In 1734 a new Town-House was completed on the former site of St Clement’s Church, which we know today as City Square.  The building was a fairly grand structure, as was indicative of its multiple uses, with beautiful arched piazzas which looked out onto what is now Reform Street.  It was locally referred to as ‘the pillars’.  Markets were held under the safety of the piazzas in bad weather, and it was a place of general hustle and bustle.  Atop the already-impressive building sat a spire which housed a bell, used for calling meetings or tolling proclamations.  A fire in 1773 occurred on the roof of the building – the source of which was never determined – and it caused the frames holding the bell to crash into the rooms below it, causing considerable damage.

Shops took up the majority of the ground floor of the building, with the exception of one room for town officers to stay in, if they needed to. On the first floor were the offices of the Dundee Banking Company, who remained in the building for over 50 years, as well as an apothecary which was also said to have been well established and often-visited.  Above all of this, on the second floor sat the Town Council’s Hall, described to be spacious and elegant, and also another hall (not as nice as the Town Council’s Hall) for the use of the Guildry for meetings and also for the Sheriff and Justices of the Peace to hold courts.

In 1788, a gang robbed the Dundee Banking Company by breaking into the Guildry Hall and ripping up the floor, allowing them access to the bank via its roof.  Dropping into the bank from above, the gang made off with their loot in a daring night time robbery.  Six people went to trial over the incident, and, despite only circumstantial evidence and the testimony of a man who was later sent to Botany Bay for forgery and subsequently hanged aboard the ship for trying to start a mutiny, 3 men were sentenced to death for the robbery.  The guilt of those accused was something of a contentious issue at the time, with many people unconvinced.  As robberies go, it was a fairly gutsy move by those involved – even more so because the Town Hall also housed the jail!

The main jail was on the third floor and was divided into 5 spacious rooms 24 foot long, 12 foot wide and 8 foot high. 2 rooms were kept for debtors, who were expected to provide their own bedding, candles and coal, as well as pay fourpence a day for running fees.  The jail was said to be of a very high standard of cleanliness throughout.  The ‘Iron House’, or jailer’s storeroom separated these 2 rooms at the front of the building from the 2 rooms at the back, which were for criminals.  These rooms were strengthened, with the outer walls being fortified with iron netting, double sets of bars on the windows, and the doors braced with iron rods.  Criminals were dealt with differently to those in debt, being allowed only a straw mattress and two rugs to sleep on. Above this part of the jail, in the attic space, a further 6 jail rooms were situated to account for overflow of prisoners, but by the 1800’s, it was used as the women’s prison.  As with the male jails below, these were also kept to a very high standard.

Whilst hangings were uncommon, they still did occur from time to time.  Murder and rape topped the list of offences, with 5 of the 6 recorded hangings listing this as the crime.  The first hanging recorded was for housebreaking and theft, with the perpetrator being hung to make an example of him.  Our list of hangings is here if you want to take a quick look.  During the time of the Town Hall, hangings took place outside one of the east windows of the Guildry Hall, looking onto the High Street. John Watt, David Balfour and Mark Devlin all hung from the east side of the Town Hall.  By the time the new police station was built at Ward Road/Lochee Road, executions were held there.  Arthur Woods, Thomas Leith and William Bury all met their fate at the hangman’s noose, with Bury being the last man hung in Dundee.

Whilst the Town House jail was said to be fairly secure, it had been noted that the attic cells were slightly easier to break out of, hence it was offered up as the female jail.  For anyone needing a bit of a special time-out, there was a frightfully dank and dark space in the basement for them, aptly named the “Thief’s Hole”.  It wasn’t just people who were flung in there – sometimes property was held there…and once, even a tree!

For almost 200 years, the Town House sat in its prominent position before it was torn down to make way for City Square in the 1930’s.  Attempts to save it, and even provide a new location for its re-erection proved to be fruitless, and it became yet another building Dundee lost to time.

References:

‘Dundee Delineated’, Printed by A Colville for self and Alex M Sandeman, 1822, pp 109 – 112

‘Undiscovered Dundee’, B King, Black & White Publishing, 2011, pp 1 – 5

‘Historical description of the town of Dundee’, C Mackie, Smith, Elder & Co., London, 1836 pp 66 – 67

Canmore Town House entry

Image of Town-House flagstone by Jim Glover

 

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