The plasterer’s flat

When we moved into a traditional tenement flat in Morningside (Edinburgh) in the mid 1990s, we felt very lucky. It was just what we wanted: spacious, in a great area of town (quiet, leafy, central and with varied local facilities). As a bonus it had relatively dramatic period features that gave our home extra character. Especially the ceilings.

But after nearly quarter of a century, the time came to move on. To flit. So, to partner a blog which sings the praises of one whole street of Morningside tenements, now here’s a specific eulogy to the history of our flat. Our much loved flat: the home our children grew up in. But we are not the focus… this is part of a “house history” of the place itself (Flat 1, 9 Woodburn Terrace), and of course it was a home for other people too. Here I’ll attempt to tell the story of the person who was responsible for creating its unusual charm, 140 years ago, its first owner, David Wight (~1838-1910), a plasterer who may or may not have been the intended first resident.

Part 1. The plaster-work

What’s distinctive about the flat (i.e. why it’s unlike any of the hundred-plus other similar flats in the terrace) are the ceilings. Rather than just a cornice and ceiling rose, the two public rooms have relatively complex crown plaster-work where walls meet the ceilings, complex ceiling borders, and moldings tracing ceiling sections. This might be commonplace in a grand villa or Georgian townhouse, but not in a Victorian flat

Living Room ceiling (in a clunky stitched image)

The previous owner explained to us that this had been “the plasterer’s flat” when the terrace had originally been built, so he’d been sure to give himself the best decoration. When we were preparing to leave (and we accessed the title deeds), I decided to explore this story in more depth.

Who was this plasterer, and what could I find out about his work, family and life? And why the uniquely fancy plaster-work in just this one flat?

The symmetrical dining room ceiling, also showing a picture rail (which was not visible in the living room image).

High ceilings are typical of Victorian (19th C) flats in Edinburgh. These ones are about 4m high, around 13 feet. I think originally this allowed the smoke from fires, candles, and gas lamps to rise out of the way, as well as providing a pleasant sense of space.

The height lets the eye take in the shapes and general patterns, without showing just how generations of paint have smoothed over and hidden the intricate detail.

Cornice detail is somewhat obscured by decades of paint.

I do know from seeing cleaned plaster in a friend’s New Town flat (hullo Alan) that it would be worth someone (younger than me) spending quite a number of hours on their back on a scaffolding stack, picking away the paint to get back to the delicately rendered leafs, stems, berries, scrolls and other elements. But people are not usually aware that the smooth patterns could be put into higher relief: anyway, they look beautiful as they are.

Mapping Sculpture

Part 2. David Wight, master plasterer

The first owner

The paperwork is clear: a plasterer called David Wight was the first owner of “First Flat No. 9 Woodburn Terrace, Canaan” when it was completed in 1881. He paid £585. Prices now, 140 years later, are nigh-on three orders of magnitude greater – and the types of occupations that could generate enough income to buy such homes have changed (though not maybe in the ways we might think).

The cover of the “feu disposition by Francis Walkingshaw to David Wight (1881) of first flat No.9 Woodburn Terrace, Canaan”.

The title deeds include documents dated the 14th and recorded on the 16th of May 1881. However, I cannot tell from the legal language or later documents whether David Wight lived in the flat himself, or, more importantly, whether he intended to.

In my blog on the building of Woodburn Terrace, I described how each block of 8 flats was built by a consortium. I assume that Wight’s plastering business worked on multiple flats in the terrace with the W. Watson & sons consortium (who built the block with our flat in, and maybe others). But whatever the broader connection, surely he was responsible for the grand plaster-work in this one flat that he bought personally from the street’s developer, Francis Walkingshaw.

When he bought the Woodburn Terrace flat (14th May 1881), it was just after the Scottish census (which had been Sunday 3rd April), so of course he was recorded in the census as (still) living at his previous home, 140 Rose Street (see below).

In the 1881 census (transcribed by LDS), Wight was described as Plasterer Employing 5 Men 6 Labourers 1 Carter 6 Apprentices. And he’d bought a new flat. Things must have been looking good.

Wight’s business

David’s business address was 83 Rose Street Lane, a back street in the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town. He had his workshop there around 1880, according to a website by Glasgow University collating information on British sculpture (University of Glasgow, 2011).

By 1890 his business address was off Viewforth, a street that led from residential Bruntsfield down to industrial Fountainbridge.

An advert from 1885 which he placed to recruit an apprentice indicates he was in Vulcanite Park, a heavily industrial area next to the Union Canal, at the bottom (north) end of Viewforth.

