Tag Archives: local history

Hidden Edinburgh: The Craigentinny Marbles

9 May

It’s not everyday you come across a grand monument incongruously surrounded by bungalows (think of the Arc de Triomphe dropping into Barnton, or the Collossus being rebuilt on Dalkeith Road). This really is a strange sight for even the most hardened sightseer. And just think about it – how would it feel if you walked out of your door each morning to be greeted by the grandeur of classical sculpture? Probably pretty great. Well, if you are on the lookout for this kind of thing it might well be worth your while taking a trip up to Craigentinny for a look at the ornate grave of William Henry Miller, also known as The Craigentinny Marbles.

And what’s more, if you like a bit of mystery with your marbles then you’re in the right place. The details of Miller’s burial arrangements, and the speculation surrounding his life and death are extremely bizarre…

The Miller mausoleum is designed in the style of a tomb on the Appian Way in Rome. It was designed by David Rhind and completed in 1856, in open fields on the Craigentinny estate, to the north of the Edinburgh Portobello road, between Piershill and Portobello. On either side of the enormous structure two stone carvings depict epic scenes from the bible. These were carved by Alfred Gatley, an eminent Victorian sculptor,  and fixed to the north and south sides of the monument in 1867. Strangely enough the sculptures are not actually marble at all – they picked up their name from the resemblance they bear to the bas-relief sculptures on the Elgin Marbles which are held in the British museum in London.  The tomb marks the last resting place of William Henry Miller who was at one time a prosperous landowner and member of Parliament for Newcastle under Lyme. Miller inherited Craigentinny house and estates from his father but spent much of his life in England.  It is clear, however, that he had a strong affinity with Edinburgh for it was here that he decided he wanted to be buried. And for the sort of lavish arrangement Miller had in mind you really have to plan ahead.

In his lifetime Miller was a renowned collector of books, one of the great collectors of his age infact. He amassed a library that included six books from William Caxton’s press and was unrivalled among other private libraries of the time for the number, rarity, and condition of its examples of early English and Scottish literature. His pedantry in regard to book collecting was legendary. He became known as ‘Measure Miller’ after his habit of carrying around a ruler to measure the exact size of copies of books before deciding whether or not they would enhance his collection.

Miller died without heirs in 1848 at his estate in Craigentinny after a short illness, he was sixty. His opulent burial arrangements would cost £20,000, a staggering amount of money at that time. Yet it was not merely the cost of his entombment that aroused the public interest. Details of his last will and testament began to circulate around Edinburgh. Miller’s will stated that he should be buried at the bottom of a 40ft stone lined shaft beneath a giant monument, and that on top of his coffin should be placed a heavy stone slab. The town was full of gossip.

The book Old & New Edinburgh, published in 1890, documents that during the time between Miller’s death and his eventual burial people began to think he might have been posing as something he was not:

  “… he was averred to be a changeling – even a woman, a suggestion which his thin figure, weak voice,  absence of all beard and some peculiarity of habit, seemed to corroborate”

It was suggested that Miller, who had never married, had been an adopted female orphan who throughout his life had cunningly disguised himself as a man. And not only had little William been masquerading as a man, but he had used his newfound gender to get all the way to the highest office in the land. Thus his burial arrangements were thought to be a way of ensuring that this secret stayed a secret for ever more.

Absence of all beard or not I think that you’ll agree this all seems a little farfetched. The man was an MP, a figure of public prominence, you would think at least one of his colleagues or constituents might have smelled a rat, confronted him in the local Turkish baths etc. It is true that he was a notoriously private man – rarely allowing anybody to inspect or study his book collection  – but in no way can he be said to have shied away from public life, having run for election seven times.

The most likely explanation for Miller’s esoteric burial arrangements, and the one that is generally accepted, is that his tomb was designed as a way to deter body snatchers. Edinburgh was still recovering from the Burke and Hare scandal a few decades before – and the city still had a tricky problem getting rid of those pesky grave robbers. So, providing one had the requisite funds (which Miller certainly did) it probably seemed like a good idea to bury yourself deep underground where nobody could get their hands on you. Makes perfect sense to me.

For a long time after Miller’s death the monument above his remains stood bare. When the two panels were finally fixed to the mausoleum in 1867 they were described in the press as: ‘the most remarkable pieces of sculpture executed during this century.’ Why not take a trip to Craigentinny for a look and see if you think they were right. (Grave robbers not welcome).

17 Danube Street: What Your Parents Never Told You…

28 Mar

Once upon a time, in the quaint, genteel little neighbourhood of Stockbridge, there was a brothel. And this brothel, located as it was in an elegant terraced house on Danube Street was, you might say, rather well disguised. It was owned and looked after by a lady called Dora Noyce, who didn’t actually care for the term ‘brothel’ – she preferred her house described as a ‘YMCA with extras’. This infamous Madam, her hush-hush House of Leisure and what her customers got up to there are surely among some of the worst kept secrets in Edinburgh.

