The thread about an old photo of the Shore in Leith, exploring the myriad of details that it contains and looking for clues to try and date when it was taken

Regular viewers may have twigged that I have spent rather a lot of time trawling through old pictures of Edinburgh and Leith on the site of the National Galleries of Scotland. Here’s one that has caught my eye; the photographer and date are unknown, but the location being the Shore in Leith is indisputable. This is where King George IV landed at Leith in 1822, hence the name King’s Landing, which can be seen on the tavern and lodgings in the background on the left side of the image. It’s now partly the Ship on the Shore seafood restaurant

Have a look for yourself at the seemingly limitless detail captured within the photo. You really do have to doff your cap at the artistic, scientific and black magical skill of Victorian photographers; there’s just so much to see within the picture. Let’s delve into it deeper and take ourselves on a tour of the Shore of yore and find out what we can learn from it.Helpfully, we can tell exactly where the photo was taken from as the photographer helpfully included a lamp post in the middle of the foreground:

1893 Ordnance Survey town plan. Photographer is behind lamp post highlighted yellow, facing in direction of blue arrow. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
1893 Ordnance Survey town plan. Photographer is behind lamp post highlighted yellow, facing in direction of blue arrow. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The sailing ship is the ketch Rita. She’s drawing 5 feet – reading off the depth marker painted on her bow – so she must be mostly unloaded. I can’t find much out about Rita. In August 1903 her unhappy cook drowned himself in the Mersey. William Burt, 69, was depressed by the loss of his sons at sea. The same fate had befallen his own ship that he was formerly captain of. He got up, tied a 20lb bar of iron to his neck and stepped overboard on the morning of the 5th. The mundane, workaday nature of the life of a ship like this can be gleaned from the shipping announcements from old newspapers. On Christmas Eve 1912 she arrived at Sharpness with a cargo of 76 tons of barley from Avonmouth. On the week ending 30th October 1915 she departed Gloucester for Cardiff with a cargo of 68 tons of flour. Her captain at this time was Evans.


On her side, the ketch has a “Plimsoll Line” marking. Samuel Plimsoll was an MP who campaigned for maritime safety. The Plimsoll Line is a set of markings that specify the safe loading depth of a ship. Plimsoll was resisted in his campaign by shipowners, but his mark became law in 1876 (so our photo is definitely taken after that time.)

Plimsoll Line

Two men are working on deck, one seems to be coiling a rope. Both are clearly aware of, and paying attention to, the photographer

Men at work

Behind Rita, you could mistake it for the quayside, but it’s a rather solidly and crudely built, slab-sided sailing vessel, possibly some sort of collier. She has a single mast, a large sail and a very rudimentary and short forecastle.

A collier perhaps?

If you look above and behind this ship, you will see a lamp above the tavern door, with a sign and figure of a ship above it. Pleasingly, there is still there to this day.

Ship sign. Then.
Ship sign. Now.

The boat is called The John Boy and is a replica installed in 1984; I am indebted to John McTague for this information, and also for tor the below photo.

The John Boy. Picture courtesy and © John McTague
The John Boy. Picture courtesy and © John McTague

A busy scene outside the tailors at no. 29. The name above the door is F. Schmidt, a reminder that there were quite a number of Europeans from Scandinavia and northern Germany long native to Leith and Edinburgh. People pass by; two women, one holding a parasol; a lad in a cap; and an older man. A horse and cart waits patiently. Frans Schmidt specialised in supplying sailors – unsurprisingly for the position of his shop. By August 1907 he was further up the street at no. 12 when a fire gutted his shop on the morning of 4th August. Police constables William Thomson and Michael McDermott, who had raised the alarm, rescued 15 families from the tenement above his premises. The fire brigade arrived shortly afterwards and no further damage was done to property. But the unfortunate Frans had lost his shop. What became of him we do not know, as he was not on the valuation rolls for Leith in 1915.

