Chapter 24 – Elder Street – Leith Street – Broughton Street., pp.176-179.

[Old & New Edinburgh Contents]

Elder Street – Leith Street – The old “Black Bull” – Margarot – The Theatre Royal – Its Predecessors on the same Site – The Circus – Corri’s Rooms – The Pantheon – Caledonian Theatre – Adelphi Theatre – Queen’s Theatre and Opera House – Burned and Rebuilt – St. Mary’s Chapel – Bishop Cameron. 

   THE continuation north from East Register Street and St. James’s Square, called Elder Street (probably the upper portion of the old Broughton Loan, which led from the Lang Gate to that village), is named from Thomas Elder of Forneth, who was Lord Provost thrice between 1788 and 1798, at a time when great responsibility attached to his office, when all Lowland Scotland, in which there were only about 2,000 troops, was convulsed by the agitation excited by the “friends of the people.” When the memorable British Convention was held on the 5th of December, 1793, Lord Provost Elder suppressed it, and took twelve of the leaders prisoners; and on the 12th of the same month he crushed another meeting held at the Cockpit in the Grassmarket. For these services to the State, Mr. Elder, in 1795, was appointed Postmaster-General for Scotland. He realised a fortune as a wine merchant, in premises opposite the Tron church, and died at Forthneth in 1799. He resided long in Princes Street, in the house known as Fortune’s Tontine, and subsequently at No. 85, now a portion of the New Club. 

   Prior to the erection of the Regent Bridge, and the formation of the roadway eastward therefrom, one line of street, mostly of rough rubble, and nearly all common stairs, extended due south and north from the foot of Shakespeare Square, transversely across Princes Street, to the head of Leith Street, and thence downward at a north-east angle to the corner of St Ninian’s Row, opposite the High and Low Terrace. The latter did not exist in 1787, and the former only partially; but both follow the curve of the old highway that led from the Lang Gate to Leith Loan or Walk, as it is now called, passing on the left the village of Picardie. 

   Until recent years the old “Black Bull” was long established here, and an arch on the west side gave access to the stables. In a species of advertisement appended to Kincaid’s “View of Edinburgh,” in 1794, is the following:- 

   “English Travellers, on business, are to be found commonly, at Paterson’s, Foot of the Pleasance: McFarlane’s, Head of the Cowgate; Ramsay’s Lodging’s. Milne Square; McKay’s, Grassmarket; Lee’s, Black Dull, Head of Leith Walk. N.B. – Strangers can never be at a loss for a guide to any of the above places, as, at the Cross there are always in waiting, running stationers, otherwise cadies, that will conduct them to any place wanted, for a small charge.” 

   In style and accommodation the “Black Bull” was one of those old-fashioned inns which were the precursors of the modern hotel, and preserved their style and features unchanged amid the encroachments of private speculation and the rage for public improvement. Now the space on which it stood is covered with shops and dwelling houses. 

   In this street lived Margarot, one of the “Friends of the People,” who was arrested by Provost Elder, and tried for his life on charges of treason, with Hunter, Muir, and others. He conducted his own case, and the court sentenced him to fourteen years’ transportation beyond the seas. “In consequence of the proceedings on the 9th instant,” says the Annual Register for 1794, “while Mr. Margarot went to the Justiciary Court, every precaution was taken this day by the Lord Provost, magistrates, and sheriff, to prevent any breach of good order and police. A great crowd assembled at his lodgings in Leith Street about ten o’clock, and he was conducted, with a wreath, or arch, held over him, with inscriptions of Reason, Liberty, &c. About the middle of the North Bridge, however, the cavalcade was met by the Lord Provost, sheriff, constable, peace-officers, &c., and immediately dispersed, the arch was demolished, and its supporters taken into custody. A press-gang attended to assist the peace-officers. Mr. Margarot then walked to the court, escorted by the Lord Provost, &c., and no disturbance ensued.” 

   Subsequently we read, that on the 10th of February, Messrs. Margarot, Muir, Skirving, and Palmer – to whose memory the grand obelisk in the Calton burying-ground has been erected – were transmitted from Newgate to a ship bound for Botany Bay. 

