This blog is related to walks I have led in life and online which focus on the lives of Leith’s women. The next walk is to celebrate International Women’s Day on Saturday March 11 2023 meeting at Rosebank Cemetery at 1.30pm. Book on Eventbrite here. This event is free to attend.
Focus on women
I am focusing on women’s stories because as a woman and a feminist I need to know who came before me, about my backstory; it helps me sense my place in the continuum of the generations. I have a special interest in the lives of people who are forgotten or overlooked, and especially those who were connected to the area where I have lived for so long. I took solitary and group walks to visit the graves of notable women in Rosebank Cemetery, North Leith Burial Ground, and South Leith Parish Church, stopping at streets between them to discover more about the women who lived there.
Located by the sea, we have records of Leith’s wharfs being in use as far back as the eleventh century, and know that by the fourteenth, it had become the principal port. (After that Glasgow took over, offering quicker passages to the Americas). The docks (named after Victoria (the Queen), Albert (her consort) and so on) were built between 1817-1904. By 1833, we know that Leith had grown into a powerful independent burgh. In 1920 there was a plebiscite about joining the City of Edinburgh, and the people voted 26,810 to 4,340 against. Despite this, the merger went ahead, but to this day Leith has a distinctive and independent character. Many of the women we will be finding out about will have seen those changes happening; they and their families would have relied on the goods and business which was channeled through the port, and sailed in and out through it.
I have spent a great deal of time trying to discover information about the women buried in Leith, and have not found as much as I would have hoped. I did come across a record with the names of the women in the Leith Poor House in the eighteenth century which made very interesting reading, but very little detail about their lives, and thus I scoured newspaper cuttings, Facebook, local history groups, and online links for associated details. Nevertheless, thinking about these women I never knew, searching for details about their lives, and trying to understand what it might have been like for them to live in Leith / Scotland in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries has been worthwhile, emotionally and symbolically.
As we all know, behind the inventions and developments, the ports and ships and grand buildings which were built then and which have survived almost entirely with the names of men attached to them, were the women and girls giving birth, loving and supporting them.
The women who were buried with headstones, so that we know their name and sometimes, their family affiliations, came from monied families and/or were married to monied gentlemen. Although the language you will find on them is archaic to our ears ‘Sarah Adam relict of Alex…’ these were wives, sisters and mothers who were ‘loved and respected’ and ‘much missed’. I will continue to be interested and to listen to as many stories as I can, to unearth not the bodies but the lives of them.
One of the most famous graves in Rosebank is that commemorating Ida Bononomi (probably Italian). It reads, ‘Sacred to the memory of Miss Ida Bonanomi, the faithful and highly esteemed dresser of Queen Victoria, who departed this life October 15 1854, in the 37th year of her age. Beloved and respected by all who knew her. This stone had been placed by Queen Victoria as a mark of her regard’.
Bononomi’s job was a position of extreme intimacy with the monarch. In the Autumn of 1854, Ida had been travelling in Scotland with the Queen and stayed with her at Holyrood Palace where she fell ill. She was therefore unable to travel on with her mistress. In her journal, the Queen wrote, ‘Saw Sir James Clark, who brought me a telegram with the sad news that my excellent maid Ida Bononomi, whom I had had to leave at Holyrood as she had become so ill, not having been well at Balmoral before – had died last night. It was a great shock to me, & I was thoroughly upset, for no one, including Sir James had apprehended any immediate danger. She was the kindest, gentlest, best being possible, & such a pleasant servant, so intelligent, so trustworthy & her calm, quiet manner had such a soothing effect, on my often over wrought nerves. To lose her thus, and so far away, surrounded only by strangers is too grievous. Everyone was shocked & grieved, for she was quite adored.’
Queen Victoria liked funerals and had an interest in the protocol of mourning, ‘a mentality as much as a personal observance’ (see below for references). It is known that she recognised the deaths of her housemaids and others with ritual in which other members of the household were required to be involved, and also that she visited Ida’s grave six years after she died.
There are, of course, many other graves of interesting women in this cemetery, and there is also one which commemorates the stillborn babies who, by Scots law, cannot be cremated and must be buried. Annie Blackie is said to be the oldest person buried here (105 years). There is a rare female WW1 grave to E G Elder of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (7/7/18) and a WW2 memorial to E W L Fruish, also of the WRNS.
