It was late afternoon on Saturday 20th December 1873 when the flames were first spotted from the windows of the calendering department halfway down Sugarhouse Wynd in Dundee’s Cowgate. By the time they had been seen, the fire had already caused significant damage. The Fire Brigade were called, but despite their attendance and protracted efforts, the building suffered greatly, the gable wall collapsing under the strain.

Before you think this was a building that dealt with calendars, we should clear this up. Calendering is a process of finishing fabrics; smoothing or coating them and then subjecting them to stress by the use of pressured heated rollers (thanks, Wikipedia). For some more info on the building, check out this link. Calendering has moved on significantly over the decades, and includes plastics and various other materials too (but we digress).

Back to the fire; rumours quickly spread that one of the firemen had died in the resulting gable wall accident, but, this time, nobody died. When the wall collapsed, it was very close to a team of firefighters, but everyone was unharmed. Folk love a good rumour and a gossip so it’s easy to see why stories spread almost as quickly as the flames did. With people also piling into the streets for a good look (probably because this was the most exciting thing going on in the centre at that time), the firefighting efforts were said to have been severely hampered.

Despite this, the men fought for hours to control the blaze, under the ever-darkening December skies. A news report in the Dundee Courier and Argus a few days after the fire stated that “the flames lit up the Eastern sky with a deep crimson glow, magnificently contrasting with the surrounding darkness, and which was distinctly visible for miles around. The buildings destroyed were two storeys in height and occupied almost a square, extending in the one way from Sugarhouse Wynd to Queen Street and in the other almost from the Cowgate to the Seagate.”

The origin of the fire remained entirely unknown. When the works stopped for the day at 2pm on the Saturday afternoon, all the workers left the building, with only the 2 foremen in charge remaining. After determining that everything was in good order, the foremen left an hour after clocking-off time, at 3pm. Whilst the fire must have started sometime after they left, and before it was noticed around 4:30pm, the fire was of such an intensity that it must have burned for a good half an hour at least before it had been noticed – and continued to burn for hours afterwards.

The other buildings in the area remained relatively unscathed, thanks to the small streets dividing properties. Whilst the Dundee Calendering Company had been dealt a heavy blow (the damage to the building were estimated at around £20000, which is roughly around £1.5million in today’s money), there were no fatalities…and some of the building remained untouched. Silver lining, and all that…

Fires were prevalent in mills and factories – it was just accepted as part of the everyday hazards of industrial living. Between hot machinery, straw or hay-covered floors and the ever-present risk of flammable materials and substances (and no health and safety to speak of), it’s a small wonder any of us managed to survive. Homes weren’t free from the threat either; there are a whole host of stories about fires we may one day get round to tackling. If you’ve not read the burning of the city churches post, you can read it here  or you can read about another fiery tragedy here.

Refs:

www.archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk, Dundee Courier and Argus, City Library archives, Wikipedia

 

 

 

When an on-duty constable patrolling the harbour on 11th March 1894 noticed something in the water at King William Dock, he quickly called for assistance in dragging it out of the water.  When the object was lifted to shore, they quickly realised that what they had pulled out of the Dock was a human body – very much dead.  So dead, in fact, that the local newspaper reported that it ‘gave considerable evidence of having been a considerable time in the water’.  With the body off to the mortuary, a search was made of his pockets, which revealed a letter addressed to a female correspondent in Calcutta and a pawn ticket in the name of William Panioty, amongst other small items.  By the afternoon, an acquaintance of the dead man, Alexander Brown identified the body as belonging to Mr Panioty, a clerk who worked in Calcutta.  Mr Panioty was aged around 40, and had went missing on 3rd February after returning to Dundee on a steamer around 23rd January.  He stayed on board the steamer for almost a week before lodging at the Sailors House and then in private lodgings in Dundee.  Mr Panioty was supposed to be heading to the Isle of Wight to see his grandmother, but for some unknown reason, he decided to stay in the city; perhaps he was just enjoying himself so much he wanted to extend his visit to Dundee!

Mr Brown had more to add to the tale, however, which added a bit more interest to the case beyond an accidental drowning.  Mr Brown told police that Mr Panioty had visited his home on 31st January and seemed to be in his ‘usual health and spirits’, which we must assume was jovial, as, at this point, Mr Brown had no cause for concern.  On 2nd February, however, Mr Panioty met with another member of Mr Brown’s family on the streets of Dundee and passed over a sealed envelope for Mr Brown, with explicit instructions not to open it until the following day.  The request was so strange that the Brown family failed to adhere to the instruction, and instead decided to open the letter that evening.  In it, Mr Panioty spoke of his lack of interest in life and that he intended suicide on the date of the letter, 2nd February.  His intention was, that by the time the letter had been read, he would have already done the deed and nobody would be in a position to try and stop him.

Obviously alarmed, having not detected anything on Mr Panioty’s last visit that would have led them to this conclusion, the Brown family immediately began a search of Dundee, walking all over the city, but to no avail.  They asked about him at the railway station and were told that some guards had seen him a few days prior to this, and he was discussing leaving for London very shortly.  The guards seemed to think Panioty was also in good spirits, and believed he had boarded a train for London.  Feeling a bit more relieved, and putting the letter down to no more than a drunken rant or a moment of temporary madness, the Browns returned home and did not think of the incident again until the morning of 11th March when Mr Brown identified the body pulled from the Docks.

Based on the decomposition of the body in water, it was estimated that Mr Panioty died on either the night of 2nd February or the early hours of the following morning.  When officers opened the letter in his pocket, addressed to his female correspondent, Mrs Duncan, it seemed to further confirm the theory that he had indeed killed himself.   In it, he made various statements that he intended to put an end to his life and that he was tired of life itself.  He wrote that she need not be surprised if she never heard from him again – but this was a letter she never received.  No mention is made in the article as to whether anyone informed Mrs Duncan, and, indeed, there is no mention of what happened to his body.  If his family were in the Isle of Wight, perhaps the body was taken there, or perhaps it was buried somewhere in Dundee; the story seems to raise more questions than it answered.

