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.

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 http://www.casebook.org/suspects/ .  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.

For sixty years, the Mars Training Ship lay anchored on the River Tay at Dundee and it became a famous local landmark, embedded in Dundee history. In that time, more that 6,500 homeless and destitute boys joined the ranks of the Mars to learn new skills and to keep out of trouble. Launched in 1848, the Mars was not always a Training Ship.  She was a handsome three-masted sailing ship with two decks and eighty guns. But by the time she was completed, the era of sail was giving way to new technology and her conversion was never entirely successful. After a brief spell on coastal defence duty, the Mars was earmarked for scrap. At that time in 19th century Dundee, poverty and disease were rife and many children had no option other than to steal to survive and a good number ended up in prison, living in squalid, life threatening conditions.

Putting the young boys in jail was the only option until it was agreed that this was no life for young boys, and that an attempt should be made to rehabilitate them rather than confine them to jail. The Mars was berthed in Dundee with the sole purpose of providing this alternative way of life for the young delinquents. On board the vessel, the Mars boys were educated, trained in all aspects of life, learning new skills to help them adjust to life away from the ship without the temptations of crime, but it was not a free ride; nor was it easy. Many boys tried to escape the ship, with some losing their lives in the process.  In March of 1871, 3 young lads lost their lives whilst attempting to escape in an open boat in stormy waters, and a gravestone is erected in their memory at Forgan churchyard.  Those caught trying to escape, or breaking any other rules, such as smoking or theft received physical punishment for their disobedience.  Boys were strapped over a gym-horse and beaten with the tawse (a short, thick leather whip for those of you too young to know what it is).

Life wasn’t all about escaping and beatings for the boys; they enjoyed a Summer holiday each year, and on Sundays were allowed off the boat to walk around the grounds of St Fort’s in total silence.  The Summer holidays consisted of a twenty mile walk to a camp site in Elie which had no lighting, heating, water or toilet facilities.  Daily activities included diving and swimming – irrespective of whether or not the boys could swim!

“We’ll Send Ye Tae the Mars” by Gordon Douglas details for the first time the life and times of the Mars and the people who ran it and the boys from Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh who were trained there. It tells a fascinating history of how it all happened and how the Mars helped thousands of boys find a new life away from the poverty and crime of nineteenth-century Dundee.

Order the book here now. Click the following link to visit the official “Sons of the Mars” website for detailed information and remember to sign up for a rare glimpse into their records of the boys who trained aboard, and the reasons they were sent to the Mars.

special thanks to our friend Shehanne Moore for her contributions