Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

A Dundee Lass
Dundee by Gaslight and other Pictures

Dundee from the Queen’s Hotel – The view looking down the Nethergate to the High Street is dominated by spires and chimneys. We see the tower of St. Enoch’s on the left (demolished in the 1960’s), the spires of St Pauls and the Town House on the right, and the chimneys of the jute factories.

This is perhaps the most altered area of Dundee. It shows the Nethergate before it was widened and crowded with traffic. The Town House has since been replaced by City Square, while the Overgate has been radically changed.

(Dundee by Gaslight, by Nancy Davey. A Dundee Museum and Art Galleries Publication, 1975)

Dundee By Gaslight

These are places I played, strolled in the "Monkey’s Parade", worked, shopped with my mother at Paddy’s Market and the barras, looked for boys, waited for buses, got books from the Library, went to school and museums and concerts and flower shows, learned to swim, almost joined the WRNS – look it up - saw in the New Year, ate busters but once and only one whelk at that, looked for Sophie plying her trade as a Madam, learned about Blind Mattie (whom I always thought of as one of the still alive "Dundee Worthies") and Grissel Jaffrey (the last "witch" burned in Dundee, my Granny said), took the trains and always prayed – even as an adult when I returned for a six week holidays with three small children in 1974 – that the Bridge wouldn’t fall down while I was on it, went on Mystery Tour bus trips, with Alexanders and Watson’s and the Blue Bird buses, fished with a jam jar and a stick and a net for minnins – look this up, too – wondered if Magdalene Green wasn’t – that kind of syntax means I almost truly believed it - named after my Granny’s granny’s mother, (Magdalene Benvie) swam in the sea and thought that people who tried to swim the Tay even though covered in grease and oils had something lacking upstairs, preferred to walk down the Hilltown rather than up, ate fish and chip suppers out of a newspaper wrapping with a big pickled onion and a beetroot, went to the pictures and hoped I could sit in the chummy seats at Greens with my lad – the few I had by the way, fell in love (several times, but only one time for sure), got proposed to (twice, but only once by the right person) and grew up in Dundee.

Old pictures of these places of my growing up are included in those found in Dundee by Gaslight:

The Nethergate. Reform Street, Meadowside, The Albert Institute, Albert Square, The High School, The Vault, The Old Custom House, The Greenmarket, Holiday Week at the Greenmarket, Market Day in the High Street, The Greenmarket Swings, Fishwives in the Greenmarket, Dock Street, Earl Grey Dock, Marine Parade, Sprat Fishers in the Tay, Victoria Graving Dock, The Mars Training Ship, South Union Street, The Cholera Hospital, Fish Street, The West Station, Overgate looking West, Overgate looking East, The Hilltown, Bucklemaker’s Wynd, Top of the Hilltown, The Cowgate, Dudhope Castle, Barrack Park, Children’s Corner, Magdalene Green, Magdalene Green, Perth Road, Dundee /Newtyle Station, Ward Road, The Old Tay Railway Bridge, Broughty Ferry Fisherfolk, Broughty Ferry Beach.

My memories are not only of Dundee by gaslight, but 7 Hill Street by gaslight. As best I can gather, when that great invention of electricity became available our "factor" or landlord was more than willing to put it in his tenants’ home – provided they paid for it. Now, this address had been home to my great great grandmother, my great grandfather, my grandmother, then my mother and, finally, me – five generations. My granny told me we didn’t have the money to put in electricity. So we stayed with the gas.

We hand one mantle in the front room where we literally did our living – eating, cooking, socializing, bathing in the zinc tub, and my granny in our last years there slept on a sofa bed every night. We also had an indoor toilet and two bedrooms and a long lobby that led to one of the bedrooms. Only the front room and the bedrooms had mantles. There was no lobby light and no toilet light. So we also used oil lamps and torches, or flashlights. My mother worked at the Burndept battery factory (later known as Vidor) from about the time I was twelve or so and we had a never ending supply of torches and batteries for those and the radio.