On the surface, it looks like a case of suspected suicide, corroborated by 2 letters written by the deceased.  But what if the letters weren’t written by him at all, but were perhaps written by someone else – someone who may, in fact have murdered him and put his body in the water?  If this is the case, then surely suspicion must fall on Mr Brown, who also happened to be in possession of a letter (which we have to assume, once again, was in the same handwriting as the letter to Mrs Duncan).  With no other handwriting evidence to go on, was it also just assumed that this was Mr Panioty’s handwriting?  Did Mr Brown inform the police at all after their search concluded that Mr Panioty did indeed go to London, or did he wait until the body had been found?  None of this is documented, frustratingly, and for us, leaves us thirsting for more information.  Perhaps we’re just too sceptical and this is just a case of a man, down on his luck and at a terrible point in his life, intending to take his own life, but, to us, this has the smell of a murder cover-up all over it.

Dundee Advertiser, Monday March 12, 1894, British Newspaper Archives Online.

If you have read our previous post on the Dundee Health Report of 1896 into zymotic diseases, you’ll already know that disease was prevalent in our city – just like in any other – with all sorts of nasties just waiting to bump you off without so much as a warning.  The Health Report also talks about general mortality and causes of death not covered by the heading of ‘disease’.  It also gives us a lot of good information as regards to the overall status of the town, from which we can draw our own conclusions.

Respiratory diseases and complications accounted for 663 of the 3103 deaths in 1896, amounting to just over 20% of the overall death rate for that year.  Bronchitis was the biggest killer, claiming 338 lives.  Inflammation of the airways causes sufferers to have problems with breathing as swelling narrows the air passages.  Excess mucus build up can also complicate the breathing process, and without treatment, lungs become unable to clear themselves, making them more prone to chronic infection.  Viral bronchitis also carries the risk of fever, which brings its own set of problems.  Death is usually due to the extra pressure put on the heart to produce more oxygen, although it has been noted that severe respiratory problems can result in death.

Pneumonia was the next largest killer of Dundonians, knocking off 285 of us in 1896.  Another respiratory infection, pneumonia is considered more serious than bronchitis (at least, nowadays).  Poor health or advanced age can make pneumonia even more of a killer.  Whereas bronchitis affects the air passages, pneumonia affects the tissue of the lungs themselves.  Symptoms include fever and/or chills, laboured/rapid breathing, pain upon breathing and excessive coughing.  Normally death from pneumonia is because of sepsis, which is the body’s toxic response to infections (sometimes known as blood poisoning).  Even today, early detection of sepsis is vital, as, worldwide, over 30% of people who develop sepsis, die.

Pleurisy took 14 of us that same year, and usually pops up when you’re already being deluged by some kind of other nasty infection, whether they be bacterial, viral, or otherwise (usually infections of the lungs, air passages or ailments such as arthritis).  Poor health and bad lifestyles don’t help the matter much, so if the initial disease didn’t kill you, you could be assured that pleurisy would.  With extreme shortness of breath and intense, stabbing pains when breathing, sufferers have been known to pass out from pain or even run out of breath completely.  Add in our old favourite, fever, rapid weight loss and collapsed lungs, and you’ve got all the classic symptoms of pleurisy.  Thankfully only 14 of our 3103 dead had to suffer that excruciating fate that year.

Laryngitis accounted for 8 lives, with croup claiming 9.  Croup and laryngitis are very similar in that they are inflammations of the larynx and vocal chords.  Whilst not a huge killer, paralysis of the vocal chords can restrict breathing and swallowing, with no indication of when the paralysis occurs.  Diseases marked as ‘other’, but not elaborated on, made up for another 9 deaths.

370 deaths were attributed to ‘phthisis’, which is explained as a ‘chronic wasting away’ or tuberculosis – then known as ‘consumption’.  Another disease commonly associated with the lungs, tuberculosis can actually occur in any organ of the body.  Other names this infection goes by include, ‘the white death’, and ‘the robber of youth’, with sufferers seen to waste away in rapid fashion.  From the lungs, where it causes the usual myriad of health issues such as night sweats, chest pains and rapid weight loss, it then moves throughout the body, wreaking havoc as it goes.  Pustules can form and burst on the skin.  The spine can become infected, causing them to collapse and cause paralysis.  Infection can quickly spread through the kidneys, bowels and bladder.  For men, the prostrate can be affected, and in women, ovaries are at severe risk.  Arthritic pains in joints can accompany meningitis, heart failure and eventual wasting away (consumption).  With no real way to treat it at the time, patients were often kept isolated in a hospital or sanatorium.

The report goes on to state that 261 people died in 1896 from ‘diseases of the heart’, but does not elaborate.  Considering that many of the above diseases put undue stress on the heart as a matter of course, we must assume that subsequent examinations of otherwise healthy bodies brought medical officials to this conclusion. Further reading shows a list of sudden and accidental deaths, which we will paraphrase here, as it is fairly succinct:

“The sudden and accidental deaths during the year numbered 188, as follows:- Convulsions, 42; Overlaying, 28; Suffocation, 13; Apoplexy, 25; Severe burns, 14; Fracture of Skull, 19; Other Fractures (Accident), 13; Dislocation of Neck, 1; Acute Poisoning by Alcohol, 4; Poisoning by Opium, 2; Drowning, 11; Hanging, 1; Choking, 1; Cut throat, 3; Gunshot Wound of Heart, 1; Gunshot Wound of Abdomen, 1; Syncope, 3; Spasm of Glottis, 2; Angina Pectoris, 1; Sun-stroke, 1; Ulceration of Stomach, 1; Ruptured Blood-vessel (fall), 1 – total, 188.”

A lot of these you will have heard of, but some you may not have.  Overlaying is the accidental death of a child by smothering, usually when a larger person rolls onto them during sleep.  Mechanical asphyxia occurs as the child is unable to breath due to the force pressed against it.  Whilst overlaying was mainly said to be accidental, any family whom it happened to faced stigma – more so if they already had a large family, as overlaying was also seen as a way of getting rid of extra mouths to feed!