Looking North from above Viewforth (left), across the Union Canal. Image from

The area belonged to the North British Rubber Company (nowadays, or since 1966, known as Uniroyal). This highly successful company patented removable pneumatic tyres in 1890 before selling the patent to Dunlop around 1897 (cf. Grace’s Guides). Later, they were famous for making rubberised and Wellington boots, hot water bottles, condoms and golf balls as well as tyres, and for recycling the rubber from used tyres. The land was later developed by Scottish & Newcastle as a brewery and this and other parts of Fountainbridge are again being redeveloped for residential and student housing, leisure, offices, the canal, and Boroughmuir High School.

Wight seems to have been on the progressive side in labour relations. He was one of 32 companies who signed the following statement in The Scotsman Jul 13, 1878:

The Union Canal is now a peaceful waterway. It was re-opened thanks to a Millennium project, and from the adjacent terminal basin you can travel 50km (with no locks) to the spectacular Falkirk Wheel. In Fountainbridge itself, Edinburgh Printmakers have redeveloped the old head office, breathing life into the Castle Mills building, one of the few surviving things in this area that Wight would still recognise nowadays. The renovation project’s website explains that “Scottish Vulcanite Co, which made ebonite products, also operated on the site from 1860 to the end of the Second World War.”

Part 3. 9/1 Woodburn Terrace

1881: the census, April 3rd

The block was pretty much complete, but empty as yet. The census recorded 8-10 as having 8 unoccupied properties (“8U”). Numbers 11 and upwards were not recorded at all, so were presumably not finished.

1881: The Vallance bond

Wight borrowed £500 to buy the flat. In an entry in the deeds also dated the 14th of May, the text refers to a “Bond for £500, and Disposition in Security by said David Wight, to factor for Mary Vallance and Jessie Vallance and others, children of the deceased Archibald Vallance, confectioner, Number 5 Calton Street, Edinburgh, who resided at Number 5 Middlefield there, whom failing to said Mary Vallance and Jessie Vallance, of [the property]“. The Wight-Vallance Bond and Disposition in Security is a Scots legal contract.

Another note indicates David Wight had been at No. 83 Rose Street Lane from 14 May 1876 to 12 July 1881, which was the date on which a property document search on Wight found no “inhibitions or adjudications” against him.

I believe this means Wight had the equivalent of a mortgage from a private family trust. I am also pretty sure it means the Vallances had a right to the property (under certain circumstances). I assume they had some spare capital to invest, after the death of the main earner for the family. Anyhow, with their lawyer (who was a relative with the same surname, perhaps an uncle), they funded Wight, leaving him in a contingent ownership role or reduced factoring role, but it seems the £500 capital was ultimately theirs. He owed them interest on this loan. He also paid feus to Walkingshaw… who perhaps paid a portion of them upwards, and so on.

But it doesn’t clearly tell us who lived there.

1881: For sale? For rent?

There is a clue that David Wight intended to use 9/1 Woodburn Terrace (in Lot IV) as an investment, which is his collaboration with Gilbert Watson, whose company built the adjacent block on Lot III, comprising ground-floor numbers 5, 7, and the six flats grouped under number 6. Gilbert Watson & Co. would still own all those flats a few years later, in 1885 (and then sold the whole building to James Niven White, a tea dealer at 12 Forth Street, some time before the 1895 valuation rolls). Back in 1881, Gilbert himself (age 32, a carpenter and joiner) lived in brand new number 7 with his younger brother Knight (age 23), who was a solicitor.

1881 census, image from Scotland’s People. The household also included a general servant, Jane H. Davidson, a 60 year old widow born around 1821 in Auchtertail, Fife.

Knight had in 1878 in the role of “apprentice to James Somerville solicitor supreme courts” been one of the two witnesses to the signature of Francis Walkingshaw on the documentation buying the land for Woodburn Terrace from Charles and Mary Anderson, along with Walkingshaw’s clerk John Haig. (By the time of the 1891 census, Knight was in Campbeltown and Gilbert elsewhere in Woodburn Terrace. Numbers 11-13 were owned by The City of Edinburgh Property Association per Somerville and Watson SSC, 16 Young St.)

Maybe Gilbert’s company built Lot VII too. In any case, David Wight and Gilbert Watson were, together, selling or letting another first floor flat (number 18/1) in the winter of 1881-1882. And at the end of 1881 Wight’s address was still 83 Rose Street Lane. Does this not suggest he was not living in Woodburn Terrace himself… David would surely have given his own address as 9 Woodburn Terrace if he was there on the spot.

Advert for (31/12/1881), repeated in a slightly different form on 7/1/1882, both for Number 18/1, in Block VII. From The Scotsman.