Gas mantles were so fragile. My mother lived in fear of them breaking. They were so hard to find in the shops because everybody else had electricity. (Many of my friends still had shared lavatories in their tenements, and I felt that having our own family toilet in the house was a worthwhile trade off, believe me.) So, I was never allowed to light the light – even up to the time I was 15 or so and we were moved to St. Mary’s housing scheme. I remember hunting up and down the Hilltown for mantles and buying as many as we could afford to hoard for the next emergency. But back to the lighting restrictions, I did sneak once and stood on my tip toes, turned on the knob under the crook necked fixture, heard the hiss of the gas coming on, light the match, and stretched my hand over the mantle to light it so carefully. Heart pounding I saw the blue flame before turning down the gas to get the warm yellow glow – and breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn’t set the house on fire before quickly turning the gas off and the light out before my Granny found out what I’d done! To this day, I’m afraid of fire, and won’t even light a barbecue grill.

And I have to smile at the craziness of life – but I was never restricted from lighting the fire in the grate that warmed our living area. The bedrooms had fireplaces, but were never used. And to this day I can lay and light and turn on a great winters day fire – but don’t need to do it too often here in Phoenix, Arizona.

It’s interesting how we bring our childhood habits and memories with us into adulthood. The hard part is dumping the bad habits and painful memories and leaving them in "left luggage" like we used to when we were on day trips and didn’t want to lug that baggage around with us. (I’m a social worker, by the way, and I do a lot of my counseling using images – I’ll have to use this one sometime.) And here I am, 53 years old and based on my life up to when I was 15 to this day I’ll light a fire, but won’t light a barbecue grill or a campfire and definitely not one of those camp lanterns with the wee white lint mantle. I get the kids to do those jobs!

And so we had our life at home with a gas stove for cooking, a fireplace and a gas lamps for warmth and light, an old windup gramaphone with breakable 78 records and a battery operated radio, no TV, for entertainment. We did a lot of talking, a lot of reading, a lot of radio listening – all of which left plenty of time for a child’s imagination to sprout and grow in the home of her Granny’s granny.

Robert Louis Stevenson knew the magic found in the imagination of a child. My mother taught me this poem and told me it was a favourite of hers when she leaned out of the same bedroom window I did on Hill Street and watched the world go by and the leerie go up and down our street to light the evening lamps.

The Lamplighter

The LamplighterMy tea is nearly ready
And the sun has left the sky.
It’s time to take the window
To see Leerie going by.
For every night at tea-time,
And before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder
He comes posting up the street.
Now Tom would be a driver
And Maria go to sea
And my Papa’s a banker
And as rich as he can be.

But I, when I am stronger
And can choose what I’m to do
O, Leerie, I’ll go round at night
And light the lamps with you!
For we are very lucky
With a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it
As he lights so many more.
And O! before you hurry by
With ladder and with light
O, leerie, see a little child
And nod to him tonight!

(Robert Louis Stevenson, A Child’s Garden of Verses)



Just a few weeks ago, on our local Phoenix PBS TV station, there was a program from BBC on called "The 1900’s House." Stephanie, my middle daughter, and I watched it every week it was on. Stephanie watched it because she enjoys the home renovation shows, such as "This Old House." I watched the program because I wanted to see how true the it was to my memories of growing up in my own 1900’s type house. Neither of us was disappointed. And I think when my teenage daughters and 7 year old grandson watched it with us it gave them a clearer picture of what my life at 7 Hill Street was like.