             But for those of you who aren’t in on the gossip here are the pertinent facts. 17 Danube Street threw open its doors shortly after the close of the Second World War and kept them open until the late seventies, when Dora Noyce passed away at the age of 77. Noyce herself was, outwardly at least, a prim and prudish individual, always neatly dressed and always ready with a dry apercu for the authorities. When the police dropped in to raid the house it is said that she would regularly greet them with the words ‘business or pleasure gentlemen?’ At election time she would plaster Conservative party posters in her windows. She wore pearls to her court dates. And when out buying nibbles and wine for her guests at the little independent shops in Stockbridge, she would say, if asked, ‘one should always support one’s local businesses.’

Her smart appearance and Morningside manners belied a much harder upbringing. Noyce was born Georgie Hunter Rae on Rose Street in 1900, then a poverty stricken area where drink and disease were rife. Her father plied a fairly lowly trade as a cutler. She worked for some time as a call-girl herself before opening the Danube street business, perhaps seeing the moneymaking potential in catering for the needs of serviceman shortly after the end of a war. Indeed, it is said that when the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy had weighed anchor in the Firth of Forth, Danube Street made a staggering £4000 in one night. Soldiers were reputedly queuing all the way down the street and round the corner – until eventually the ship’s commanding officer ordered the brothel strictly out of bounds to his men.

On the hunt for more information about this notorious Madam I arranged to go for a walk around Stockbridge with Tom Wood, former Deputy Chief Constable of Lothian and Borders Police. Now retired, Mr Wood works in an advisory role for the government, but back in the seventies he was a young beat bobby in Stockbridge – during the final years of Dora’s occupancy at Danube St. Who better to talk to then about this risqué chapter in Edinburgh’s past and, indeed, the sex industry in Edinburgh more widely?  He explained to me that in those days he worked from the (now obsolete) police box on Dean Terrace, which is where we arranged to meet.  How very cloak and dagger I thought to myself, it couldn’t get much more Rebus than this!

I met Mr Wood and we walked towards the house in beautiful Spring sunshine. He talked fondly of his days in Stockbridge, he had grown up there and still had quite an affinity with the place. He told me that it had changed a great deal since the seventies; then it was a grittier, less refined area, with quite a diverse immigrant population. He had known Dora back then and had had dealings with her (in a strictly professional capacity of course!) and he told me that she was quite the character.  You would see her buzzing about to local shops and she would always be polite and courteous. She had real wit. Her perennial quip was that she did her best business during the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland!

As we approached the blue door at number 17, we stopped and discussed in more detail how the house had operated. There were two floors, of which Dora owned both, however she would sublet the basement flat to her girls, which was split into small cubicles. She would have about 15 regular girls at any one time and as much as a further 25 for busy spells. Dora would greet guests at the door of the upstairs flat and entertain them with glasses of wine. The upstairs flat, said Mr Wood, was better regulated and was never much trouble, the sublet cubicles downstairs however were more of a nuisance to the authorities but a good deal more lucrative.

Mr Wood is a noted authority on police perspectives on prostitution and he speaks with a great deal of insight on the subject. First of all, he said, you have to remember that despite her legendary status Dora was still a criminal and what she was up to was illegal. But regardless of this, Dora was able to strike up a working relationship with the local police, even senior detectives,  on the tacit basis of course that Danube Street would be raided every six months or so. Dora would supply the police with whatever information about the criminal underworld that came her way, and in return the police were lenient with her.

In the course of our discussion I began to appreciate that this was an entirely pragmatic approach to a very tricky problem. Mr Wood talked of a live and let live approach, with limits, naturally. You can either ignore the sex industry, he said, which is silly; try to suppress it, which is impossible; or recognise it and try in whatever way you can to regulate it. When Danube St was the centre of the sex trade in Edinburgh, he said, at least the authorities had a good grasp of what was going on and who the main players were. After Dora died and as things started to move into Leith and elsewhere, it became difficult to keep track. Crime linked to the sex trade became a big issue throughout the eighties, accompanied by a pronounced rise in the spread of sexual diseases. Dora’s girls had all received regular medical examinations.

It is amazing to think that Dora Noyce was charged over 40 times for living on immoral earnings and that she only spent a very small amount of time in prison. Her last prison term was for four months in 1972 at the ripe old age of 71. Remarkably, local councillors took more complaints while she was in jail because her business simply was not as well managed without her.

After her court appearances you could find Dora in Deacon Brodie’s on the Royal Mile talking up a storm to the press. She was a canny self advertiser. ‘Just remember to get the name and address right’ she would say to the eager journalists, ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity in my profession.’

So now you know the tale of the Stockbridge house of leisure and the formidable lady who ran it. Shocking: I’m sure you will agree. It is quite possible that you’ll never look at Danube Street in the same light ever again. Having said that, something like this, something a little outré, is that not what gives a place its real charm?