I don’t know how many flats Wight had invested in, but since just one of them had the high level of ceiling decoration, again the question arises as to whether 9/1 may have been intended as his own home. Or maybe it was just a special property for rent. In which case, is there an advertisement for it, in 1881? I can’t find one, but it may be that he had a tenant through other means. And if that’s the case, I don’t expect to find any paperwork.

In the 1881 Post Office directory, “Watson, Gilbert, & Co.” were listed in Woodburn Terrace as “builders, house carpenters, and joiners”, and both Gilbert and Knight were listed for Number 7. Knight was still in Number 7 in 1882, but Gilbert’s address had moved to Number 18. Residents for other adjacent properties were listed, but nobody was listed for numbers 8, 9, 10. This doesn’t guarantee they were empty, but does suggest they weren’t easy to let. Even by 1883 and 1884 only one resident is named (Daniel Alexander, I think in 9/4) in number 9. Both the main door flats, however, had named tenants (William Addlington from 1883 and Robert C Brebner from 1884).

Finally, I think a clincher: David Wight himself was listed in the 1882 Post Office directory at 83 Rose Street Lane (business) and 140 Rose Street (home). A year later, his home listing had moved to 36 Warrender Park Terrace (the 1883 directory).

So I think it’s safe to conclude that he had not been living in Woodburn Terrace. He was the first owner, but I do not think he was the first resident.

1883: to sell (£580) or to let

By the 10th of March 1883, whatever the situation, David was prepared to sell the flat at 9/1 Woodburn Terrace at a (small) loss (or to rent it out). The advert also confirms by this stage he and his family were staying at 36 Warrender Park Terrace. Any similar adverts between 1881 and 1883 could confirm that the flat had been lying empty since 1881, but since I’ve not found them, probably this was just a change of tenant. either way, the option to sell at a loss is probably an indication that the flat was not making money.

Advert to sell or let 9/1 Woodburn Terrace (10/03/1883) in The Scotsman (p3).

I guess that things had not gone as expected for David Wight, whether or not living in the plasterer’s flat had ever really been his plan.

1884: The Vallance bond, repaid

Early on, when researching this, I was aware that something fairly dramatic had happened. That was evident from the title deeds. On 28th January 1884 David was required to repay the £500 Bond plus interest of £15-4-6). David was given just three months to come up with the cash or he would forfeit the flat.

“payment is now required”

William Vallance, number thirteen Hanover Street Edinburgh and residing at number twenty seven Nelson Street there as factor for Isabella Vallance, Mary Vallance, Jessie Vallance, and George Vallance … children and next of kin of the deceased Archibald Vallance confectioner number five Calton Street Edinburgh who resided at number five Middlefield there… appointed on sixth September [1878]… in whose favour the Bond and Disposition in Security aftermentioned was granted do hereby give notice to you David Wight, Plasterer, sometime at number eighty three Rose Street Lane Edinburgh now residing at number thirty six Warrender Park Terrace there that payment is now required of the sum of five hundred pounds being the principal sum due under the Bond and Disposition in Security dated … [14th May 1881] granted by you David Wight in favour of the said William Vallance, as factor foresaid, and of the sum of fifteen pounds fourteen shillings and sixpence … interest. … if at the expiring of the period of three months from the date hereof [i.e. 28th January 1884] the sums principal and interest and liquidate penalty incurred and to be incurred of which payment is now required shall not be paid …[then the Bond owners, the Vallances] may proceed to sell.

To begin with I did not know why the loan had come due for repayment: this was just a document, in the title deeds. I’ll return to the other events of January 1884 below.

1885: Vallance family in the Valuation Roll

Within a year, the flat was indeed owned by “Children of the late Archibald Vallance (bond holders in possession), per William Vallance per J.B. McIntosh 15 Young Street per Gilbert Watson + Co Woodburn Terrace.” with tenant Robert Bell, according to the property valuation rolls of 1885.

Part of the Valuation Rolls for 1885 (image from Scotland’s People), showing the owners of 8-11 Woodburn Terrace, and the tenant (if any, and if different).

Walkingshaw owned one of the top flats in #9, as did William Watson and Sons, but the block had diverse owners (including the local dairy owner, John Reid at 200 Morningside Road, who owned number 10). The is was unlike the adjacent blocks, which all the flats were still owned by the builders (not shown), namely Gilbert Watson & Co (5-7) and William Watson and Sons (11-13), who were based at 18 Morningside Road.

Part 4. Financial problems

Wight’s finances got into trouble during the 1880s, even if they’d been good in 1881. Things came to a head in 1884 (and again in 1889, but more of that later).