Here’s a thumbnail – the BBC put out a call all over Britain for a family willing to give up 3 months of their lives to live as a 1900’s family in a house especially de-renovated back to the 1900’s for that purpose. The family, all members, would be expected to live as a middle class (which we certainly weren’t up at Hill Street) London family (close enough for Government work, I suppose) at the turn of the century. The wife would be expected to be at home doing the housework (that I expected to be a bundle of laughs), the husband would be allowed to go to work in the day (while the wife worked) and the children would be allowed to go to school in the day (while the mother worked). This concept got to be more and more amusing for me, because I couldn’t imagine a modern family of any first world country being able to "do without modern conveniences" as my mother and Granny used to say – and they meant simple things that I now take for granted like electric light, electric appliances, and cars.

The program showed some of the applicants video auditioning and giving their reasons for wanting to be the 1900’s family. My answer would have been, "So my children can learn really deeply what growing up at the top of the Hill was like for me in the middle of the 1900’s – and I’m sure not much changed since my Granny was a lassie in the same house." Stephanice, the girls, and Nathan flat out said they wouldn’t even consider auditioning for such a nutty scheme.

Finally a British Marine Warrant Office, his wife who’s a school librarian, and their late teen daughter, early teen twin daughters, and their 8’ish son were selected. Oh, they were so full of high hopes and wonder as they entered this lovely 1900 home, with its gas lights, coal stove, fireplace that also heated the household water, outside toilet (but with chamber pots in the bedrooms – check out the joke I’ve inserted in this section!), antimacassars on the sofas in the parlour, etc., became theirs. They also thought it fun, to begin with, to wear the 1900 clothing – complete with stays, button collars, lisle stockings, liberty bodices for the girls (and I remember wearing mine in the winter time), button boots – that was their wardrobe. And as I watched the first of the four episodes, I could only imagine how knackered the mother would be by the end of the three months, how much complaining the kids would do (playing parlour games, charades, and arranging lead soldiers would only be amusing for so long, I thought), and how only the Dad might miss life as a 1900’s head of the gas lit household when they returned to the beginning of the 21st Century..

And, yes indeed, many of my memories were documented in vivid video – beating the rugs with a wooden paddle, boiling the clothes in the wash house, ironing with a flat iron, fighting the fire to light so you could have hot water (we had a gas stove – which these folks didn’t; they had a running hot water bath tub, while we only had the zinc tub we filled with kettles of hot water), dusting and sweeping every day to keep down the "stoor", and many more. I think my family got tired of my derisive comments of "What are they complaining about?" (and believe me by Episode 2 they had started!) "I remember my Granny, my mother and me doing these jobs every day I lived in Hill Street." (The girls did ask me if this was the Scottish equivelant of the American parental retort of "When I was your age I walked to school five miles in the snow every day, uphill both ways.")

But, the biggest thrill I got out of this program was watching this modern family so very carefully light their gas mantles and not (a) set the house on fire or (b), far more importantly, break their hard to find gas mantle.

Those scenes reminded me of an article I saved from an old "Telly" (Evening Telegraph) written by W. G. Miller, of Dundee, titled Calamity When the Gas Went Out.


In 1905 I was taken by my parents to the Gaiety Theatre, in Victoria Road, Dundee. (Charlotte’s Comments – I think this eventually became The Vic cinema where my mother had a nighttime job as an usherette when I was a teenager. My Mum loved going to the pictures – but I wonder how much she enjoyed them after seeing the same ones night after night. You have to understand how important usherettes were in the pictures – here in America you wouldn’t think of going to the pictures after the film began and staying around for the second showing, and either leaving the picture at the point you came in – didn’t bother us that we saw the middle or the end sometimes before the beginning – or staying to see the whole picture again if it was a good one. Besides that, pictures were always "double feature" so people stayed in their seats anyhow. But, back to the point of this particular memory ramble, the usherettes were important because with their torches – flashlights – they helped you find an available seat in the dark. And as well as doing that, when it was the break between the pictures, they’d strap on these big trays to sell of ice cream and sweeties and drinks – usually Walls ice cream and Kiora – don’t know if I’m spelling it right – drinks. I remember the name of the drinks because the ad had this wee girl with a classical name holding the cardboard container drink in her hand and some adult voice calling to her, "Don’t forget the Kiora, Aurora! But, back to W. G. Miller of Dundee’s article):

Better known in later years as the Vic, (see, I was right!) – (and now you know I don’t always re-read articles before I re-type them!) – the Gaiety at that time was poorly lit by gas jets of the fishtail type.

