The Dark Streets of Leith
A fascinating history of crimes committed during the 19th Century, either in Leith or by people originating from Leith, Margaret Hubble tells us more
My book, The Dark Streets of Leith, was published a couple of months back but the editor missed its release and has asked me to tell you a bit more about it. It is based on criminals who were operating there in the 19th century. People keep asking me why I like “dark” stories about nefarious villains so much. For those who are not researchers, it might be difficult to understand. But for researchers, these High Court case papers at the National Records of Scotland are like gold dust, as far as I’m concerned.
It isn’t so much the criminal himself/herself, which interests me, but the amount of social history contained in the witness statements that I find so intriguing. You can find out how long a working day was in those times and the working conditions, how many small shops opened until about 11 in the evening, the names of old public houses, how few possessions working people owned etc.
In the story about James Scott, a young sailor who stole sovereigns from a ship, the descriptions by his friends about James’ spending sprees and what he treated them to in terms of food and drink, eating for instance “cow heel and baps”, was hilarious, James’ travels to places outside of Leith when ferries were more common, how much he paid for overnight accommodation, for instance, was very interesting.
In the story about concealment of pregnancy, where an infant was left on someone’s doorstep, it led to an investigation of the relevant Kirk Session Records for South Leith, which, although providing confirmation about the subject in question, also gave an incredible amount of information about the family who had informally adopted the abandoned baby.
As far as the story of William Bennison, the poisoner, was concerned, the amount of travelling he did back and forwards to his birthplace of Ireland, as well as his bigamous marriages, made it a very complicated tale.
He was a religious zealot on the outside, but this was a cover for his ‘dark side’. One of the witnesses, a man with no legs who lived in the same tenement, was in the habit of begging while sitting in a small cart on Leith Walk, which was pulled by his faithful dog.
The dog was found poisoned, which raised suspicions in the neighbourhood when Bennison’s wife died a sudden death. There was even a piece of fabric from a dress included with the papers in National Records of Scotland.
Researchers do tend to veer off from the main subject of one’s research.
When investigating a story about theft, a pawnbroker was mentioned. Looking at newspaper articles about the pawnbroker led to finding a ‘story within a story’ in that she seemed to be somewhat of a slum landlord (owner of many properties in a shady area of Leith) who had a henchman in her gentleman son - a ‘surgeon’.
He seemed quite a despicable character by all accounts. I did investigate his credentials, as far as being a surgeon was concerned, but although he had matriculated at Edinburgh University, neither the Royal College of Physicians nor the Royal College of Surgeons had any note of him.
One of the Provosts of Leith, a fine old upstanding man who had served as a Bailie, a Magistrate, on the Police Commission and on the Parochial Board was sentenced to transportation across the seas for using indecent practices to two young girls. Due to public opinion, and an appeal signed by most of the jury, remission of sentence was subsequently granted, however, and he only served a few years in Calton Jail.
Edinburgh City Archives was where I found a photograph of one of my criminals – Henry Spinks. They have the wonderful Rogues Gallery, which is an old album of mugshots of criminals. It’s not in any particular order and has very little information for most of the criminals, other than when and where they were tried.
But if you find your man (or woman), then once again it’s a Eureka moment! ■
Info: The Dark Streets of Leith by Margaret Hubble is available at online outlets
Margaret Hubble below