Apoplexy relates to a stroke, and the paralysis that so often accompanies it.  Syncope actually means fainting or swooning, so, as a primary cause of death, it’s not particularly descriptive, as it merely indicates that someone ‘dropped down dead’.  It is likely that ‘syncope’ refers to sudden, unknown death. Spasm of the Glottis can result in immediate death and usually occurred in young children.  The muscles which control the vocal chords contract suddenly, preventing air from entering the lungs.  In severe cases, the muscles do not relax, asphyxiating the sufferer.  It’s not all doom and gloom in the report – some people managed to live a fairly long (albeit hardly wonderful) life:

“Eighty-seven died at ages of 80 and upwards, 32 males and 55 females.  Of these 76 were between 80 and 90, and eleven between 90 and 100 years, three of the latter being females who died at the age of 96.”

It just goes to show you, that, even with all these diseases and afflictions running rife in not-so-olden Dundee, some hardy critters managed to hang on until the bitter end.  Women did better on the life-expectancy scale compared to men in the late 1800’s – something they still continue to do now.  Thankfully, we now have proper sanitation, preventative medicines and vaccines in our country to combat the worst effects of some of the most horrific diseases mankind has ever seen…but it’s not that way for everyone in the world.  It may seem alien to us now, as we’ve moved on more than a century from this, but for other places in the world, it’s still very much a harsh and fatal reality.

References:

‘City of Dundee Report of the Medical Officer of Health for the year ending 31st December 1896.’ (Dundee City Archives) pp 1 – 15.

‘The White Death: A History of Tuberculosis’, T. Dormandy.  Hambledon Press, 1999, pp 34-36, 125-137, 392.

‘The Home Hand-Book of Domestic Hygiene and Rational Medicine, Volume 2’, John Harvey  Kellogg, Pacific Press 1881, Nabu Press, 2010 pp 7-12, 218-220, 425-431.

‘Vaccines’ (Sixth Edition), S. Plotkin, W. Orenstein & P. Offit, Elsevier Health Sciences, 2012, pp 747.

www.humanillnesses.com

http://patient.info/health

http://medhealthwriter.blogspot.co.uk/

http://www.sepsis.org/

http://www.healthline.com/

http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/

http://www.pleuritis.net/

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/

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 Dead Centre Walking Tour – tickets now available 

Disease, death and execution are on the menu in our Dead Centre walking tour – with a side order of Vikings and body-snatching!

This tour starts at the Howff graveyard, and ends at the City Square –  the site of the Town-House, and public hangings and executions.

In March of 1897, the Public Health Department, which at that time was situated in West Bell Street, issued the ‘Vital Statistics’ report for Dundee for the previous year to the town Council’s sanitary committee.  In 1896, the population was estimated at 161,620 (in 2014, the estimate was 141,870), with the number of registered deaths noted as 3103 (in 2014, the number of deaths in the city was 1604).  The report refers to the number of deaths from ‘Zymotic’ diseases, which is the 19th century medical terminology for acute infectious and contagious diseases.

Diseases are mainly spread by infected water droplets and air transfer such as coughing and sneezing, blood and faeces, as well as via contact with infected skin, clothing or objects.  Nothing was particularly clean, which made almost everything a perfect breeding ground for a multitude of bacterial nasties.  Children were particularly vulnerable to disease, with 151 of the reported 3103 deaths being of children under the age of 5.  This made up around 5% of the overall deaths in Dundee in that year.

We have listed them according to their death rate, from highest to lowest.

Whooping Cough – 60

The report mentions the prevalence of Whooping Cough at the start of 1896, and also goes on to state that the record is most likely inaccurate due to the fact that, at the time, Whooping Cough was not an infectious disease that had to be notified to authorities.  Because of this, many cases of infection and subsequent death simply would not have been registered.  As the name suggests, Whooping Cough is associated with a persistent cough and a very distinct sound. It is a highly contagious disease, which claimed 61,000 lives worldwide in 2013.  Symptoms begin much like those of a cold, but gradually becomes worse as you struggle for breath.  In small children, breathing can stop altogether for periods of time, resulting in death.  Even now, an estimated 16 million people around the world are diagnosed with Whooping Cough every year. In 1896, 25 children under the age of 1 year died from Whooping Cough, with a further 33 deaths attributed to children between 2 and 5 years old.  Only 2 deaths were not in this age range from a total of 60.  37 of those deaths happened in the first two months of the New Year.

Measles – 41

The second-highest cause of deaths in the infectious diseases category was due to measles.  It is reported that from May to July of 1896, there was an epidemic (albeit mild) of measles in the East of the city.  Of the 655 cases of measles reported during that year, the epidemic counted for 438 of them.  Considering that only 41 deaths were registered due to measles, we could assume that the medical professionals had this well under control.  However, the report did say that it was a ‘mild’ epidemic, so perhaps, on this occasion, we just got lucky.  Measles is an airborne disease and can bring a variety of major health complications such as blindness, inflammation of the brain and, in severe cases, death.  It’s not the ‘spotty’ disease we seem to know it as, but is in fact a highly effective killer with children as its main target.  Currently, around 85% of children globally are immunised.  Unlike many other diseases, you can only catch measles once.  In the report, all deaths in Dundee in 1896 were of children under the age of 5.

Typhoid Fever – 23

Typhoid Fever (Typhoid) also increased that year by around 24 cases, with the autumn season playing a key part in the spread of the disease.  A scandal over contaminated milk that had been supplied (unknowingly, we assume) by a local farm, directly causing 3 deaths was also noted, but, in spite of, and despite this, the death rate was fairly low overall.  Typhoid means “resembling Typhus”, and the symptoms are pretty dire, including (but not limited to, or exclusive) intestinal haemorrhaging, respiratory disease, delirium and inflammation of the heart.

Diarrhoea – 23

Diarrhoea was the 4th biggest recorded killer in Dundee in 1896, and was added to the report due to the ‘action of micro-organisms’.  As strange as it may sound, death from diarrhoea was actually a thing.  Acute diarrhoea leads to dehydration and a loss of valuable minerals, ultimately resulting in malnutrition.  Death is usually due to dehydration, which is a symptom of diarrhoea.  With lack of sanitation, nutrition or clean water, sufferers were likely to be in extreme discomfort in their final days.  The report goes on to state that, of the 23 reported deaths, 14 of them happened during the autumn months.  Bizarrely, there seems to be no correlation between this event and the scandal of the milk farm incident which happened at the same time. The increase in deaths was put down to seasonal changes with no mention of the possibility that the infected milk could have also caused some of these deaths. 17 of the 23 recorded deaths were of children, 14 of which were under the age of one.