These fishtails were enclosed in small, wire baskets over the exit doors and the attendants turned the lights low when the performance started.

The popular song at that time was "I Wouldn’t Leave My Little Wooden Hut For You," and this was sung by an elderly lady who seemed to be sporting a promising moustache.

But then I realized this effect was created because the footlights were so poor that they cast strange shadows over the performers’ faces.

In those days, the incandescent mantle had not yet reached Dundee and poor lighting was accented as part of our way of life.

Many of the older houses were still lit by candles and oil lamps, but in the modern tenements extending gas brackets were fitted over the high mantelpieces in each room.

The penny-in-the-slot was the most popular gas meter and it was usually sited in the room press, not easily accessible in the dark. (Oh, just have to interrupt here – when I paid my most recent electric bill I said to my fifteen year old daughter, Adriana, "Well there’s another shilling or so in the meter to keep the lights on for a wee while." She had no idea what I was talking about, and when I told her we were "toffs" because we paid our gas monthly and didn’t have to worry about keeping coins handy like many of my friends’ parents’ did to keep their electricity on she was quite amazed and said it might not be a bad idea to "pay as you go." I asked her if she’d like me to do something like that with the phone – to which she is very securely and frequently connected – and put in a pay phone booth in the living room for her use, she didn’t think that was such a good idea!)

The way through the room was like an obstacle course with beds and furniture.

Often, too, pennies were hard to come by.

Domestic Scene

Picture, then, this scene in a typical Dundee tenement home.

On a dark night, the family are in the kitchen – father in his hard, wooden, fireside chair with the evening paper and mother busy at the sink.

Wee Jeanie is sitting on a stool near the kitchen dresser struggling with her homework or knitting and Willie dourly cleaning the shoes with blacking. (This came in cakes and had to be moistened).

Suddenly, the light goes out and mother cries, "There’s the gas awa’ an’ Eh dinna he’e a penny. Poke up the fire, Boab, an’ let’s see whut wir daeing."

"Jeanie, pet, there’s a bit can’le in the left hand drahr o’ the dresser. Whaur’s the matches? D’yi ha’e a penny, Boab?"

"Twa Hupnies"

The matches are found and the candle lit to reveal Boab, pipe in mouth, grumbling through his moustache. Fingers groping in his waistcoat pockets he produces two half-pennies and hands them over.

"Jeanie," says mother, "here’s twa hupnies. Ask Jean Meengis if she has a penny. Furr the gas."

"Eh got ane f’ae’r yesterday, Ma, an’ she wis grousin’ aboot some fowk aye wantin’ sumthin’."

"Niver mind hurr, then. Gae doon an’ ask auld Kirsty Whuttet. She’ll gi’e yi ane. Awa’ yi go now, ma wee lamb. An’ hurry!"

Presently, Jeanie comes back with the penny, feeling her cautious way through the room. The penny is heard dropping into the meter ( me again - hence the phrase, ‘The Penny Drapp’t’ when some people finally catch on to a joke!) – but before the gas can be re-lit there is a crash and a cry of despair.

"Guid heavens! She’s knocked over Auntie Phemie’s vahz aff the wee table."

"Dinna Greet"

With tear-stained face, Jeanie appears in the doorway.

"Eh couldn’ help it, Ma. Eh didn’ mean it."

"Dinna greet, hen. Eh ken fine yi didna mean it. Here, dicht yer face. Eh’ll sune clear it up."

Many a souvenir from Forfar or Arbroath was swept from the mantle and into the fireplace from a groping hand searching for matches.

