The primary objective of the World War 1 Project is to identify the men and one woman listed on the wall of the Memorial Chapel as soldiers – their regiment, their rank and number, how they died and where they are buried. Inevitably, however, our researches have uncovered much more than that, providing an insight into life in the centre of Edinburgh, especially in the streets and wynds surrounding Old Saint Paul’s.
The homes, families and occupations of these members of the congregation in the period before and during the War are, of course, replicated in lives across the country with this difference that, for them, as for us, OSP was a significant feature of their lives. In this respect we are their heirs and successors.
The familiar characteristics of social life in the late 19th century and early 20th century are all reflected in the Census records and in the Church magazine – families of eight or ten (or more) were the norm, infant mortality was a commonplace, sanitation was poor, people were crammed into totally inadequate housing. Many of these streets have long since been swept away, leaving only their names as echoes of the past.
Most of the young men had left school by the age of 13 to be employed mainly as message boys in a range of trades. It is easy to forget how dependent people were on boys like that delivering goods or information, knowing their way around the warren of stairs and closes to find the right
address. It would seem that people changed their address quite regularly, moving up or down in the same tenement or, less often, to a more salubrious part of town.
We are fortunate to have the OSP records, of Baptisms, Marriages and Confirmations, the Baptismal records being by far the most complete. These give the name of the child, the parents, their address and the occupation of the father. There are a handful of lawyers and men with their
own businesses such as butchers or jewellers but the majority are men working as tinsmiths, causeway stone layers, mould workers, postmen and many different jobs associated with the printing industry. The wife’s occupation is occasionally noted in the Census, mainly charladies or
washerwomen – though one researcher did come across a tripe-washer! There are two or three widows who, as Heads of Household, declare themselves to ‘have private means’. A surprising number, given the overcrowded conditions, took in boarders partly to help with income, partly to provide accommodation for brothers, sisters and other members of the family.
Old Saint Paul’s was deeply embedded in the life of the community, supplying services now provided by the State. We know most about the Child Garden, Old Saint Paul’s nursery school, as it has been well documented and photographed and, of course, survived until the late 20th century. The Boys Club would seem to have been very popular and may have attracted many of these young men to the church. Canon Laurie writing about the death of Fred Bell notes that he ‘is an exceptional loss to us as a past Gymnastic Instructor at the Lads Club his influence was of the very best among our young men and lads’. The Dispensary too must have been frequently used but so far we know little about it. And then there were the Sunday School and the Bible Study classes as well as the direct participation in worship as a server or a chorister.
It is our intention to publicise, over a period of time, all the information we have amassed so that it can be made available to the congregation and so that it can be included in the ‘Scotland’s War’ website. We would love to think that we might trace some descendants, people who could illuminate our factual knowledge with personal anecdote handed down or memorabilia such as letters or photographs. Although our research is far from complete, we do know that most of the
men were Privates and died fighting on the Western Front in France or Belgium, that about eight died in Gallipoli and at least one at sea. More than a dozen died at home of wounds or illness contracted as a result of the War and are buried in or near Edinburgh. The first casualty was an officer, Mark Kincaid Mackenzie, who was killed in action on the 25 September 1914. And at least 30 names are inscribed on the iconic Memorials at Thiepval, Arras, Helles or Loos, meaning that their bodies were never found but that they have a permanent memorial there- as they have in the Chapel in Old Saint Paul’s.
*Also published in The White Rose, the newsletter of Old Saint Paul’s Church, in August 2014.