Diphtheria – 21

An antitoxin treatment for Diphtheria was hailed as the reason for the low number of infections registered, with 92, but as we can see, there were 21 deaths still recorded, taking the mortality rate of the disease to over 20%. A vaccine was not introduced for this moisture-borne killer until 1942, and, until then, Diphtheria claimed an annual death-rate average of around 4000 people in the UK.  Even today, with full medical treatment, there is still a 5 – 10% risk of death.  Symptoms include fever, sore throat, increased heart rate and nausea, but the real kicker is in the powerful toxin produced by the Diphtheria bacteria.  The toxin attacks and destroys the cells in all of the airways, and, as they die, they form a membrane which can attach to the throat and cause death by choking.  If the infection reaches the heart, it will cause heart failure and death (if the choking hadn’t already got you by then).  In 1896, 19 of the 21 recorded deaths were of children aged 5 and under. As you can probably tell, the report makes for pretty grim reading.

Scarlet Fever – 19

In December of 1896, there were 73 cases of Scarlet Fever reported – the highest month of the year.  For the year in total, the number was 422.  Despite there only being 304 cases being reported the previous year, the low death rate showed that it was not a major killer, and indicated that the strain may have been milder that year.  Again, a high proportion of deaths were of children under the age of 5, with 13 of the 19 reported fatalities being within this age range. Scarlet Fever is a ‘flesh-eating’ infection, and amongst the most dreaded of all ailments, capable of wiping out an entire family of children in a matter of days.  Symptoms included the obvious red rash and bright red tongue, but also included paranoia, hallucinations, pneumonia and meningitis.  Imagining an adult going through something like this is harrowing enough, but to think of those young children suffering in such a horrendous way is something altogether more distressing.

Typhus Fever – 2

The 2 deaths attributed to Typhus Fever were in Hilltown and Lochee, in March and May respectively.  In the first case, the patient had been ill for a week before seeking medical help.  Unfortunately, they died on what was believed to be their 12th day after contracting the disease.  Typhus is transferred to humans via animal parasites such as ticks, lice and fleas.  Flu-like symptoms are followed by a rapidly-spreading rash, which can then lead to light sensitivity, an altered mental state, and in some cases, coma.  Untreated, the skin can become blistered and gangrenous, causing necrosis and a build-up of lethal toxins in the bloodstream. Definitely not a nice way to go!

In more recent times, statistics show that, between the years 2012 and 2014, there were 38 deaths recorded in Dundee City involving children under the age of 14, with a city-wide death-rate of 4842. In adults, most of the causes of death have remained the same, with cancer topping the list, followed by circulatory disease, respiratory diseases, digestive diseases, external causes and ‘other’.  Maybe we haven’t learned as much about healthier living as we thought we had!

References:

‘City of Dundee Report of the Medical Officer of Health for the year ending 31st December 1896.’ (Dundee City Archives)

www.healthline.com

www.wikipedia.com

www.nhs.uk

Oxford Vaccine Group www.ovg.ox.ac.uk

www.nrscotland.gov.uk

 

There’s a fairly curious tale concerning a certain metal plaque erected on a wall in Victoria Road in Broughty Ferry; a tale filled with sadness which alludes to the altering of the course of history itself.  How could such a wee place like Broughty Ferry lay claim to a tale of such magnitude, we hear you say?

Plaque of the mystery of Princess Charlotte's visit in Broughty Ferry
Plaque of the mystery of Princess Charlotte’s visit in Broughty Ferry

Let’s go back to 1816, when Princess Charlotte, daughter of the soon-to-be King George IV, became married to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (later King of the Belgians).  News of a pregnancy soon followed – an heir to the throne – but it was quickly cut short when Princess Charlotte gave birth to a stillborn male and tragically died the following day in November 1817, aged just 21.  This dark sequence of events has been written in the history books as occurring at Claremont House in England, but here’s where the twist comes in…

Local Dundee legend has it that Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold were not at Claremont, as the story suggests, but were, in fact returning from a trip to Leopold’s homeland of Belgium when a mighty storm took hold of their ship.  With their lives in perceived mortal danger, and with Princess Charlotte heavily pregnant, they sought refuge in the Tay in the hope of waiting out the terrible weather, and ended up in Broughty Ferry.

Unfortunately, the situation had proven too stressful for Charlotte and she began to go into labour.  Getting her onto land would have proved difficult at best, but it is alleged they alighted at West Broughty Ferry and managed to secure lodgings at a nearby cottage where Charlotte gave birth and subsequently died. If Charlotte and Leopold’s child had survived, Queen Victoria would never have risen to the throne, and history as we now know it would be completely different.

So, could there be any truth to the story?  There was certainly a headstone in memory to her, of which the current metal plaque bears reference, which surely must mean something?  The inscription bears reference to her being 22 years of age, but, upon looking at her dates of birth and death, she was actually 21 when she died.  She was only a few months away from her 22nd birthday, but is this just a simple error, or signs of prefabrication?  If we look at where Belgium is on the map, it’s hard to imagine why their ship would have been so far up the North Sea to have reached Broughty Ferry if their intention was to return to England from Belgium – even if there was a freak storm.

Whilst a few of the facts don’t quite add up, it’s a mystery that some historians have spent a lot of time researching and looking into, and, quite frankly, we think the tale adds a certain richness to our local history, regardless of whether any of it is based in fact or not.  The next time you’re in Broughty Ferry, have a look at the plaque for yourself and let us know whether you think Princess Charlotte really did give birth to a would-be king in a wee cottage near the shore.  We’d like to think that she did, but we’ve got to admit, even we’re a bit sceptical about this one.

Sources:

FDCA website: www.fdca.org.uk

Wikipedia

www.innominatesociety.com

www.regencyhistory.net

A pandemic outbreak of Asiatic cholera swept over most of the world between 1829 and 1851, reaching from India, across Asia and into Europe.  By 1832, Dundee had been hit – the pandemic itself still in its infancy.  From there the pandemic swept across to the Americas, devastating lives wherever it fell.  In Dundee, large numbers of citizens were rapidly falling ill as the disease took hold.

