The thread about three old photographs of Canal Street railway station and what they can show us of mid-19th century Edinburgh

I have been staring at some rather marvellous late 1850s or early 1860s photos on the National Galleries of Scotland website that show the Canal Street railway station which served the Scotland Street tunnel. They are uncredited, but similar to the style and quality of the work of Archibald Burns. These are certainly by far and away the best photos I have clapped eyes on of the rather enigmatic Canal Street station.

As always, the phenomenal focus and detail that these pioneering amateur photographers could get out of primitive and temperamental equipment and the vagaries of home chemistry – often improvising the art/science/dark art of photography as they went – is quite startling.

Before we go any further, it’s probably best to clarify that there was no “Waverley” station at this time; indeed there were originally 3 separate stations operated by 3 separate railways. The station of the Edinburgh & Glasgow (green) – running between those two cities – which was back to back with the North Bridge station of the North British Railway – entering the city from the east and Berwick-upon-Tweed and at 90 degrees to both, the Canal Street station of the Edinburgh, Leith & Granton (yellow) – running north to a ferry terminal at Granton through the Scotland Street tunnel, with a branch to Leith. The NBR and E&G quickly came to an agreement to operate their stations here as one, and it was reconstituted as General Station and managed jointly from February 1848 onwards.Over time, General Station would evolve into the much larger Waverley Station, consuming Canal Street and much of the surrounding buildings with it.

Railway mania reaches Edinburgh; the E&G in green, the EL&G in Yellow and the NBR in brown.
Railway mania reaches Edinburgh; the E&G in green, the EL&G in Yellow and the NBR in brown. Overlaid on an OS 6-inch map of the period.

If you’d like to better orientate yourself, I made a little lockdown “flyby” video of the route from Canal Street to Granton down the Scotland Street tunnel. It’s not fantastic as it was an early experiment, but you’ll get the idea.

Are we ready to go? OK, let’s have a wee zoom in and explore the scene. On the left is the General Station, the three parallel roofs of the trainshed being below the booking hall that faces onto Waverley Bridge. To its right is the Canal Street station of the EL&G whose plaforms were at 90° to those of General Station.

General Station outlined in green, Canal Street Station in yellow
General Station outlined in green, Canal Street Station in yellow

You can see the southern gable of the station is left unfinished at its east side, as if it was never completed as intended, or further expansion was planned; the Edinburgh, Leith & Granton was permanently short of money.

The tunnel portal is outlined in yellow below, with the winding house and its chimney in red. Trains had to be hauled up the incline of the Scotland Street tunnel on a rope as the locomotives of this time were not capable of doing it. We can also see is a footbridge across to the booking hall and waiting rooms from steps that give direct access off of Princes Street

The north portal of the Scotland Street tunnel in King George V park. CC-by-SA 2.0 Sandy Gemmill

There is a further photo (also on the National Galleries website) taken from Princes Street.

The Edinburgh, Leith & Granton had sold itself to the Edinburgh & Northern Railway in 1847, before the E&NR had even opened, and in 1849 the combined concern changed its name to the Edinburgh, Perth & Dundee Railway. This dates the below photo to after that time. We can see that distinctive winding house chimney from the other side. The two parts of this railway were never physically connected – to cross the Forth, a train ferry was used between Granton and Burntisland.

Winding house chimney, outlined in red

Consulting an 1849 town plan shows us Canal Street, perpendicular to the E&G/NBR mainlines. There was a connection between the two systems, but the whole place was terribly crowded and transfers of stock around the complex was reliant on a system of turntables. This system was totally unsuited to high volumes of traffic and soon proved to be a totally impractical way to try and run a railway. Note the beautifully precise internal detail of public buildings these early town plans.

1849 OS Town Plan, Canal Street in  yellow, General Station in green. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
1849 OS Town Plan, Canal Street in yellow, General Station in green. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

A third photo is available, taken again from Princes Street but this time looking west towards the Castle and Scott Monument.

We can see that slender wooden walkway which gave access to the station from Princes Street.

That rather ropey-looking picket fence, help up by a prayer and some ineffective-looking bracing, is all that separates you from a pretty severe fall down the precarious embankment to the Scotland Street line; it looks no less frightening from the angle of our first photo!

In the 3rd photo, there’s a gang of light-clothed navvies hard at work with picks and shovels working on the railway embankment. Note how roughly formed the retaining wall of Waverley Bridge is, and the ghostly dark figure of the supervising foreman. The workers have brought their laundry with them to dry; itinerant labourers would have had to have been quite self-sufficient and this was probably as good a place as any to hang it. It seems so odd that men labouring in filth all day long would dress in light coloured clothing, but there you go!

The other object we can see in the above photo is a small steam locomotive with a “haystack” boiler venting steam as it runs into the General Station on the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway. It looks to be an early 0-4-2 type, which the E&G were fond of. I believe photos of original E&G locos are thin on the ground, but here’s a drawing of one of their 2-4-0s built by Beyer, Peacock in Manchester in 1859. A few years later the expansionist North British would take over and repaint them in their olive brown paint. Some of these early E&G engines would serve the North British Railway until as late as 1912, being rebuilt a number of times along the way.