Recall the advertisement to sell 9/1 Woodburn Terrace in March 1883 and the repayment letter relating to the £500 Vallance bond dated 28th January 1884. I searched for a possible bankruptcy in the Edinburgh Gazette through its search function but found nothing (and I can’t work out why not). Thankfully, newspapers used to report “Scotch Bankrupts”, summarising the Gazette, and that’s how I found this next piece of evidence, in The Glasgow Herald.

In the Herald’s list of court actions, there was one sequestration, two examinations, and eight “petitions for cessio” (shown here), one of which was for David Wight.

The Glasgow Herald (5th January 1884, page 6 col 1) TL;DR – times were bad for our plasterer, and also a fisherman, a spirit merchant, and reverend, a cabbie and a fizzy water something or other.

Browsing The Edinburgh Gazette led me to a clarification that the action was brought by A. Grey and Sons, Farriers and Smiths, Rose Street. The action had first been heard in December 1883 and the sheriff called for the creditors and David to make their cases in public court at the end of January. The £500 Vallance bond was also recalled on the 28th January 1884.

Things were looking bleak.

Edinburgh Gazette (4th January Issue 9485, page 13)

The procedure in cessio did, however, protect Wight from imprisonment.

The debtor was examined by the sheriff on oath, and potentially creditors also. “A decree of cessio bonorum operated as an assignation of a debtor’s movables to a trustee for behoof of creditors. The bankrupt under a cessio had no power to insist on his discharge”, so future income could be assigned to creditors. So, he had to sell his assets and/or reduce his debts to raise the money. Hence the Vallance suit, and he end of his connection with Woodburn Terrace.

I can’t find the account in the Edinburgh Gazette but the following reports in The Scotsman and Edinburgh Evening News of the 29th give good detail. He owed over £600, and had assets around £250. I don’t know if the £500 Vallance bond was part of this £600, or in addition to it. I’d guess it’s the former.

The Scotsman, page 1 column 6, 29 January 1884

David stated he had borrowed £50 from Helen’s bother George Rowland back in 1878, and £35 from “Mr Neil” in 1883. Somehow he had received £130 in late 1883, paid them and other debts off: he then had written to his creditors to inform them that he was in debt (reported in court as being to a total of £357). He had a daughter, Helen, who had had a dairy (and confectioners) on West Thirlestane Road since May 1883 (see below for more on his family). He distanced any of her assets from being his own. Likewise, the family home, worth £300, was in his wife’s name, but was mortgaged for £275 in any case.

Edinburgh Evening News, 29 January 1884

9/1 Woodburn Terrace – conclusions

David Wight’s firm may have been the regular plasterers in the consortium led by William Watson and Sons, who built and furnished the tenement block on “Plot 4” at the mid-point of the terrace, and Plot 5 adjacent. He may have regularly worked with Gilbert Watson and Co. on other plots. For sure, he and Gilbert were somehow business partners. He owned #9 for a few years until he had to repay the Vallance family bond, and the Vallance trust took over ownership rather than selling the property right away, installing tenants. David Wight and Gilbert Watson seem to have had a similar interest in 18/1 Woodburn Terrace.

In the 1885 valuation roll, Francis Walkingshaw was still listed as proprietor of one of the flats (I believe it was 9/5) while being a proprietor/occupier of his own home in Jordan Lane. Moreover, Watson (William) and sons (18 Morningside Rd.) were owners of another flat in Lot 4 (I believe it was 9/6), plus at least numbers 11-15 Woodburn Terrace from Lots 5 and 6. So, bearing in mind also that Gilbert Watson, another of the builders, was actually living in 7 Woodburn Terrace himself, I suspect David had similar plans to live and/or rent out property in the street. Plans which did not come to fruition. Debts mounted and time ran out. There may have been a shortage of tenants willing to pay the level of rent required. But he did not live there himself.

Bedroom cornicework, not so untypical for larger, grander Victorian tenements.

In any case it seems unarguable that David Wight, plasterer, has arranged for this one flat’s additional ceiling decoration, presumably installed towards the end of the building phase, whether or not he was not responsible for the general plasterwork in the other flats. But why was it done? A simple-sounding rationale for the flat’s two “showcase” ceilings of a type more often found in grander houses of the day remains obscure. David Wight, plasterer, can safely be assumed to have commissioned and overseen the work. But why?

Part 5. Wight’s family and life

“David Wight” is one man’s name. One man appears on the title deeds, and he was the plasterer I had looked for, so for a long time I only thought of him as one isolated man, or as a business owner. But he had not just a firm but a family, and they lived together and worked and had interconnected lives in Edinburgh. I realised that their ups and downs are part of the story.

