Around the World in 90 years- the Story of Historic Leith Improvement Scheme Photographs

When Fraser Parkinson first contacted us about the collection of historic photographs of Leith that he had been entrusted with, my colleagues and I at the Centre for Research Collections were very excited. The photographs were taken to show the slums of Leith prior to the ‘Edinburgh (Leith) Improvement Scheme of 1924’, where large areas were to be cleared and rebuilt. Fraser tells us that:

‘The Town Council Minutes of 3rd April 1924 propose the demolition or reconstruction of ‘certain houses, courts, and alleys unfit for human habitation’.

The concerns of William Robertson, Medical Officer of health for the City and Royal Burgh of Edinburgh, were that the

‘narrowness, closeness and bad arrangement, or the bad condition of the streets and houses, or the want of light, air, ventilation or proper conveniences or other sanitary defects are dangerous or injurious to the health of the inhabitants of the buildings in the said Areas, or of the neighbouring buildings.’

The scheme involved large-scale demolition in this area of Leith, and the re-housing of most displaced residents out-with the areas covered by the scheme.

These photographs were taken as a record of the area at this time by the City Council.  They provided the photographic evidence of the conditions that presented significant risk to public health at this time.’

This fascinating insight into the social history of Edinburgh’s Leith, fits well with existing collections here at the CRC, so we were delighted when Fraser agreed to donate the photographs to us in return for conserving the originals and creating a digital surrogate that could be made available online. The original photos had been placed on a cardboard backing, which had caused them to curl over time. This required a significant amount of work from conservator Emily Hick and her placement student Joey Shuker, to remove the cardboard, flatten the photos and stabilise a few tears. You can read more about this process here

However, considering the history of these photos, their condition was remarkably good, Fraser says that:

‘The story of this collection is a remarkable one.  These images have been rescued from destruction and have travelled to the other side of the world before finding themselves safely stored in the archives of Edinburgh University.

 Their story starts with an account by John (Jack) Goodall Steele who tells where they came from

‘My father John Smith Steele, commonly known as Jock, was born in Glasgow and settled in Leith after coming out of the Army in 1920.  He eventually took a job with Neil’s Insulating Co in Cromwell Street, Leith.  This job took him into a variety of mills, breweries and factories and ships.  Whilst doing the work in a paper mill one day he discovered a pile of books and documents waiting to be recycled and among them he saw a box of old photographs.  He asked if he could have them and was told to “help himself” and that he did, and after bringing them home went through them, cleaned them and saved the least damaged.’ 

John (Jack) Goodall Steele, John Smith Steel’s son, immigrated to New Zealand in 1955 taking the photographs with him.

In 2001 local historian John Stewart established the website ‘Old Leithers’ as a platform to celebrate all things from Leith’s past.   John’s website attracted many followers across the globe and put many old acquaintances back in touch with each other.  This network spread far and wide.  On seeing the webpage John (Jack) Goodall Steele, through his daughter Heather, sent John Stewart the photographs.  On receipt, copies were sent by John, to the City of Edinburgh Council and to the Edinphoto webpage.

John held these precious records along with Frank Ferri, another old Leither and organiser of ‘old Leithers’.  Sadly John passed away late in Jan 2013.  As a means of carrying on John’s work ‘The Spirit of Leithers’ Facebook page was established.’


When Fraser became the page administrator, Frank Ferri brought the 1924 collection to his attention and passed the photos onto him so that he could explore how these images could be preserved.

The collection has now been photographed and can be viewed here

They were a wonderful set to photograph, and I kept finding myself being drawn into the details, I think my personal favourite is this image, where you can just see what appears to be the eyes of a child peering over the table at towards the camera that has visited his courtyard.


0078598dSusan Pettigrew, Photographer

43 thoughts on “Around the World in 90 years- the Story of Historic Leith Improvement Scheme Photographs

  1. Frank Ferri says:

    Very moving picture story of hard deprived times and only taken just 10 years before my birth, certain parts of Leith still had similar conditions up until late 60s such as Ballantyne Rd Bowling Green St and Bangor Rd.. sad to say.. Pity more of this history wasn’t preserved. much credit to Jack Steel for his historical vision… It was criminal how Leith was demolished discriminately by city fathers with no vision in the 1960s.. Lets ensure Custom House as a Leith Museum comes to fruition

    • Susan says:

      Lovely to hear from you Frank- and thanks for your role in keeping these beautiful photos safe! Leith has such rich history and it’s wonderful to be able to share this part of it,

    • Connie Newman says:

      I don’t see how the ‘authorities’ can view this priceless historic record of a great little place and NOT put their all into making sure that a Leith Museum comes in to being asap! It is impossible to thank John, Frank and Fraser enough for keeping these pictures safe and getting them into the public domain – and of course to Jock Steele for his foresight in preserving them originally.

    • Jim Scanlon says:

      Thanks Frank and I totally agree with you. This is an excellent collection. Possibly an exhibition could be considered for Custom House?

  2. Fiona Sands says:

    Thank you so much for saving and publishing these on the net… fascinating. I am continually amazed at the number of children without shoes

  3. Graham Whyte says:

    Having worked with John Stewart for many years on the Oldleither website. John had the knack of listening to ideas and brining them to fruition. I.E. Tales from the Dales or, any idea he thought would bring out Contributors memories. Quite often he turned those ideas into book form.
    A True Leither in every way. Sadly missed by many.

    • Susan says:

      Hi Graham,
      Thanks for your comments- and nice to see another old Leither has found the blog. It’s the enthusiasm and work of people like John Stewart that brings history alive for others,

  4. Elizabeth Douglas says:

    What a fantastic record of this period of Leith’s history. Well done to everybody involved in archiving these.

