Old Edinburgh Worthies 3: Hunchback Coconut Tam
Georgian and Victorian Edinburgh boasted a considerable population of street characters. The Victorian artist Ned Holt made it his business to record the doings of these ‘street worthies’, shedding much-needed light on the dark underbelly of the Capital of the time.
Thomas Simpson was born in Edinburgh’s Old Town 1827, in Strichen’s Close off the High Street according to one account. His father Joseph was a seaman in the merchant service and his mother Margaret was born McDonald. Young Thomas was a cripple from an early age with a severe hunchback, but this did not prevent him from finding employment as a street seller of fruit and coconuts.
He soon became an Edinburgh worthy, standing with his barrel of fruit outside the Tron Kirk shouting "Coco-nit, Coco-nit, come and buy, ha’penny the bit!"There is a photograph of Coconut Tam, as he was known, standing opposite Buchanan’s Temperance Hotel in the High Street and speaking to two ladies, who are both a good deal taller than the stunted little wretch. Councillor Wilson McLaren left a good description of him: “Of all the Edinburgh worthies at the time he was the favourite. From his rickle of a barrow he sold fruit and coconuts. He was hump-backed and small in stature, with a thin, wrinkled face and twinkling eyes. An old and heavy overcoat reached almost to his feet, while jauntily displayed in his billycock hat was a large sprig of heather.”
He lived not far away, in one of the closes off the High Street. It is not generally known that Coconut Tam actually managed to find a wife for himself. He married Elizabeth Robertson before 1860, and they had the daughter Elizabeth, who married James Grant in 1886 when she was 26 years old.
Later widowed, Coconut Tam struggled on for several years to come, although gasping from chronic bronchitis, which had silenced his characteristic outcry. He was no longer able to use a barrow, selling his fruit and nuts from a large basket instead.
In early 1894, his daughter made sure that Tam was taken care of in her own flat at 34 Potterrow where he told her he could not last much longer and died there on January 10 from syncope secondary to chronic bronchitis.
His death was announced in newspapers as far away as the Bristol Mercury. The Dundee Evening Telegraph wrote that, 'Simpson, who was 71 years of age, may be said to have been almost the last of the many Edinburgh characters of the last half-century.'The characteristic figure of Coconut Tam standing in the High Street more than once inspired artists and draughtsmen and likenesses of him are far from rare. A painting of him was for many years exhibited at the South Bridge Waxworks.
Ned Holt made a drawing of Tam holding his basket while supporting himself with his walking-stick, and the memorialist Wilson M’Laren has another drawing of an elderly Tam wearing his traditional over-large bowler hat, as the frontispiece to his Edinburgh Memories and some Worthies.
Donald Campbell, the poet of Edinburgh’s outcasts, also remembered Tam:A bread and butter life at bestWith little sugar, far less jamYet, in the High Street, with the restOf his wild kind, he bore the palm.Taste and try afore ye buy!That was the cry of Coconut TamToday, the main claim to fame of Coconut Tam is that he is one of the characters in the 2005 film The Adventures of Greyfriars Bobby, a mad-looking, wild-eyed character running around with a lot of children in over-large caps trying to save their favourite dog from destruction.
He was played by the Irish actor and comedian Ardal O’Hanlon, most famous for playing the timid Father Dougal in the amusing Father Ted TV series, but not even he could do anything to save this awful film from well-deserved oblivion.
Furthermore, I consider it blameworthy to depict a decent and hard-working old Edinburgh man like Thomas Simpson as being little more than a buffoon. Coconut Tam instead deserves our respect, since although born in a very disadvantaged position, he valiantly struggled on and created a business and an independent life for himself.
Jan Bondeson is author of Phillimore's Edinburgh, published by Amberley Books and Murder Houses of Edinburgh