In the latter part of 1882 and into the first few months of 1883, Dundee had a somewhat alarming visitor “…described as being rather tall, and is generally seen dressed in a long dark cloak, although occasionally he sometimes assumes a luminous appearance, supposed to be due to the inside of the cloak being lined with cloth dipped in phosphorus, and exposed to view.  Several yards of crape are also suspended from his hat…”  This dark, mysterious figure began appearing in and around the Blackness Quarry area around December 1882, and continued into February of the following year.  Reports of the way he walked, or was able to leap in huge bounds earned him the popular moniker, “Springheels”.  The situation became so phenomenal in the city, that stories of alleged sightings were ten a penny, with almost everyone knowing someone who had seen “Springheels”.

From children, to the elderly, butchers to policemen, nobody was safe from the man in black.  Although many reported seeing him, very few actually reported having any physical contact with him.  Stories range from far-off sightings, to alleged exchanges with the perpetrator, some of which are told in Geoff Holder’s ‘Haunted Dundee’.  How many of these accounts can be written off as fallacy or attempts for attention is unclear, but it is very plausible that someone was indeed going about the city with the intent of causing alarm.

The name “Springheels” is a common one, and refers to Springheeled Jack, a notorious supernatural entity of the Victorian Era. He was very popular in this time, due to the tales of his bizarre appearance and ability to make extraordinary leaps, to the point that he became written into works of fiction.  His eyes were alleged to burn with red fire, his hands clawed, and his features deformed and demonic.  With his origins believed to have been in London circa 1837, the legend of Springheeled Jack quickly circulated throughout the lands, with sightings becoming more and more frequent, and in some cases, more aggressive.

Whoever the Dundonian version of Springheels was, William Anderson was the man targeted for the crime, as he had been drunkenly frightening locals whilst “acting the part of a ‘ghost’”.  He was charged with a contravention of the General Police Act, and was given a warning.  Geoff writes that, after Anderson’s reprimand, Springheels was never seen again in the city.

Get Geoff’s book, “Haunted Dundee” here

Read more about the Legend of Spring Heeled Jack here

William Bury presented an alarming story concerning the death of his wife to local police in Dundee on 10th February 1889, whose body was subsequently discovered in a box in the bedroom of their home.  She had been choked with a rope and brutally stabbed both whilst alive as well as posthumously, and is believed to have been dead for around 5 days before she was found.  Bury was immediately arrested and was swiftly tried for her murder.  He was executed by public hanging on 24th April 1889.  In itself, the story of William Bury would have went down in local history due to the fact he was the last man in Dundee to be executed, but events took an unexpected turn that gained him further notoriety as he became linked to the infamous Jack the Ripper. As far as serial killers go, Jack the Ripper is by far one of the most legendary.  Also known as “The Whitechapel Murderer” and “Leather Apron”, Jack the Ripper was a highly active, vicious serial killer whose crimes elevated his public image to sensational heights in the late 1800’s.  As he laid waste to the (typically) female prostitutes of the Whitechapel area of London, his exploits incurred spates of copycat killings and a grisly cult following.

Bizarrely, despite this (or perhaps because of it), Jack the Ripper was never caught or even formally identified. This didn’t stop accusations flying, however, which brings us to the story of William Bury and how Dundee managed to get itself caught up in the ‘Ripper’ saga.  The wealth of information on Jack the Ripper, as well as each of the men speculated to be ‘The Ripper’ is understandably vast, with each and every one of them having arguments as to why their specific candidate is more likely than the others .  We’re not here to talk about the others; we’re only concerned with William Bury and what went on in Dundee in 1889, otherwise, we’d be here forever!

Bury was born on 25th May 1859, the youngest of four children.  He was an orphan by the age of 5 – his father of an accident; his mother dying of “melancholia” in a Lunatic Asylum in Worcestershire.  Skilled with a knife, Bury is alleged to have been a horse butcher prior to moving to London from Worcestershire in 1887, but switched careers in London, working in the sawmill industry instead.  His employer was James Martin, and Bury stayed with James and his wife (who was the madam of a brothel in the area). A heavy drinker who was quick to temper, Bury spent time with the prostitutes of London who he not only related to, but who could also satisfy his sexual perversions.

It was whilst mixing in these circles that he met his future wife, Ellen Elliot, and the clock began ticking for them both.  A violent drunk, Bury is reported to have attempted to cut his wife’s throat on more than one occasion prior to their moving to Dundee.  The death of Ellen’s aunt gave them a small financial boon, but Bury quickly began to work his way through it, squandering it on alcohol and prostitutes.  Both Bury and Ellen contracted syphilis (which was not uncommon), and, facing apparent financial issues, made plans to relocate out of London as soon as possible.

It’s worth noting that the hysteria over Jack the Ripper had reached its peak by this time, and, for all intents and purposes, it appeared as though the murderous rampage was over (despite the lack of a culprit).

Bury is alleged to have mentioned to his landlord that he and Ellen were sailing to Australia, and, as such, he would require 2 wooden boxes for storage during transportation.  His landlord made the wooden boxes for him, as per his specifications, but instead of moving to Australia, the pair sailed to Dundee on board the Paddle Steamer Cambria. A skilled liar as well as a known thief, Bury lied to Ellen in order to get her to leave London by telling her he had the promise of work in Dundee.  Reluctantly, she agreed to make the fateful journey with him.  They stayed above a bar at 43 Union Street in the city for little over a week before making the move to 113 Princes Street, basement property below a shop, where they squatted after William conned the letting agents into giving him the keys.  The owner of the shop, Mrs Smith is reported to have had this conversation with William and Ellen Bury soon after their relocation to this property in late January 1889:

Mrs Smith: “What sort of work have you Whitechapel folk been about, letting Jack the Ripper kill all those people?”

William falls silent.

Ellen: “Jack the Ripper is quiet now.”

Ellen is also alleged to have told neighbours “Jack the Ripper is taking a rest” during a conversation about the serial killer.  Is it possible that Ellen was hiding information?  In doing so, she not only sealed her own fate, but may also have taken a vital secret to the grave that could have perhaps answered one of the most elusive questions in criminal history.

On the same day that they moved to Princes Street, Bury paid a visit to St Paul’s Cathedral in Dundee, where he came face to face with a childhood enemy.  Edward Gough grew up in Stourbridge with Bury, but under extremely different circumstances.  Whilst Gough came from an upper class background, Bury did not.  As a young child of ten years old, Bury stabbed Gough with one of Bury’s father’s slaughterhouse knives, and stole his money.  The wound was non-fatal, but the bitterness towards the two was palpable.  Despite his initial shock, Bury made an attempt to reconcile with Gough, who was now the Reverend of St Paul’s Cathedral.  Initially, Gough was hesitant, but the two appeared to patch things up, with Gough even visiting the Burys in their basement squat.

Bury had more on his mind than healing an age-old rift, however, and a few days after the chance meeting with Gough, he purchased a rope from the grocer’s shop.  The rest of that day, 4th February 1889, Bury spent at the Dundee Sheriff Court, watching proceedings and taking notes.  His movements for the 5th and 6th of February are unknown, although, retrospectively, they do not take much to figure out.  He visited again on 7th and 8th February, watching from the gallery with pensive curiosity.  His whereabouts on the 9th are either unknown or unrecorded, but the events of 10th February 1889 set in motion a cascade of events which saw him forever immortalised as a potential ‘Ripper’ suspect.

On the evening of the day in question, William Bury walked into the police office a reported the matter of his wife’s apparent suicide.  Speaking with Lieutenant James Parr, Bury described the events that led to his discovery of Ellen’s body.  He told Lt. Parr that both he and Ellen had been drinking very heavily the night before, to the point whereby Bury could not recall going to sleep.  When he awoke, he found Ellen dead on the floor with a rope tied round her neck – the very same rope Bury had purchased from the grocer’s in the days before her death.  In stopping the story there, it may seem no more than a tragic case of suicide…but Bury had yet still to finish his tale.

Instead of obtaining medical help, Bury told Parr that, in a fit of rage upon finding her dead body, he grabbed a knife and struck her with it repeatedly in the abdomen.  Once his rage had settled down sometime later, he attempted to conceal his deceit by hiding her body in their home.  When asked why he had done this, he replied he was afraid he would be arrested and blamed for being Jack the Ripper.  The Courier report stated that Bury actually confessed to Parr that he was Jack the Ripper, but this was refuted by Parr at the trial.

Understandably alarmed at the magnitude of Bury’s claims, Parr took Bury to retell his story to another officer, Lieutenant Lamb.  Again, Bury gave his version of events, but this time he said he struck one posthumous blow to her abdomen and elected to omit his earlier reference to Jack the Ripper.  The property was searched, and Ellen’s body quickly discovered in one of the boxes Bury had commissioned to be made for his alleged voyage to Australia.  Contrary to his earlier claims, it was evident that Ellen had been stabbed more than once.  Her body had been mutilated and was crushed and crammed into the wooden crate.  Parephrenalia linking Bury to the crime scene was taken away, and Bury himself was arrested.  Further examination of the body showed that Ellen did not kill herself as Bury had suggested, but had been choked from behind with considerable force.  Multiple stab wounds were present, as well as evidence of serious mutilation.

As the search had begun at night, a more thorough investigation was carried out the following morning which produced not only a knife with blood and human tissue on it, but also the rope Bury had bought days before – with Ellen’s hair trapped between the fibres.  On a door, written in chalk was “Jack Ripper is at the back of this door” and in another part of the property was written “Jack Ripper is in this seller [sic]”.  Clothing soaked in blood was also found in the box with Ellen, as well as the charred remains of some of her clothes.  Were the chalk scrawls the confessions of a murderous madman, or merely a cheeky attempt at childish vandalism on the part of a stranger?  Were Ellen’s clothes being burned in an attempt to hide incriminating evidence?

Newspapers from all over the world started reporting the murder, with many fingering Bury as Jack the Ripper:

New York Times, February 12th, 1889 – “…Bury was a resident of Whitechapel, London, and his antecedents suggest that he is probably “Jack the Ripper,” and that he is subject to fits of unconscious murder…The theory of the police is that Bury’s wife knew of facts connecting him with the East End atrocities and that she took him to Dundee hoping to prevent recurrence of the crimes.”

Amidst the growing hysteria, Bury was questioned in Dundee by detectives from London in connection with the ongoing ‘Ripper’ inquiry, but it is believed they did not think Bury a plausible enough candidate.  Whilst the ‘Ripper’ murders had indeed stopped, the nature of Ellen’s murder coupled with the difference in some of the characteristics of her subsequent mutilation led officers to believe that Bury was a copycat, at most.  Abandoning this line of their investigation, Bury was left in Dundee for the Court to decide his fate, where, on 18th March 1889, he entered a plea of not guilty.  In a hearing lasting 13 hours, a guilty verdict was passed.

Due to Dundee’s opposition to the death penalty at that time, the jury recommended mercy be shown in Bury’s case on the basis of contradicting medical evidence.  Two experts were initially at odds over whether Ellen had in fact killed herself but, as they examined the body days apart, each agreed to accept the other’s hypothesis.  It has been asserted more than once that the people of Dundee were merely trying to get around passing the death penalty, but the judge presiding, Lord Young, encouraged the jury to rethink and come back with a definitive answer, one way or the other.  The verdict was returned as unanimously guilty, with mandatory punishment for murder being death by hanging.

Appeals for lenience were sought from Lord Lothian, the Secretary of State for Scotland by those few faithful to Bury – namely his solicitor and his “auld enemy”, Reverend Gough.  Although the residents of Dundee held Bury to blame for Ellen’s murder, many of them felt the sentence of death was unnecessary and barbaric, despite his actions.  Lord Lothian’s refusal to overturn the sentence doomed Bury to his fate, and he was executed within the walls of the Prison of Dundee between the hours of 8am and 9am on 24th April 1889, aged 29.

Officials present at the execution were John Craig, Magistrate; William Stephenson, Magistrate; William Geddes, Governor; David Robertson, Chaplain, C. Templeman, Police Surgeon, D. Dewar, Chief Constable and John Croll, Assistant Town Clerk.  The prison surgeon, James William Miller, pronounced Bury dead upon examination. James Berry was the executioner and was convinced Bury was Jack the Ripper.  On 28th March, written notification was received by Lord Lothian stating that James Berry had told the author “explicitly that bury was known to have been Jack the Ripper”.  The following day, The Dundee Courier printed an article criticising and condemning the actions of those involved in the passing and carrying out of the sentence, crying that “Yesterday’s proceedings amounted to nothing less than cold-blooded murder.”

It is alleged that, in the days leading up to his death, Bury confessed to Gough that he had killed his wife, and, at Gough’s instruction, wrote a confession which was to be held by Gough until his execution.  Bizarrely, the confession contradicted information known to be true in the case of Ellen’s murder.  Could it have been possible that his “friend” Gough had written the letter himself, or had edited it in some way as to distort the truth?  Did he really forgive Bury for the stabbing a robbery all those years ago when they were children?  It is believed that Gough visited Bury’s house in Prince’s street, and it is further alleged that Gough’s extracurricular habits ran to the perverse insofar as he had a penchant for photographing dead bodies.  Were the two men in cahoots?  Was Gough present at the time of the murder?  Did he visit the property between the date of the murder and the date of Bury’s confession?  Was it simply revenge?  We’ll probably never know.

