The History of Leith

December 20, 2003

Personal Memories of Leith in the 20th Century

You may not consider yourself important enough to be remembered but you are because what we do affects what other people do and in turn affects and creates what sort of society we live in

When this series of articles started over three years ago. I posed the question “What is History?” and I explained History being built up of the records left behind by our ancestors either as a written record or as physical remains such as graves, artefacts or buildings. So it is reasonable to suppose that history is only concerned about things long ago, ancient battles, feuds, religious wars and who done what to whom and why and so on. But oddly enough that isn’t really the case we are all creating history by being here. Let me explain I was given this month a large pile of documents of a Church friend of mine who recently died. Some of the documents go back well over a hundred years. They consist of certificates and receipts going back over the years the sort of thing most families have and mostly throw out. But it is from this sort of thing that the future historian will use to recreate life in Leith in the 20th century and that is why records must be kept and protected. History is about real people living in a real place. You may not consider yourself important enough to be remembered but you are because what we do affects what other people do and in turn affects and creates what sort of society we live in. Allow me to explain. I got the following story from a friend of mine George Baxter at the South Leith Parish Church Coffee morning. He writes about the time when he was young and what Leith was like seventy years ago.

“When I was fourteen years old I had already started to work and as I lived in Granton, and had found my first Job in Leith, and had very little money I had to walk from Granton to Leith everyday. My first job was as a Barber in Portland Place at a wage of eight shillings a week (ie 40pence) and the hours were from nine in the morning to nine at night and that is how I started to visit the Kirkgate. The Kirkgate at that time was a very busy place and full of life and there were plenty of places for young people such as the pictures, which were in Laurie St. They didn’t only show films but had a strong man called “The Iron Man” and he walked by very slow steps and that is why he was called Hay Straw. The toilets of the picture house were outside but none of the kids used them being excited about the films being shown inside. I will leave it to the readers imagination were the kids done the toilet. With the kids eating a big bag of monkey nuts you can imagine what the state of the Picture House was in. It was filthy and it stank. I also went to the Gaiety Theatre, which was in the Kirkgate and sat in the “Gods” which was just below the roof of the theatre and high up.

On memory I can remember Trinity House and South Leith Church, Burtons the Tailors, the Kinnnards Halls, Ike the Baker who sold pies at 3d (old pence about 1p), the 50/-Tailors, Mehvens fishmongers, then “Jacky’s the Barber” Jacky was a small man and had to stand on top of a box to cut your hair, fish and chips were 3d, there were Tripe shops, Pawn Shops and plenty of pubs and at least four to five policemen patrolled the Kirkgate every Saturday Night. The Kirkgate was also called the “Channel”. It was in the Kirkgate that I remember hearing John Cormack speaking his own brand of intolerance and hatred and shouting at the top of his voice “one two three no Popery!” This was Leith in the 1930’s”

The above is taken from the memory of someone almost 90 years old most of what he talks about is now gone. I can remember the old Laurie Street picture House as a boy in the fifties but by then it was closed and mute. The Kirkgate despite its rough and ready air was not politically correct as we would say today it was alive it was real. Visit the area today and it is dead disturbed perhaps by the ghosts of its past.

That is why if I show students around South Leith church. I always encourage them to speak to the Pensioners at the Church Lunch Club as they can tell from experience what Leith was like 50, 80. or a hundred years ago.

One Leith Pensioner and a friend of mine Bobby Benson who died last year at the age of 100 was one of the last Carters in Leith and was fit until the day he died. He was a member of St Mary’s Star of the Sea and was a great Leith Character and he could describe what life was like in Leith in the days of his youth not from textbooks but from experience and life. It must be remembered the world of their youth is gone in more ways then one and its only in the memories of the old that the streets of old Leith can be walked again and that why it is important that these memories are recorded for generations of Leithers to come.

It is true to say “Their hatred and their love is lost, their envy buried in the dust, they have no share in all that’s done, beneath the circuit of the sun”

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