Cholera caused more deaths, more quickly, than any other epidemic disease in the 19th century.  Classic cholera symptoms include watery diarrhoea, which leads to dehydration and mineral imbalances.  It is spread by contaminated water and food that has been contaminated with human faeces, and humans are the only species of animal susceptible to the disease.  Back in Dundee, with no clean water and no real means of sanitation, the situation worsened as people fell gravely ill and died.  With such a staggering number of cholera deaths, our gravediggers couldn’t work fast enough to dig burial holes as the bodies began to literally pile up!

It became clear very quickly that there was just not enough time in the day (or night) to keep digging individual holes for people, so work got underway to build a trench along the southern wall of the Howff.  This was to be a mass grave for the victims of cholera – people of all sorts, many of them unknown to each other in life, but now destined to lie together in death.  Thankfully, they were still allowed to be buried in coffins, so it wasn’t as though the bodies were just flung in the trench unceremoniously! These coffins were all piled up in rows on top of each other until they came close to the surface, and then the trench was filled in.

It was probably a horrible decision for a family to make – burying your loved one in a mass grave – but with no other options available due to limited land and manpower, it was the only way to deal with such a deluge of bodies.  The only remaining gravestone which indicates the location of the trench, is that of William Forrest Esquire, a Lieutenant Colonel with the Hon EIC Bengal Army, and inspector of their Militaty Stones in London.  Died of Cholera Morbus on 20th July 1832 on the passage from London to Dundee, deeply lamented by his family and friends.

Gravestone of William Forrest Esquire in Dundee Howff graveyard, who died of Cholera in 1832. This gravestone marks the site of a cholera mass grave.
Gravestone of William Forrest Esquire in Dundee Howff graveyard, who died of Cholera in 1832.

When we were in Dundee University Archives recently, we came across a trio of photographs relating to a vault that had been discovered during the excavation work to build Bell Street car park over the site of the Constitution Burial Ground in December 1972.  With it is a memo from the then-Director of Parks to Dr Scott of the University of Dundee, relating specifically to the potential problem of cholera and its continued infectivity.  Whilst there was no further correspondence on the matter in the archives, the memo did go on to say that the vault had been filled with dry sand after the photographs were taken to allow the building work to continue.

The images show three adult sized coffins, all lying side by side, barely a foot apart from each other in an open, dark vaulted space with brick walls on the sides that are visible in the photograph.  They are covered in mould, bits of earth and some debris, and are severely decaying.  The first coffin (in the immediate right of the picture) and the second central coffin both appear to be marginally larger than the third, which is on the left of the overall image.  Between the second and third coffins, there appears to be lying a much smaller coffin.  It looks like this coffin had initially been laid between the two coffins, perhaps on some kind of elevation, but it has since fallen over, losing its lid slightly in the process.  The small coffin, perhaps one eighth the size of the others, sits at a strange angle to the floor, its lid askew (but not enough to reveal its contents).

The first coffin has a series of what appears to be metal riveted edging along the base and on the lid of the coffin – presumably some kind of grave-robbing deterrent, but, due to the decay of the other two coffins, it is hard to tell if they too had some kind of metalwork on them.  The same riveted work can be seen on the small coffin.  Whilst the vault may have been infilled, we know they are still under the car park, biding their time in their dirt and mould-ridden coffins.  Perhaps future building and excavation will uncover them once again, or else we will rebuild over the car park in time, pushing them further into the recesses of forgotten history.

Sources FDCA website www.fdca.org.uk

Dundee University Archives

Wikipedia (cholera symptoms)

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 Dead Centre Walking Tour 

Take the Dead Centre Walking Tour which visits the cholera pit and the rest of the dead under our feet in the city centre. This tour starts at the Howff graveyard, and ends at the City Square.

Find out more and book tickets

The site of the city churches, St Mary’s and The Steeple, which sit surrounded by the Overgate shopping centre, has been the home to a church since the very beginnings of Dundee as a town. When the Earl of Huntingdon landed here in 1190 he founded the ‘kirk in the field’ dedicated to St Mary, after his time in the crusades. More on this exiting backstory later… for now we have been looking at the incidents throughout the history of the Church when it was ravaged by fire which happened several times over the years. It is a testament of the dedication of the town to the Church that it was rebuilt, restored and extended every time.

The first destruction of the church came at the hands of Edward I when Dundee was attacked and the church was torched in 1303 during the Wars of Independence, the Scottish side led by William Wallace. All the town records had been taken there for safety before the invading army arrived, but all were either taken off by Edward’s men or destroyed in the fire.

It took until the early 15th century before work had begun to rebuild the church, but on such a large stone building work was slow. With a bit of new investment the work was completed and a final square tower completed the new building in 1480, which is the only part of the building which still stands today known to us as ‘The Old Steeple’.

This new church had a short life, as in 1547 the English army had captured Dundee and used the church for stables. Whether caused by an accident or on purpose, the church was set on fire and the nave was destroyed along with the transepts. Only the tower and the choir were saved from the raging inferno while the nave remained a charred, roofless wreck until 1789.

The roofless, fire damaged parts of the church were removed and the choir was built upon and then established as the first reformed church in Dundee, and called St Mary’s Kirk. Later in the 16th century the Town rebuilt the south transept which accommodated a second church known as the South Kirk. For a while in the late 16th century the choir area was used as a jail, and part of it was also used as a library.

In 1651, General Monck laid siege to Dundee, but although he set a fire to smoke out General Lumsden from the Steeple Tower, the church mercifully remained unharmed. The chaos surrounding the church during this siege left its mark, with remains uncovered periodically around the site, likely victims of Moncks massacre. On the south wall there is a dent in the base wall which is said to have been caused by a cannon shot fired by Moncks army when they laid siege to the tower.

The north transept was rebuilt and this third church was known as the North or Cross church, with finally a fourth church rebuilt in the nave which was St Clement’s or Steeple Kirk. From 1789 to 1841 the site was the home of four separate churches under one roof, each with their own ministers but sharing one tower and bells.

