Some 20 years ago, after repairing an old burst pipe that ran through the whole building where we live, we had our spare room redecorated. Stripping the wallpaper back to the original plaster, we discovered some strange drawings on the wall. There was nothing particularly distinctive about them. They weren't suggestive, but vaguely cartoonish. I remember a thin, skull-like head with a prominent forehead. We wondered who might have drawn them. A bored workman idly doodling? A small child playing?
There was something rather spooky about them: the actual physical trace of someone who had either lived or worked in the house some time, who knows when, during the previous century. I thought of those sticklike hunting scenes of men and animals discovered by archaeologists in ancient caves. On the outer corner of our block, the date 1897 is carved into the stonework. Hardly ancient, but Queen Victoria was still alive and one of my grand-mothers who died in 1974 aged 93 was a mere slip of a girl.
I'm a great fan of David Olusoga's BBC series, A House Through Time
, the way it draws you in to the lives of ordinary people, and some not so ordinary. It's delivered with heart, humanising the dry facts of history. So far he's chosen houses in Liverpool, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Bristol and currently Leeds. This house in the suburb of Headingly, now associated with the university, cricket and rugby league, is a rather smart upmarket residence, and, unlike some of the others, which had phases as mere lodging houses or fell into neglect and were threatened with demolition, it seems always to have been a family home. This gives the stories of its inhabitants an emotional coherence and a sense of history approaching the imaginative detail of fiction.
It's also a place of aspiration. Built to accommodate the needs of a new middle class seeking to remove themselves from the bustle and clamour of the city's mid-19th century industrial expansion, it has housed those who went on to greater wealth and status, as well as those for whom it represented the pinnacle of their fortunes. The Nicholsons left their mark on many grand public buildings of the city. The grandfather began as a rural joiner and wheelwright. His grandson, capitalising on a substantial business inheritance and reputation, earned a knighthood and became Lord Mayor.
The Dawsons were less fortunate. Rhodes Dawson's cloth-washing business fell victim to large factory takeovers and his family's spendthrift ways were cruelly exposed in an auction of their goods – a Spanish mahogany dresser, for example, a rosewood piano – as they confronted the loss of their wealth and social standing. The two families' contrasting fortunes form almost a moral tract about those solid Victorian virtues of hard work and thrift that writers like George Eliot and Arnold Bennet would have understood.
The first owner, a solicitor, William Bruce, was a man of conscience and compassion for the poor. Twice in his career he signed petitions for clemency for condemned men. The first about a man who had poisoned his wife, addressed to the Queen, wasn't successful. The second, to the Home Secretary, when he was an established magistrate, was. The latter case, arising from a drunken argument between two young men at Christmas, forms the heart of Catherine Czerkawska's poignant family memoir, A Proper Person to be Detained
. It was pleasing to see her acknowledged in the programme's credits.
It isn't, of course, the walls that talk, but the city archives, newspaper articles, bankruptcy notices, auction advertisements, census returns, records of births, marriages and deaths that do. Only stillbirths were not recorded, a sad omission, it seems. A lost set of statistics during a period of high child mortality. I doubt Olusoga will come north to Scotland. It seems out of his comfort zone somehow.
Some time ago, I bought a book called 66 The House that Viewed the World
by John DO Fulton. This focuses on a smart townhouse at 66 Queen Street, built in 1792 in Enlightenment Edinburgh's distinctive New Town. Fulton is a lawyer who spent 27 years working at that address with the firm of Tods Murray. His focus is different from Olusoga's. Not so much the house itself but significant events and individuals associated with it.
The early owners and their neighbours were aristocrats, or as near as. The first was Lieutenant General Sir Ralph Abercromby, son of a Clackmannan-shire landowner. Although already retired, when France declared war on Britain and Holland in February 1793, he returned to active service in Flanders, Ireland, the West Indies and the Mediterranean. He lost his life as the result of a wound received during the Battle of Aboukir Bay in Egypt against Napoleon in early 1801.
In 1854, Sir James Young Simpson paid a visit to nearby No.64 to help Anne, Countess of Warwick, sister of Lord Elcho, later Lord Wemyss of Gosford House near Gullane, who was about to give birth. Simpson's visit was to assist with one of the first uses of chloroform for this purpose. It came recommended by Queen Victoria herself.
The legal firm took over the property in 1856 and remained for nearly 150 years with an elite clientele. One headline case it was involved with was that of Eugene Chantrelle, a peripatetic French teacher from Nantes who was instrumental in helping Robert Louis Stevenson perfect his French conversation. When Chantrelle was charged with murdering his wife in 1878, Stevenson attended every day of the trial and it is believed Chantrelle as much as the notorious Deacon Brodie inspired his conception of Dr Jekyll's alter ego, Mr Hyde.
In the same year came the sudden, brutal collapse of the apparently respectable City of Glasgow Bank amid accusations of reckless and disastrous investments fraudulently covered up. Tods Murray was involved in preparing the case against its directors in the subsequent trial. Because of the bank's unlimited liability, lots of innocent shareholders lost not merely their investments but everything they had. One was a distant relative of my father's who had a farm in Lanarkshire and had stood surety for a cousin's debt. His family could only stand and watch as everything they owned was taken away.
Nearly a century later, I vaguely remember the publicity surrounding the divorce suit of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, whom Tods Murray represented. Her free and easy lifestyle conflicted with the double standards of the time. She lost her case and was exposed to a robust reprimand from the judge, Lord Wheatley, who didn't mince his opinion of her behaviour. Conduct unbecoming a judge, some said.
Tods Murray finally left 66 Queen Street in 2005. Fulton's book is fascinating, copiously researched and beautifully produced, marred slightly by an irritating peppering of typographical errors throughout. The chapters highlighting events and individuals are interwoven with some judicious reflections on the changing social, economic and cultural state of Scotland over the period.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh