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Old Spence & the American consul


I recently became a remote worker after twenty-five years working five days a week in an office (writes Stephen Millar). It has proved more of a challenge than I had expected, and to break up the monotony of working in a flat all day, I have found myself a wandering nomad frequenting cafes and co-working places in Leith. However, my regular haunt is my local - the Old Spence cafe (formerly the Hideout) - on the corner of Constitution and Queen Charlotte Street.

Walk in and you see a tribute to soccer legend Maradona (more on that later…), and old newspapers containing adverts for Spence & Spence, a long-established hardware store that occupied the site for many decades. I go there enough that the staff know my name, ask about my weekend, and even try out new menu items on me.

Co-owners Nick and Paolo make an effort to connect with the local community and invite regulars to the occasional party in the café, including one that recently celebrated their first year in charge. This is not something that happens in your local branch of Starbucks.

After a morning on video calls and having no interaction with real people, it is a nice feeling being in the Old Spence. I feel like Norm in Cheers, where everyone knows my name. I recognise fellow remote workers nursing a drink and hogging the charging points. I also talk to a few regulars - the deep sea diver turned drummer, the old-school film camera fanatic, the hippie about to walk the coast of Scotland.

In preparing this article, I came across one by a journalist who also described herself as feeling like Norm in her local ice cream shop where ‘becoming a regular….soothed my loneliness’. She made an excellent point; having a local promoted casual, low-stakes relationships described as ‘weak ties’. Research shows these increase our empathy for others, make us feel less lonely and improve our mental health.

The Old Spence reflects how Leith has changed in recent years. On a single visit you might hear several languages being spoken by professionals as well as tourists.

It made me wonder what significance the Old Spence had for local people, and how it fitted into the story of this part of Leith. For research purposes, I met Nick, co-owner, for a drink and learnt about focaccia bread, how to make the perfect coffee and customer quirks but I wanted sex, drugs & rock ’n’ roll. (Sorry Nick!)

More homebased research hit pay dirt. I uncovered links to a Victorian cross-dressing sex scandal, two queens, a duke, Naples, illegal gambling, and that locals love sniffing paraffin.

First, let’s place the Old Spence cafe in the context of history, for the cafe inhabits a historic spot… Cobbled remains, exposed while digging the tram line, suggest a street from the 16th or 17th century lies under Constitution Street. Jump forward in time to 1777, and a map shows “Constitution Road” and “Charlotte Street”, but the cafe’s site is a blank, yet to be filled in with buildings.

Constitution Street as we know it was developed from 1790. A map of 1804 shows things have moved on. The Old Spence building had now been constructed, standing alone, marooned beside open land. The block belonged to a local merchant, William Sibbald, who owned a landscaped garden next door (now occupied by St Mary’s Star of the Sea Church). By 1817 the whole block of buildings had been completed.

In later years the cafe’s location was home to various people. In 1850 it was occupied by William Girdwood & Co., ‘general merchants’. Skip forward to 1884 and fruiterer E. Douglas is listed. By 1887 ironmonger James Watson appeared, still here in 1907. In 1908 Spence & Spence were listed for the first time.

This much-loved hardware business was founded in 1878 and occupied the site of the cafe until the 1980s. The store’s newspaper advertisements are fascinating: trouser presses, carpet sweepers, roller skates, juvenile cycles, Patrick’s ‘Perfector Clubs’ and Pennsylvanias. In 1911 The Leith Observer, ran an advert from Spence & Spence that concentrates on golf, gardening and angling.

When The Spirit of Leithers Facebook page posted a picture of the Spence & Spence store on Constitution Street, the memories came flooding back:

One Leither recalled the “special paraffin perfume as you walked in the door. Had everything from a needle to an anchor.” Another - “… the smell of sawdust is what’s remembered. “Assistants in brown dust coats, and packed walls with everything from baking sheets to foot pumps”. “Still have our Pico teapot from there, an engagement present from Mum in 1969.”

The smell of paraffin comes up repeatedly in the memories posted, suggesting Leithers greatly appreciated the free fumes on offer inside Spence & Spence, which did not surprise me overly!