It has also been intimated to us that, despite what has been written about Gough seeking clemency for Bury, the reality of the matter could not have been further from the truth.  Whilst Gough may have been acting as a confidante to the beleaguered Bury, he may have been acting against him all along, conducting a relentless campaign behind Bury’s back to ensure the sentence would be death, irrespective of the local feelings towards the imposition of the punishment.  Gough is also said to have been present at the death of Bury, along with other death-seekers, where it is alleged he watched with a smile on his face.  In an unrelated event, Gough’s own son was hanged in Wolverhampton for the rape and murder of a woman, but, as far as Gough himself goes, there appears to be no trace of him after he left St Paul’s Cathedral in 1906.

Despite all of this information, the notion that Bury was Jack the Ripper is not a widely accepted one, as there are other suspects who have, upon further expert analysis, a higher chance of being the legendary killer.  Either way, Bury earned his infamy by not only being the last man to be hanged in Dundee, but also for bringing the Victorian nightmare that was Jack the Ripper to the fair streets of Dundee.

With special thanks to our friend, Marc, for his contribution to this article.

Grissell Jaffray is undoubtedly the most famous witch of Dundee, having been the last witch to be executed in Dundee, but Dundee’s superstitious side was still alive and well in the 19th century, when Janet Kindy, or ‘Hurkle Jean’, was believed to be responsible for a number of afflictions that allegedly beset the town. Sickness in cattle and children was attributed to the evil presence of Hurkle Jean. Sadly for Janet, her deformed appearance only served as more fuel to the fire for the townsfolk, and thus, another legend was born. Belief in Hurkle Jean’s demonic abilities was so ardent, that, by the time it had reached its peak, effigies were being burned and exorcisms performed!


Thankfully with the repeal of the witchcraft acts in 1735, Janet was protected from persecution by law; but this didn’t prevent her neighbours from demonising her all the same, as a letter from one of her close neighbours “M.G.”, submitted to the Edinburgh Magazine in 1818 tells us:

“Mr Editor,

Dundee, as you know, was the last place in Scotland where the public execution of a witch took place; and the witch burnt there was neither so old, so ugly, nor so poor, as these unfortunate persons usually are. That Grizzel Jamfre [sic] was not poor, however, was probably the cause of her death; for the lawyers who could prove the crime of witchcraft against any person, were rewarded by great part, if not the whole, of what the convict died possessed of, – no small temptation to use diligence. But though the modern capital of Angus is thus distinguished in the annals of demonology, I did not expect to find the belief in witchcraft so general among the lower classes, as you will perceive it is from the following account, the heroine of which is my very near neighbour.

Janet Kindy, otherwise Hurkle Jean, is poor, old, and deformed; her evil eye is so dreaded in this neighbourhood that the sickness of children and cattle is often attributed to it, and if she happen to cross a fisherman’s path as he goes to his boat, the fishing is invariably spoiled for that day. I verily believe that nothing but the feat of the law prevents the tragedy of the witches of Pittenweem from being acted over again, so convinced are her neighbours of her supernatural powers, and so inveterate is their hatred against her. Six years ago, a boat having been for some months unfortunate in fishing, a council of war was held among the elder fishers, and it was agreed that the boat should be exorcised, and that Janet was the spirit which tormented it. Accordingly, the ceremony of exorcism was performed as follows. In each boat there is a cavity called the tap-hole; on this occasion the hollow was filled with a particular kind of water, furnished by the mistress of the boat, a straw effigy of poor Jane was placed over it, and had they dared to touch her life, Janet herself would have been there. The boat was then rowed out to sea before sunrise, and, to use the technical expression, the figure was burnt between the sun and the sky, i.e. after daylight appeared, but before the sun rose above the horizon, while the master called aloud ‘Avoid ye Satan!’. The boat was then brought home, and since that time has been fortunate as any belonging to the village.

M.G. goes on to describe an account of another witch who transformed into a hare, and a necromancer from Forfar called William Grey…but those are stories for another day.

(Letter taken from –


The following is a collection of extracts of Dundee Crime Statistics from the Dundee criminal returns of 1898 to 1902 inclusive, read, in part, by us on one of our forays in the archives. A very informative and insightful glimpse into the lives and crimes of this era, it’s also hard sometimes to see where things have changed greatly in the last century. See for yourself what the criminal element of Dundee were up to back in the day.

“Chief constables office, Dundee 31st January 1899

My lord and gentlemen,

I have the honour to present for your information the annual police and statistical returns for the year ending 31st December 1898

There were 4751 persons apprehended and 849 persons cited for crimes and offences making a total of 5600 against 5170 during the previous year being an increase of 430. Of that number 5291 persons were brought before the magistrates and 309 were discharged on account of the evidence against them being insufficient to warrant their being brought to trial.

The state of crime thus shews a slight increase. The increase is principally in the number of persons dealt with for contraventions of police acts, bye laws etc. the increase under this heading being 332 males. This may be accounted for by the climatic conditions, which were such in 1898 as to cause out door workers to have very little broken time; to the fact that trade in Dundee was in a prosperous condition; and to the circumstance that on 3rd march 1898 numerous sections of “the burgh police (Scotland) act 1892” were adopted, which considerably extended the powers and duties of the police and resulted in numerous prosecutions for minor police offences which could not previously be dealt with.

Serious crime
During the year there were no serious acts of crime omitted within the city and no sitting of the High Court of Justiciary took place.

Insane and destitute persons
In addition to the number of apprehensions before referred to, there were 42 insane and destitute persons taken charge of by, and removed at the instance of the police to lunatic asylums or the poor houses by the inspector of poor, or given up to guardians or relatives to be cared for without being brought before court. 25 of these, consisting of 11 males and 14 females were insane. 13 of them were removed to lunatic asylums, which the remaining 12 were taken charge of by the Paris council authorities. The other 17, found destitute were removed to poorhouses, while 9 were handed over to parents or relatives. These persons are not included in the criminal returns. There were 382 persons remitted to the sheriff during the year from the police court charged with various crimes and offenses against 547 in the previous year, shewing a decrease of 165. 144 of those so remitted were committed by the sheriff, till liberated in due course of law. This number is an increase of 16 on the total so committee during 1897.

261 persons were charged with wife-beating, being a decrease of 2 when compared with the previous year; of that number 245 were convicted, 3 were acquitted against 1 the charge was withdrawn, against 10 the charges were departed from, which the charges against the other 2 were undisposed of at the end of the year. Of the number convicted, 221 were tried in the police court and 28 in the sheriff court, 139 were sentenced to imprisonment, 85 were given the option of a fine, 6 were ordered to find caution for their good behaviour, while the remaining 15 were admonished.

There were 419 persons under 16 years of age brought before the magistrates, being an increase of 164 when compared with the previous year; 18 were found destitute, 160 were accused of theft and 241 of other crimes and offences. 102 of the total number were admonished, 128 were sentenced to pay small fines or to suffer short periods of imprisonment, 6 were dismissed, the charges having been found not proven, 8 were sent to the reformatories, 53 were remitted to the sheriff or reported to the procurator fiscal, 11 were remitted to other jurisdictions; 69 were dismissed, the charges against them having been departed from, and 42 were sent to industrial schools, the charges against them having been withdrawn. The increase in juvenile offenders may be accounted for by the large numbers of boys brought before the court charged with playing at football and other games to the annoyance of the lieges on the streets and other public places. The class of offence was not dealt with before the adoption of the burgh police act.