I’ve already referred to David’s bankruptcy and the stresses and strains on him as the main financial provider for his family; so let’s find out just a wee bit more about them all.

The Wight family home, 36 Warrender Park Terrace

The view from one of the flats (number 4) at 36 Warrender Park Terrace. The Wights were I think higher, in the top flat. Image from sales brochure for 36/4. In the foreground lies some of Bruntsfield Links (still used for short golf) and, on the skyline, Edinburgh Castle and the high part of the Old Town, including the spire of St. John’s, nowadays the Festival Hub.

In the 1885, 1895 and 1905 valuation rolls, David Wight was named as occupier of a flat at 36 Warrender Park Terrace in Marchmont (smaller than the Woodburn Terrace flat), looking out on to the Meadows. He was listed in the Edinburgh & Leith Post Office Directory (at least) under “Monumental Sculptors” / “Modellers” (1890), “Plasterers, Ornamental” (1880-1911) and “Stone Yards (1900-1911) at this address. Also, in the Edinburgh and Leith Post Office Directory in 1883 and often thereafter up to at least the 1909-10 edition, David (“plasterer and cement worker”) and “Mrs. D. Wight” (D-for-David) were both listed for this Marchmont address. He died there, on 27th June 1910, aged 72. That all suggests stability and calm.

Mrs Helen Wight was the flat’s legal owner, listed in the 1885 Valuation Rolls, and David Wight, plasterer, was tenant and occupier. Helen was, of course, the name of David’s wife.

Layout of a similar flat at 36 Warrender Park Terrace to the one occupied by the Wight Family.

Crime & punishment

As discussed, David bought the Woodburn Terrace flat in May 1881: in August of that same year he was tried, found guilty, and fined 21 shillings, aka one guinea, with the option of three days in prison, for owning a horse which had been mistreated on the 25th of July.

3 August 1881 “residing at Rose St” Edinburgh Evening News.

A shorter report in The Scotsman, (03/08/1881, p6) gives his address specifically as 140 Rose Street, as it was in the April census (again confirming that he and his family were not living in the Woodburn Terrace flat).

However, it would appear he was not unlucky or unobservant on a single occasion. There was a consistent pattern of behaviour.

A couple of months later, on September 21st, the SSPCA (who presumably were observing Wight’s business’s livestock), observed another instance of cruelty by a carter. This time, though Wight’s fine was only half as much as before (10s), his repeated offence of “working” the flogged horse while it was lame was given an increased period of detention (10 days) as an alternative to the fine.

The Daily Review (6/10/1881 page 3 col 1)

Such behaviour is indicative, to me, of a need or desire to make money by pushing a business beyond contemporary moral or legal limits. Maybe there was a lot of stress, already. Investing in 9/1 Woodburn Terrace in 1881 may have imposed an unsustainable load.

The married couple

David Wight and Helen Rowland got married on the 19th of August 1864 in South Leith. He was 26 and she was (or claimed to be) 24, and both were unmarried. He was a plasterer and she was a dressmaker. His parents were called Robert? Wight (a labourer) and Jane Shepherd. Later documentation suggests Helen was older. Her parents were George Rowland (seaman, deceased) and Euphemia Begg. Note that in the census and death certificates, Helen’s age varies a bit.

David died on 27 June 1910, aged 72, his parents were given as ?Robert Wight, labourer and Jane Wight, m.s. Shepherd, and the death was reported by Robert Wight, son. The cause of death was ?Hemiplegia?

From her death index and a newspaper announcement (The Scotsman, on the 22nd), Helen died (suddenly) on 20/10/1917 at 36 Warrender Park Terrace aged 77. The paper named her as Helen Rowland, wife of the late David Wight, plasterer. Her death certificate gave her cause of death as a cerebral hemorrhage and confirms that her parents were George Rowland, seaman, and Euphemia Begg.

The children

In 1881 the LDS census lists Wight’s typically large family of six. Additional details as discovered from other sources suggest they had seven children in total. The oldest child was George, born around 1865, a year or so after the marriage, so it’s not likely there are older siblings.

  • David Wight, age 43 (born ~1838 in North Leith). Plasterer Employing 5 Men 6 Labourers 1 Carter 6 Apprentices
  • Helen Wight, age 46 (born ~1835 or ~1840 in Stromness, Orkney).
  • George Wight, age 15 (born 1865 in South Leith), no occupation listed
  • Helen Wight, age 13 (born 1867 in Newington), dressmaker
  • Jane Wight, age 11 (born ~1870 in England), at school
  • David Wight, age 8 (born 1873 in South Leith), at school
  • Euphemia Begg Wight, age 6 (born 1875 in South Leith), at school
  • Margaret Wight, age 2 (born ~1880 “West Church”, Edinburgh)

In 1891 the census lists other children, and indicates the younger adults were still living at home, which was (as noted above) now 36 Warrender Park Terrace in Marchmont. I’ll list the 1901 census findings later. Helen and George were elsewhere, locations unclear.

  • David Wight, age 53, plasterer, employed, born in North Leith
  • Helen Wight, age 56, wife, born in Stromness
  • Jane Wight, age 21, milliner, born in England
  • David Wight, age 18, joiner, born in South Leith
  • Euphemia B. Wight, age 15, born in South Leith
  • Margaret J. Wight, age 11, born in Edinburgh, at school
  • Robert J R Wight, age 8, born in Edinburgh, at school (who is Robert James Ro___ Wight born 1882).

1889 tragedy

The family revisited the courts in 1889, following a tragic accident. This time they were seeking damages. As reported in the Scotsman (Tuesday 10th October 1899) under the headline ACTION AGAINST EDINBURGH CONTRACTORS, David’s son (also David) was suing a former employer.

In Edinburgh Sheriff Court yesterday proof was laid before Sheriff-Substitute Sym in an action under the Workmen’s Compensation at at the instance of David Wight (26), joiner, 36 Warrender Park Terrace , against Bendall & Pottinger, building contractors, Trinity Bridge , for [19 shillings?] per week during the period of his disablement, in respect of an accident. The evidence of the pursuer was to the effect that on that date he was working at a tenement in Golden Acre , at which defenders were the contractors for the joiner work. He had occasion in the course of his work to be on the second landing  of the building. It was laid with cement, which was still soft, and … a gangway for the men two short battens were laid and two long battens twelve feet long wore placed across the short battens. When the pursuer stepped onto the batten it tilted over and he was thrown down the well of the stair, the railings of which had not been erected. He was taken to the Infirmary, where he remained for three weeks. He sustained a fracture in the skull, and his collar bone was dislocated. He could not now use his left arm for lifting heavy weights, with the result that he was unable to undertake heavy work. His hearing had also been affected. The defence was that there were no requisites of the Workmen’s Compensation Act present at the time of the accident, namely, that there was no scaffolding or steam power . The Sheriff having heard counsel, took the case to avizandum.

Afterwards… I’ve not discovered the verdict. The employer was trying to wriggle away from any responsibility on a legal technicality.

1889-1890 ruin

Just a couple of months later, David was finally bankrupted and his assets sequestrated. The Gazette reveals that an action was brought in December 1889. Thankfully (and due to foresight) their home at 36 Warrender Park had been in David’s wife’s name around 1883, presumably in the lead up to the earlier financial problems.

“The estates of David Wight, Plasterer, Viewforth, Edinburgh; and residing in No. 36, Warrender Park Terrace, Edinburgh, were sequestrated on the 16th day of December, 1889, by the Court of Session.” (The Gazette, 20/12/1889, Issue 26004, p.7416).

Other reports appear in The Edinburgh Evening News of 27 January 1890 and The Scotsman, 4th Feb 1890.

Edinburgh Evening News, Wednesday 27 January 1890.

The following week, on Wednesday 3rd, he “answered questions as to the collection of rents and other matters” (The Scotsman, 4th Feb 1890, p2 col4) and the case was again adjourned (for a fortnight). I don’t yet know what happened finally, other than he must have been bankrupted. “Collection of rents” suggests he was still a property owner. It was still Helen, age 22 (previously and later a dressmaker) who ran her dairy. She was not living at home in 1891 (and there are two or three possible hits). David seems to have paid £30 for 6 months rental, only for his daughter’s business to be sold later in 1890 for £15. It appears in the 1889 directory, but not the following years.

1884 Post Office Directory with Helen’s Dairy at Number 1 West Thirlestane Road, later 120 Thirlestane Road (e.g. 1888 directory), occupied a prominent location at the corner of Whitehouse Loan, which we reckon we have passed THOUSANDS of times without ever knowing the connection.

1890: once more in court… not

On 3rd January 1890, as we have seen, David Wight was in court in relation to his bakruptcy. The very next day, on Thursday the 4th February, Wight himself failed to appear in another court action. He was suing Rae and Murdoch (slaters and gas fitters of Drumlanrigh Square, Hawick) for wrongful dismissal, and the case was rejected. The chance to obtain £50 damages was lost (Edinburgh Evening News, 4th February 1890, p4 col4).

So, by 1889/1890 Wight had presumably already lost his business and was working for other firms, but not successfully (to begin with, at least).


In 1891 (aged 53) David was again “employed” (defining himself in the census as a plasterer to trade). The census return was listed above.


Thankfully, the family kept their home, and a regular income was somehow achieved. The debts accepted by the court were paid over the next few years. David lodged a petition for discharge from sequestration on 24th January 1896 (Edinburgh Gazette Issue 10747 p.82).

However, David and Helen’s eldest son, George (also a plasterer), died on 24 August 1896 in 36 Warrender Park Crescent of epilepsy. He was only 31 years old, and unmarried.


The eight surviving adult members of the Wight family were all living at 36/6 Warrender Park Terrace. David was still, aged 63, working, as shown by the census (685/5 102/ 27). All the children were single.

  • David Wight, head, age 63, worker, plasterer
  • Helen Wight, wife, age 60, plasterer’s wife
  • Helen Wight, single, daughter, age 33, worker, dressmaker
  • Jane S Wight, single, daughter, age 31, worker, milliner
  • David Wight, single, son, age 28, worker, joiner
  • Euph [Euphemia] B Wight, single, daughter, age 25, working at home
  • Margaret J Wight, single, daughter, age 21, worker, typist
  • Robert J R Wight, single, son, age 18, worker, law clerk


By modern norms, it is unimaginable that six unmarried adult siblings would live in the same house (for almost their whole lives), let alone the same top flat in Marchmont. (But see my story of my wife’s near ancestors, who were also six co-habiting siblings.) Helen, widowed and now head of household aged 70, and in receipt of an old age pension, lived with her six surviving children ranging in age from 28 to 43. Their occupations were described as follows:

  • Helen, tailoress in ladies tailoring
  • Jane, sewer of Shetland woollen goods in a “Shetland warehouse”
  • David, joiner
  • Euphemia, no employment noted (presumably she was the home-maker)
  • Margaret, typist in a drapery warehouse
  • Robert, law clerk in a law office


As noted above, David died in 1910 and Helen in 1917, and though David and Helen had a large family, most if not all were unmarried by 1911 (aged 28 and up). I wonder what happened to them. Some descendants may be out there, but I’d not bet on it.

Part 6. Conclusion

So, did the plasterer live in his flat? It seems not. Did he profit from his effort? It seems not. Did he intend to move his family from Rose Street to Woodburn Terrace but end up instead in Warrender Park Terrace? Perhaps. All this leaves me with a sadly poignant feeling. A sense of unfulfilled lives and unrealised ambitions. A big family, apparently stuck in a the same flat together, the debts, the court cases, a premature death and a life-changing injury.

I did more research on this family than I intended to, in part for the sheer interest. But also, I kept going (and want to know more) out of a tentative sense of obligation. I didn’t think anyone else would ever bother. I’m not sure any of them would want this story to be probed into, for them to be investigated or “remembered” like this. So it’s probably not a very useful or appropriate alternative to a simple “Thank you for the pleasure you gave us”.


Two rabbit holes

By coincidence, a man called William Patterson of 38 Warrender Park Terrace (the next block to the Wights) “was due to appear” on the 3rd January 1890, being pursued by a creditor. “His wife said that he knew little about the business.” That’s the only information given in The Scotsman of the 4th, in a passage above the one on Wight’s case. I’ve resisted this rabbit hole.

Likewise, someone interesting lived in one of the flats at 6 Woodburn Terrace in 1881: Rev. A.B. McCulloch, chaplain to the Royal Edinburgh Asylum in Morningside.

Francis Hindes Groome

Here is neighbour-based rabbit hole I did briefly explore, however.

In the 1891 census, the Wight family’s top flat neighbours at 36 Warrender Park Terrace were the Groomes, both from England. He was Francis H, aged 39, “author”; she was Mary J, aged 26, and her occupation was “author’s wife”. They also had a general servant, Charlotte Henderson (aged 14) from Thurso in Caithness.

Groome, sitting perhaps in the Meadows. From Wikipedia.

Groome was a famous as a “gypsy-ologist”. His Wikipedia page says he was “foremost commentator of his time on the Romani people, their language, life, history, customs, beliefs, and lore.” He was a folklorist whose wife Esmerelda Locke was of Romani extraction. If they married in 1876, as Wikipedia states, this can’t be author’s wife Mary aged 26 in the 1891 census. He wrote the entry for Gypsies in Edinburgh’s Encyclopædia Britannica, (9th edition) and “in 1899 he published his most significant book for folklorists, Gypsy Folk-Tales. These well-annotated collections are a significant addition to the comparative study of the world’s folktales.” In October 1901, Francis Hindes Groome’s library of books, letters, and manuscripts bearing upon the study of the Romani was purchased by the Boston Athenæum. the prestigious private American Library. He died in January 1902.

