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

 

We asked Iain Flett, City Archivist at the City Archives based under the Caird Hall, a few things about the city’s dark past because if anyone would know, it would be him! Iain has worked for the archives department for 40 years, joining after local government regionalisation in 1975 when some local authorities were introducing civic archives.

Describe for us a typical day in the life of the archives department.

From 8:15 am onwards the office and stores are opened up and records retrieved for members of the public and for volunteers who are working on projects.

From 8:30 am phone calls start from council and public. Council staff will be enquiring about council title deeds, past minutes, council house sales and non-current legal files. The Public may be booking an appointment to look at a record, asking for information about local industry, housing, or family history, and may be schoolchildren, undergraduates, post graduates, environmental consultants, business people or retired people.

Members of the public and volunteers arrive from 9:30 am. Occasionally small groups from schools or community groups may call in for a project or talk and we book a committee room for that.

The office closes for lunch between 1 and 2 pm and the public leave at 4:30 pm in time for staff to clear up, put away records and set the alarms. Archive staff may give occasional talks in the community during the working day or in the evenings.

What are the oldest records held in the archives?

The grant by King Robert the Bruce of a tollbooth in 1325. The National Archives, Kew, have the Royal copy of a trading grant given to Dundee in 1199, but the original in Dundee was probably destroyed or ransomed during the siege of Dundee Castle in the late 13th century.

What is your favoured story regarding the origins of the naming of Dundee?

From the Gaelic, Dùn Dè. Dùn is definitely hill. Some describe Dè as being “fire” but I prefer another theory which says it comes from ancient Gaelic meaning “of God”.  The Latin motto on the coat of arms “Dei Donum” – Gift of God – a pun on the Latin name ‘Taodunum’ – may be a further pun on a latter Gaelic derivation.

There are many myths and fallacies surrounding the “witch” Grissell Jaffray.  Care to debunk some of them?

Her execution in 1669 comes in the spate of late witch burnings between the restoration of Charles II in 1660 and his death in 1685. Grissell Jaffray was probably an Aberdonian married to James Butchart, a Dundee burgess in 1615 and therefore an influential member of society. James was born in 1594 and therefore would be 73 when his wife was executed. We can assume that she would roughly have been the same age. The Jaffrays were an influential Aberdeen family, with people like Alexander Jaffray who was Provost of Aberdeen in 1651 during the time of the Cromwellian occupation. The execution of Grissell Jaffray may have been politically motivated in the wake of destruction carried out in Dundee by the Cromwellian forces in 1651.

Public executions have been fairly popular in the past – what were the most common methods of execution in Dundee over the passing centuries, and, more importantly, where did it all happen?

Beheading by axe and by hanging. Beheading by axe would be a higher status method of departure while hanging was used for the general criminal classes. Both would take place centrally. Hanging would take place from the window of the Guildhall on the first floor of The “Pillars” Town House built by Adam before the building of the new Gaol at the back of the Dundee Sheriff Court, when a gibbet would be erected as necessary. Witch burnings, with their stench and heat from fierce fires, would take place outside the burgh in the natural amphitheatre of Witches’ Knoll beyond the West Port, still named in Wood’s Plan of 1821.

In your opinion, what was the darkest day in Dundee’s history?

1st September 1651. Governor Lumsden defending the town had been offered quarter (surrender) by the most efficient army in Europe but had inexplicably refused it, possibly because of pressure put on him by the rich merchants who had taken shelter in Dundee. When the Cromwellian troops did storm the barricades they therefore took no quarter and slaughtered up to a fifth of the population and destroyed much of the town’s guild, church and civic records.

If you didn’t already have your “dream job” as City Archivist, what would have been your next choice of “dream job”?

A marine archaeologist in the Mediterranean. I had a Royal Naval childhood in Malta and fell in love with the clear blue seabed.

Why is it still important in “modern times” to keep hold of our city’s history?

George Santayana (1863-1952);  “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

If you could re-write just one piece of history, what would you change, and why?

As we know from “Back To The Future”, you can’t change just one piece of history without ultimately changing the whole of history – local always becomes global.

We also asked Iain a bit about what the future held for the city archives. As with most government funded initiatives budget cuts are always a threat, and the conservation of both their paper and digital collection is always going to be difficult in financially tight times. Iain remains positive for the future however, saying the introduction of the Public Records Act 2011 will lead to a higher standard of public record keeping, and the volunteers of the Friends of Dundee City Archives also continue to do an amazing job creating indexes and guides to the records. Iain would like to encourage Dundonians to appreciate the richness of their history – Dundee has always been a community who “punched above their weight” – as well as teachers and schoolchildren, who can use local investigations of history in the Curriculum for Excellence.

The city archive is an amazing resource, one we have frequently used to find records of Dundee’s history, as well as a little bit of family research. We hope if you haven’t already you’ll take a trip to the archives to research your past, or even volunteer with the Friends of Dundee City Archives. Also keep an eye out for their digital content online including the Friends of Dundee City Archives which has a wealth of information from the archive available to read online, and the Flickr account which has attracted 6 million searches since its creation. The future of the City Archives should be a bright one, as long as we all continue to appreciate and support this amazing resource right on our doorstep.