The Darkest Day

The date is Tuesday, 29 January 1895 and Edinburgh is in the grip of a snowstorm. In fact, the whole country is suffering; snow fell uninterruptedly for 12 hours in Birmingham yesterday and London is experiencing temperatures of 15° Fahrenheit (-10° Celsius).[1] According to the official Met Office report for 29 January a ‘hard frost occurred last night over Great Britain’.[2]

Conditions in the poorer parts of late-Victorian Edinburgh are grim at the best of times but in this extreme cold weather many families are in severe distress. To make matters worse, Roderick Coyne, the Superintendent of Works for the Edinburgh and District Water Trust, has announced that ‘the water would have to be turned off again’ due to a burst main.[3]

Data on the ‘Health of Edinburgh’ is published every week and last week 110 deaths were reported including three to scarlatina, nine to measles and one to hooping-cough.[4] The ‘intimations’ for the week suggest that 336 people are known to be suffering from measles – not exactly epidemic proportions but representative of a population living side-by-side with deadly disease.

To the inhabitants of Bedford Street in Edinburgh’s Stockbridge district it was a trying time but to one family in particular, 29 January would prove to be the darkest of days…

Edinburgh Evening News, 26 January 1895, page 3, column d.
British Library Newspapers,

My great grandmother, Margaret Philip (the surname was often written as Phillip or Philp), was born on 26 July 1859 in Davidson’s Mains, a small village to the west of Edinburgh, historically part of the largely rural parish of Cramond but now right on the edge of Edinburgh’s urban sprawl.

Margaret’s parents, James Philip and Margaret Glennie had married in Cramond on 23 December 1853. They went on to have at least nine children, the oldest two almost certainly born before they were married, and the youngest born in January 1870. Margaret was to die on 16 June 1870, just five months after her youngest child was born; according to the death certificate she had been suffering from typhoid pneumonia for 14 days and from ‘debility’ for a year.

James had lost his father to typhus just 12 days earlier and he was now left on his own with eight children, all under 20. Jane, the oldest girl, was 14 and might have been expected to take on the running of the household but she also died (of typhus fever) on 18 July 1870. I think we can see a theme developing here…

The 1881 census finds James living at West Pilton Cottages, to the east of Davidson’s Mains but still in the parish of Cramond, but by 1891 he had moved into Edinburgh and was living at 5 Church Place in the parish of St Stephen. Church Place was a narrow courtyard, leading off the west side of Church Street (now Gloucester Street) in the Stockbridge district, less than a mile from Edinburgh’s fashionable New Town.

Also living with James were his youngest son, Richard, his daughter, Margaret, and an assortment of five grandchildren; James and Elizabeth, the two children of his widowed son, Robert, and Margaret’s three illegitimate children, John, James and Margaret.

Sometime before his death in 1896, James had moved to Bedford Street, just across the Stockbridge on the other side of the Water of Leith, no more than 10 minutes’ walk from Church Place. He died of bronchitis and chronic phthisis (TB), a reflection of the damp, unsanitary conditions that the family were living in.

Bedford Street, Stockbridge, Edinburgh

We’re right between two census returns here so it’s difficult to get an accurate picture of the family at the time. We know that Margaret and her four children (Susan had been born in 1893) were living at 4 Bedford Street and it seems that Robert’s two children were also there (Robert himself had died in May 1893). The 1895-96 Edinburgh electoral register lists Andrew Philip, a labourer, as one of four tenants occupying 4 Bedford Street.[5] Andrew was James and Margaret Philip’s seventh child. I’ve been unable to find any later trace of Richard, who had been living with the family in Church Place in 1891.

Despite apparently bringing up her children on her own, Margaret in fact had a long-term partner in the shape of my great grandfather, John Flynn. John had lived two doors away from Margaret in West Pilton Cottages in 1881 and he was almost certainly the father of all of Margaret’s children but they don’t seem to have been living together at this time. Later, Margaret would openly lie to the authorities, claiming on a number of occasions to have been married to John. In fact they never married.

6-year old Margaret and her little sister, Susan, had been suffering from measles for just over a week and both had recently developed catarrhal pneumonia. Dr. Charles Kerley, writing in 1903 suggested that:

Catarrhal pneumonia, on account of its large mortality and because of its frequent appearance as a complication in almost every disease of infancy, is one of the most formidable ailments which we are called on to treat.[6]

Kerley recommended fresh air and ventilation to combat the worst effects of this form of pneumonia and bemoaned the ‘marked tendency to coddle, to wrap, to overclothe pneumonia patients’.

Given the conditions in Edinburgh at the time, it’s perhaps understandable that the Philips would have been doing everything they could to keep the temperature in their home above freezing. The idea that opening the windows might actually be beneficial to the girls was probably not something that would have instinctively occurred to them.

