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Family History Through Addresses

Sometimes when we're researching a family it's easy to get bogged down in names and dates, and forget other ways to add context into a story.

I came across a great example this week when looking into a family who had lived in Edinburgh in the 19th century. Their relatively unusual surname - Gilfillan - made them easy to track through the censuses, even with the bog-standard given names of James, John or William. The family didn't move much, and were found for decades living in the Old Town of Edinburgh, around the Grassmarket, Fountainbridge and High Street.

On the 1861 census, one of the family, 21-year-old John, is working as a brass finisher and his registered address is given as 85 West Port licensed lodging house. A click through to see the other members of the household shows this is a large establishment, run by John and Rebecca Dempster, assisted by their niece, Ann. There are around 60 male boarders, ranging in age from 12 (Donald Davidson, a nailer) to 70 (John Wilson, a linen weaver). Finding people - especially younger men - boarding isn't unusual. But the size of this establishment is unusual, and piqued my curiosity.

This is a contemporary view of Edinburgh's West Port, a street leading into the Grassmarket, which is just round the corner as you look into the picture. 85 was on the left of the picture as you look at it but unfortunately the old lodging house is long gone, replaced by a modern 1960s office block.

Googling the address of 85 West Port however proved a link to one of the most famous stories in Edinburgh history. Just a quick reminder - googling as "85 West Port" will provide more focused results as the search engine will only show results with the words in that order.

Hare, on the left, and Burke - Edinburgh's worst mass murderers?

Before the building was used as a lodging house, part of it was home to William Burke, an Irish labourer who had come to Scotland to work on the canals. In the late 1820s, Burke, along with his accomplice, fellow Irish labourer William Hare, committed 16 gruesome murders in the West Port area of the city, then sold the bodies to anatomy professor Dr Knox, at Edinburgh University. In late 1828 the pair were arrested, and Hare was persuaded to turn King's evidence against his partner in crime. Knox, the anatomy surgeon, faced no charges as even though it was widely suspected that he knew the provenance of the cadavers, he pled ignorance of the fact. Hare's reward for giving evidence against his friend was a pardon, on condition he left Edinburgh. He was last seen fleeing south across the English border near Carlisle.

Burke however paid the full price for his crimes, and was hanged in front of a crowd of as many as 25,000 people, in Edinburgh's Royal Mile on 28 January 1829. After his execution, his body was taken to the Edinburgh University medical school where it was dissected by students - the same fate as befell his victims. His skeleton is still on display in the medical school today.

The Burke and Hare case prompted parliament to pass the Anatomy Act of 1832, stopping shady dealings between doctors and grave robbers.

The two also passed into Edinburgh myth and folklore, with the rhyme:

Up the close and doon the stair,

But and ben' wi' Burke and Hare.

Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief,

Knox the boy that buys the beef.


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