The number of prisoners who were apprehended and taken to each of the five police stations were as follows:

Central – 2679
Eastern – 413
Lochee – 424
Northern – 427
Western – 808

715 individuals have been more than once before the police court during the year. The frequent appearance of these persons before the police court largely increases the number of apprehensions chronicled in the returns, as on each re-apprehension during the year they are recorded. If the 715 persons who have been more than once before the court during the year and who are included in the above table had only been credited with one appearance each the number of persons apprehended or cited during 1898 would have been stated at 4361, instead of 5600 being 1239 less.

These offenders are for the most part habitual drunkards, and 283 of the 715 have been convicted of crimes of offences in Dundee from 20 to 170 times, as shown by the following table:

No of Convictions M     F
20 to 30                   84     58
30 to 40                   42     24
40 to 50                   17     11
50 to 60                    6      13
60 to 70                    2        3
70 to 80                    1      10
80 to 90                    1        1
100 – 110                           3
110 – 120                  1       3
120 – 130
130 – 140                           1
140 – 150
150 – 160                           1
160 – 170                            1

85 intimations of theft by housebreaking were lodged with the police during the year, shewing a decrease of 24 when compared with the previous year. With few exceptions the acts were of a trifling description.

The detective staff both by day and night as well as the district officers and constables give unoccupied furnished houses their special attention, and particularly those whose occupants have notified their absence to the police.

There were 804 intimations lodged of theft (simple) shewing a decrease of 179. 454 persons were apprehended in connection with these cases. In more than one half of the intimations, the properly stolen was considerably under 5/- value. By a portion of the burgh police act, which has been adopted, shopkeepers are prohibited from exposing goods outside their premises. This provision has been the means of causing shop door thefts to almost disappear, hence the great reduction in the number of simple thefts reported this year compared with the previous year.

The estimated value of property stolen, embezzled, or obtained by fraud during 1898 was £575. 8s, 1d, and the amount recovered was £320 16s 4d, thus leaving the estimated value of the unrecovered at £254 11s 9d.

There were 8 persons licenced as hotel keepers, 215 as publicans and 207 as grocers. 3 persons licenced to retail table beer. During the year 4 publicans were tried for breach of certificate in each case the charge being that of supplying liquor to persons in a state of intoxication, 3 of whom were convicted, and 1 acquitted.

Shebeens, there were 24 persons brought before the police court for selling excisable liquors without a certificate throughout the year, of that number 17 were convicted, 2 were acquitted. The fines and expenses imposed upon those convicted amounted to £213 9s 6d, of which only £24 1s 0d was recorded.

There were 994 strayed children brought to the several police stations during the year, and temporarily cared for by the female warders, being a decrease of 15 from the previous year

There were 99 fires during the year, to which members of the fire brigade turned out against 72 the previous year

There were 186 members of the police force of all ranks, this number includes two members of the sanitary staff, for whom the government grant is got, but excludes all other members of the sanitary staff, as also 1 inspector who do duty at the harbour. This strength of §86 gives a population of 884 to each constable, the population of the city according to the registrar general last estimate being 164,575

Unfortunately during the year 9 persons of 8 men and 1 women lost their lives drowning in the docs and river. 4 dead bodies were found in the river and 5 in the docks. During the same period 34 persons who fell into the docks or river were rescued from drowning.

5 fatal accidents occurred to workmen while engaged at the harbour and 96 accidents involving injury to the person, 43 of these being serious. In 56 of the cases the police on harbour duty, who have been trained in ambulance work dressed the wounds. 9 fires occurred at the harbour during the year, in neither of which was serious damage done.

D. Dewar
Chief Constable and Procurator-Fiscal

Dundee Crime Statistics

Crimes and offences

Number of crimes made known to the police

Class I, crimes against the person
Culpable homicide – 2
Assaults – 21
Assaults on etc officers of law – 70
Assaults by husbands on wives – 260
Culpable neglect of duty – 1
Cruel and unnatural treatment of children – 66
Incest – 1
Rape – 5
Assault with intent to ravish – 2
Indecent assault – 1
Lewd and libidinous practices – 3
Bigamy – 3
Culpable and reckless driving – 1

Class II – crimes against property with violence
Theft by housebreaking – 85
Theft by opening lockfast places – 4
Housebreaking with intend to steal – 5
Robbery and assaults with intent – 10
Sending menacing letters – 1

Class 3 – crimes against property without violence
Theft – 804
Reset – 9
Breach of trust and embezzlement – 5
Falsehood, fraud and willful imposition – 21

Class IV – malicious injuries to property
Willful fire raising – 2
Malicious mischief – 159

Class V – forgery and crimes against currency
Forgery and uttering – 1

Class VI – other crimes not included above
Perjury and subornation – 3
Indecent exposure – 11

Class VII – miscellaneous offences
Betting, gaming and lotteries – 1
Breach of the peace – 1545
Brokers (licenced) offences by – 5
Brothel keeping – 5
Cruelty to animals – 13
Drunkenness and drunk and incapable not under intoxicating liquor laws – 1511
Elementary education acts, offences against – 28
Explosives, offences in relation to – 4
Furious and reckless driving – 14
Industrial schools acts, offences against – 10
Drunk or drinking in a shebeen – 5
Disorderly conduct in licenced houses – 1
Refusing to leave a licenced house – 1
Breaches of certificate – 4
Trafficking without a licence – 19
Other contraventions – 4
Factory acts – 11
Offences against army, deserters – 53
Other offences – 1
Nave deserters – 2
Peddlers act, offences against – 1
Penal servitude and prevention of crimes act – 1
Police acts, bye-laws and regulations, offences against – 366
Poor laws, neglecting to maintain family – 1
Prostitution – 124
Reformatory school act, offences against – 1
Stage and hackney carriage regulations, offences against – 23
Vaccination act, offences against – 5
Vagrancy and trespass act
Begging – 36
Sleeping out – 4

Sentences and fines

1 day and under – 2
3 days and over 1 day – 2
7 days and over 3 days – 59
14 days and over 7 days – 100
1 month and over 14 days – 252
60 days and over one month – 160
Above 60 days – 7

5/- and under – 579
5 tp 10/- – 472
10 – 20 – 1292
20 – 40 – 399
40 – £5 – 21
Over £5 – 18

Number paid before imprisonment – 1033
Paid during – 318
Sentence undergone in default – 1427
Neither paid nor sent to prison – 3