Their mother sat up with them on Monday night doing whatever she could to make them comfortable – even if she was doing all the wrong things. Or perhaps the family took it in shifts. Was Andrew living there? Was Margaret’s father too old and infirm to help? Her nephew, James (Robert’s son) was 19 and his sister Elizabeth was 17; they would surely have helped to tend their young cousins. And perhaps Margaret’s two boys, John and James would have wanted to play their part as well.

But Susan was getting weaker and at 2 o’clock in the morning she lost her battle; she was just 21 months old. Dr. McLaren[7] was sent for and he confirmed that she had died of measles with catarrhal pneumonia as a secondary cause.

The doctor examined young Margaret and he could see that she was gravely ill. He gave her medicine and offered the family advice about how best to care for her.

Later that day, cousin James set off for the registrar’s office, a twenty minute walk at the best of times. With freezing temperatures and snow still thick on the ground it would have been a struggle as he made his way along the Queensferry Road and over the Dean Bridge, crossing Shandwick Place at the west end of Princes Street before eventually arriving at the office in Lothian Road. Then, after providing Mr Aitchison[8] the registrar with the necessary details of Susan’s death and signing the register – James Philip Cousin Present – James headed back to Bedford Street to see what news there was of his cousin Margaret.

Death certificate of Susan Philip. National Records of Scotland reference: 1895 Deaths 685/1 136

She wasn’t doing well. Her condition was worsening by the hour and at 11 o’clock at night – just 21 hours after her sister had passed away – she too succumbed.

Once more Dr. McLaren was sent for. His diagnosis was the same; measles and  catarrhal pneumonia.

The following day, cousin James returned to the registrar’s office to notify them of young Margaret’s death. This time, he was met by the assistant registrar, Mr Aitchison junior who took the details down and, for the second time in 24 hours, James was asked to sign the register – James Philip Cousin Present.

Death certificate of Margaret Philip. National Records of Scotland reference: 1895 Deaths 685/1 149

The family must have been crushed by this second death within 24 hours. Margaret, in particular, would have been devastated by the loss of two children on the same day to the same killer disease. And there was an added complication, because Margaret was about seven or eight months pregnant at the time. Just five weeks later, on 5 March 1895, she gave birth to her fifth child, Peter. It seems like a miracle that he survived. He was registered as the illegitimate son of John Flynn and Margaret Philip – John’s role in all of this being acknowledged for the first time.

They were still living in Bedford Street in August 1896 when James Philip senior died there (the death was registered by his grandson, ‘cousin’ James) but by the following year Margaret, now with her ‘husband’ John Flynn as a permanent member of the household, had moved out of Edinburgh into rural Linlithgowshire. John had found work on the Dalmeny Estate just across the River Almond from Cramond Village and when a second Margaret was born at East Craigie in Dalmeny on 26 March 1897, Margaret and John claimed to have married on 29 June 1883 in Edinburgh. Which is, of course, a complete fiction.

By the time of the 1901 census, which finds the Flynn family living at Hill House, Dalmeny, John and Margaret have two more children; Charles (my grandfather, born in 1898) and a second Susan (born around 1900). The births of Charles and Susan weren’t registered – at least there is no record of their births – and the next reference we have to the family comes in November 1903 when Susan died. The entry in the death register names her as Roseanna Flynn but it’s clear from the age at death (i.e. 3) that she’s the same person who was listed as Susan in the 1901 census.

There was one more family tragedy still to come. On 7 February 1907, Peter Flynn died of periostitis of the superior maxilla and gangrene, aged just 11. Peter was the child that Margaret had been pregnant with in January 1895. He’d survived the most challenging of introductions to the world only to suffer what must have been a painful and horrific death at a distressingly young age.

We’ll leave Margaret, John and their family there. Their lives seem to have gradually improved and at the time of their deaths (in 1924 and 1933 respectively) they were living in relative comfort but the events of that day in January 1895 must have stayed with them for the rest of their lives. The re-use of the names Margaret and Susan was surely done in memory of the two children who died on that dark winter’s day…

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 10 July 2021


List of documents. Originals held by the National Records of Scotland.

[1] Edinburgh Evening News, 29 January 1895, page 3, column c. British Library Newspapers, accessed via Findmypast

[2] Daily Weather Report, Tuesday 29 January 1895. https://digital.nmla.metoffice.gov.uk

[3] Edinburgh Evening News, 29 January 1895, page 3, column i. British Library Newspapers, accessed via Findmypast

[4] Edinburgh Evening News, 26 January 1895, page 3, column d. British Library Newspapers, accessed via Findmypast

[5] Register of Voters, Burgh of Edinburgh, 1895-96, No.III St Bernard’s Ward, p.9. Edinburgh City Archives ref: Sl56/41. Accessed via ancestry.co.uk

[6] KERLEY CG. Management of Catarrhal Pneumonia in Infants. The Journal of the American Medical Association. 1903;XL(25):1720–1725. doi:10.1001/jama.1903.92490250028001h

[7] Dr. John Shaw McLaren. MB, FRCS (Edinburgh), 1858-1935.

[8] John Aitchison, Registrar of St George’s district, Edinburgh, 1828-1912.

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