We can see lots of gas lamps in all three photos; those on North Bridge in the first picture are the clearest. The first such public lights were introduced into Edinburgh in 1819. The cross-piece on the stalk is for the leerie’s (lamp lighter’s) ladder. The gas spigot comes straight up through the standard. The first lamp has its glass bowl and chimney, the other is missing. At this time gas lamps did not use mantles, so the light given off was not particularly bright; but was a huge improvement on the “train oil” lamps that had come before.

In the first picture, the Scott Monument looks clean and crisp; being only 10-15 years old and not yet ravaged by a century of Auld Reekie’s coal smoke and soot. It is yet to be joined by the statues of Adam Black and David Livingstone on either side. Note that a little wooden entry booth is still there at the foot of the southwest leg, giving access up to the viewing galleries. Looking at the façades of Princes Street behind, we can see a shopfront being rebuilt as what was built as a uniform street of Georgian houses is slowly converted into a hodge-podge of Victorian shops and business premises.

The Scott Monument and Princes Street

This is before the advent of horse trams, they didn’t come to the city until 1871. The only sign of road transportation around are some horse cabs, ranked for hire (or perhaps waiting for their owners) on Princes Street.

Horse cabs on Princes Street
Horse cabs on Princes Street

There are few people around, judging by the shadows it is the mid-afternoon so perhaps it is a Sunday in Sabbatarian Edinburgh? A single street seller with a cart is present, they’ve set up a little booth, with a table hung from the picket fence with a brass-hooped barrel of some sort. Selling drinks?

Outside the General Station, a few cabs wait to pick up passengers. Same as it ever was… This building, which comprised the booking office of the station, was partially removed in 1873 when the Waverley Bridge was reconstructed and widened, including the loss of the collonade. When the southern wing was to be demolished in 1877, the City Architect – Robert Morham – had it instead rebuilt on the other side of the rail lines, where it remains to this day as the back of the Lothian Buses travel shop, formerly the Tattoo ticket office. The northern wing was demolished in 1890 and replaced by the current building, which was a poor copy of the original, and served as a parcels office.

Original General Station entrance and booking office

Behind General Station, forming a boundary between the railway and Market Street are the walls of the old Shambles , which used to occupy the space here alongside the Nor’ Loch and later below the North Bridge. The Shambles was the slaughterhouse of the Incorporation of Fleshers of the city and in 1790 had moved here into an unified facility in a somewhat enlightened move for the time, to remove the stench and health hazard of the piles of waste it generated. The word Shambles comes from the Middle English schamels, which was an accepted 18th century term for a slaughterhouse. From Old English sċeamol, for a bench or a stool – in reference to the wooden workbenches of a slaughterhouse -it ultimately comes from the Latin scamnum for a bench.

In the photograph we can see the old exterior wall of the Shambles onto Market Street now forms a boundary retaining wall for the railway yard. The Shambles was demolished in 1846 after the coming of the railway; the Incorporation of Fleshers had sued them in the Sheriff Court for damages and were successful. The Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway had to pay compensation for loss and damages to the full value of the Shambles, £11,300 or about £1.5 million in 2022. Each flesher received £199 19/ 6d, and they went back to the medieval practice of conducting their craft throughout the town; a clearly unsanitary practice which saw them remove to a new slaughterhouse at Tollcross in 1850.

The Shambles, early 19th century, possibly by James Skene
The Shambles, early 19th century, possibly by James Skene

On Low Market Street is a curious looking building with a gaping archway in the middle – rather like the view of the Shambles as seen above. This archway was a route for the Market Steps, which led to a tier of food markets; first fish market (outlined in blue), then the middle flesh market (red), beyond that the upper fleshmarket, and finally the poultry and veal market. These occupied the block between North Bridge and Fleshmarket Close, and the area was crammed with taverns and hotels for the visiting farmers, drovers and dealers.

The old North Bridge which we can see is a but of an odd structure, a mix of ornate detail and craftsmanship and much more workaday masonry (which was probably always intended to be built over and hidden, so not finished to a high quality.) It’s elegant, kind of, but also ungainly. This bridge was built between 1763 and 1769, although it promptly suffered a partial collapse, killing 5, and took a further 3 years to repair.

"North Bridge and Calton Hill", from outside the back of the Bank of Scotland, by William Bell Scott, 1839. CC-by National Galleries Scotland
“North Bridge and Calton Hill”, from outside the back of the Bank of Scotland, by William Bell Scott, 1839. CC-by National Galleries Scotland

One of the things about these old photos is just how crisp and expansive the detail is, I’m told it’s because of the huge size of the glass plates they used. This means we can easily see what sort of shops and businesses were around, helped out by all those over-sized signs that proprietors used to paint on their premises.



And then take your pick of Booksellers, Stationers, Tailors… Marshall & Aitken, Mcintosh, Robertson….

And just look how rambling, ramshackle and old the Old Toun really was back then! These buildings were one to two hundred years old; with substantial parts of them perhaps even older.

And towering over it all, the improbably tall back elevation of the Royal Exchange, well on its way to becoming the City Chambers by this time – 12 storeys tall (plus attic) at the rear, yet only 4 storeys tall at the High Street level. It has been remodelled and extended since the photos were taken, and the build up of Market Street and Cockburn Street has reduced the amount of it that is visible, but it’s still a striking construction.

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

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