Results of proceedings

Proceedings dropped – 309
Pledges forfeited – 621
Otherwise discharged – 75
Charge withdrawn – 101
Acquitted – 87
Sent to industrial school – 43
Sentenced to imprisonment – 582
Fine – 2781
Reformatory school – 8
Caution with or without sureties – 23
Placed under probation of first offenders act – 6
Admonished – 802

Sex and age of persons convicted
Under 12
m – 22
f – 0

12 – 16
m – 212
f – 10

16 – 21
M 506
F 161

21 – 30
M 774
F 462

30 – 40
M 654
F 412

40 – 50
M 356
F 244

50 – 60
M 145
F 120

Over 60
M 81
F 43

Sent to Dundee industrial schools
Sent to Glasgow R.C. Do.
Sent to reformatories
Sent to Perth industrial schools
Sent to Aberdeen industrial school for RC girls
Sent to Stirling industrial school
Sent to Tranent industrial school for boys
Sent to Leith industrial school

Return of strayed children (number, not actually returned to anyone)
Central – 303
Eastern – 183
Lochee – 48
Northern – 246
Western – 214
Total – 994

Fatal casualties –
Children found dead in bed
M 35
F 37

Deaths by burning m4 f5
Being crushed by turning lath – m1
Mill machinery – m2
Waggon m2
Cart falling on – m1
Crane striking – m1
Drowning m8, f1
Falling down stairs – m2 f 5
Falling from house m1 f1
Falling from ladder m1
Falling from steamer in course of construction m3
Tier of jute m4
Heap of wood m1
Being run over by railway train m4
Run over by vehicle m4

Sudden deaths m45 f39
Suicide by hanging m4 f 1
Jumping over bridge m1
Poisoning f1
Shooting m2

1900, there were 4987 persons apprehended and 734 persons cited for crimes and offences during 1899 making a total of 5721 against 5600 the previous year. Of that number, 5445 were brought before the magistrates and 276 were discharged on account of the evidence against them being insufficient to warrant their being brought to trial.

The state of crime this shews a slight increase which may be accounted for by the prosperity of trade. During the year there were three serious cases, two involving charges of murder and one of culpable homicide in which four persons were accused one of the cases of murder was that of a man accused of striking her on the head with a meat cleaver, he was tried before the High Court of Justiciary at Edinburgh and the case was found not proven. The other case of murder were a man was charged with causing his wife’s death remained undisposed of at the end of the year. In the case of culpable homicide two men were accused of assaulting a butcher, in consequence o which he died. They were tried before the sheriff and a jury and found not guilty.

People were also sentenced to penal servitude occasionally, one man for five years in 1898 – Donald Ross for assault and robbery, trial was 16th Sep 1898

For 1900

There were 6048 persons apprehended and 903 persons cited for crimes and offences during 1900, making a total of 6951 against 5721 during the previous year, being an increase of 1230. Of that number 5514 persons were brought before court, and 437 were discharged

It is difficult to account for such a large increase but as contributing to the same it may be mentioned that trade in general has been prosperous while the climatic conditions throughout the year have been favourable for outdoor work. There has been a large in as in the number of labourers attracted to the city during the year on account of converting the existing tramway lines to make them suitable for electric traction and the opening up of new tramway routes. The military camp at Barry has been more fully taken advantage of by large bodies of troops being quartered there for a considerable portion of the year, and the militia regiments have been called up for lengthened periods because of the south African war. This has resulted in a large increase of the number of deserters and absentees dealt with by the police and recorded in the returns. Another factor in connection with the increase is, in my opinion owing to the greater leniency which has of late been shewn by the magistrates to persons convicted of being drunk and incapable and to those convicted of having committed breaches of the peace and acts of disorderly conduct while in a state of intoxication. This leniency has, in my opinion, led to a considerable in case in the number of individuals who have made more than one appearance before the police court during the year, the number for 1899 being 686 and for 1900, 848.

In 1902, one serious case occurred in the city during the year. A man attempted to murder his paramour by stabbing her repeatedly all over the body which a pocket knife, and seriously assaulted another woman by stabbing her. He was tried before the high court of Justiciary, found guilty of the charges and sentenced to penal servitude for life. Daniel Hughes, trial 17th Nov 1902.”

In Dundee, body snatchers, graverobbers, or “Resurrection Men” turned over a considerable amount of business.  When Cholera struck in 1832, the memories of Burke and Hare’s atrocities were still very much at the forefront of people’s minds. Even though Burke had been executed in 1829 (whilst Hare spent the rest of his years in relative seclusion, having been granted his freedom in exchange for Burke’s conviction), there were still real and valid concerns over secret pacts between the Sextons of Scotland and the medical profession. People were in a high state of alarm over the frequent exhumations made in their churchyards and it was shrewdly suspected that this was done for the purpose of supplying the Edinburgh doctors with viable dissection subjects.

The churchyard of Dundee, then popularly known as the Howff was laid under heavy contribution to the cause of science.  In an effort to deter would-be grave robbers, watches were set, but, often aided by whisky to deter the cold, their vigils were often unsuccessful.  The Resurrection Men were too sharp for them, for it was almost a matter of certainly that the body of anyone who died of a peculiar disease would disappear within a few days after it had been interred.  However, there are records of a gun fight between the tombstones, people falling into open graves in the night during their watch, and a grave robber who couldn’t get away fast enough, and ended up with the sharp point of a bayonet stuck up his bum!  So, whilst they were sometimes unsuccessful, the graveyard watchers still had their fair share of excitement from time to time.

The Logie Cemetery was another frequent location for Resurrectionists, as well as a host of drunks, highwaymen and many others of ill-repute.  The cemetery was so overcrowded that graves were dug in the pathways and onto the roads.  On 13th May 1824, The Dundee Advertiser ran a story about two graveyard watchers who had been assaulted by a pair of body snatchers during their shift.  They managed to fend off the attack and the offending duo ran off, but a second attempt to steal from the grave was carried out the following evening.  Thankfully, this attempt was also foiled, and the Resurrection men fled empty handed once more.

