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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
Ebenezer Wilson, Brassfounder


This worthy of the old school—long known as the Tron Church bellman —served his apprenticeship as a brassfounder with Mr. Robert Brown, Lawnmarket, and became a member of the Incorporation of Hammermen in 1774. He carried on business in a small way on his own account in Libberton's Wyn'd ; but he was never remarkable for activity or enterprise. In 1788, he obtained the appointment of ringer of the Tron Kirk bell, with a salary of ten pounds a-year. This small sum, with a trifling pension from the Hammermen, was latterly his chief support. At one period, when far "down in the wind," Eben petitioned the Incorporation for a little money, saying he had neither work nor metal. Some of the waggish members observed, what was he going to do with metal if he had no work!

Eben was well known to the "Hie Schule laddies," by whom he was much annoyed. They used to call him "Ninepence," in allusion to his old-fashioned three-cornered hat. Almost every night a band of them assembled at the door of the Church, waiting his arrival; and although they had probably tormented him to the utmost during the day, they seldom failed to gain admission to assist in tolling the bell, and to amuse themselves by swinging on the rope. The laddies knew well the "weak side" of the bellman. It was no longer Ninepence, or even Eben, but Mr. Wilson will ye let us in to bow the bell? "O yes," Eben would say, quite gratified with the respect shown him; "but see that ye behave yoursels." Mr. Wilson was in this way commonly saved the trouble joiving the bell himself.

Although in general very regular, Eben committed a sad mistake on one occasion, by tolling the curfew at seven o'clock in place of eight. The shops were shut up, and the streets consigned to comparative darkness, when the clerks and shopboys discovered with delight that they had gained an hour by his miscalculation. This occurrence afterwards proved a source of great vexation to him.—"It's seven o'clock, Eben, ring the bell!" being a frequent and irritating salutation on the part of the laddies. It had the effect, however, of making Eben more circumspect in future. Every night as he came down the High Street, he was careful to look into the shop of Mr. Eamage (at the west end of the Old Tolbooth), in order, by a peep at the watch-maker's timepiece, to satisfy himself that he was right.

Eben was a humble but pretty constant frequenter of Johnnie Dowie's tavern, which he used regularly to pass in going from his own house to the Tron Kirk. When the Print of "honest John" appeared in the artist's window, it is said that Eben was the first to acquaint him with the fact. In order to be convinced with his own eyes, John was prevailed on to accompany him to Kay's shop, where. the brassfounder began to indulge in much merriment at the vintner's mortification. It so happened that Ebenezer's own likeness had been finished some days prior, and a few impressions taken. The artist, watching the progress of the scene outside, at last exhibited the Print of Eben beside that of honest John ; who in turn enjoyed a hearty laugh at the chopfallen countenance of the bell-ringer.

Eben was exceedingly wroth at the artist—he never would forgive him ; and from that day forward discarded the apron, thinking thereby to render the portraiture less characteristic. He continued, however, to wear the old cocked hat and shoe-buckles till his death, which occurred in 1828, at the age of seventy-five. The late Dr. Hamilton, senior, used to give him his cast-off cocked hats; and he and Eben were for a long time the only individuals in town who wore that species of covering. He was succeeded in his situation by James Robertson, another brassfounder and pensioner of the Society of Hammermen, who died in April, 1836. Eben was married, and had a family. One of his daughters is now the wife of a very respectable and useful minister of the gospel in the west of England.


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