The thread about David Allan’s watercolours of Edinburgh workers in the 18th century; what they looked like and what their jobs entailed

Show me a fireman that’s as dashing and dapper as an 18th century Edinburgh fireman.


The “firemark” on the bucket and helmet identify him as being in the employ of the “Sun Fire Office”, founded in 1710 in London and one of the first such organisations. The municipal Edinburgh Fire Establishment was not formed until 1824. Owners of buildings could subscribe to a Fire Insurance Office, and in return for payment would receive a plaque to put on the wall of their property. If it were to catch fire, they could call on the firefighters of their insurance to deal with the blaze. In Edinburgh, the Sun Fire Office was at “The Exchange”, the building which would later become the City Chambers.

This beautiful watercolour sketch is by David Allan, and fortunately there’s more where it came from. Allan hailed from Alloa, born in 1744. The young David was expelled from school when only 10 years old for drawing a caricature of his teacher. Attending the Academy of Art in Glasgow he honed his craft in Rome, where he lived and studied for 10 years. He established himself in Edinburgh after a spell in London that had left him ill and unrecognised, finding success as a painter of family portraits and as a book illustrator (clients included Alan Ramsay). More importantly as far as I am concerned, he also producing a large and interesting body of his own work, of documentary sketches of characters and workers around the town.

This man is a caddie (a porter). He wears his licence as a badge on his coat, the lowland garb of knee length breeches, stockings, a hodden overcoat and on his head the ubiquitous blue bonnet. His carrying basket rests on the wall behind him. Caddies were of special importance in the town, and were regulated by the council, hence the badge. They were expected to know everything, everyone and everywhere. If a visitor to the town was important enough, they would be allocated a caddy of their own as a porter, message runner and local guide. The term is from the French cadet, and has been applied to the game of golf, where the caddy is the player’s porter and guide.

Coalmen at work. The lad on the cart wears a hodden jacket, breeches and the blue bonnet. He loads large lumps of coal onto the back of the other, who wears a short military redcoat. Note the load is taken around the forehead by a leather strap, the same would be the case for the caddie’s basket. Coal was an essential but expensive item; although it was plentiful in the Lothians, the cost of transporting it even a few miles was high due to a combination of poor roads and it being at the mercy of carters. Colliers and coal haulers were at this time still bonded labourer, living an existence very close to slavery, however something about this pair suggest to me they were possibly working as coal merchants, perhaps they were a father and son team? If you read down tro the Salt Seller you can find out more about the sorry existence of the bonded labourers in Scotland before 1799.

Chimney sweeps. Their attire is perhaps more genteel looking than you might imagine, but then again this was a very important trade in a crowded and flammable city with labyrinthine chimney flues. Again they are in the ubiquitous breeches and stockings, hodden overcoats and blue bonnets. The iron ball on the rope would be lowered down the lum to dislodge stoor, and they worked in pairs; one up top and the other down at the hearth, calling to eachother up and down the lum. Things aren’t that much different these days for sweeps, although hey may have refinements like overalls and nylon ropes.

Two chairmen and their sedan, one of the earliest forms of “public” transport (if you could afford it) in the Old Town; its streets were too narrow and precipitous to make even small horse traps much use. These men are quite smartly turned out, as they would be serving a certain class of clientèle. Long coats with coloured facings, breeches, and at least one blue bonnet. The man with the brimmed hat has has highland-style stockings woven on the bias in a chequered pattern – many if not most chairmen were of the Gàidhealtachd. The two appear to be sharing snuff. The poles of the chair carry a lantern. There was an alternative occupation called a “link man”, who was usually a boy and whose job it was to carry that lantern ahead of the chair (for a fee).

Sedan chairs first appeared in Edinburgh in the 17th century; there were six public chairs in 1687. A century later in 1779, not that long before Allan painted this sketch, there were 180. The wealthy who had need of frequent transportation around town might keep their own private chairs. Most chairs plied their trade from the Tron Kirk, but a servant would usually be sent to fetch it to the exact location where it was required. The trade and its fares was subject to regulation, as “Hackney Chairs”; in 1768 the basic fee within the city was 6d, rising to 1/6d for up to half a mile outside the city, up to 4/- to hire the chair for the day. There were a number of storage sheds for them around the town, one of which survives, off Tweeddale Court.

Sedan Chair House and City Wall, Edinburgh
The Tweeddale Court sedan chair shed, embedded from the Flickr of David. M. Gray

A water carrier. Although the supply in Edinburgh by this time was relatively good, it was drawn from a limited number of public wells. Daughters were often sent to fetch water, but if you could afford it you paid a water carrier to bring it to you, very useful considering in the Old Town the wealthy usually lived a couple of floors up, removed from a bit of the noise and stench of the street. This image clearly an ex-military man, he retains his redcoat and his Kilmarnock-style bonnet is of the sort worn by Highland regiments at this time. Based on the basic blue bonnet at one time it would have been decorated with feathers, but these have long since expired. He has a padded leather apron and harness.

Women worked too of course. A Newhaven “fishwife” in her distinctive uniform which was directly inspired by the Dutch and Flemish tradition; a bright and voluminous set of striped skirts, a cape tied below the beck and a fancy linen cap. The ankles were reputedly always on show. With a heavy creel of fish on her back, supported by a leather strap, and a basket of oysters under her arm, the fishwives would each day make the 2.5 mile, 250ft climb up the hill from Newhaven to the City to sell their wares on the streets or door to door. For the Fisherrow women, who had their own garb, it was a 5 mile walk! Their Scots refrain of Wha’ll o my caller oo? and Wha’ll o my caller herrin? translates as “who’s for fresh oysters?” (or herring).

The pioneering photographers of every day life, Hill & Adamson, made a number of studies of Newhaven fishwives 60 years after Allan’s painting. You can see almost nothing had changed in that time.

Indeed little more changed in the following 100 years. Up until the 1950s, a dwindling number of Newhaven fishwives, some of the older ones still dressed in this manner, still took their wares into the city to sell door to door, although by this time they allowed themselves the luxury of travelling by tram.

Fishwives travelling by tram, c. 1920s-30s. From NLS Mackinnon Collection
Fishwives travelling by tram, c. 1920s-30s. From NLS Mackinnon Collection

A lacemaker. An older woman carrying a “distaff” – a pole from which the strands could be spun. She has an apron over at least 2 layers of plaid, a shawl around her shoulders and a cowled bonnet on her head.

And one of Allan’s most unusual and intriguing portraits, not because it shows a servant girl, but because she is a black woman. This is one of the earliest images of a black woman in Scotland and is clear and compelling evidence that she was part of the town ommunity. This picture was only secured by the National Gallery of Scotland in 2021, at which time the press release said “Looking directly at the viewer, she is shown in working dress, going about her daily duties and set against the backdrop of an elegant Edinburgh street. Her name and life story is unknown, but it is likely that she was a servant, a milkmaid, as suggested by the large vessel or butter churn shown beside her.” Unlike Allan’s other workers sketches, which are always in a fly-on-the-wall style, this one is clearly posed.

An officer of the town reads a proclamation (“God save the King!”), accompanied by two town guardsmen with drums. The officer has a luxurious blue velvet coat, the guardsmen are in simpler red coats with blue facings and tricorne military hats. We can see the spire of St. Giles in the background. Allan has at least four different sketches of town officers in this uniform; the badge on the chest of the coat is clearly the civic arms of the city.

A member of the town guard, a red military uniform with blue facings and with red breeches. He wears a tricorne hat and carries a “Lochaber axe”, a long-handled pole weapon. The hook on the end was reputed to be for dismounting horsemen but just as likely was to hang the weapon up in the guard room when not in use. The “town rats” were another class of citizens largely drawn from the Highlands and their nickname gives you an idea of how popular and respected they were by the general public.

Not just any old beggar, this unfortunate man’s blue cloak and the prominent tin badge on his breast identify him as a Jockie. The Jockies were King’s Bedesmen, or Blue Gowns; they were a class of beggars by Royal appointment, first licensed by King James VI. Every birthday of the reigning monarch, each Bluegown received a new cloak, their tin badge with the motto “pass and repass“, a Scots shilling for every year of the monarch’s age and their dinner. “Pass and repass” referred to the holder being allowed to pass freely through the land, not being subject to local begging laws or charges of vagrancy. They had a lodge house outside the city; the Jockies Lodge – this is where the neighbourhood of Jock’s Lodge takes its name from.

A salt seller. Again the load is carried in a basket held with a leather strap around the forehead. A cloth in the basket prevents the salt escaping and could be closed to protect it from rain. Salt was produced along the Forth coast wherever there was good access to coal to evaporate seawater; at Joppa pans, Pinkie pans, Prestonpans etc. Salt was vitally important for everyday life as one of the few preservatives available for meat and fish. After the Act of Union in 1707, a favourable tax regime meant boom times for Scottish producers; this favour definitely did not trickle down to the work force however. The trades of coal miners, coal carriers and salters were of vital importance to the national economy, and although the work was highly skilled it was excruciating labour; in recognition the Scottish government forced them into being permanently bondaged labour in 1606. New workers were not subject to this after 1775, but it was not until an Act of 1799 that the last were freed from their obligations. In 1785, a worker of the age shown in the sketch could well have been a bondaged labourer. Changes to the salt taxation regime and imports of cheap European and later English mined rock salt largely killed off the Scottish sea salt industry in the first half of the 19th century.

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur


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