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 http://libraryblogs.is.ed.ac.uk/conservation/2016/07/28/student-placement-joey-shuker/
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 http://images.is.ed.ac.uk/luna/servlet/s/d5jp4c
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.