While looking through old post-office directories I uncovered another interesting piece of history. Number 94, standing next door to the cafe on Constitution Street and part of the same block, was listed as an address for John Safford Fiske, American Consul for Leith in the 1860s. The role of the Consul was that of a public official authorised to carry out services for other Americans and probably included mundane administrative tasks such as issuing passports.

The first American Consul to Scotland was located in Leith after being appointed in 1798, only a few years after the United States came into being. Whilst the consulate later moved to Edinburgh in 1854, it came back to Leith in 1861 and stayed for another two decades.

So who was John Safford Fiske? He was born in 1838 in Ohio and would have been in his early thirties when he was involved in a cross-dressing sex scandal that shocked the British public.

The Scotsman dated 1 July 1870 reported the early days of the scandal: “Yesterday, at the Guildhall Police Court, London….[the] solicitor to the American Consulate attended before Sir Thomas Gabriel to complete the bail in the case of John Safford Fiske, the American Consul at Leith, who stands committed with Boulton and Park for dressing in female attire’.

25 years before Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for gross indecency, Yale graduate Fiske had a brief relationship with Ernest Boulton, a homosexual cross-dresser who - in drag - was a theatrical performer.

Boulton’s friend and fellow performer was Frederick William Park. Boulton and Park had begun to attract the unwelcome attention of the authorities because of their habit of dressing as women in public and were monitored for months.

One night Boulton and Park - dressed as women - left a London theatre and were arrested. Both men were charged with the ‘abominable crime of buggery’ and accused of disguising themselves ‘as women and to frequent places of public resort, so disguised, and to thereby openly and scandalously outrage public decency and corrupt public morals’.

How does this impact the American Consul at 94 Constitution Street? Unfortunately for Fiske, the police investigation discovered love letters between Boulton and Fiske. I suspect Fiske was a discreet man, shocked to be dragged into what was probably the highest-profile sex scandal of the era.

The accused men were subject to degrading physical examinations (to evidence any signs of ‘buggery’) but - against all the odds - at trial, the case against the men collapsed. Whilst avoiding conviction which, up until 1861 was punishable by execution, Fiske was publicly shamed and forced to resign as American Consul.

Fiske seems to have made a success of his life despite the disgrace, living in Germany, Constantinople, and Italy. At the end of his life, he was back in the United States, serving as a lecturer in art and architecture at a college in New York before dying in 1907. He left 4,000 books to the college and my sense is he was a good man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I wondered how in his later years he looked back at his time at 94 Constitution Street.

I promised you Queens and Dukes… Step forward Saoirse Ronan and Jack Lowden who have been seen in the café. Ronan played the lead role in the 2018 film Mary Queen of Scots. Jack played her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (also the Duke of Albany). Both Ronan and Lowden are directors of Reiver Pictures who’s registered company address is 83 Duke Street. Lowden used to live on Duke Street. Other celebrities spotted in the café include Danny Boyle and Shirley Manson.

Queen Charlotte Street was named for Charlotte (1744-1818), the wife of King George III. There are other places in the city named after Charlotte or her children (Princes Street) and this used to be plain old Charlotte Street until 1967 when the ‘Queen’ was added to stop confusion with Charlotte Street in Edinburgh.

And Maradona? Napoli football club’s most famous player is revered by Paolo, the Neopolitan co-owner of the Old Spence. His family has long been involved in catering back in Naples and he is part of a new wave of Italians who have in recent years settled in Leith.

There are links between these arrivals in the 21st century and those Italians who came to Scotland more than a century ago. In the early 1900s, hundreds of fish and chip shops and ice cream parlours were founded by Italians who had fled poor conditions back home to start again here. For decades Scots-Italian cafes were enormously successful, tapping into the Scots’ love for everything that keeps life expectancy rates to a minimum.

Sadly most of these traditional cafes have closed in recent years as tastes have changed and descendants of the original owners have moved on. However, a walk up Leith Walk will take you past a number of new cafes opened by recent arrivals from Naples and Sicily.

So, just another Leith café with its own stories and histories that make it that little bit special.

My recommendation is, the cheese scones. ■

Stephen Millar

Spence & Spence Hardware Store and below, Old Spence Cafe


I suspect Fiske was a discreet man, dragged into one of the highest profile sex scandals of the age


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