The History of Leith

April 4, 2005

How Leith was Governed 1827-1833

The position with regard to the state of municipal government in Leith in the early years of last century may be gathered from the following statement which refers to the year 1827
First, the harbour, quay, most of the streets of Leith, its closes, bourses, etc., and also the King’s Wark were within the royalty of the City of Edinburgh.
Second, North Leith was a portion of the Burgh of Regality of Canongate, the bathes of which were annually appointed by the magistrates of Edinburgh. The Canongate court-house was situated nearly two mites distant from the nearest point of North Leith, and for all practical purposes the inhabitants might have been said to be without a municipal government at all.
Third, South Leith was a burgh of barony under the superiority of the Council of Edinburgh. Its boundaries were so uncertain that the magistrates could not tell their own territory
Fourth, with respect to the Citadel, its Bailies were the same persons as those appointed b the city of Edinburgh to act as Bailies of South Leith, but no court was ever held in the Citadel.
Fifth, the bailie of St. Anthony was appointed by the minister, elders, and others of South Leith.
Sixth, a great extent, probably much more than the half of the whole town, was totally unprovided with any municipal government whatever.
The Leith people complained bitterly of a large portion of the town being unprovided with any local magistracy, and of the fact that, where there were Bailies, the government of each was separate from and independent of the others. Owing to the uncertainty of the boundaries of the various divisions no one could tell before which baffle any particular cause or complaint should be brought.
With respect to the town’s affairs, the cry of the citizens of the Fort was equally loud. The streets were ill-paved and worse lighted. The people of the better class had oil lamps over their gates. The iron standards of some of these lamps yet remain as part of the railing enclosing the houses in Charlotte Street and James Place. In these iron standards may still be seen the link-horns for extinguishing the links or torches people carried with them to light their way through the streets when they went abroad after dark. Upwards of fifty lives were lost in four years for the want of a few chains and lamps around the docks. There were no police whatever in the docks and warehouses, and goods were stolen from the vessels and quays. The water supply was scanty in quantity and bad in quality, for it came from Lochend, as it does still to the docks, and was first brought in 1754. The old waterhouse still stands by the lochside.
In justice to the bathes it must be said that it was entirely beyond their means to provide adequate supplies of public water to take the place of private wells, broad and safe roadways, well-lit and well- paved streets, efficient police, and all the other benefits to which we are so accustomed to-day. They had very little power to raise money by the imposition of rates, their revenue being comparatively small, and coming from such indirect sources as feu-duties, customs on trade, harbour dues, and fines inflicted in court. They had no funds for the numerous services provided by the local government of our own day.
Be that as it may, the people of Leith saw that they could not hope that their evils would be cured, or inestimable further advantages obtained, until they were governed by a body more or less representative of the people. There are three chief dates in this part of Leith’s struggle for a better system of government.
In 1827 an Act was passed by Parliament providing for the municipal government of the town of Leith and for the due administration of justice. By this Act provision was made for the watching, paving, cleansing, and lighting of Leith, the boundaries of which were clearly defined. The magistrates of Leith, three in number, were to be annually chosen by the Town Council of Edinburgh from a leet or list of nine presented by the retiring Bailies. By this means Leith could generally obtain the magistrates it wished, for the Edinburgh Council usually chose the persons most favoured by Leith.
In 1833 the Burgh Reform Act was passed, tinder which Leith was made a Parliamentary Burgh, being associated with Portobello and Musselburgh in the return of one member to Parliament. In our own day Leith has its own member of Parliament, Portobello and Musselburgh being no longer joined with it for parliamentary purposes.
In 1833 Leith was created a Municipal Burgh, with its own provost, magistrates, and council. On November 1, 1833, came the end of an “auld sang.”
The day of the Bailies of Leith was over. Leith had come into its own. Looking back on these times almost a hundred years ago, we can see that the new order of things did not possibly cause much surprise either in Edinburgh or in Leith, so natural had been the stages towards it.

Source-John Russell 1922

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