This thread was originally written and published in November 2019. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.
I started the morning with a little #NowAndThen animated gif transition of an image in the National Galleries Scotland collection. So where are we this morning?
We are on the Edinburghstreet then called Lindsay Place, and now a southward extension of George IV Bridge, in the neighbourhood of “Society”. Not heard that one before? Well it’s an extinct placename now, but at one time Society referred to the “Fellowship and Society of Ale and Beer Brewers of the Burgh” who were chartered in 1598 to have the supply monopoly for “good and sufficient ale” for the burgh, and granted land on this site to do it.
Water was supplied from the Boroughloch (now drained as the Meadows), and pumped by a windmill, still marked by a number of rather unremarkable lanes around Appleton Tower. The Society only lasted about 20 years (in which time they significantly lowered the level of the loch through abstraction) although brewing in the neighbourhood lasted until the late 1960s.
The copper kettles of the Society were melted down in 1639 to be cast into artillery for the Army of the Covenant during The Bishop’s War, the Scots favouring curious, lightweight, copper cannon reinforced with iron hoops, rope and leather. Copied from their exposure to Swedish practice in the Thirty Years War, these were suited to the Scottish terrain where there were few roads passable by a gun carriage outside the towns.
Lindsay Place was built up in the 1840s after the formation of George IV Bridge, before the wide Victorian boulevard of Chambers Street was driven through the Georgian Brown and Argyle Squares from the direction of the University Old College. Stuart Harris suggests it was named for Thomas Lindsay, a shoemaker resident at the site.
By 1893, the Town Plan records the “Analytical Laboratory & School of Medicine” on the site, handy for the University medical school just down the road on Teviot Place. And if we zoom in on our 1912 photo from the National Gallery, we can see a sign corresponding to this.
The Post Office directory also records it as the Headquarters of the Scottish General Hospital, Royal Army Medical Corps. R.A.M.C T.F. is the Royal Army Medical Corps Territorial Force, i.e. a military reserve medical force.
The photo has all the usual fascinating details of an Edinburgh gone by. And as usual, the obligatory Paw Broon in bunnet makes an appearance. This time chatting outside the weel kent Edinburgh institutions that were James Thin’s bookshops.
Lawrie’s Tobacco Store has a sale on. Tobacco and its advertising are *always* super prominent in old photos of Edinburgh neighbourhoods, usually the quantity of adverts is directly proportional to the level of squalor.
Next door at David Allan’s shop you can buy all the latest foodstuff brands like Van Houten’s Cocoa, HP Sauce, Bovril, Splendo Margarine. Tea and chocolate usually occupy the no. 2 and 3 spots for adverts in these old photos.
At No. 7 is Donald Mackay’s “Territorial Bar”, one assumes taking its name from the military establishment above.
All dominated by chimneys and the usual ramshackle 17th/18th century tenements of the old town. Not sure that chimney extension would be passed by a HETAS certified installer…
But that’s not what caught my eye about this photo or why I’m sharing it. This photo has something far more intriguing – and rare – lurking in it, whether by design or by happy accident.
Anyway, let’s zoom in a bit. Can you see what it is yet?
Let’s highlight it a bit. Yes, that’s right, someone’s been up there on that parapet and daubed the building in Suffragette graffiti!
And why stop there? I assume they were cut off midway through the word “Suffrage”, or ran out of paint.
Keep going! Looks like it was “Down with something”, and perhaps the word “Movement” above OSL FOREVER
I’ve looked through hunners of photos of Edinburgh from this period, and this is the first time I’ve seen anything like this. Chalked graffiti, yes, but nothing on this scale, nothing this political and on a government building too. I do wonder if that’s why this particular shot was taken? Although it is part of a series in the neighbourhood.
Looking back, I now think what we’ve got is at least 2 layers of graffiti that may have been partially washed off and/or painted on top of eachother .
Don’t just take my word for these interpretations, you can zoom right in on the image on the National Galleries website here.
Well here’s something! I had a notion to check the ever wonderful Scran website and the graffiti was still clearly legible 40 years later!
And looking the other way, Capital Collections also has a picture and again we can see the graffiti, this time as late as 1958.
Not being sure what OSL stood for, I asked around, and as ever, the Twitter hive mind quickly pointed me in the right direction. WO and OSL it turns out stands for W.O. or Sir William Osler.
Osler was a Canadian doctor, “he created the first residency program for speciality training, was the first to bring medical students to the bedside for clinical training. He has been described as the Father of Modern Medicine and one of the greatest diagnosticians ever to wield a stethoscope“. Osler also just happened to be a rectorial candidate for the University at this time, invited to run by medical students.
You see it turns out that Lindsay Place was the HQ for the Conservative candidate – Wyndham – in the 1908 Edinburgh University rectorial election. Osler stood as an independent, and on the subject of allowing women into the university was “not in favour of mixed classes… under existing conditions“. A “rectorial war” between the different candidates’ supporters took place, Osler supporters ransacking the HQ of the Liberal Candidate (some guy named Winston Churchill, never heard of him…). They were unable to breach the Conservative HQ and the police had to protect it, so resorted to daubing graffiti all over the outside; “Down with Wyndham. Osler forever“.
On voting day in the Old College quadrangle, the university authorities took the sensible precaution of boarding up the windows and colonades and the central fountain. Nevertheless a pitched battle was fought between the three campaigns;
…the battle of paint and soot raged most fiercely. The Liberal citadel was first of all attacked by the Oslerites, but very soon the non-political candidate’s suppoters had their flag torn from its stick, while even the stick itself was eventually captured. The Wyndham contingent, with their blue flag, were last to arrive at the quadrangle. With a chorus of cheers, they formed up for a grand assault on the Liberal stronghold. The Oslerites, however, intercepted them on the way, and an extraordinary scramble ensued.
Powder, paint and soot were flung about in clouds and the marvel was that any man escaped with his sight. As may be imagined, the figures presented a most grotesque spectacle… Eventually the Wyndham and Osler parties seemed to join forces in an attempt to drive the Churchill men from their stronghold. Even then, however, the Liberals continued steadfast and the battle was raged with undiminished fury.Edinburgh Evening News, Saturday 24th October 1908
Osler’s supporters were confident of victory, but he was trumped by Wyndham the Conservative, with that Winston Churchill fellow coming in second and Osler trailing in third.
My final analysis of the graffiti is that after the Conservative HQ was daubed with pro-Osler, anti-Wyndham graffiti, it gets washed off but is still legible. To remedy this, some bright spark in the Conservative campaign takes a paintbrush themselves and the opportunity to challenge William Osler (WO)’s views on coeducation by inserting a few extra letters.
They certainly made long-lasting paint back in 1908 given it survived the next 50 years in the harsh elements and pollution of Auld Reekie.
If you have found this useful, informative or amusing and would like to help contribute towards the running costs of this site (including keeping it ad-free) or to the book-buying budget, why not consider supporting me on ko-fi.
[…] came across this absolutely brilliant early 19th century watercolour on the National Galleries of Scotland website in the course of my daily rummaging. It is a view south across the Water of Leith at Bonnington, […]