Life in Blackfriars Wynd

Blackfriars Wynd

The records of Janet Robertson’s early life tell us that she lived in the dirty, densely populated tenements of Edinburgh’s slum district. Edinburgh suffered the effects of rapid population growth and industrialisation during the years leading up to Janet’s expulsion in 1841.  When just a child, Janet would have witnessed a dreadful epidemic of cholera that swept through the city.  It was most virulent in the overcrowded areas that housed those fleeing rural poverty for the city’s Old Town.  Typhus and other diseases swept through the appallingly dark, damp and unhygienic tenements and alleys.  An influx of Irish migrants seeking refuge from the potato famine added to the population pressure.

Blackfriars Wynd, Edinburgh, c 1825

With new building activity concentrated in the New Town, the growing population of poverty-stricken crowded into the old tenements that were subdivided to house whole families in single rooms.  In the 1840s Edinburgh’s Old Town reportedly had the most unsanitary living conditions of any other city in Britain at the time.

Some, however, would argue that Glasgow might equally claim that title.  Quite by coincidence, I have in the last couple of days started reading Deborah Swiss’s book The Tin Ticket – The Heroic Journey of Australia’s Convict Women.  Her first story is about the young Glaswegian Agnes McMillan, abandoned to the wynds of Glasgow’s slums.  These extracts paint something too of the life Janet Robertson would have faced as a young girl in Edinburgh’s slums.

Agnes saw a world of cobblestone and brick, full of misery and manure.  Coal particles stung her eyes at every blink.  Each sip of water she drank from the brackish public well carried the risk of dysentry or typhoid fever.  She and everyone else who lived near the mills coughed out pieces of black grit breathed in from Glasgow’s raging industrial fires.  Neighbours overhead tossed their garbage out the windows onto the walkway.  Most had witnessed some unfortunate soul drop dead in the street or on the job. The grey-eyed five-year-old had already proven to be lucky, since half the Scottish children born in 1820 had already been laid in the ground by their parents.  In the slums, dunghills and raw sewage blanketed the crowded space with a sticky black glaze.  This was Agnes’ playground and schoolyard. 

Children dashed around the wynds playing tag, hide-and-seek, and peever —the Scottish version of hopscotch. Boys picked up sticks to bat whatever they could hit in the air.  An old barrel hoop started a contest for who could spin it the farthest.  Street waste offered an abundance of possibilities for games and entertainment. 

…. Among the labouring class, a child’s role included the duty of earning a living.  By age seven, Agnes would have been expected to contribute to the McMillan household income.  Every penny mattered.  Children her age, and younger, worked full time as chimney sweeps or factory workers, hired for the ability to reach small crevices and machine parts. 

Sadly, Janet was to loose five of her own children in childhood but those who survived certainly had a better start in life than she had.

Janet Robertson’s early life of crime


A couple of weeks ago I received some papers from the National Archives of Scotland which, while sometimes difficult to read and rather repetitive, have helped to shed new light on Janet Robertson‘s early life.  Unfortunately any clues that might point us to parents or siblings have so far proven fruitless.  Indeed there is every indication that she was making her own way, as best she could, in one of Edinburgh’s poorest districts from at least her teenage years.

When she was arrested and brought before a magistrate on 11 July 1840 she declared ‘I am seventeen years of age, and was born in Leith, and live in Blackfriars Wynd, Edinburgh, with a Baker named Brown, and I have been three times convicted of theft’.  Faced with the prospect of a fourth conviction she made no effort to hide her guilt:  ‘I carried away from Leith Links a shirt and two shifts from among some clothes which I assisted a girl to fold up, and I was apprehended  and taken to the police office where the articles were found in my possession’.

Early thefts

Janet Robertson was first convicted for theft on 10 August 1839.  At the time she used the name Jessie Livingstone.  Having heard the claims against her, Jessie admitted that she was guilty of stealing two cotton shirts belonging to Robert Ireland of No 15 High Halton. She admitted to having taken them from the Calton Hill, one of Edinburgh’s central hills, presumably where they were set out to dry.  Following Jessie’s admission, the complaint against her co-accused, Helen Anderson, was dismissed. Sixteen year old Jessie was sentenced to thirty days imprisonment in the Jail of Edinburgh, apparently in solitary confinement.

Not long after her release from prison we find ‘Jess Livingston’ admitting guilt to another charge of theft.  A little braver this time, Jess admits to having stolen, on 29 November 1839, a cotton sheet from the house of lodging house keeper, John Henderson, at 131 Grassmarket. The Grassmarket, where Jess claims to be living at the time, is a short ten to fifteen minute walk from Blackfriars Wynd.  On this occasion Jess is sentenced to forty days in the Bridewell of Edinburgh.

In March 1840 Janet is charged in her real name (or at least the name she uses from this point on).  The documents indicate that Janet was living at Milne’s Court, Lawnmarket.  She is charged with stealing, on 11 March 1840, from the Calton Hill a boy’s striped shirt, a striped apron, a child’s red printed frock and muslin cap, the property of John Scott, a broker from Low Calton.  She is also charged with having stolen from Calton Hill, on the following day, a linen half sheet belonging to Thomas Reid.  Janet declared she was guilty of the second charge and was sentenced to sixty days in the Bridewell.

The crime that sealed her fate

A very similar crime, and her own admission, was to seal Janet’s fate and earn her the tag of thief by ‘habite and repute’.  According to the precognition papers, the events of Thursday the 9th of July 1840 were as follows.

Margaret Perry, the wife of a fireman in the Royal Victoria Steamship, and resident of Fox Lane in Leith, washed some clothes and gave them to her daughter Janet to take them to the Leith Links to dry.  Janet’s younger sister Margaret accompanied her to the Links and stayed there to keep an eye on the clothes until they dried.  Around four o’clock Janet Perry was sent back to the Links to fetch her sister and the clothes.  When the girls returned from the Links, with the clothes tied up in a bundle, Mrs Perry discovered that her son’s blue striped cotton shirt, her own cotton shift and another belonging to Janet were missing.  Mrs Perry and ten year old Janet walked back up to the Links to check that they hadn’t blown away.  When they arrived they were told that a woman had stolen the clothes and was now in custody.  Mrs Perry went to the police office where she saw the articles and was told that the prisoner had admitted taking them.

Eight year old Margaret later gave evidence and explained that a woman had come up to her on the Links and said she would fold the clothes because they were dry.  Once the job was done she left saying that she was meeting someone on the Links.  Another witness, a servant called Marion Whitecrof, said that she watched Janet Robertson go up to the girl with the clothes and that she sat there for about twenty minutes before running off.  Suspecting that she had stolen some of the clothes Marion called out to her and then gave chase.  Once she got hold of Janet she accused her of theft but Janet denied the charge.  The evidence is a bit contradictory from this point but it seems that Janet was taken to the Leith Police Office where Sergeant William Gunn searched Janet and found the shirt and shifts hidden under her own clothing.  Initially she claimed they were given to her by a woman on the Links who she did not know, but she later admitted to having stolen them.

It was this crime which was to seal Janet’s fate by earning her a sentence of transportation and voyage aboard the Rajah to Van Diemen’s Land.