F. Schmidt. Tailors & Outfitters

Outside the confectioners at No. 32 a line of barrels are waiting. What’s in them? Is it beer or water for that ship? Something for the confectioners? Where are they going and where have they been?

Crawford's Confectioners

A flick through the Post Office directories tells us this confectioners was the long-established business of one William Crawford, who had started out making ships biscuits here who had bought the business off of Robert Mathie in 1856. Those with longer memories may recall “Crawfords the Bakers“, an Edinburgh institution; this is the shop where it all began.

D S Crawford's of Edinburgh - Union Assorted Biscuits - box label designed by Robert Burns - 1924
Crawford’s Union Assorted Biscuits, a 1924 advert from the collection of Mike Ashworth on Flickr

Above the bakers, a wee laddie peers out his attic the window at the world below. Notice also the even smaller dormer next to the chimney above.


Out of focus in the front of shot is the cross-piece of a lamp holder, cast with the name of the Leith Harbour Commissioners who were responsible for quayside lighting. It has the form of an oil lamp bracket, but has a small gas spigot so has been converted. The glass bowl and the cowl are missing, have they been vandalised? The original lamps on the Shore were some of the oldest public street lighting in Scotland and have their own interesting history, including the story of the drunken Russian sailors who drank all the lamp oil and caused a week-long blackout in Leith!

Leith Harbour Commissioners

On the corner of Bernard Street is the Clock building, the premises of Mackenzie & Storrie, nautical chart sellers. This extravagantly detailed Scots Baronial style tenement was built in 1864, the architect James Anderson Hamilton. It’s positively crammed full of Perseveres and Leith coats of arms and well worth a closer look.

The Clock building

Bernard Street is busy as ever. There’s quite a crowd here, not just to watch the Rita pass, but because the Lower Drawbridge (actually a swing bridge) has been moved aside to let her pass, and they must wait to cross here (or head upstream to the Upper Drawbridge at the Coalhill). Notice the onlookers are holding onto the slender rope that has been strung across their path to keep them back from the edge.

Lower Drawbridge

A shop in the background appears to be selling Nestle’s Milk and if you look up, there’s a rather enormous rooftop billboard for the same product; even in these simpler times you can rarely move for corporate advertising – especially in more workaday neighbourhoods. I wonder how long that billboard lasted until the winter gales removed it.

Nestle's Swiss Milk
Nestle’s Swiss Milk

The premises at no. 36 The Shore is of Rutherford & Co., spirit merchants, who had a number of higher-class taverns around Edinburgh and Leith. This is now the King’s Wark bar and restaurant, and another of their establishments has been lovingly restored on Drummond Street as the Hispaniola restaurant . The ones at 5-7 Leith Street, 90 High Street and 28 Bristo Street long since succumbed to the Edinburgh wrecking ball.

Rutherford & Co., 3 Drummond Street

There’s a very tall building in the background that towers over everything else. This was the Queen’s Tobacco Warehouse, where all tobacco landed in Leith was held until duty was paid.

Queen's Tobacco Warehouse

There’s more to see in this photograph for yourself, but that’s the end of the tour of the picture’s contents. Let’s move on to when it might have been taken; we know it has to be after 1876 from the Plimsoll Line on the side of the Rita. I can tell you from lots of flicking back and forth with Post Office directories that Mackenzie & Storrie didn’t take over the shop premises in the Clock building on the corner of Bernard Street until 1876. Nestle’s Milk (the Anglo-Swiss Milk Company) reached British shores in 1873, so that doesn’t help tie it down further. Frans Schmidt, Tailors and Outfitters, didn’t bother to list himself in the Post Office directory so his presence is no help. Crawfords too had been there from 1856 until the latter part of the 20th century, so that’s even less specific.

