A Year in Victorian Edinburgh

Begbie's Victorian Edinburgh collection - it belongs to us all
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It was stunning and became hugely popular in clothes. A ball gown would contain enough arsenic to kill people and a hair wreath The amounts used were lethal.

The Victorian Town House B&B, Edinburgh, Scotland

Recent data reveals that arsenic levels found in hair samples of the average middle class Victorian were around times higher than they are today. Arsenic poisoning was not so easy to identify. Some of its core symptoms including nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and muscle cramps were often confused with the hallmarks of cholera. It took until the s for authorities in England and Wales to wise up and condemn the use of arsenical wallpapers.

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On 27 February, Dr Macadam attended the Royal Scottish Society of Arts on George Street, Edinburgh to read a paper which publicly condemned the use of arsenic in commercially-produced paper hangings. Macadam believed that firms should be held to account for putting the public at risk. I have no hesitation in answering in the negative.

It appears to me in the poisoning of the public mind lies the greater danger.

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Begbie was an amateur photographer, originally from a family of lapidaries precious stone merchants but he went on to set up a professional photography studio at 7 Leith Street now the site of the St James Centre. Some of the photos in the collection pre-date the first record of his studio in the s and it seems that Begbie was a teenager when he took them, which is quite extraordinary.

It is quite possible of course, that he had help from an older relative but no one really knows. It seems however, that he continued to photograph studies of Edinburgh over decades — spanning the entire mid-Victorian era.

Galleries and museums

Begbie travelled all over the city to chronicle what he saw — from the Port of Leith and Newhaven with its fishwives and schooners docked onto the cobblestone quayside, to John Knox's house with a group of scruffy urchins outside, to Princes Street when Waverley Station was still under construction. He didn't shy away from the poverty — particularly in his shots of the slums of the Old Town, which are shown in all its paint-peeling, damp, dirty Victorian splendour.

I once described historical Edinburgh as a dirty bastard of a city and in Begbie's photos I see just that alongside other shots of stunning, Victorian splendour. He also catches vivid portraits of draymen and washerwomen going about their business - there are carriages along a cobblestoned Princes Street and top-hatted taxi cab drivers waiting to pick up a fare, horse's reigns in hand.

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Begbie was also present at Holyrood Palace for a military parade — the grainy figures of officers on horseback, I think are particularly intriguing. I love history and to see so clearly what it was like to walk in Edinburgh's streets over years ago really brings that alive.

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That the locations are still recognisable is a testament to the conservation undertaken by heritage organisations city-wide and beyond and certainly the fascination is not only with what was there, but what has changed. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the city's nationally-recognised, art collection though, is that it belongs to us, the citizens of Edinburgh.

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It is a way of chronicling our city and leaving a legacy of our own time to those who will follow us. For 4 weeks receive unlimited Premium digital access to the FT's trusted, award-winning business news. Premium Digital.

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II. Life in the Scottish victorian city: historical explorations

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