The most notorious of local Resurrectionists was Geordie Mill.  He was the Sexton of Dundee, and was believed to have had dealings with doctors and professors in Edinburgh.  His neighbour, Donald M’Nab, suspected Geordie of graverobbing, but, unable to catch him in the act, he is believed to have penned the following song:


Geordie Mill, wi’ his roond-moo’ed spade,
Is wishin’ aye for mair fouk deid
For the sake o’ the donnal an’ the bit short-bread
When he gans wi’ the spaiks i’ the mornin’.
An’ if the tale that’s tauld be true,
A greater gain he has in view,
Which mak’s his fryin’-pan richt foo
To skirl baith nicht and mornin’.
A porter cam’ to Geordie’s door,
A hairy trunk on his back he bore,
Which the Quentin Durward frae Leith shore
Brocht roond that very mornin’.
This trunk, I’m tauld, contained a line
Wi’ sovereigns to the amount o’ nine.
The price o’ a well-fed, sonsie quine
They had sent to Monro ae mornin’.
But Geordie, to conceal their plan,
A story tauld as fause as lang,
Sayin’ the trunk belanged to a travellin’ man
That wad call for it next mornin’.
Noo Geordie doon to Robbie goes.
The doctor’s line to him he shows,
Which wished frae them a double doze
By the coach on Wednesday mornin’.
Says Robbie, ” Is the box come back ? ”
“Oh, yes,” says Geordie, giein’ the purse a shak’,
“An’ we maun gae an’ no’ be slack
To flirt again ere mornin’.”
Quo’ Robbie’s wife, ” Oh, sirs, tak’ tent,
sure a warnin’ I’ve been sent,
Which tells me ye will yet repent,
Yer conduct on some mornin’.”
” Ye fule,” quo’ Robbie, ” Hush yer fears,
While I’ve the keys fat deil can steer’s ?
We’ve been weel paid for’t ten past years,
Think o’ auchteen pounds i’ the mornin’.”
Sae aff they set to Tarn an’ Jock,
The lads that used the spade an’ pock,
An’ wi’ Glenarf their throats did soak
To keep them brisk till mornin’.
The hour grew late, the tryst was lain
Amang these Resurrection men,
When each his glass did freely drain,
Sayin’, ” Here’s success to the mornin’.”
But Robbie noo does sair repent
His slightin’ o’ the warnin’ sent,
For the noise o’ a second coffin’s rent
Caused in Dundee a deil o’ a mornin’.

Such was the popularity of the song, it sparked outrage and M’Nab was brought before local Magistrates to be examined and questioned on his alleged ditty.  As nothing could be proved, he was released without any charge.  Geordie Mill himself, was suspended from his duties, but was never prosecuted.

Burial Grounds of Dundee in Pictures

Book cover for burial grounds of Dundee in pictures book, by DD Tours. Black and white image of Roodyard cemetery in Dundee

See pictures of the Howff and the ‘new’ Howff in our book – pre order now

273 people were publicly hanged in Scotland between 1800 and 1868. Of these 273, 14 were women. Few of them actually took place in Dundee, with only six recorded hangings, five of them public, the final one private. The last man to be hung in Dundee, William Bury, was the infamous murderer who was suspected by many of actually being Jack the Ripper.

A new gibbet was erected for the execution of Arthur Woods, sentenced for killing his son, John Drew Woods. His execution in 1839 at the new jail at the corner of Bell Steet and Lochee Road, drew a large crowd and cavalry had to be sent from Edinburgh to keep control of the crowd. The treasurers accounts list the expenditures related to this including the erecting of the scaffold which cost £40, 7 shillings and 11 pence (£40 7s11d); John Scott, the executioner was paid £17 5s; meat for the executioner while in the gaol cost 14s 9d; and transport for the executioner back to Edinburgh cost £2 10s.

Perth, tried 16 April, 1801

Date of execution Name Crime Place
Friday 12th June John Watt (West) Housebreaking & theft Dundee

Tried at Perth on the 20th of April, 1826.

Date of execution Name Crime Place
Friday 2nd June David Balfour Murder Dundee

Tried at Perth on the 1st of May, 1835.

Date of execution Name Crime Place
Saturday 30th May Mark Devlin Rape Dundee

Tried by the High Court of Justiciary on the 25th of February, 1839.

Date of execution Name Crime Place
Monday 25th March Arthur Woods Murder Dundee

Tried by the High Court of Justiciary on the 1st of September, 1847.

Date of execution Name Crime Place
Tuesday 5th October Thomas Leith Murder wife Dundee

After 1868, private executions were still carried out and one last man was executed in Dundee in 1889 – a man who many believed to be the notorious “Jack the Ripper”.

Trial date Name Age Hanged at/reprieved Crime/Victim
25/03/1889 William Bury 29 Dundee24/04/1889 Wife, Ellen

In the mid-19th Century, help and support for the poor people of Scotland was, by today’s standards, pretty horrendous. The people demanded a change in the current law (the Poor Law of Scotland), and it was amended in August 1845 in an attempt to abolish the suffering caused by such a lack of care.  Prior to the Poor Law being passed, responsibility for the “poor people” fell upon the Kirk Sessions of over 8000 parishes around Scotland; but to be eligible for their help, you had to meet very specific criteria.

In order to seek help you would have had to be penniless and/or disabled – if you were seen to be able bodied in any way, you would have been classed as a wanderer and sent on your way with a warning not to return. Individuals seeking help would have had to be residents of the Parish by birth or marriage.  As a result, groups of poor, unemployed craftsmen and labourers wandered up and down the country, seeking and demanding relief, begging where they could, and intimidating locals for money. Many resorted to crime to fulfil their day to day needs, as there were no other options available to them.

It became increasingly obvious that the current system for poor relief was just not enough and, under the amended Poor Law Act, each parish in Scotland was bound by law to establish a “Parochial Board”. The purpose of the Board was to provide “generous, adequate and regular relief” to the poor, whilst still excluding able-bodied unemployed.

On 4 November 1852 the Parochial Board of Dundee adopted a resolution that a Poor House be provided for the Parish. A “Special Committee” was appointed to determine the costs of the construction of the building, however, at the completion of construction, the committee, now with many “sub-committees”, had swelled significantly.

The Dundee Committee consulted with the adjoining parishes of Monifieth, Barry, Benvie and Liff with a proposal to combine all their resources in the construction and use of the building. The Parishes, surprisingly, declined Dundee’s offer, with some of the belief that we were ill-equipped to care for our poor.  Despite this, the Parochial Board pushed forward with their plans, and instructed the Committee to find suitable land to purchase for the Poor House.

Dundee Eastern Poorhouse

In December 1852, talks got underway between the Committee of the Parochial Board and the representatives for the Craigie Estates which were, at the time, owned by the Guthrie family – one of whom was a Governor of the Bank of England.  It was agreed that a fee of £12 per acre would be payable over six-monthly intervals in return for five acres of good land near Stobswell, on the West side of Mains Loan, just South of Clepington Road.

This offer was readily accepted by the Parochial Board in March of 1853 and, in July of the same year, in response to calls for tender, five architects submitted their ideas for construction of the Poorhouse and the real work had begun.  After much deliberation, the successful applicant was Mr William Moffat of Edinburgh who said the building he constructed would house: “800 paupers, 100 sick and 100 lunatics”.

After many revisions between September 1853 and January 1855, during which time these plans were dissected, criticised, reviewed, argued and revised at great length, finally, on 10 January 1855, they were approved, and local tradesmen were invited to bid for work. It was June of 1855 that work eventually commenced on the building, and a loan for £10,000 (around £750,000 by today’s standards) was acquired from the National Bank of Scotland. An advance of £3,000 was made with the remainder to be paid in February 1856. The advance was drained by December 1855 because the contractors were so far ahead with their work, such was the pace of their task.