   In those days, and for long after, there was a narrow close or alley named the Salt Backet, which ran between the head of Leith Street and the Low Calton, and by this avenue, in 1806, James Mackoul, alias “Captain Moffat,” the noted thief, whom we have referred to in the story of Begbie’s assassination, effected his escape when pursued for a robbery in the Theatre Royal. 

   Eastward of the head of Leith Street, and almost in the direct line of the Regent Arch, stood the old Methodist Meeting House. 

   Facing Leith Walk, at the junction of Little King Street with Broughton Street, is the present Theatre Royal, occupying the site of several places of amusement its predecessors. 

   About the year 1792 Mr. Stephen Kemble, in the course of his peripatetic life, having failed to obtain the management of the old Theatre Royal at the end of the North Bridge, procured leave to erect a new house, which he called a Circus, in what is described in the titles thereof as a piece of ground bounded by a hedge. Mrs. Esten, an admired actress, the lessee of the Theatre Royal, succeeded in obtaining a decree of the Court of Session against the production of plays at this rival establishment; but it nevertheless was permanently detrimental to the old one, as it continued to furnish amusements too closely akin to the theatrical for years; and in the Scots Magazine for 1793 we read:- “January 21. The New Theatre of Edinburgh (formerly the Circus) under the management of Mr. Stephen Kemble, was opened with the comedy of the Rivals. This theatre is most elegantly and commodiously fitted up, and is considerably larger than the Theatre Royal.” By the end of that season, Kemble, however, procured the latter, and retained it till 1800. 

   A speculative Italian named Signor Corri took up the circus as a place for concerts and other entertainments, while collaterally with him a Signor Pietro Urbani endeavoured to have card and music meetings at the Assembly Rooms. Urbani was an Italian teacher of singing, long settled in Edinburgh, where, towards the close of the eighteenth century, he published “A Selection of Scots Songs, harmonised and improved, with simple and adapted graces,” a work extending to six folio volumes. Urbani’s selection is remarkable in three respects: the novelty of the number and kind of instruments used in the accompaniments; the filling up of the pianoforte harmony; and the use, for the first time of introductory and concluding symphonies to the melodies. He died, very poor, in Dublin, in 1816. 

   Corri’s establishment in Broughton Street was eminently unsuccessful, yet he made it a species of theatre. “If it be true,” says a writer, “as we are told by an intelligent foreigner in 1800, that very few people in Edinburgh then spent a thousand a year, and that they were considered rather important persons who had three or four hundred; we shall understand how, in these circumstances, neither the theatre, nor Corri’s Rooms, nor the Assembly Rooms, could be flourishing concerns.” 

   It is said that Corri deemed himself so unfortunate, that he declared his belief “that if he became a baker the people would give up the use of bread.” Ultimately he failed, and was compelled to seek the benefit of the cessio bonorum. In a theatrical critique for 1801, which animadverts pretty freely on the public of the city for their indifference to theatrical matters, it is said:- “By a run of the School for Scandal, an Italian manager, Corri, was enabled to swim like boys on bladders; but he ultimately sank under the weight of his debts, and was only released by the benignity of the British laws. Neither the universal abilities of Wilkinson, his private worth, nor his full company, could draw the attention of the capital of the North till he was some hundred pounds out of pocket; and though he was at last assisted by the interference of certain public characters, yet, after all, his success did little more than make up his losses in the beginning of the season.” 

   In 1809 Mr. Henry Siddons re-fitted Corri’s Rooms as a theatre, at an expense of about £4,000. There performances were continued for two seasons, till circumstances rendered it necessary for Mr. Siddons to occupy the old Theatre Royal. 

   In 1816 Corri’s Rooms, as the edifice was still called, was the scene of a grand féte given to the 78th Highlanders, or Ross-shire Buffs, who had just returned from sickly and unhealthy quarters at Nieuport in Flanders. On this occasion, we are told, the rooms were blazing with hundreds of lamps, “shedding their light upon all the beauty and fashion of Edinburgh, enlivened by the uniforms of the officers of the several regiments.” 