I was really at a loss to better date this picture until I noted something quite incongruous; an electric street light! These ornamental standards were made by Macdowall Steven and Co Ltd in Glasgow when Leith got the ‘leccy. The scheme for public electric street lighting in Leith was approved by the Town Council in 1897, and on Friday December 23rd 1898 the first section was turned on, down one side of Leith Walk. Electrical current was provided by a generating station on Junction Place, behind Leith Victoria public baths. The lamps on the Shore were part of the original phase of the scheme and so this conclusively pushes our photo all the way to 1899 at the earliest.

You’ll have seen these lamp posts if you’ve ever stoated around Leith. If you haven’t, you weren’t looking. The proudly display the civic coat of arms, the motto of Persevere and the legend Sigillum Oppidi de Leith; seal of the town of Leith.

070426 Leith lamp post
Leith lamp post, embedded from the Flickr of Anne O’ Donnell

We now turn our attention to the bridge in the photo. Until the later part of the 19th century this was known as the Lower Drawbridge. The Upper Drawbridge was at the Coalhill. These had replaced a medieval bridge slightly further upriver where the Coalhill meets the Sherrifbrae, which had blocked any ships moving further upriver. A third drawbridge was added by the railway in the 1850s behind the Custom House, to allow a railway connection between both sides of the docks. The Victoria Swing Bridge of 1871 made this latter bridge surplus to requirements and it became an obstruction to shipping so was removed in the 1920s.

The Upper Drawbridge (yellow), Lower Drawbridge (blue) and Railway Drawbridge (pink). 1893 OS Town Plan. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

In 1900 the Lower Drawbridge was replaced by a swing bridge. This widened the carriageway, allowed larger ships to pass and also allowed the horse tramway to be extended across the river from Bernard Street in South Leith to Commercial Street in North Leith. This new bridge was referred to as the Bernard Street Bridge and the term Lower Drawbridge began to be applied to the railway’s bridge. This dates our photo to after 1900.

The Lower Drawbridge in 1897, 3 years before demolition. This view is looking upriver. Note how low the water lever is compared to today; the river is tidal here but the closing of the docks by lock gates in the late 1960s has forever altered the basin here into a fairly stagnant pool which has about 20 feet of silt and sludge built up on the river bed. © Edinburgh City Libraries

The final clue as to the date is provided not by what is in the photo, but by what is missing from it. In 1905 the Leith Corporation Tramway electrified the route here, and modified the drawbridge to carry the overhead wires with an ingenious system that allowed the portion on the bridge to be quickly physically disconnected from the section on the land so the bridge could swing open.

The Bernard Street Bridge in 1922, note the 3 lattice gantries carrying the tramway wires over the water and the staging built out into the river which carried an arc of rail on which the weight of the bridge was supported when it swung open. © Edinburgh City Libraries

Referring back to the photo we can see our electric street light in blue, the stone pier at the end of the bridge in green, the iron swing bridge parapets in yellow and in pink an iron fence that stopped people climbing down onto the staging that supported the bridge as it swung open.

Dating evidence

So we can conclusively say, purely thanks to that lamp post and the bridge, that this photo was taken between 1900 and 1905!

So who was plying their trade on the Shore at this time? Let’s take a look in the Post Office directory for 1904-05 and the Valuation Rolls of 1905. We start at number 1, which is at the north end of the street, or off to the left of our photograph:

  • 1 (The Tower) is the Leith & Kirkcaldy Shipping Co’s offices and the Tower Tavern, licensee James Gillespie, spirit dealer
  • 3-4 and what is now The Shore seafood bar, is John Barton, spirit dealer, a tenant for the William Younger & Co. brewery. Barton lives in the tenement next door at no. 2, he owns 2 of the 5 flats within.
  • 5-6 is John Cran & Co., shipbuilders. Now George Brown & sons, a long established marine engineers and one of the few such organisations from Leith’s ancient maritime past still going in the port
  • 8 is a shop, proprietor Mrs Helen Ryan, spirit dealer
  • 9 is a shop, proprietor Miss Jeanie Cameron, spinster.
  • 12 is the shop of Joseph Handyside, spirit dealer
  • 14 is the shop of Margaret Mason, “wife of James C. Mason, Superintendent”.
  • (Numbers 8 to 14 have long since been replaced by Maritime House, once the Leith offices of the National Union of Seamen)
  • 16-17 is yet another licensed premises, those of Thomas M. Jardine, spirit dealer
  • 18 is the shop of Miss Catherine A. Murison, spinster
  • 20 is the New Ship Lodging House, proprietor Charles W. Murison and his wife Annabella. Charles is the brother of Catherine at no. 18. An old door lintel survives here , “Christus [Rex] Regum, Qui Non Dormatin Aevum Protegat Hanc Aedem Necnon Sine Crimineplebem” or “May Christ, King of Kings, who sleepeth not for all time to come, keep this house in safety and its people free from sin
  • 21-24 is M. P. Galloway Ltd., ironmongers
  • 27-28 is the Old Ship Hotel, the first premises on the far left of the photograph, with the ship sign above the door. Proprietor James Laing
  • 29, the shop, occupied by F. Schmidt the Tailor in our photograph, now occupied by John Willison
  • 31-32 is the bakery and confectionery of David S. Crawford.
  • 34 is Peter M. Martin, yet another spirit dealer
  • 35, on the corner in The Clock building, is Mackenzie & Storrie, the printers, stationers and dealers in nautical charts
  • 36, on the opposite corner across Bernard Street, is Rutherford & Co’. the spirit dealer’s pub The King’s Wark, the licensee being Hector Sutherland
  • 37, a warehouse occupied by R. & D. Slimon, ships chandlers, merchants and shipowners. There is a very interesting story about the Slimons, which is one to tell another day. This is the last premises we can see in the photo, with the word “Ironmonger” visible above the first floor level
  • 38-39, James Fisher, Hairdresser
  • 40-42, the shop and office of R. & D. Slimon, trading here are also the Leith & Iceland Shipping Co. and the Leith Steam Tugs Office
  • 43 is a house, being occupied by the East of Scotland Irish Nationalist’s Club! Secretary Isaac Scott, caretaker James McMahon (I have absolutely no idea about them, and the internet doesn’t seem to either beyond PO directory listings. )
  • 45 is the shop of Henry Oliver, spirit merchant
  • 46 is the shop of Susan Smith, widow, in 1912 this was called The American Bar
  • 49 is the shop of George Selening & Co., confectioners
  • 51 is the shop of Francis Rennie, spirit dealer
  • 54 is the premises of William L. Lockhart, plumber
  • 55 is the shop of Alberies Capaldi, restaurateur
  • 56 is the shop of David Simpson, dairyman
  • 59 is the shop of George Lennie, grocer
  • 60 is the shop of Amelia Kerner, Saleswoman
  • 65-66 is the shop and store of Peter W. Macinnes, grocer
  • 67 is the shop of Miss Rose McCabe, dairy keeper
  • 68 is the premises of the Equitable Loan Company of Scotland, manager Mr George Tait; a pawnbrokers
  • 69 is the shop of William Fletcher, fruiterer
  • 71 is the shop of Hugh Greig, baker
  • 72-73 is the shop of Patrick McFarlane, spirit dealer
  • 74 is the shop kept by Susan Kelly, spinster. The premises is owned by a Patrick Kelly and his wife Rose. The Kellies all seem to live next door at no. 75 and keep the lodging house at No. 77
  • 76 is the licensed premises of John W. Scott & Co., wine merchants of Quality Street, Leith. The landlord is William Brown, spirit dealer
  • 77 is the lodging house kept by Patrick and Rose Kelly

It’s a long list, but you can detect a certain theme here, which is people selling alcohol. Hardly surprising in a bustling seafaring town like Leith. There are still lots of bars on the Shore (some better than others) to this day.

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.

These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s