Before the mantle appeared we were little better off for light in the winter months than our Pictish predecessors.

The streets of Dundee and other towns were badly lit, particularly the back streets and lanes.

Curiously, the folks who remember those dark nights in Dundee will tell you quite seriously that streets were safer then.


And a dead Scotsman canna pee at a’!Here’s that wee joke –it’s so old it has hair on it, and all my children have learned it somewhere in their childhood –

What’s the difference between a rich Scotsman, a poor Scotsman and a dead Scotsman?

Well, a rich Scotsman has a canopy over his bed.
A poor Scotsman has a can o’ pee under his bed.
And a dead Scotsman canna pee at a’!


Dock Street
Dock Street

When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited Dundee in 1844 (my Granny talked about this event as though she was there, but she wasn’t born until 1892 – so her Granny must have told her vivid stories, too. My Granny also told me about Winston Churchill running for MP for Dundee after the First War - I have no idea why he chose Dundee – I’ll have to look it up somewhere on the Internet, I think – and that he gave a speech under the Arch and got chased away through the Arch by the good citizens of the day) a ceremonial wooden arch was erected for them to walk through after landing. This was later replaced by the stone arch in the photograph.

The Masonic Temple on the left is now Winter’s Publishing House, while the King William IV Dock, in the background, has beenf illed in, and become part of the approaches to the Tay Road Bridge.

For many years two guns, captured from the Russians during the Crimean War, stood in front of the Royal Arch.

The Mars Training Ship
The Mars Training Ship

Built in 1848, this 80 gun warship was later fitted with engines and converted into a screw frigate with 60 guns. Due to her bad steering qualities she was used as a store ship during the Crimean War.

Old and dismantled, the Admiralty gave her, as a training ship, to be used on the Tay. On board, 400 boys who had either been taken from bad homes, or had been in trouble themselves, were educated and trained, some as bandsmen for the navy or the army.

In the late 1920’s the ship was towed to the Firth of Forth and broken up.

(Whenever my Granny read or heard about bad boys behavior, or vandalism, or anything like that her solution was always "Gi’e them the tawse" or "They should send them to the Mars. It’s a gey shame it’s no’ aye there!")

Some More of Nancy Davey’s Photos from "Dundee by Gaslight"

Reform Street
Reform Street

Standing in front of the Old Town House (present day City Square), the photographer looked up Reform Street and captured the bustling scene. The building on the left is now Boots Chemist Shop, at the entrance to the new Overgate. (A note from Charlotte, I have many memories of going into Boots for toiletries and hair things. They had a small library on the second floor(just about where the two windows on the end of the white bulding are) for "toffs" who could afford to pay to borrow the books to read. I used to go up there just to look at the books and sneak a wee read while my mother shopped downstairs. H. Samuel’s is across the street on the other corner. "Under Samuel’s Clock" was a favourite meeting place for lads and lasses – and it’s where John bought my engagement ring and our wedding rings for about $25 in 1965. He never asked me what I wanted, we never even discussed what I liked, but this wonderful man chose the style I had always wanted – three small diamonds on a straight line indicating, to me, eternity in the symbolism of the trinity. Old Presbyterian habits die hard, don’t they?)

The early motor car indicates that the photograph was taken after 1899. In the previous year, Mr Tom Shaw bought one of the first tricycles fitted with an engine, and in 1899 he acquired his first motor car, a two seater Mors, which he drove from London to Dundee in eight days.

The West Station
The West Station

On Saturday 1 May 1963 at 8.00pm, the last train left the West Station, bound for Glasgow. Fourteen months later in 1964 the building was demolished in the development of access roads to the Tay Road Bridge.

The West Station or Caledonian Station replaced a smaller building in 1899. The handsome new structure was sited directly behind the previous station. Unfortunately all that remains today is the single storey building on the left of the photograph.