Wikipedia adds the following, relevant to blogging on family history: “F.H. Groome was a sub-editor of Chambers’s Encyclopaedia; joint-editor of the 1897 edition of Chamber’s Dictionary of Biography. He is also well remembered for his six volume Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland.” Its entries are incorporated into the new Gazetteer of Scotland website. The latter can be accessed also at Vision of Britain a website/database for studying local history that includes extensive mapping facilities.

Other neighbours (1885)

To end these extraneous comments, I thought I’d just paste in the following, to show the occupations of the owners (left), tenants (right) and owner-occupiers (same as owner, if the tenant column is blank) of the Wight family’s neighbours in the 1885 valuation roll, from 35-37 Warrender Park Terrace. Other details are available from the census records, if anyone wants a copy.

36, 36 & 37 Warrender Park Terrace, in 1885 – from Scotland’s People

I plan a similar comprehensive list of as many residents of 8-10 Woodburn Terrace as I can find, as part of this house history series. They are all in a spreadsheet at present, and it may be some while before I work out how to prettify that format without wasting time.


Rod McNeill on facebook had a wonderful comment, which I’ve decided to add here, with his permission. What a story!  He wrote:

My grandad was a plasterer. Before WW1, The family rented a house at White Horse Close near Holyrood. One on the rooms had an antique ornamental ceiling, no doubt invaluable now, and every so often the landlady turned up at the door to show it off to someone. My grandad got fed up with this and took his axe to it, the next time she arrived he told her it had fallen down.
His name was Alexander McNeill. He told me that in those days before the invention of inhibitors to prevent the mixed plaster freezing on cold days, they used to put a saucer of water out on their windowsills and if it was solid in the morning they didn’t go to work that day ( and of course no pay) eventually he was rendered unable to work as a plasterer because he was engaged installing the ornamental ceiling of the Playhouse Theatre in Edinburgh from scaffolding which in those days was wooden spars tied with ropes, when he fell. He survived but was never able for heavy work after that.


Various Title Deeds for 9/1 Woodburn Terrace, unpublished.

Scotland’s People at

British Newspaper Archive

On sequestration and insolvency in Scots Law (which I don’t understand),_Ninth_Edition,_v._3.djvu/360

The Mapping Sculpture database “Mapping the Practice and Profession of Sculpture in Britain and Ireland 1851-1951“. It delivers the results of the first comprehensive study of sculpture between the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the Festival of Britain in 1951, and it can be found at
Wight appears in it because he was a master plasterer.
Citation: ‘D. Wight’, Mapping the Practice and Profession of Sculpture in Britain and Ireland 1851-1951, University of Glasgow History of Art and HATII, online database 2011 [, accessed 29 Dec 2019]

Gilbert Watson is on the valuation rolls index in 1895 as tenant of a workshop and yard in Woodburn Terrace, and proprietor of two houses, at 17 & 18 Woodburn Terrace. Knight Watson was proprietor of a house at 18 Woodburn Terrace. Francis Walkingshaw is indexed as proprietor of 11 properties in the terrace.

There’s a cute image of Whitehouse Loan which sadly does not quite show Helen’s dairy, here

I’ve got notes on the Vallances. The confectioners who lent the £500. But there’s nowhere to fit them in, and there’s not enough for a post on their own. Hey ho.

7 thoughts on “The plasterer’s flat

Add yours

    1. Cheers..
      Come back for the story of Mr MacGregor, husband of Anderson. Lots of drama! I am sure someone could write a whole biography or fashion a screenplay from his ups and downs. It might take a while… This Covid lockdown is not a generator of tons of free time.


  1. Thank you. What a labour of love. It is so interesting to hear the history of all these ‘ordinary people’ who shaped our landscapes and cities and homes. One of my small pleasures when living n tenement flats in Grange and later in Morningside was to just lie on my back and look at the detail of the plasterwork on the ceiling. It always gave me a great sense of satisfaction- this desire to make something unique- a small monument to their own existence. I also love to look at the different ornaments and carvings on the keystones and roofs of the tenements and also Victorian houses – someone bothered to make them all different. Wouldn’t it be nice if these individualistic fashions could come back instead of the uniformity of modern buildings … Lets have some foliage carved on modern flats!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are wonderful carved stone.. motifs? (I am sure there is a proper name) on tenement exteriors. Lovely. And with modern factories etc there is no excuse for everything to be so bland and identical in every feature. If someone designed a feature, even if a robot created it rather than a craftsman, at least it would bring pleasure


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