Scotland)

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Nov 232020
 

142-146 Canongate, EH8 8DD

The Museum of Edinburgh

The Museum of Edinburgh is dedicated to telling the history of the city through its unique collection of objects, ranging from the precious to the mundane. In the first-floor exhibition space, in the third room to the left of the staircase, there is an early 17th-century chamber pot on display, excavated from below the buildings of Old Town. Before the introduction of water closets, human waste collected in chamber pots was often tossed onto the streets by maids calling out `guardyloo` (from the French expression `prenez garde à l`eau` or `watch out for the water`), a custom going back to the Middle Ages. This lack of efficient waste management created major problems as the population grew. In 1749, the `Nastiness Act` was passed, restricting the tossing of refuse (or `fulsies`) to the hours between 10 pm and 7 am. Dust carts were introduced and scavengers employed to clean up the streets. Nonetheless, poor sanitation in Old Town remained an issue well into the 19th century, leading to frequent outbreaks of cholera and fevers.

`If any one, from his windows, or doors, or otherwise, shall throw sweepings, foul water, or other nastiness, … by which he tears or defiles the cap or coat of any one passing, that passenger, so injured, may demand and make good in law a double compensation for his damage. But this double reparation cannot be awarded, if the way was not a public one, or if the individual solemnly and fairly proclaimed what was coming, by crying, “Garde l`eau.”` From the 16th-century Flemish manual of criminal law Praxis rerum criminalium by Joost de Damhoudere (Louvain, 1554), cited in Reekiana, or Minor Antiquities of Edinburgh by Robert Chambers (Edinburgh, 1833).

Early 17th-century chamber pot (The Story of Edinburgh in 101 Objects https://edinburgh.org/101/
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