In early 1841 a fire broke out in the heating system of the East Kirk, again destroying the fine buildings, although this time by accident. The tower survived, along with the nave. The destruction of this fire was immense, with the fine gothic arches and pillars destroyed, the exterior walls shattered by the heat. The Chapter house adjoining the church was also destroyed, along with a library containing over 1800 volumes including ancient works in Greek and Latin, many dating from pre-reformation clergy.

The North or Cross Church moved to another place of worship and the fire-damaged buildings of the East and south Churches were rebuilt and opened again in 1844. Two of the three remaining churches, the Steeple Church and St Paul’s and St David’s (The south church) amalgamated and the premises of the South Church now form a community centre, dedicated to the Dundee-born missionary Mary Slessor. Thankfully the churches have remained fire free for many years now.

 

When the Scottish Reform Act was finally passed into law in 1832, none were more jubilant than the folk of Dundee.  Known as a ‘radical toon’, Dundee is said to have been of significant help to the cause of Reform.  Once the news had hit the town, it quickly spread to the Radicals, who prepared to celebrate with an ‘illumination’.  An illumination was the preferred way to celebrate events, and involved lighting up pubs and homes until they were as bright as they could be.  Usually, gunpowder would be ignited in the streets to add further illumination and excitement.

The Reform Act sought to change the way the landscape of politics and voting was to be decided, so, as you could imagine, many of the self-appointed burgh officials weren’t particularly keen on the new legislative changes.  This being said, there was no “official” celebration of the Act – the illumination celebration was very much a public affair.  The weekend proceeding the news of the Act’s passing was one of excitement, happiness and a great deal of fun.  It was the end of June, and a perfect time for an outdoor celebration.  Pubs and Inns took part, helping to light up areas of the centre as people partied into the early hours.

Despite all the revelry, some believed that this party was not quite up to the standard of such a prominent event, and preparations were soon under way for a party on Monday night, much bigger and brighter than the first.  Arguments against allowing this new party to go ahead were heard by the Town Council, but it was decided to allow the celebrations to continue without interruption unless things got out of control.  Perhaps, already sensing their loosening grip on the city, the Town Council agreed purely to avoid a rebellious riot.  Whatever they were thinking, nobody could have foretold the events that soon unfolded.

Monday certainly lived up to its hype.  The hills of Fife burned with celebratory fire as Dundee’s harbour was festooned with sailing vessels covered in flags, illuminated by a multitude of buildings and fires all the way into the centre of town.  Still in need of more illumination, a tar barrel was placed inside and old boat and the barrel set alight.  From there, the burning boat was hauled up Union Street to the corner of Nethergate as people whooped and cheered, shooting pistols into the air.  Whilst it all seems a bit crazy to us, this was just how our ancestors partied!

The atmosphere was said to have been one of happiness and relative peace as the fire was topped up and the boat pulled in a circle through the Nethergate, Tay Street, Overgate and then High Street, nearby where the Town House stood at this time.  As the party roared into the latter part of the evening, people began to disperse – it was Monday night, after all, and many would have had work in the morning.  As late evening turned to night, things took an unexpected turn that had disastrous consequences.

The Police Force, alongside Special Constables, commandeered the fire, pouring water on it to extinguish not only the flames, but the party, too.  By this point, it is estimated that there were still around 200 people enjoying the party, which had, by all accounts, been fairly incident-free.  As people tried to prevent their fun from being stopped, it is alleged officers handled the revellers somewhat roughly.

This did not go down well with the people of Dundee, and they turned from party animals into an angry mob, pelting the Police with sticks and stones, forcing them away from the fire.  The sudden disruption saw approximately 40 people arrested and put into the cells overnight; the party now well and truly over.  In the morning, almost everyone was let away by the Justices, with the exception of three men whom the Justices were confident had assaulted Police Officers the night before.

Many people took objection to this, and, as news spread of the three men’s detainments, crowds began to gather outside the Town House.  It did not take long for things to get as rowdy as they had the previous evening; crowds threw rocks, stones and threats at the doors of the Town House, but the Justices refused to budge on their position.  In scenes that echoed those of less than 24 hours before, a flaming boat was heaved from the harbour once again and placed against the doors of the Town House.  Here, the story seems to take an unlikely turn which was instrumental in what was to become total chaos.  It is said that when one of the Justices went to the Police Offices to release the men and quell any more tension, the key to the cells could not be found.

The already-mad crowd became as inflamed as the fires they had set and tore along to the Police Offices filled with rage.  Grabbing a thick plank of wood, they relentlessly battered at the locked doors of the Police Office until they finally yielded.  As the doors flew open, anyone who wasn’t a prisoner fled through the back doors, fearing for their lives.  The mob, by now completely uncontrollable, released the prisoners and began tearing the place apart.  The office itself was completely destroyed, with everything that could possibly be removed taken into the street and set alight.

Meanwhile, some of the men had broken into the Superintendent’s house, smashing all his windows, destroying his belongings and throwing things out into the street before attempting to set the house on fire.  Thankfully they didn’t succeed, but destroyed a grocery owned by another Police Officer on their way back into the centre.  In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Dundee was still at the hands of the rioters.  With not enough officers to suppress the mobbing men, Police presence was non-existent and reinforcements had been called in from Perth in the form of the 78th Highland Regiment.

The Lord-Lieutenant of the County at the time, the Earl of Airlie arrived on Wednesday morning, a few hours before the arrival of the 78th Highland Regiment, in an attempt to try and bring about some peace and order.  Amidst the burnt rubble and wreckage of what used to be the Police Office, he stood talking to the angry mob as they continued to shout at him and throw things at him from the charred, cooling remains of the fire.

Surprisingly, things took an unexpected turn, and the mob seemed to eventually warm to the Earl and began to settle down.  The 78th Highland Regiment made their presence very well known that day and night, just in case it all got a bit rowdy again, but it seemed that a 2 day riot was enough for any one person, and the streets fell quiet.  Although many people, including Police Officers were hurt, there appears to be no mention of any deaths as a result of the riot, which is unusual considering how out of hand it got.

7 men were eventually singled out and tried for the outbreak; the three original prisoners who had been detained for the first attack on Police Officers, and 4 others who had been identified as being involved in the jail-break and destruction of the Police Office.  The first 3 were lucky; Thomas Kettle, James Barnet and John Jolly were sentenced to 6 months in Dundee Jail after pleading guilty to rioting, but the other 4 pleaded not guilty, but were found guilty anyway.  James Findlay and John Tomlinson were sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay for 14 years.  17-year old George Haggart was sentenced to transportation for 7 years.

