Edinburgh in 1873: A look back at what Edinburgh life was like 150 years ago

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A look back at what life in Edinburgh was like in 1873 – the year the Evening News was born

Edinburgh has changed a lot since the first issue of the Evening News hit the streets in a Capital where there were no cars, no mobile phones, no televisions and no electricity.But some of today’s most familiar landmarks were already there a century and a half ago: the two galleries at The Mound – the National Gallery and Royal Scottish Academy – and the Scott Monument were all part of the established landscape. The General Post Office in Waterloo Place, now Waverley Gate, had opened a few years before Princes Street, where the buildings had once been mostly houses, was becoming recognised instead as a business district. But there was no sign yet of either of the grand hotels, the North British (Balmoral) or the Caledonian, at the east and west ends of the street respectively.In 1873, William Gladstone was British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli leader of the opposition and Queen Victoria was on the throne. It was also the year that missionary and explorer David Livingstone died, the statue to Greyfriars Bobby was erected, Granton gas works was built and the UK saw its first chocolate Easter egg.So what was life like in Edinburgh 150 years ago? Horses were the main form of transport and there were hansom cabs – two-wheeled carriages drawn by a single horse, which could carry two or three passengers, and were designed for speed and safety. Horse-drawn trams had started running on the city’s streets two years earlier; records show that in 1874 Edinburgh’s tram service was operated by 32 open double-deck cars and 300 horses.

The population of the Capital in 1873 was around 200,000. Leith and Portobello were firmly outside the city boundaries and Fettes was still surrounded by countryside. But there seem to have been plenty of big construction projects on the go then as now.

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Plans were afoot to replace the Royal Infirmary main hospital in Infirmary Street with a new one in Lauriston Place. The Royal Scottish Museum in Chambers Street was being extended, while St Giles Cathedral was undergoing major restoration work. And the following year work would start on building St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Palmerston Place.The railway had been running through Princes Street Gardens since 1845, but West Princes Street Gardens were still the preserve of the New Town residents. Three years later the gardens would be acquired by the town council and opened as a public park. There was a thriving theatre scene, including the Southminster Theatre on the site of today’s Festival Theatre in Nicolson Street, though it was to be gutted by fire in 1875. There was the Royal Princess’s Theatre, also in Nicolson Street, and the Theatre Royal in Broughton Street.Whisky was a shilling a pint. And football was only just beginning to become a popular sport – Hearts and Hibs would be formed in 1874 and 1875, though the Scottish Football Association and the Scottish Rugby Union were both established in 1873.An advert in the Evening News for the popular Royal Gymnasium at Canonmills – created by a city philanthropist as a place for people to exercise and enjoy themselves at an affordable price – said it was “now in full swing and full sail”, a reference to its biggest attraction: a 60ft “boat” on a circular pond with room for 600 people to sit and row, with paddle wheels making it go round in an undulating motion.

A late 19th century photograph of Edinburgh's Waterloo Place, including the General Post Office, now Waverley Gate.A late 19th century photograph of Edinburgh's Waterloo Place, including the General Post Office, now Waverley Gate.
A late 19th century photograph of Edinburgh's Waterloo Place, including the General Post Office, now Waverley Gate.

There was also a giant see-saw for 200 people and, as the advert spelled out, opportunities for “quoiting, putting, throwing the hammer, vaulting, running, etc, etc” and “dancing on the green every Saturday afternoon, weather permitting”.Also advertised in the Evening News were sailings by “saloon steamer” four times a day after July 1 between Leith and Aberdour for a fare of ninepence. The advert added: “Passengers desirous of enjoying the sail without landing, one fare. Works, schools or large parties carried at reduced rates.”In 1873, Scotland’s education system was being reformed as the result of an Act passed the previous year. It brought in a new system of state-sponsored, largely free schools, run by local school boards. It also made education compulsory from five to 13. In time, many new board schools were built and in the cities boards established separate secondary schools.Edinburgh did not have a Chief Constable – the city’s top policeman was known as the Superintendent of Police until 1878. When William Henderson was appointed the Capital’s first Chief Constable in that year he had a force of 400, nine of them detectives. There were around 10,000 crimes a year recorded, 1,500 of them for prostitution. But that included many repeat offences – one year, out of 9,991 arrests, 4,768 were the same people so the number of individuals taken into custody was 6,738.And 1873 marked the start of an international financial crisis which lasted for most of the rest of the decade. Britain was not affected as badly as America and central Europe, but there was a surge in unemployment in industries such as coal, iron and steel, engineering and shipbuilding. And in a scenario all too familiar today, the Bank of England adopted a policy of high interest rates.