   The band of the Black Watch occupied the large orchestra, in front of which was a thistle, with the motto Prenez garde. Festoons of the 42nd tartan, and the shields of the Duke of Wellington and the Marquis of Huntly, with cuirasses from the recent field of Waterloo, were among the decorations here. Elsewhere were other trophies, with the mottoes Egypt and Corunna. At the other end was the band of the 78th, where hung the shields of Picton and Achmuty, and a brilliant star, with the mottoes Assaye and Maida. “Under this orchestra was a beautiful transparency, representing an old Scotsman with his bonnet, giving a hearty welcome to two soldiers of the 42nd and 78th regiments, while a bonny lassie is peeping out from a cottage door; the background formed a landscape, with Edinburgh Castle in the distance.”At eleven o’clock came famous old Neil Gow, with his band of violins, and the ball – which was long remembered in Edinburgh – began. 

   After some time Corri’s Rooms were called the Pantheon, and in December, 1823, the house was again opened under the new appellation of the Caledonian Theatre (which it held for years afterwards), by Mr. Henry Johnstone, an old Edinburgh favourite and luckless native of the city. The papers of the time announce that the dancing and tumbling of the Pantheon “are superseded; and, excepting that melodramas are presented in place of regular tragedies and comedies, the Caledonian Theatre in no respect differs in the nature and style of its entertainments from the regular theatre.” One of the first pieces brought out was The Orphan of Geneva

   “The house is dingy and even dirty,” says the Weekly Journal for that year, ‘”and very defectively lighted. This is not at all in harmony with Mr. Johnstone’s usual enterprise, and calls for amendment. The name of Caledonian is perhaps conceived to be a kind of apology for the clumsy tartan hangings over some of the boxes; but we can by no means comprehend why the house was not re-painted. The visitor cannot fail to be immediately struck with the contrast of its dingy hue, with the freshness and beauty of the Theatre Royal.” 

   Mr. Johnstone’s losses compelled him, after a time, to relinquish management. He left Edinburgh, and did not return to it till 1830, when he played four nights at the same theatre, then leased by Mr. Bass. Poor Johnstone, an actor much admired in London, but every way unfortunate, eventually went to America. 

   The theatre was afterwards called the Adelphi, and was burned in 1853, during the management of Mr. R. H. Wyndham. On its site was rebuilt the Queen’s Theatre and Opera House, under the same enterprising manager, long one of the greatest theatrical favourites in Edinburgh; but this also was destroyed by fire in 1865, when several lives were lost by the falling of a wall. By a singular fatality it was a third time completely gutted by fire ten years afterwards, but was re-constructed in the latter part of 1875, and reopened in January, 1876, prior to which Mr. and Mrs. Wyndham had taken their farewell of the stage and of Edinburgh. 

   It is a handsome building, with a portico, and is adorned with medallions of Shakspere, Scott, Molière, and Goethe. Although erected within the walls of the theatre burned on the 6th of February, 1875, it is almost entirely a new building internally, different from all its predecessors, greatly improved, and seated for 2,300 persons. The works have been designed and executed by C. J. Phipps, F.S.A., architect of the Gaiety Theatre, London. 

   Immediately adjoining this theatre – the gable wall being a mutual one – is St. Mary’s Roman Catholic chapel, now the pro-cathedral of the Archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, whose residence is in the narrow lane to the northward. 

   It was built in 1813, from designs by James Gillespie Graham, architect, at the expense of £8,000. In the original elevations more ornament was introduced than it was found there were funds to execute, as these were chiefly raised by subscription among the Catholics of Edinburgh, then a small, and still a poor, congregation. The dimensions of this edifice within the walls are 110 feet by 57. The eastern front, in which is the entrance, is ornamented by two central pinnacles 70 feet high, and the adoption of the Gothic style in this small chapel first led to the adoption of a similar style in various other religious edifices since erected in the city. It possesses a very good organ, and above the altar is a fine painting of the Saviour dead. It was presented to the church by Miss Chalmers, daughter of Sir G. Chalmers. 

   Some prelates of the Catholic Church lie buried before the high altar, among them Bishops Alexander Cameron and Andrew Carruthers. The interment of the former excited much interest in Edinburgh in 1828, the funeral obsequies being in a style never seen in Scotland since the Reformation, and also from the general esteem in which the bishop was held by all. He was born in 1747, and went to the Scottish College at Rome in 1760, and bore away all the prizes. Returning to Scotland in 1772, he was Missionary Apostolic in Strathearn till 1780, when he was consecrated at Madeira, and, succeeding Bishop Hay, had resided permanently in Edinburgh since 1806. 

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