Excellent information for parents of stillborn babies who dies long ago is offered by SANDS (‘Saving babies’ lives. Supporting bereaved families.’) Phone: 0808 164 3332 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Also, Held in our Hearts charity providing baby loss counselling and peer support to families. Tracy Watt can be contacted here email@example.com
Jessie Mann (1805-1867) is a strong candidate for Scotland’s first female photographer. She was known to be the studio assistant of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson and worked at Rock House, Calton Hill. Later a school housekeeper in Musselburgh, she died of a stroke aged 62. She is thought to be the photographer of the King of Saxony which hangs in the Portrait Gallery on Queen’s Street (yes! the same queen).
According to a Commission for Racial Equality paper, it is important that Scottish cemeteries set aside a section for Muslim graves, as is the case in Rosebank. It is important that they are raised 4-12 inches above the ground, as it is forbidden to walk over them. Before burial, the body will be washed in a ritual manner (Ghusl), usually in the Mosque, then taken to the grave where a prayer is said (Salat Al-Janazah). Then the body is wrapped in 1 or 2 sheets of white cloth and laid in the grave (traditionally without a coffin, and strictly only one person per grave). The headstones are usually simple.
Information on Muslim Burials from the Scottish Muslim Funeral Service
Turning left out of Rosebank, we can walk across the junction and along Newhaven Road. Second on the right is Elizafield, named after Eliza, a native of Leith, and the woman who bore Dr. Robert Grant (not Dr Robert Edmond Grant, zoologist). I have not been able to find out anything about her and her life – her story has disappeared, perhaps deemed less important than his, despite the fact that he would not exist if it weren’t for her, not least because birthing was such a dangerous task in the 1780’s.
Historically it [birth] was thoroughly natural, wholly unmedical, and gravely dangerous. Only from the early eighteenth century did doctors begin getting seriously involved, with obstetrics becoming a medically respectable specialty and a rash of new hospitals being built. Unfortunately, the impact of both was bad. Puerperal, or childbed, fever was a mystery, but both doctors and hospitals made it worse. Wherever the medical men went the disease grew more common, and in their hospitals it was commonest of all.Druin Burch (2009) https://www.livescience.com/3210-childbirth-natural-deadly.html
Eliza’s son was a surgeon and left Leith in his twenties (1782-92) to settle, very successfully, in South Carolina (USA) marrying Sarah Foxworth. The rice plantation he established in Georgia was also named Elizafield, and, as was the way then, it only drew the produce and profits it did, as a result of the female and male slaves who carried out the work: they were, ‘the driving force behind the success of the plantation’. (Amy Hedrick, author on glynngen.com).
Women in industry
Flaxmill Place is almost opposite Elizafield. Flax was used to make linen, most of which was exported from Scotland, and it was a very successful industry employing 10 – 12000 workers, many of whom would have been women (although the exact data is unavailable).
The Bonnington Mills, on the banks of the Water of Leith, made woollen cloth as well as linen, and much of the wool was produced by women in their own homes nearby. As the owners were always aiming to improve profits and cut corners, they controversially introduced Flemish and French workers (who were accommodated at Little Picardy(ie), the current Picardy Place). The women and girls spun the cambric yarn (for the close-woven, light type of linen) to try and improve the quality of the cloth, but this took away the local jobs.
Before the Industrial Revolution, hand spinning had been a widespread source of female employment. It could take as many as ten spinners to provide one hand-loom weaver with yarn, and men did not spin, so the majority of the workers in the textile industry were women. The new textile machines of the Industrial Revolution changed that. Wages for hand-spinning fell, and many rural women who had previously spun, found themselves unemployed. In a few locations, new cottage industries such as straw-plaiting and lace-making grew, taking the place of spinning, but in other locations women remained unemployed.
In 1686, the first Parliament of James VII passed an ‘Act for Burying in Scots Linen‘, the object of which was to keep the home-made cloth in the country. It was enacted that, “hereafter no corpse of any persons whatsoever shall be buried in any shirt, sheet, or anything else except in plain linen, or cloth of hards, made and spun within the kingdom, without lace or point.” Heavy penalties were attached to breaches of the Act, and it was made the duty of the parish minister to receive and record certificates of the fact that all bodies were buried as directed. On hearing this, we can imagine that the women in the graves we were visiting may have been bound in just such a linen shroud, made right in this place.
Here are the remains of the Catherine Sinclair drinking fountain – the first ever such watering place. She was a children’s writer and philanthropist (1800-1864) and it can be found at Steadfastgate, Gosford Place. See the Women of Scotland site for more details.
