I’ve been fascinated by my family tree since I was 14 years old, when my dad took us on a 2 week road trip up the east coast of Ireland. We started in the Republic and worked our way up the East coast, visiting lots of towns and villages, ending in Northern Ireland in County Down. Since then I have spent many hours patching together my family tree. My wonderful aunties provided me with invaluable information, recalling memories and names, which helped me enormously as I tried to understand why there were multiple Bernards of the same generation and family.
I can recall a year of birth, spouse, street where they lived and sometimes occupation of a relative who was born over 100 years before me. I realised recently that while I know all of this, I really don’t know much about what life would have been like for them at that time, which is why I want to learn more about what life would have been like in Edinburgh in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century.
While at my parents house over the Christmas holidays I found a book about Leith (a district in Edinburgh) from 1922! ‘The Story of Leith‘ by John Russell, explores Leith from pre-Roman times right up until Leith was merged with Edinburgh in 1920. I was hooked after the first few pages. Following that, I read another book called the ‘The life and times of Leith’. It has been so fascinating to learn more about where I am from and to understand how streets got their names. Leith imported lots of wine from France and timber from the Baltics, grain was also imported too, while whisky was exported. Additionally, Leith can claim to a few firsts: Sirius, the first steamer ship to sail across the Atlantic ocean was built in Leith in 1847. Additionally, while St Andrew’s may lay claim to being the home of golf, it was actually at Leith Links where the first ’13 Rules of Golf’ were written.
However, the most interesting thing that I have found out is that when my ancestors moved from Ireland to Leith in 1879 they moved to an area known as ‘The Irish Barracks’. In 1891 they were living in St Andrew’s Street, one of the worst slums in Leith. I can’t imagine how bad the conditions they were living in must have been, as this was an area that was meant to be cleared and rebuilt as part of the’Leith Improvement Scheme Confirmation Act’ of 1880. It doesn’t appear to have been a successful Act, because in the 1891 census the family are still living in this street. Their occupations all indicate manual labour: boilermaker, riveter’s labourer, labourer and a ship caulker.
Further reading about the ship building industry of Leith at that time, has made it clear to me why they were living in this slum. Dockers wages were terrible, and it appears that the boilermakers were repeatedly on strike, demanding higher wages. One of the strikes in the 1920s was to demand an increase in pay by 1 pence. This was hard, exhausting manual labour, so I can understand why at a time when ship building was a profitable industry did they want to benefit from it too.
The 1901 and 1911 censuses tell me that my family like so many of the poor families at the turn of the 20th Century were living in run down, over crowded housing. The census says that the house had 2 rooms with windows, and that there was 6 of them living there. I can’t even imagine what the conditions must have been like. There would have been no running hot water, and I guess they would have to share a toilet with neighbours in their tenement block.
Although fascinating to learn about the history of that time, it was exceptionally bleak reading. As I read I thought often of my ancestors, who had made the brave decision to leave Ireland in 1879 and go to Scotland, an unknown land. I wonder if they ever regretted leaving rural Ireland, for a large industrial city, or if by going to the Irish quarter they found comfort in familiar accents and songs from home. Whatever they may have felt, I can’t be anything but in awe of these brave and resilient people, who took on what work they could, and forged a life for themselves in Scotland. I wonder what they would make of Leith now, the docks all but closed down, replaced in 2000 with Ocean Teminal, a large shopping complex, with restaurants and a cinema, or what they would make of the Shore, now home to several Michelin star restaurants.