Lost Edinburgh: Tenement collapse 1861

IN THE wee hours of 24 November 1861 the inhabitants of Edinburgh’s Old Town were rudely awoken by an almighty clatter, as an immense seven-storey tenement came crashing down.

A lintel on Paisley Close is inscribed with Joseph McIvor's spirited cry
A lintel on Paisley Close is inscribed with Joseph McIvor's spirited cry
A lintel on Paisley Close is inscribed with Joseph McIvor's spirited cry

The tenement collapse and consequent loss of life was nothing short of catastrophic. From 77 occupants, 35 perished during the collapse or died later in hospital from their injuries. The awful tragedy was covered far and wide and forced Edinburgh’s authorities to make vast improvements to the living conditions within the poorer areas of the city.

In a state of disrepair

The large building which toppled that fateful night was located on the north side of the High Street above Bailie Fyfe’s Close. It was comprised mostly of timber and was thought to have been at least 250 years old. The historic pile was in a horrendous state of disrepair prior to the collapse with the effects of subsidence evident throughout the structure. A façade of sturdy-looking, yet ancient, ashlar stone provided a false sense of security and belied the decayed state of the building’s interior. Such dilapidation in 19th century Edinburgh was alarmingly common.

Poor living conditions

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Living conditions in the Old Town were utterly appalling during the 1800s. The population of the inner city had more than doubled from 82,560 at the turn of the century to 168,121 by 1861. Up to 15 families would often be crammed into a single tenement of up to 14 storeys high – some in windowless dwellings. Many buildings had stood without any significant alterations for hundreds of years, and the sanitary conditions were infamously grim and filth-ridden. The threat of diseases such as cholera was huge, as access to clean drinking water was extremely limited.

An account from the Builders Journal of 1861 indicated just how vile certain areas of Edinburgh had become: ‘We devoutly believe that no smell in Europe or Asia can equal in depth and intensity, in concentration and power, the diabolical combination of sulphurated hydrogen we came upon one evening about ten o’clock in a place called Todrick’s Wynd.’ The sights and smells of nearby Bailie Fyfe’s Close, the location of the fateful collapse, would have followed much the same description.

The collapse

At approximately ten past one on the morning of 24 November 1861, a 16th century tenement located half way between the North Bridge and John Knox House suddenly gave way and crashed to the street below. There had been several complaints from tenants of doors jamming a day prior to the collapse, and the roof of one of the closes had also caved in. Few had expected the entire building to topple, but the occurrence was not totally without premonition.

Death was instantaneous for many of the families inside as they lay fast asleep in their beds, while others suffocated deep under the ruins. Those fortunate enough to have managed to escape claimed to have detected a slight rumbling up to ten minutes before, allowing them plenty of time to make their exit.

Within moments of the collapse a crowd of onlookers had rushed to the scene to witness the wreckage. Excavation works began almost immediately - despite their being scant chance of discovering any survivors.

‘Heave awa’ lads’

As dawn broke the legs of a young boy named Joseph McIvor were spotted protruding from the debris. He is reported to have yelled ‘Heave awa’ lads, I’m no’ deid yet!’ as the various emergency services scrambled to save him. Joseph McIvor’s spirited cry was carved into the lintel of the replacement building above Paisley Close, known as ‘The Heave Awa’ Hoose’ (interestingly, the word ‘lads’ was substituted for the more Anglo-friendly ‘chaps’).

A chance meeting

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One man named George Gunn had been spending an evening with friends in Stockbridge only to return home at exactly the moment of the catastrophe to find his family dead save for his youngest sister. George was spared due to a chance meeting of an acquaintance outside his house - the brief chat stalling him at just the right time. A total of seven children aged between 7 and 11 were also rescued without injuries. Children who lost both parents were sent to the City Workhouse.

The search for survivors uncovered a large number of mutilated corpses in the days that followed. The death toll would eventually reach 35, including many young children and infants.

The City Improvement Act of 1867

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The appallingly tragic events which took place at Bailie Fyfe’s Close turned out to be the bitter tonic for change which Edinburgh’s authorities needed. Cholera epidemics were killing thousands in the less salubrious areas, and the city centre tenement collapse was the final straw. The great literary genius Charles Dickens, a frequent visitor to the capital, once stated that he saw more poverty and sickness in the course of an hour’s stroll through the Old Town ‘than people would believe in, in a life’. Dickens was in Edinburgh at the time of the collapse and is said to have been very much in favour of swift action being taken to tackle the city’s dreadful housing and sanitation problems.

The City Improvement Act was passed by Lord Provost William Chambers in 1867, and towards the close of the 19th century a vast extent of the Old Town’s stock of medieval architecture had disappeared.

Walking down the largely Victorian-built thoroughfare of the Royal Mile today it is odd to think that much of the New Town, begun in the 1760s, is significantly older. The 1867 City Improvement Act was administered with a great deal of efficiency.

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