On 26 August 1856 a Mr & Mrs Gunn accepted the positions of Governor and Matron of the Poorhouse. Mr Gunn’s salary was £79 per year, his wife’s £25 per year plus “the usual rations of the house”. Mr & Mrs Gunn accepted the first inmate on 19 November 1856 and on 25 November 1856, reporters from the Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser visited the Poorhouse and published the following comments:

“The Poorhouse is situated in an open and healthy part of the town at the back of Stobswell Feus. It is 210 feet long and 55 feet in width and is three storeys high. Airing yards are used to separate male and female inmates. Two acres of ground is available for inmates to supply vegetables for the Poorhouse. Various alterations are still in the making. When all arrangements have been completed the Poorhouse will be well suited for the purposes for which it was intended”.

During their time as Governor and Matron of the Dundee East Poorhouse, Mr & Mrs Gunn received 15,382 admissions between 19 November 1856 and 14 May 1878.  The first birth in the Poorhouse was recorded on 7 July 1857. The eldest person registered was given as 99 years old, admitted on 10 May 1857, but the record for the most admissions for any person went to a troubled and beleaguered soul who was admitted 43 times over a period of nearly as decade.

After the National Health Service came onto place, the Poorhouse was renamed and became “The Rowans” which, in June 1977, eventually became “surplus to requirements” of the Social Work Department, nearly 121 years after its opening. In November 1981 the grounds were transferred to the Education Department and eventually became a sports complex in September 1983.

Liff and Benvie Poorhouse

This establishment eventually became known as “The Western Poorhouse” and was set up in 1864 on the basis that it could accommodate 200 paupers on a site known to modern day people of Dundee as Logie Secondary School (the school opened on Blackness Road in August 1929). The completion of the building and a subsequent formal opening took place on Tuesday 5th April 1864 at a cost of £7,000, which, by today’s monetary standards of inflation, is somewhere in the region of £620,000, so, as you could imagine, it was a big deal.

The cost of the upkeep of a pauper in the Poorhouse was 7 shillings a week and it cost eight shillings for each lunatic, as they required much more diligent attention and care. This money came from Poor Law Assessment Rates, collected from owners, tenants and occupiers of property in the area. The design of the Poorhouse was such that the men’s apartments were situated to the West end of the building and the women’s to the East. At the extreme end of each section, residencies were reserved for male and female lunatics respectively.

By the end of the 19th Century it was mostly elderly, frail or insane individuals who were sent to the Western Poorhouse, whilst those who were young and fit were sheltered in Eastern.  At the end of 1914, the last of the paupers who lived in the Western Poorhouse were transferred to the Eastern Poorhouse so that the buildings of Liff & Benvie could be readied for military occupation during World War 1 (1914 – 1918).

What was it like in a Poorhouse?

Meals in the Poorhouses were very unsatisfactory to say the least, but still offered the poor something warm in their bellies during their stay.  The book “The Life & Times of Logie School” gives us an insight into the mundane, but lifesaving meals provided to the residents of the Poorhouses.

  • Monday – Broth, Beef and Bread
  • Tuesday – Pease Soup, Dumpling and Beef
  • Wednesday – Broth, Beef and Bread
  • Thursday – Irish Stew
  • Friday – Rice and New Milk, with Bread
  • Saturday – Broth, Beef and Potatoes
  • Sunday – Fresh Fish, Pease Soup and Bread

It was no easy feat to be accepted into the Poorhouse, as we found out at  Firstly, you had to go looking for relief – it did not come to you.  Your journey started at your Parish, and, if accepted, you would then continue on to what was known as the “probationers’ stage”.  This still did not guarantee you a permanent place of residence, as, once you were on the probation ward, you were stripped, washed and then sent to bed to await medical assessment.  Only if you passed the assessment were you allowed into the ward proper – otherwise you were sent to work in the Poorhouse or, as was mostly the case, sent away altogether.

For those seeking refuge in the Poorhouse through means of working, life was akin to prison.  As a way of “paying back” for the privilege of being housed by the Poorhouse whilst not meeting the criteria for admittance, those who chose to work endured 8 hours a day of labour – stonebreaking for the “worst inmates” and sack sewing for the others.  The idea behind these punitive tasks was to discourage people from seeking refuge in the Poorhouse whilst able to find work outside of its confines – and, for the most part, it worked like a charm.

Friends of Dundee City Archives also posted an extract on their site from the “Dundee Year Book 1886 – 1890, which describes with perfect clarity, the usual sight at the entrance to the Poorhouse”…mothers, with children in their arms, and little dirty boys and girls hanging to their skirts; young men and women, pinched with hunger and weary worn by tramping about; and elderly persons of both sexes, hardly able to creep along the streets. All of them appear to have been beaten in the struggle for existence.” [p.124].”

This vivid description was applied to not only those seeking refuge, but also those wishing to visit some inside.  Life was grim both inside and outside of the Poorhouse for many people, and was not solely restricted to Dundee.  With an institution of this size, cleanliness was next to Godliness.  Nobody passed through without a decent hosing down, regardless of age, sex or ability.   It’s not hard to imagine how dirty some of the people who turned up at the Poorhouse gates must have been, so it is of no surprise really that people were stripped and scrubbed – despite their protestations and terror!

One of the more memorable, and well-known of the poorhouse residents was Margaret Gow (or Mags, as she was more commonly known).  Having been arrested for drunkenness and assault over 250 times in her lifetime, Mags was a feisty, fiery Dundonian woman with a right hook as quick as her tongue.  Frequently in and out of the poorhouse as well as prison, when she worked, Mags scraped a living as a fish “cadger” – selling fish on the streets, usually by shouting her lungs off to anyone who would listen – and probably always ready to give someone a hard clout!

Find out more for yourself at

On this day in 1861, newspaper ‘The Gleaner’ published a story about a Dundonian woman who visited Egpyt and was made an ‘interesting’ proposal! Read the story below to find out more. We wonder who this lady was?



Weaving was big business in Dundee as far back as the 16th century. After the Union with England in 1707 ended military hostilities, Dundee recovered from the devastation of the Siege of Dundee by General Monck in 1651 and established itself as an industrial and trading centre.

The whaling industry which left such a huge impact in Dundee began in 1753 and ignited a parallel ship building industry. In 1820 when the first delivery of jute arrived in the city, Dundee’s industries were well placed to capitalise on this new industry. The historical weaving industry, the ship building industry built the big, fast ships to bring the jute back from India and the whaling industry provided the whale oil needed for softening the jute fibres. Today it is easy to forget just how much of life in Dundee revolved around jute. We were the jute capital of the world often referred to as ‘juteopolis’, processing over 1 million bales of jute by 1900. The population of Dundee more than tripled in 60 years from 1841 to 1901 and was in fact higher than today. Over 50,000 of Dundee’s inhabitants were working in over 100 jute mills, with more working in mills for linen.