North Leith Burial Ground
Colonel Lady Anne Mackintosh (b 1723-1787) was the daughter of John Farquharson, the chief of the clan and staunch Jacobite. She married the head of the Mackintosh(es) when she was aged 19 and was feisty by all accounts, known as one of the damn rebel bitches (the name of a book by Maggie Craig). These were women who acted as moral supporters for their men. They served in intelligence and communication roles, built support for the movement, sheltered Jacobite fugitives, and had their image torn apart by the enemy press in the papers’ attempt to discredit the Jacobite cause.
When Anne was 22, she dressed in male attire and rode around the Scottish glens to enlist men to fight in a regiment for the cause Prince Charlie. This was an attempt by Charles Edward Stuart to regain the British throne for his father, James Francis Edward Stuart in what became known as the 1745 Jacobite uprising or ’45 rebellion’ or, simply, ‘The 45’. The numbers of men she raised are different in each account, from 97 to 200, 350, even 400! If the women who supported the cause in such a way were captured…..
“The ‘ladies’ all got off with at worst, a brief term of imprisonment. Some made pretty speeches to King George and got their husbands released and their lands restored. Even when in prison they were well treated, and allowed their silk gowns and nice food. This applied even in cases where they were clearly guilty of treason. ‘Common women’, on the other hand, mostly got shipped off to the West Indies as slaves for life, usually for doing nothing more than following their husbands on campaign.”Maggie Craig
During the uprising Captain Angus Mackintosh, her husband, fought on the losing Government side at the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745 and was subsequently captured. He was later released into Anne’s custody. After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, however, when the tides turned, Anne herself was held in Inverness for six weeks before being turned over to her mother-in-law, whose family had fought for the other side. These family disagreements were eventually forgiven and Anne and her family moved to Leith where she died in 1784 and was buried in North Leith Burial Ground which would have had a church beside it in those days.
The memorial stones at North Leith Burial Ground are old (1664 – 1820) and varied. You can find grand mausoleums and individual slabs – some half buried and unintelligible. Almost all have engravings and carvings are worth seeing. I suggest we search for the grave of Lady Mackintosh as well as carvings of a long bone, angels, skulls and hourglasses (some on their sides and others upstanding, the sands of time sifting down through the narrow neck as life passes by).
Queen Charlotte Street
Crossing the Water of Leith again, along Sandport Place and Tolbooth Wynd, is Queen Charlotte Street, named after the Queen of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744-1818). She is remembered in Queens Square, Bloomsbury, London with a statue (see above). Charlotte was an immigrant and did not support slavery (there is a bit of a theme emerging here!)
Sara Sheridan, in her book Where are the Women, tells of Elizabeth Nicol (1807-189), an abolitionist, anti-segregationist, suffragist, and chartist who “attended the World Anti-slavery Convention in London in 1840 as one of only six British female delegates. On arriving the women were told, despite their objections, they could not participate and were made to sit in a segregated area.”
Queen Charlotte was a reknowned botanist and founded Kew Gardens. Married to King George III, she had fifteen (that’s 15) children and was, famously, painted by Allan Ramsey (also an anti-slavery campaigner) in 1762, when she was aged 17 years. The painting is owned by the Scottish National Galleries. Recent articles have posed the question whether she was of African origin herself which would explain her support.
Round the corner and on to Constitution Street is St Mary’s Star of the Sea, a Catholic church and home to the missionary oblates.
Hail, Queen of Heav'n, the ocean Star,
Guide of the wand'rer here below!
Thrown on life's surge we claim thy care,
Save us from peril and from woe.
Mother of Christ, Star of the sea,
Pray for the wanderer, pray for me
Based on the anonymous Latin hymn, Ave Maris Stella
South Leith Parish Church
Further up the same street is St Mary’s Chapel, part of South Leith Parish Church, dating from 1483, and its graveyard. I spent some considerable time researching the women in this kirkyard, trying to find out their stories, but to almost no avail. I focused on another Charlotte, Charlotte Lindesay (1780-1857 aged 77), and did manage to discover that she was one of a brood of six from Feddinch in Fife, and that her parents were William Lindesay and Elizabeth Balfour. In 1805, she married her cousin, Patrick who was very active in the community.
Amongst other jobs, Patrick was the president of the Leith Dispensary and Humane Society which was formed in 1825 on Maritime Street, later to become Leith Hospital, bringing healthcare (via a clinic and hospital, both initially in Broad Wynd) to the poor. I like to imagine Charlotte accompanying him, or even visiting the needy with a basket over her arm as portrayed in countless Jane Austen films, but I am woefully ill informed about her true particulars.
