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An American, Nathanial Willis, visited Edinburgh in 1834 and made this interesting observation. ‘The Old Town and the New are separated by a broad and deep ravine, planted with trees and shrubbery. A more striking contrast than exists between these two parts of the same city could hardly be imagined.’

Within a generation of building work starting on the New Town, the historic Old Town had all but been abandoned by well-to-do citizens. A soaring population caused houses to be divided and then divided again; existing arrangement for access to clean water and the removal of household waste broke down. As a consequence, there were regular outbreaks of cholera and typhoid fever. An additional danger was the constant threat of fire in the overcrowded tenement buildings. Conscious of the threat the city council formed the UK’s first municipal fire brigade. Within just two months of the brigade’s formation, they were called into action. What was to become known as the Great Fire fire started at 10.00pm on the night of 15th November 1824 in the premises of an engraver on the second floor of a tenement in Old Assembly Close, on the south side of the High Street.

This illustrated talk will tell the story of the fire that burned for three days and at one time threatened to destroy the whole of the Old Town. Contemporary sources will be used to examine the appalling living conditions of the time. It took another disaster in Paisley Close in 1861 to shock the Edinburgh establishment out of its complacency.

Eric Melvin is our speaker. Eric graduated with First Class Honours in History and Political Thought from Edinburgh University in 1967. He qualified as a secondary teacher of History and Modern Studies at the then Moray House College of Education gaining a Dip. Ed. in the process and the Staff Prize. Eric later gained an M.Ed. from the University of Edinburgh. He retired from teaching in 2005, working latterly for the City of Edinburgh Council as Headteacher at Currie Community High School. Eric has had several books published by John Murray for younger readers on aspects of Scottish History as well as ‘Discovering Scotland’ for Ladybird. Most recently Eric has had two books published on Amazon – ‘A Walk Down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile’, ‘A Walk Through Edinburgh’s New Town’ and ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’, self-published and written for younger readers and illustrated by Aileen Paterson. ‘The Edinburgh of John Kay’ was published in 2017 and Eric has just finished a book about Duncan Napier (The Fresh Air of the Summer Morning), the founder of the famous Edinburgh Herbalist business in 1860.


This is one of a series of talks being delivered jointly by Museums & Galleries Edinburgh and the Edinburgh Festival Voluntary Guides (EFVGA). This is a new venture. The EFVGA has been offering free Royal Mile Festival walks since 1947. More information about the EFVGA can be found on their web site -


Disasters of the 19th Century Old Town - A focus on the Great Fire 1824 and Paisley Close 1861

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