In returning their guilty verdict, the jury had recommended mercy for the 4th accused, watchmaker James Findlay.  It was unclear his level of involvement, and his alibi was more credible than the others, but they were still certain he had something to do with it, however minor.  He was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment in Bridewell Prison.

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If you’ve seen any really old maps of Dundee, you might notice that there’s no mention of the Overgate as we know it, or indeed, the Nethergate.  Known back then as Argyllsgait (Argyllgait) and Flukergait respectively, it wasn’t until the latter part of the 1500’s that the new names came into play, not long after the time period set on our map.  Originally no more than a few wooden houses, Argyllgait slowly grew over the centuries, slowly spreading towards the lower Flukergait and beyond.

Such was the attraction of Argyllgait, that the Mercat Cross was uprooted from its position in the Seagate and moved in the mid 1400’s to a new position where High Street met Argyllgait.  Trade and commerce swiftly followed, making it a hive of activity.  Many rich and wealthy people began moving to Argyllgait, making it a very desirable place to live.  The Seagate ceased to be the main centre of trade whilst still retaining its unique character and vantage point near the river.  The Mercat Cross remained there until the late 1700’s.

The naming of Argyllgait is claimed to be either down to the occupants of the area at that time, who came to stay in Dundee from the Highlands, or from a wealthy family – the Campbell’s of Argyll – who were alleged to have resided in the area.  By the turn of the 16th century, Argyllgait was almost beyond what we can imagine by looking at the area today.  A very good place to live, it boasted not only the majestic City Churches, but an array of well-built, stone houses, in which dwelled the rich and the noble.

However, as its popularity rose, those who sought to steer clear of the ‘common’ folk soon began to move to larger estates on the outskirts of the town.  The houses at Argyllgait had lovely gardens, so it wasn’t like people were living on top of one another at that point, but the allure of the outskirts of town, with even larger expanses of land were too appealing to the rich, and they soon abandoned their homes in the heart of the town.  Losing the nobility didn’t do anything to dent the character of the Overgate, as it soon became known.  In fact, if anything, the heart of the town only beat harder.

As more and more working class people moved into the Overgate, they set up shops, stalls and workshops in the free space around the buildings.  Some even built their own housing on the land, and by the 17th century, the era of Argyllgait was well and truly over; nothing more than a passing memory making way for the ever-expanding Overgate.  Many notable people from Dundee’s history, both famous and infamous have lived in the Overgate, such as Grissell Jaffray, David Balfour, the Duke of Monmouth and Mary Brooksbank, to name but only a few.  It’s also fair safe to assume that, considering its longevity, anyone notable throughout Dundee’s entire history will have stood on these grounds somewhere, from royalty and robbers to warriors and murderers.

When the Earl of Huntingdon landed upon Dundee’s shores following a storm in 1190, he had the Church of St Mary built over a period of many years as thanks for his safe landing. Throughout the ages, endless attacks by English armies forced us to fortify our walls and solidify our defences, to the point where we held the majority of the wealth of the Earls and nobility of Scotland within our confines.  Unfortunately, this ended tragically for us during the siege of 1st September 1651, when Monck’s troops stormed the town after Governor Robert Lumsden repeatedly refused the city’s surrender.

The word “gait” means to walk, or, more specifically, the pattern of movement of the limbs during locomotion.  We learned on Lost Dundee that the word “gate” is derivative from the Norse word ‘gata’ meaning road or street.  As Overgate was the higher of the two thoroughfares running alongside Dundee’s City Churches, thus it was named.  Flukergait, being the lower of the two, was renamed Nethergate.  Our Lady Warkstairs was a timber-fronted building, reported to have been built sometime in the 15th century and connected to the Church of St Mary, perhaps as an almshouse.  It was situated where Primark sits now, looking down Crichton Street. At the time of the building’s construction, however, this street would not have been there.

On the other side of Primark, which faces towards the corner of Reform Street sat the Duke of Monmouth’s house – a substantial building, constructed around the same time as Our Lady Warkstairs.  This property was famous for a few reasons.  This was the house in which General Monck set up his Headquarters whilst in Dundee during the siege of 1651 which we touched upon earlier.  During this period, the Duke’s daughter was born in the home; Anna, Duchess of Buccleuch and Monmouth.  It was also used as the Town House for a while, earning it the nickname “The New Tolbooth”.  Its stature, position in the centre, and a handy wee turret made it a very attractive property indeed – and it certainly saw more than its fair share of action.

Whereas nowadays, the Overgate area is fairly open and easy to navigate, it was not always this way.  Streets and pends ran all up and down this area, like a warren of narrow paths, crammed with overpopulated housing.  With the boom of the textile industry in the 19th century, the population of Dundee also grew considerable, with many of them living in and around this area.  So dense was the population, that it was reported there were around 400 people per acre in the Overgate, compared to a city average of 36.  Thorter Row, Tally Street, Barrack Street, Lindsay Street, Tay Street, Long Wynd, Church Lane, Mid Kirk Style are only a few of the myriad pends and streets which formed part of the Overgate’s impressive portfolio, including closes such as St Salvador’s Close, Argyll Close, Mint Close, Methodist Close and the legendary Beefcan Close (not it’s official name).

Whilst this added a whole lot of hustle and bustle to the area, it also meant that they were never short of a drama in the Overgate.  Described as a bit of a circus, the area was literally heaving with people, shops, pubs, flea-markets, entertainers and religious preachers.  Fights would often break out – and not just between the men – and alcohol, gambling and women of ill repute were never far out of reach.  Despite its reputation swiftly gaining notoriety, the Overgate was the only place to go to be guaranteed a good time; so much so that the area has been coined in many a local phrase and song.