The forerunner of that Leith Hospital was the Old King James Hospital in the Kirkgate, founded in 1614 and closed in to make room for the new one in Sheriff Brae overlooking Mill Lane in1822. You can still see part of the wall close by the South Leith Parish Church.
If you were one of the very first groups of female students who were finally ‘allowed’ to do clinical training at a Scottish hospital in 1886, you would have done it in Leith – in your long skirts and tight waisted costumes.
Christine Hoy tells us about the first district nurse, Mrs Brown whose role it was “to carry out faithfully the doctors’ orders, to instruct the relations or friends of the patient in the art of good nursing and to inculcate, and if necessary enforce, attention to cleanliness”. The hospital paid for her to attend a nursing course at King’s College, London. Popular and hardworking she made 13,000 home visits in 1877 alone. More information on The Edinburgh Seven. Leith Hospitals information here.
Some other women associated with this church
Mary of Guise (also called Mary of Lorraine), ruled Scotland as regent from 1554 until her death in 1560. A noblewoman from the Lotharingian House of Guise, which played a prominent role in 16th-century French politics, Mary became queen consort upon her marriage to King James V of Scotland in 1538. (Wikipedia). She worshipped at this church in 1559 and her coat of arms is displayed in the entrance today. Mary had fortified the town and she was in Leith being guarded by the thousands of French troops stationed there at the time.
There is also an altar dedicated to St Barbara who had a very sad and sorry life. Wanting to dedicate herself to Christ instead of marrying the man her father wanted her to (Dioscorus, 7th century), she was tortured and her father chopped her head off. He got his comeuppance, apparently, being struck by lightening and reduced to ashes. Perhaps this is why she is invoked in thunderstorms. She is also the patroness of miners, although I am not sure why. (From the Britannica and Archdiocese of St Andrews on facebook).
When excavating for the trams in 2019, mass graves were found. There were 50 per cent more bodies of women than men, and the bodies were smaller than the average woman today, showing signs of malnourishment compared to the national average even then. An exhibition and book were made and it was posited that they had something to do with the plague and/or that they were from the poorhouse. There is a banner in the entrance to The Museum of Edinburgh with some information about this and the book is sold in the shop there.
The graves of Jane Eliza Mackie and Jane Smart (left)
As a way of paying respect to the women whose names I discovered here, I made a list of them, together with their relationships, but omitted the names of their male relatives. This is to recognise how many women we know so little about, and the manner in which they were remembered. I will read out the list during the walk, in remembrance.
These have been women’s stories, of their families, interests, occupations and deaths. They are often seen through the eyes, or in the context of men, making it hard to celebrate them in their own right, but the search to find out more about them was well worth it and is by no means over.
Walking Artists Network and Women Who Walk
Tamsin Grainger is a member of Women Who Walk and the Walking Artists Network. The network is for those who use walking in their creative or academic practice. It includes artists, writers, field historians and archaeologists, psychogeographers, academics and more.
Christine Hoy https://www.amazon.co.uk/Beacon-Our-Town-Story-Hospital/dp/0951373900
Elizabeth Jane Timmins, 2019 and her blog for the information about Ida Bononomi and Queen Victoria.
‘The Jacobite Grenadier’ by Gavin Wood.
Elizafield Plantation, USA by Amy Hedrick http://www.glynngen.com/plantations/elizafield.htm and https://mesda.org/item/collections/dr-robert-grant/1194/
Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine which has delights in it if you care to look hard enough, such as ‘[he died] At Paris, of a fever, occasioned by bathing whilst in a state of perspiration, T Palmer”
Joyce Burnette (2008) This webpage has some fascinating pictures of women spinning at home and in the factory and statistics about self-employed wmen in the eighteenth century and much more (England)
See also Edinburgh New College and Calton Hill – a tour of the centre of Edinburgh celebrating some of Edinburgh’s famous women – based on the Hidden Heroines Tour by Carla Nebulosa.
See also Where Are the Women? A Guide to An Imagined Scotland by Sara Sheridan
and the Meet the Author event with Sara Sheridan on 1 May 2021 at 10.30am
Saltire Society Outstanding Women of Scotland
The New Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women
Quines by Gerda Stevenson celebrates women of Scotland in poetry. My review is here
There are other books about women that I have reviewed here