(Our holidays during the Dundee Holiday Fortnight consisted of a week’s worth of "Runabout Tickets". These allowed as much train travel as you wanted anywhere within in a certain zone of Scotland. I remember many, many, years of Holiday Weeks getting up early in the morning, helping my Granny pack sandwiches, and catching the bus down to the West Station to take a "Puffing Billy" or steam train to places like Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Balquidder, Pitlochry, Crieff, Perth, Callendar, Stirling and many others for a day away. I learned so much about my country that way. Later, when the cleaner diesel trains came on line, it didn’t seem so much fun. There was no corridor to run up and down, pretending I was looking for the toilet, or dining car to walk through and imagine we could afford tea there in response to the porter’s calls of "Tea is being served in the Dining Car," or the chance to smell the smoke blown in from the window held open by the heavy leather strap (which some of my friends’ Dad’s had in their houses as "belts" to bring about good behavior in their children), or to enjoy the sound or sight of the station master waving his red flag, blowing his whistle, and crying out "Booaarrrd!" But, diesel or steam, as the train went through the Scottish towns, there was always someone to wave to and have wave back as we made that brief holiday contact. And, to evoke those memories of happy childhood days, I will still wave to a passenger train on the rare occasion I see one in America.

The Old Tay Railway Bridge
The Old Tay Railway Bridge

This photograph was taken from the south, shortly after the fatal collapse of the central spans of the railway bridge. The scene looks calm after the stormy night of 28 December 1879, when the high winds broke up the bridge, crashing the train, crew, and passengers into the river. No-one survived the tragedy although the engine was salvaged and used again.. People later referred to it as the "Diver." Today we can still see the piers of the old bridge alongside the new bridge, which was built in 1887.

(The stories I learned about that night were so vivid, that even looking at this pictures makes me hold my breath in reaction to the horror of that night. Whenever I had a choice of how we would go over to Fife, I was always happier to go around by Perth or over on the "Fifie," the passenger and car Ferry – not to be confused with the beach Ferry at Broughty – that crossed the Tay.)

Barrach Park
Barrach Park

This play area adjoined Dudhope Castle and provided a variety of activities for children.

In 1889 the Earl of Home, the owner, wished to demolish the castle, and feu the ground. He was prevented from doing so by a joint effort of the Town Council and private individuals, who were successful in acquiring the castle and grounds for 31,700 pounds.

(I remember playing on merry go rounds seen here in the foreground and on the bars in the back left – I wonder if they were the same ones, after all things last in Scotland. We also had summer recreation programs in that play area. I remember one year they erected a stage and had talent contents that I participated in by recitations from elocution lesions. If memory serves me right, I think that’s the DRI, Dundee Royal Infirmary, in the background.)


Dudhope Castle
Dudhope Castle

For centuries it was the home of the Constables of Dundee, who held their office from the King. The office of Constable was held by members of four different families, the Scrymgeours, Maitlands, Grahams and Douglases, and it was finally abolished in 1748.

In 1792 the building was sub-let to a woolen company which went bankrupt, and the government, anxious to station troops in Dundee, leased the castle in the following year. Used as an army barracks, until 1880, as a museum after 1900, Dudhope was occupied by officers of the 4th Battalion, the Black watch during the first World War.

At one time, a gun was fired each day at 1.00 p.m..


The Overgate Looking East
The Overgate Looking East

The only building which is recognizable today is the Old Steeple. This view was taken from the west end of the Overgate looking east. The area has undergone great change, and it now takes the road along by the Angus Hotel. The street is bustling with people, most of them poorly dressed. In the foreground we see a group of urchins, possibly selling newspapers. Several of them are barefooted.

(This photograph reminds me of the many times I walked on this street leading up to where the Barras, or barrow boys, were selling everything from pots and pans to toys and clothing off of barrows or truck beds. Even in my day, the Overgate was a poor part of Dundee, but it was the best place to find a great dressed herring on Hogmanay!)

Return to the Hilltown Family



This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus