William Mackay Purves, purveyor of lamps and Edinburgh heritage supporter. Born: 4 February, 1934 in Edinburgh. Died: 6 October, 2016 in Edinburgh, aged 82
With his flowing locks and flamboyant dress sense, Bill Purves appeared every inch the creative eccentric. All the more remarkable, then, that he had started his working life in something as prosaic as insurance.
Though he stuck it out for some considerable time he was never destined to continue in that business sphere and ultimately changed course to become owner of an eponymous lighting emporium and museum and a champion of Edinburgh’s architectural and engineering heritage.
In between he spent fascinating spells in Naval Intelligence during the Cold War and in London as a student, during the Swinging Sixties, when his tutor was the Soviet spy Sir Anthony Blunt.
Born in Edinburgh’s Joppa, he was the only child of Edith Purves and her husband William, an actuary, who arranged for their son to start a job with Guardian Royal Exchange after his schooling at Melville College. It did not enthuse the youngster who, though a competent worker, was more interested in literature or attending the city’s Lane Sales in his lunch hour, when he would pick up furniture either for the home or to sell on. He loved the past and had both artistic and practical talents that he put to good use restoring the items he collected.
His time in the insurance business was interrupted by his two years’ National Service when, posted to Cuxhaven in Germany, he found himself having to master the Russian and German languages. His role in the Naval Intelligence Section involved listening in on Russian radio communications and he was subsequently called up as a reservist in the years following his service.
By 1955 he had met his first wife, Marion. The couple bought a flat at 1 Scotland Street in Edinburgh’s New Town and went on to have two daughters, with Purves continuing to work at the insurance company until 1965, when he went to university in London as a mature student.
He studied art and architectural history at the Courtauld Institute of Art where he was president of the Students’ Union and was taught by Blunt, art historian and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, who was later exposed as the one of the Cambridge spy ring which included Kim Philby and Guy Burgess, and stripped of his knighthood.
Purves revelled in the atmosphere of 1960s London as it emerged from post-war drabness to vibrant capital of style and fashion. He designed some of his own clothes and had them made up on Carnaby Street, where he took his daughters shopping for hot pants when they were all the rage in 1970.
His own style would later evolve to include courts shoes worn with a boiler suit and kilted A-line skirts.
By the end of his time in London he had already met the woman who was to become his second wife – engineer Sandra Whitlam. They lived in Soho but returned to Edinburgh together after he graduated and lived with his father, who had had a stroke and who also had a home in Scotland Street.
Living in the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town, Purves was passionate about the area and began restoring properties there, reinstating original features. He became a member of the Georgian Society and campaigned for the renovation of the elegant 18th century buildings which, by the 1960s, had seriously degenerated in parts. He was also involved with the Drummond Civic Association and Drummond Place Gardens and was instrumental in the replacement of the railings there.
And in 1969 he established his lighting business, Mr Purves, in St Stephen Street in the city’s Stockbridge. The lamp emporium, which became an Edinburgh institution, crammed with antique oil lamps and parts, had no regular opening hours and the shop, along with looking after his father, who was wheelchair-bound, accounted for most of his time. Throughout it all he was supported by Sandra whom he married in 1978.
Their wedding breakfast was held on the Waverley paddle steamer – another passion of Purves’. Like generations of youngsters he had often enjoyed a family trip “doon the watter” on the original Waverley, which was sunk by enemy action during the Second World War while evacuating troops from Dunkirk in 1940.
The second Waverly, the world’s last sea-going paddle steamer, made her maiden voyage in 1947 and the youngster once again enjoyed a trip on the vessel. But by the mid 1970s she was at the end of her working life and was sold off for £1 to the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society.
Purves and Sandra became involved in raising funds to get the ship back in service and after a successful campaign it ran up and down the Clyde for several years before becoming stranded on rocks in 1977. The couple had supplied some lights for the ship and retrieved them before she went in for repair. The following year she was back in business and sailed to the Thames, where the newlyweds celebrated their marriage on board.
Engineering and restoration were a major part of his life and Purves, who continued to support The Waverley for a considerable time, also became involved, along with his wife, in the Edinburgh Canal Society. At the time the society had no home but Purves was one of the key players in founding its base and boathouse at Harrison Park. Having come across a collection of motorboats abandoned in a shed he restored and housed them at Harrison Park, where they became the core fleet and he became the boatman. He campaigned for the canal to be re-opened and was part of the society for many years.
When his health began to decline a decade ago he returned to a previous love – classic cars. In the 1950s he had bought a 1934 Jowett, christened Belinda, which he drove to northern Italy as a student to study architecture. Then in 2006 he and Sandra were driving to the world-famous autojumble at the motor museum in Beaulieu when they were involved in a car crash.
He sustained a head injury and lost much of his independence, subsequently coping with brain damage for the rest of his life.
Latterly he suffered a stroke which restrained his loquaciousness but he remained determined and unbowed, twice walking out of hospital on two sticks only to be rescued by police.
He is survived by his wife, his daughters Caroline and Catherine and two grandchildren.