This booming business in Victorian made many rich jute barons as they were known. But these were the few profiteers of the industry, and the conditions were dire for the vast majority of workers. As many as three-quarters of the workers were women and children, who could be employed for cheaper rates than men. The wages were low, and the risks were high. Health and safety was not what it is today, and injuries, accidents and occupational hazards were commonplace. It’s difficult to imagine the working conditions, dust would be everywhere getting in the eyes, noses and mouth. Constant noise from the machines was deafening, and in fact many workers went deaf after spending too much time inside the mill. The machinery also produced lots of heat, grease and oil fumes which led to a condition which was known as ‘Mill fever’. Bronchitis and other breathing problems were also common.

Ever present in the mills was the risk of accident and injury, and the local newspapers have many accounts. Verdant works website notes an accident in Verdant Works Mill on 26th March 1852: ‘On Tuesday afternoon a girl employed in Verdant Mill got entangled about a carding machine and sustained such injuries before she could be released as to occasion instantaneous death’.

Some years previous, in 1839, Sir David Barry submitted the findings of his investigations into the conditions of the Dundee mills to Parliament. Included in this report were lists of workers who had been in accidents at work, or whom were suffering physically.

10-year old boys, Robert Malcolm and Hugh Cook were reported as missing one arm, as well as 11-year old Jane Lappen – most likely a direct result of life in the mills. Many more children and adults were reported as having missing limbs or horrific disfigurements, having fallen foul of the fast-moving machinery.  Many more were reported to be partially amputated somewhere their body, more often than not the foot, arm or hand.  Joan and Thomas Murtree, 16 and 15 respectively, both showed differing syptoms; the latter more serious than the former, causing Sir David Barry to write “likely to die”.

A tragic accident reported in 1853 reads:
‘Accidental Death: We regret to record the death of James Clark, a worker at Verdant Mill, which took place on Wednesday evening in consequence of an accident which happened to him while attending his employment on the previous day. It appears he was caught by a belt of the machinery which carried him rapidly to the roof of the building where he was three times revolved round one of the shafts before he could be extricated. He was conveyed to the Infirmary as soon as possible, but the poor fellow was so much bruised that death was the result’.

As well as the terrible conditions in the mills, the huge increase in population from 1840 to more than triple within 60 years was not met by an increase in house building. Overcrowding became a huge problem with entire families living in a single room. These conditions remained with 70% of people living in just one or two rooms in 1911. Certain areas such as Blackness and Lochee were especially overcrowded due to the common practice of people living close to their workplaces. When you’re working 12 hours a day slaving away in a mill, the last thing you want to do is live a long walk away.

Overcrowding inevitably led to poor sanitary conditions. Diseases including cholera, typhus and smallpox thrived in the city, and together with accidents and other infections and fevers contributed to Dundee having one of the highest death rates in Scotland, and the highest infant mortality rate.

The whole city suffered poor health, which showed when 50% of the men who volunteered at the local army recruiting office in 1911 were rejected as unfit for service because of their health.

Wages in Dundee were one of the lowest in Scotland during this time, whereas the cost of living was the highest. Low wages meant little money for food, medicine or other items necessary for a good quality of life.

Work in the mills of 19th century Dundee offered little except the promise of more bleakness.

Images courtesy of Local Photos (Dundee)

At the time of its opening on Albert Street, there were three patients admitted to the Dundee Lunatic Asylum, but as time went on, these numbers swelled to proportions that became unmanageable for the premises, resulting in the asylum’s relocation (in 1882) soon after being granted a Royal Charter by Queen Victoria. Having gone through many transitions and names, it was renamed Royal Dundee Liff Hospital in 1963. To begin with, the asylum relied heavily on contributions from the public and various bodies, such as the Masonic Lodges and other well-heeled organisations and individuals who were in a position to offer financial help. Life was not easy for many people in Dundee, as well as elsewhere up and down the country. People still expressed the same feelings of doubt, grief and mental anxiety that we still see today in modern society, but, unfortunately for those living at the time of the asylum’s opening, proper diagnosis and treatment can in no way be compared to the vast range of assistance offered today.

General Paresis, more often known as general paralysis of the insane or paralytic dementia, was the main cause of many deaths in the asylum, most likely brought on by the onslaught of syphilis. Late-stage syphilis (a sexually transmitted disease) caused severe neurological issues, usually accompanied by psychotic symptoms whereby a patient would emote delusions of wealth/grandeur, immortality, sexual prowess, nihilism and anarchism. Unfortunately for many of them, the disease left them bedridden and, in more severe cases, straight-jacketed. Death was a slow process of muscle atrophy, mania and a complete disconnection from life around them.

People from all walks of life passed through the doors of the asylum, each with their own unique experiences leading to their admission. What we found of particular interest, were the number of cases deemed “cured” after very short periods of time (particularly in those who expressed homicidal tendencies!). A 49 year old man was admitted in the mid 1840’s, expressing what was described as “severe homicidal mania”. He expressed intense desires to cut the throats of his wife and children, with no real reason as to why. He was deemed cured, and released back to his family within 3 months.

In some cases, the patient was never deemed cured, and would be transferred to another institution such as the Cupar asylum or Montrose asylum to begin another round of diagnosis and treatment. There is a case of a 35 year old male admission displaying extreme delusions coupled with intense violence. He had been in and out of prisons and asylums since the age of 27, and truly believed that “the Divine King” had commissioned him to commit acts of violence. He was noted to “besmear his face with excrement”, and also tried to have “sexual intercourse with a male nurse” he thought was a woman. Wandering about his room naked, he would complain that his clothes smelled of blood. He was transferred to Cupar asylum as uncured.


Surprisingly, even those suffering from extreme grief were admitted to the asylum for short periods, receiving care and attention until their emotional pain became more manageable. The records for 1824 show a young girl of 17 was admitted for “dementia, grief” (not dementia as we know it today). After 6 weeks at the asylum, her emotional state was deemed well enough that she could re-enter society. Unfortunately, with no family to look after her and having been dismissed from employment due to her mental state, she was transferred to the Poorhouse.

There are a few very unique records for some patients within the almost never-ending lists of records, such as the curious case of one female patient, described as having “demonomania”. She describes seeing the devil and his “imps” and talks of the “devil coming to carry her away” and of being “sold to the devil”. Interestingly, a large abcess appeared on her lips around this time. After 7 weeks, the abcess burst, and, miraculously, all her symptoms disappeared!

Some of the troubled indivduals confined to the asylum warranted no more than sympathy and, for all intents and purposes, seemed quite “normal”. In the corner of one of the rooms sat a petite 37 year old woman. Recently bereaved, she speaks of her upcoming wedding “next Monday”. She is described as a bright, happy individual, with a cheerful disposition. With no change to her mental state, the poor soul died after 2 years of “General Paresis”.

Strathmartine Hospital image copyright Scott A Murray at