‘Edinburgh’s Guilty Avenues’ : horrible histories from the New College Library Archives

A guest post from Eleanor Rideout, New College Library Helpdesk Assistant

The grisly find of a letter written in William Burke’s blood, on show as part of this weekend’s Festival of Museums, reminded me of one of my favourite items in the New College Library manuscript collections.

Letter from George Charles Smith to Thomas Chalmers, 19 August 1835 New College Library CHA 4.243.5

Letter from George Charles Smith to Thomas Chalmers, 19 August 1835 New College Library CHA 4.243.5

CHA 4.243.5 is a letter dated 19 August 1835 containing a contemporary use of the verb ‘burking’ and lurid descriptions of the most deprived areas of Edinburgh:

“Only to look down many of your closes and courts and alleys, is enough to satisfy anyone that more suitable places, for robbery, uncleanness, murder, or Burkings of any kind, cannot be found in the world”.

Rev. Dr Thomas Chalmers, [1843?]. Calotypes Collection, University of Edinburgh.

The letter is titled ‘Edinburgh’s Guilty Avenues’ and was sent to Thomas Chalmers, the first Principal of New College. His papers are one of the most significant collections held by New College Library. Chalmers had a wide range of interests and a considerable number of correspondents but as a public figure he also attracted much unsolicited mail from those seeking support for their own ideas. 

The sender, George Charles Smith, was not a regular correspondent, but was clearly a very zealous evangelist. According to his DNB entry, he was known as Boatswain Smith due to his involvement with maritime missions and he was also passionate about improving the morals of port cities.

Interestingly, the DNB does not mention his time in Edinburgh but this letter shows he spent some time here.He writes to Chalmers to:

entreat that you will kindly devote your attention to the state of the poorest, the meanest, and vilest of the population of Edinburgh…I have considered that their Habitations are disgusting, unhealthy, and horrible. Your national custom of so many Families occupying one House cut up into Floors or “Flats”, as you term them, is to an Englishman surpassing strange.”

Sadly no response is recorded. Given Chalmers’ evangelical beliefs and published schemes for poor relief, perhaps he would not have been pleased to have it suggested that he had not gone nearly far enough. However, in his last years he did establish a campaign for social reform and religious instruction in the West Port area of Edinburgh. Hopefully Smith was pleased to hear of it.

Eleanor Rideout, New College Library Helpdesk Assistant

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