With some of what was claimed to be the worst housing in Dundee, the Overgate also had five properties which were used as common sleeping places for the homeless, where (mostly drunk) people slept in hospital-style beds in a dormitory fashion, sleeping on their possessions to avoid robbery.  Outside toilets were used by dozens of people, and conditions were far from sanitary.  Having so many people crammed into such a small space made it very easy for diseases to spread.  In 1832 and in 1849, Cholera struck Dundee.  Cholera is spread mainly by water and food products that have been contaminated with human faeces containing the disease.  In 1845, piped water first became available in Dundee.  Shortly after, the 1848 Public Health Act was the first step in the right direction to improving what was said to be squalid conditions.

 

In 1910, plans were developed to completely change the way the Overgate looked, in an attempt to reinvigorate it and clean up its image both in terms of image and reputation.  Unfortunately, both World Wars put a halt to regeneration attempts and funding until the 1960’s, when a concrete monolith was erected in place of the dilapidated housing.  It wasn’t the nicest looking thing in the world, but it was beginning to change the way people looked at the Overgate and the surrounding area.  During the demolition, everything was destroyed with exception of St Mary’s Tower and the City Churches.

Overgate2

Despite its best intentions, and boasting a hotel as well as a decent range of shops, the Overgate began to lose favour to the new Wellgate Centre, which was constructed in the late 1970’s.  Fortunes turned for the Overgate as shopkeepers could not afford the rents and moved out, damaging its reputation once again.  As the years progressed, the Overgate became a ghost of its former lively self until the question of redevelopment became a talking point.  By the late 1990’s, work was underway to change the face and the reputation of the Overgate.  A multi-level shopping mall was built, housing many well-known retailers, and brought positive attention (and, more importantly, revenue) back into the area.

Whilst many things have changed over the centuries with regards to what we now know as the Overgate, what has never changed is the resilience of the city – no matter what happens, we always bounce back fighting.  Whilst we don’t profess to know what will happen to the Overgate of the future, we’re pretty certain that she won’t be going anywhere any time soon!  The next time you’re wandering about the Overgate, just have a wee think of all the things that have happened there over the history of the town…and all the dead bodies that lie right under your feet!

Images courtesy of City Archives, Wikimedia and Lost Dundee.

Many of us remember going to see the Tay Whale skeleton on display in the McManus, but do you all know the story behind the incredible chase? It was November 1883 when the 40ft humpback whale first appeared in the Firth of Tay, just off the shore of Dundee. Whaling was big business in Dundee at that time and with it being winter, all the whalers, their ships and equipment were in harbour. Not able to resist such a bounty right on their doorstep, many whalers set out to hunt the beast.

After several failed attempts, on 31st December the whale was finally harpooned in the neck. Two rowing boats joined the steamboat that had harpooned the whale to create more drag and to slow the speed of the whale. Not seeming too bothered by this the whale continued to slowly and calmly swim down the river, dragging the boats closely behind him.

After passing Broughty Castle, another boat pulled ahead and lodged another harpoon into the animal, and this time the whale was not happy. It made desperate efforts to free itself, lashing furiously with its tail and darting everyway it could as fast as possible. Great crowds gathered to watch the spectacle, around 2,000 watched from along the esplanade and many boats followed the chase in the river. Once darkness set in however, the boats lost sight of the whale and the four ships attached by harpoon line were dragged out to sea.

As it was dark and no other boats could be summoned to help, the hunters now found themselves unable to do anything other than be dragged by the whale, and hope for its injuries to overcome it. All through the night, and into new years day of 1884, the four ships were dragged all the way up the coast to Montrose, back down to the Firth of Forth, and then back up the coast again towards Dundee. The winds were howling and the whale was moving erratically and thrashing, all adding to the strain of the harpoon lines. The hunters tried to fire iron bolts and marlinspikes to accelerate its death, but the strain finally made the harpoon lines give way and the whale broke free and swam out to sea. Large crowds had gathered at the harbour and after finding out the whale had escaped an air of disappointment was felt, by none more so than the hunters who had failed in their chase.

A week later, the whale was found dead and floating out at sea near Stonehaven, still filled with the harpoons, iron bolts and other projectiles of the hunters. It was towed back to land and sold at auction, bought by local entrepreneur John Woods, a worthy also known by the name ‘Greasy Johnny’. He was determined to make a fortune out of the spectacle, which had drawn thousands of spectators in the chase, and in the sensational press that followed. On the first Sunday that it was exhibited 12,000 people paid to see it.

Outbid at the auction of the whale was Professor John Struthers, an anatomist from Aberdeen. Struthers wished to dissect and examine the anatomy of the whale, and after the whale had decomposed to the point where it could no longer be publicly displayed, and make money for Greasy Johnny, Struthers was invited to dissect the remains. Not one to miss an opportunity for a quick buck, Johnny charged a special fee to observe the dissection and even added background music by the 1st Forfarshire Rifle volunteer’s band. Professor Struthers complained that these distractions adversely affected his work, and the state of the by now well-decomposed whale didn’t help matters. His assistants were wading knee deep in the putrid mass of the viscera and muscles that were liquefied and poured out of the incisions.

struthers-tay-whale
Professor Struthers seen here in the top hat, standing to the left of the great Tay Whale. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Struthers removed most of the bones except for the skull, and made a very detailed examination, which can be read online for any of you interested in whale anatomy! Greasy Johnny was at the ready again to make his money, and after introducing a wooden backbone, the whale was stuffed and stitched back to its original form. The stuffed whale was then taken on a grand tour, visiting Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Liverpool, London and Manchester before returning to Dundee on 7th August. Professor Struthers completed the removal of the skull and the skeleton was now completely removed and able to be assembled and re-articulated.

While Greasy Johnny no doubt made huge profits from the publics interest in the whale, he did refuse several large offers for the whale skeleton to keep his promise made earlier to gift it to the city of Dundee. It was moved to the Albert Institute, now the McManus, where it has remained a centrepiece and talking point for generations.

The great spectacle of the chase and capture of the whale caught the interest of the whole town but was immortalised in the words of the worlds worst poet, our beloved local bard William Topaz McGonagall, in his poem “The Famous Tay Whale”. While factually accurate, like most of McGonagall’s poems it has been remembered more for the appalling quality of the poetry, rather than the content.

Instead of simply reading the words, the best way to experience this majestic work is in this performance by the Harvard and Princeton glee clubs. The poem has actually inspired several works of art and music based on it, so people are still profiting off the interest in this great beast even today.