  5. Jean Corson says:

    Great picture George I was born in Leith and lived there till I was 5 years old.we then went to Granton where I lived till I was 10

  6. Eileen Wallace says:

    The images bear witness to the indomitable spirit of Leithers forced to live in intolerable conditions and the struggle and determination required to raise their families with dignity.

  7. Eileen Wallace says:

    The images bear witness to the indomitable spirit of Leithers forced to live in intolerable conditions and the struggle and determination required to raise their families with dignity.

    Thank you for preserving and making them available for all.

  8. John Stafford says:

    My great great grandfather, John Forman (born 1841 in Wemyss, Fifeshire and shifted to Leith in the late 1840s) emigrated from Leith to Lyttelton, New Zealand around 1862. Looking at the photos it is no wondered he guessed that a new start on the other side of the world might be a good idea. His younger brother James went to sea from Leith and stayed there. In 1929 he recorded sea shanties and songs (on Edison rolls which still exist) for Harvard researcher James Madison Carpenter. Fascinating history.

  9. john campbell says:

    great to see all the photoes

  10. Peter Wood says:

    We used to fish with a Murderer hook ( three bound together)
    at the Lighthouse on Newhaven Piero.
    As a young adult we drank in Jock Govan’s Pub in the Main St.
    The Burnett family used to sing there. I was at Clare Burnett’s funeral recently met his sister Pearl who lived next door to us at 5 West Pilton Rd.

    • diu says:

      Hi Peter- thanks for sharing your memories, the area has such a rich history,

      • Peter Wood says:

        HiSusan I was originally from Glover Street in Leith opposite the Capitol Cinema now Bingo.
        I wonder if someone knows of a photo online of
        Wishart Grate Builder and Tiler where my big brother Harry served his apprenticeship.
        I stumbled across it by accident but can’t
        remember how! I am not good with my Tablet but I
        am slowly getting the hang of it. Wishart was on
        the corner of Manderston St and Glover St
        Cheers Peter Wood

  11. Peter Simpson says:

    i emigrated to Wellington New ZEALand in 1968 from Leith born at 50 West Bowling Green Street december 1929. Educated at Bonnington Road School and D.K. Employed at S.M.T. New street,H.Robbs, FERRANTI crew toll and Turnhouse I was how bad things looked in the photos growing up there it was seemed O.K, innocense of children!!

  12. David Barrie says:

    I am so pleased to see this website. I lived in Wilkie Place before it was demolished and we moved to the luxury of Fort House. Now living in Adelaide Australia but have fond memories of Sunny Leith.

  13. Peter Sellar says:

    I was born in Primrose Street in 1927 and love looking at all the old pics; and reading the stories of old Leith,especially those around the mid; twenties through the late thirties. Sometimes when I tell people about those tenement flats, without any electricity or hot water and how we used to share a lavvie on the landing they really find it hard to believe. Looking back I find it hard to believe also.

    • diu says:

      Thanks for your comment Peter, there is so much we take for granted now! Susan

    • Lara says:

      Hello Peter, my grandfather was also born on Primrose Street in 1927. We are in search of photos of Primrose Street online but it seems there are not any. I wonder if you have any you wouldn’t mind sharing? They lived at 31 and we notice that there is A B and C. Were these flat numbers? Any information or photographs would be great! Thank you.

  14. Lindsey Paton says:

    Thank you so much for preserving and sharing these photographs. My father was a Leither before joining the army, and I’ve been trying to research my family history, but sadly there is no one left on that side to tell me what life was like. These photos help me understand their lives in way that written documents just can’t.

  15. David Ronald. says:

    Born at Duke st in1932 in condemned farmhouse surrounded by Leith Central station and Duke st tenement then moved to 96Duke st .Dad was a casualty of the First World War.I spent a lot of happy years playing in the big Backgreen which stretched the full length. Of the tenement..Grewup and married in Leith till I was around 40 years then remarried and move to west Lothian. Hope others have happy memories of the Blg Backgreen.

  16. Alexis says:

    Hello, great site, I am trying to find some info about
    East Cromwell St, Leith, before it was redeveloped?
    Im not based in Scotland, has anybody got any info or ideas?
    And with regard to checking local family? thank you

  17. Catherine Muirhead says:

    I am researching Primrose Street, Leith occupant John Robb circa 1932 around the time he married Elizabeth McPherson, from Newhaven Leith. Thanks for all the extra tips for following up.

  18. G M Rigg says:

    Are there any similar photographs of the St James’ Square area area ? I lived at St James’ Place from 1954 until moved on by the council pre-demolition to construct the St James’ Centre – & what a triumph that was eh ?

  19. Brian Forsyth says:

    I was born The Shore Leith 1950 and I have a head of great memories don’t get me wrong nothing was easy we struggled but people in those days had more time for each other so help wasn’t far away. We didn’t have much but everyone did the best they could. Who could say they has a seafood Sunday dinner crab, mussels, brickies, cod or mackerel, happy days down tally toor sat &sun awesome. Thank u 4 stirring the fond memories most appreciated

  20. Lesley says:

    Anyone remember my dear mum Elizabeth( Betty) lyle ,
    3, West Cromwell Street?
    Attended David Kirkpatrick Secondary…

    • Anne Bowyer says:

      My Grandfather lived at 3 West Cromwell Street in 1929. His name was David Flanagan. My Grandmother’s name was Annie CRAIGIE.

  21. diu says:

    Hi Lesley,
    Thanks for your comment! Have you tried contacting the Spirit of Leithers or Lost Edinburgh Facebook pages? They are a veritable wealth of local knowledge!

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