The doorway of 25 South Clerk Street stopped me in my tracks. It was an ordinary Edinburgh tenement stair door – or had been, before its black-gloss face was covered in a riot of stickers and spray-painted tags that bled out onto the facades of the shopfronts on either side, transforming it into an eye-catching example of urban decay.
The tenement it belonged to was just like the one I live in; one of the many that line the streets running through the south side of the city, constructed in the 19th century, as Edinburgh stretched out from its mediaeval and Georgian centre. It had started life as a fine building, designed to house respectable families of the professional classes in a healthy environment, removed from the slums of the old town. Now, however, its dilapidated state – exemplified by its graffiti, rotting mullions, unwashed transom and peeling paint – put me in mind of an impoverished aristocrat, bravely keeping up appearances in moth-ravaged former finery. It had clearly seen a lot.
The life of a building through narratives
Because I’ve spent much of the past twenty years researching historical events in old newspapers, I instinctively opened the browser on my phone and searched for “25 South Clerk Street” on the British Newspaper Archive website, looking for any news stories in which the building had featured. I was immediately introduced to a few notable former residents, such as a commercial traveller, Amor Spoor Donnison, who had died of gangrene in 1886 after a metal box fell onto his toe in a Dublin train station. His insurance company refused to pay out, claiming that his death was a result of his own failure to seek appropriate medical treatment, so his wife sued them and won.
There was also Andrew Smart, a retired baker, who in 1888, fell from a rear fourth-floor window while checking to see whether it might rain later. The neighbours downstairs heard a thud and “found the unfortunate man transfixed through the breast on several of the railings” in the back green. And there was Charles Grant, who, in 1916, was driving along Aberdeen’s seafront when a hurricane-force gust of wind blew his car through the railings, causing it to plunge 20ft to the sands below.
I was pleased to have harvested such a colourful, if fairly gruesome, crop of stories with just a top-level search, and further diligent effort later that day, using the National Records of Scotland and census results, uncovered many more. Separately, the dozen or so stories might not have had much to say beyond the immediate facts they contained. But, taken together, they seemed to add up to a sort of narrative of the life of the building, or, at least, to point towards the possibility of finding such a thing.
So, I repeated the experiment on another tenement, with similar – in fact, even more interesting results. And I kept on researching tenements that caught my eye as I walked around the city and sharing the stories on Twitter and a website that I called Tenement Town.
Treading the same steps, holding the same railing
As I gathered more of these fragments of the lives of ordinary people who were separated by time but joined by precise location, I began thinking of them as somehow being stacked up on top of each other like layers of sediment in geological strata. It was a fascinating way to think about a city’s history.
For example, on the first Saturday after new year, 1957, a thirty-three-year-old woman named Winnifred Kelly took herself to Princes Street, where she stole a pair of gloves and a pair of stockings in one shop and was caught slipping a raincoat into her shopping bag in another. She said she was “worried and depressed” when she did it. Meanwhile – actually, three decades previously – around the corner in South Castle Street, a failed poet called John Newton stood “shouting and bawling” about the local Bolsheviks spreading lies about the recently concluded Great War. That was thirty-four years after Donato Zottarelli, a harpist, arrived in Scotland from Italy, which, in turn, was twenty-seven years before Donato’s Edinburgh-born son was killed in the battle of Passchendaele.
None of these people was aware of the existence of the others. Neither did they know of a butler named Mawdsley in whose home charred human bones were discovered after a fire in 1877 (they turned out to be specimens belonging to medical students who were renting a room). And, likewise, Mawdsley had never heard of the Rev Lauchlan MacLean, who, in the 1830s, had been chaplain to the lunatic asylum and the lock hospital for women with venereal diseases.
The thread that binds those disparate characters together is the fact that, at some point in the past two centuries, they all lived in one of the flats in a single tenement: 6 Brighton Street, to the rear of the National Museum of Scotland, a perfectly ordinary five-storey building that was constructed around 1820 in the former gardens of the now-demolished Trades Maiden Hospital, a boarding school for “the daughters and granddaughters of decayed craftsmen”, which stood there for the whole of the 1700s. They all passed through the same front door. They all trod on the same steps, holding on to the same railing.
Shared spaces over time
Each Tenement Town story I write reminds me that, in a city – any city – generations of people have lived their lives in the exact space where we live our lives today. Our homes were their homes and one day, when we’re no longer around, they’ll be the homes of other people not yet born.
I passed 25 South Clerk Street recently and noticed that the entrance has been smartened up, a new layer of fresh black paint covering its extravagant collage of graffiti, and cream paint freshening the stonework to either side. I saw that students were moving out, making way for new residents to move in and live there for a spell before moving on in their turn.
The places we tenement dwellers live in have been home to all those people; men and women who were here and have now gone, just as we’ll be gone someday, replaced by someone else. That might seem a melancholy idea, but I take comfort from the thought of us all handing on these places to each other, down through the decades and centuries. Because that chain of people is permanent, even if each link on it is temporary.
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