‘Fascinating’ photographic archive of 1920s Leith published online

The residents of Cables Wynd in 1924. Picture: Edinburgh University Centre for Research Collections/Fraser Parkinson
The residents of Cables Wynd in 1924. Picture: Edinburgh University Centre for Research Collections/Fraser Parkinson
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A series of images giving the public a rare glimpse into 1920s Leith and its people has been made available online.

When local historian Fraser Parkinson was entrusted with a set of photographs showing Leith slums in the inter-war era, he knew they deserved to be shared with a wider audience.

Queen Street, Leith. Picture: Edinburgh University Centre for Research Collections/Fraser Parkinson

Queen Street, Leith. Picture: Edinburgh University Centre for Research Collections/Fraser Parkinson

The incredible images were produced by the city authorities to show the slums of the old port prior to the ‘Edinburgh (Leith) Improvement Scheme of 1924’, which would see large swathes of the district vanish for good.

The collection focuses on addresses and streets in Leith which were later redeveloped, such as the Shore, Coburg Street, and Cables Wynd.

Some of the local Leith residents of the time take centre stage - many of them staring directly at the photographer - this gives each image a real sense of poignancy and personality.

We’re welcomed into the world of working class inter-war Leith; a handful of years before the Great Depression, and, while hardly a shock, it’s gut-wrenching to see that a large number of the youngsters pictured are barefooted.

We’re welcomed into the world of working class inter-war Leith; a handful of years before the Great Depression, and, while hardly a shock, it’s gut-wrenching to see that a large number of the youngsters pictured are barefooted.

Official Town Council minutes dating from 3 April 1924 proposed the demolition or reconstruction of ‘certain houses, courts, and alleys unfit for human habitation’. The 1924 Leith photographs focus on precisely these types of places.

Fraser Parkinson, curator of popular social media pages, ‘The Spirit of Leithers’, and ‘Edinburgh Places and People’, received the photographs several years ago. Upon realising their unique importance, Mr Parkinson decided to entrust the images to the archives team at Edinburgh University.

• READ MORE: Leith book shows pictures of historic area

Old Leithers from Scotland to New Zealand had acted as custodians for the images over the past 90 years before they had been passed on to his friend, local history enthusiast and campaigner Frank Ferri, as Mr Parkinson explains:

“When Frank entrusted me with these photographs to secure their future he said, “I’ve fewer days in front of me than I have behind”. On that day I was aware that these precious views of Leith in 1924 had been passed from one Leither to another over a 90-year-period, so, when delivered to me I was very aware of how important these were to Leith.

“They are not pretty, nor fashionable but photographs taken for the purpose of providing a record of what parts of Leith looked like in the 1920s. Within each photograph there are another twenty. If you look hard you will see people leaning out of windows, children with bare feet, newspaper headlines, goods in shop windows, all kinds of fascinating detail that tells us about Leith in the 1920s.”

• READ MORE: Plan for online archive of Leith

Many of the images donated by Mr Parkinson were in a perilously bad condition when they arrived at the university and required a significant amount of careful restoration.

Queen Street boys. Picture: Edinburgh University Centre for Research Collections/Fraser Parkinson

Queen Street boys. Picture: Edinburgh University Centre for Research Collections/Fraser Parkinson

Every image had been mounted and glued on to a cardboard backing, so it was up to conservator Emily Hick, and her placement student Joey Shuker, to begin the meticulous process of removing the cardboard, flattening the photos and stablising the tears.

The collection has now been photographed by Edinburgh University and can be viewed here

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The Shore, Leith. Picture: Edinburgh University Centre for Research Collections/Fraser Parkinson

The Shore, Leith. Picture: Edinburgh University Centre for Research Collections/Fraser Parkinson

Man on Coburg Street. Picture: Edinburgh University Centre for Research Collections/Fraser Parkinson

Man on Coburg Street. Picture: Edinburgh University Centre for Research Collections/Fraser Parkinson