Dundee Society in the 19th Century


One of the attractions of being involved as a Friend of the Dundee City Archives is the opportunity this offers to help to make some of the vast resource of the archives more accessible to other users. For my part this has led to computerising some of the records from the Dundee Royal Orphan Institution, now lodged in the Archives. The intention was to ensure that the original documents would not be subject to excessive wear and tear and at the same time to make information on the children who resided in the Institution in the nineteenth century more readily available, particularly to the many people who are delving into their family histories in the Dundee area. A fairly straightforward computer search may well reveal missing relatives or additional clues amongst the records of the hundreds of boys and girls involved.

What was less obvious at the outset is that the mass of material in the records provides a marvellous insight into aspects of the social history of the City: offering the possibility of bringing alive a sample of ordinary people, faced with special hardship. The original notes were taken as the data was being entered in the computer and did not seek to be comprehensive but to provide a flavour of what is available and to suggest avenues for more considered study. Taking the notes turned a potentially tedious task into a voyage of exploration.

The inception of the Orphanage in 1815 was due in large part to the tragic loss of a ferry carrying churchgoers from Dundee to Tayport. The vessel was overwhelmed by a sudden storm and, as a result, a number of children lost their parents. Local businessmen were spurred into action and a subscription list generated the funds needed to establish a new Institution.

The Pupil Ledger
[Archive Reference GD/DOI/2/1]

The main source of information has been the Pupil Ledger covering the period 1821 -1903. A strongly bound book, it must have been specially produced and was ruled in columns: Orphan's Name; Age; Where Born and When; Parents' Names, their Places of Birth, and last Settlements, when known; Date of the Decease of Parents, when known; By Whom Orphans are Recommended; Date of Admission; Date of leaving Institution; Continuance there; How disposed of, General Character, and other Miscellaneous Remarks.

The purpose of the Ledger was clearly to establish more systematic record keeping. How­ever, for the first decade the staff did not take this responsibility entirely seriously and so there is only a simple list of the names of children in the "house" in 1821 and for some years after. However, from around 1830 there is detailed information on each entrant including family details, "but also indicating the dates of their entry and leaving the Institution and notes on how they were "disposed of. This last column provides some of the most interesting information as it describes what happened to the orphans after leaving the Institution or the cause of death, usually of consumption but in one case of heart disease, of the few individuals who died whilst in the care of the Institution. In most cases the notes indicate the employment found for the orphan but many include comments added by a member of staff, in some cases ten or more years after the boy or girl had left. Sadly, the record was often of the individual's death but for girls the last entry is frequently a cryptic "Married".

597 children are named in the Ledger and extended entries exist for some 297 boys and 247 girls. The information on these 544 individuals, broadly following the Ledger entries, forms the core of the data-file.

A very few orphans, mainly boys, did not come to terms with the regime: some stayed for only a few days and a very few were discharged on account of a medical condition or for serious misconduct. One little girl was the victim of an administrative oversight: soon after her admission she had to be removed "being a Roman Catholic" - the admission forms did not ask specifically about religious denomination. The majority remained and took advantage of what was on offer, with an almost certain prospect of employment after leaving the Institution. The consistency with which boys were found apprenticeships and girls found places as domestic servants suggests that they had received a better and more sustained education than was typical of children from their circumstances in Victorian society. Indeed, towards the end of the century, a substantial minority of boys became recipients of bursaries to pay for one or more sessions at either the Morgan Academy or the High School.

The Admission Registers

[Archive References GD/DOI/2/1(1846 - 1875) and GD/DOI/2/2 (1875 - 1883)]

The Admission Registers are sets of forms completed by petitioners on behalf of children for whom places were being sought within the Institution. The first collection covers the period including the move from Small's Wynd to the new Carolina House in 1870. All of the forms give the child's name and date of birth, although the petitioner was not always certain even of these details and had to draw on sources such as the Family Bible. The identity of the person submitting the petition for admis­sion and the date on which the form was completed are evident, as is the child's father's name but his last address, occupation, and even the date of his death may be in some doubt. Thereafter, family historians may find interest in the indication of the number of sons and daughters left when the father died and the name of the responsible adult who agreed, in a declaration attached to a number of the earlier petitions, to withdraw the child "as appropriate" and "each yer during the School holidays". Later forms, from around 1864, used a different format which removed the need to identify the child's paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother, which had been a curious re­quirement and a frequent source of difficulty. Completed forms continued to identify the child's mother but now gave an indication of the cause of her and her husband's deaths. More detailed records of the child's health became standard and an evaluation of his or her "educational acquirements" was required.

Children and, their Families

Inevitably, much of the data is factual but each Admission Form provides a cameo of a family tragedy and, together, they demonstrate that these were not the idle and workshy but simple folk who, in a hard and unremitting environment, had been overwhelmed by serious illness or gross misfortune. The margin for survival, as Victorian values came to fruition, was precariously slim and levels of poverty were finely judged: one girt, who had been very destitute two years before when she went to the Industrial Schools, had lost her father and was now completely destitute.

Table 1: Analysis of Fathers' Occupations

Employment Sample Dundee Males 1881 Total Dundee Occupied 1881

A child's parents may both have died within a week of each other although, more commonly, one had managed to look after the family alone for a number of years. Thereafter, to secure admission, the surviving children needed someone to make an application on their behalf: ministers, employers or their wives, lawyers, and neighbours all appear. Forms completed by, or on behalf of relatives - grandparents, uncles, aunts or even older sisters, who had tried to stretch their own meagre income to support their young relatives but were failing - often verged on supplication. Each application had to be supported by the recommendation of two people of character and could take time to be processed but some children were admitted within a week of being orphaned: timing of governors' meetings was obviously a critical factor. The entry giving the "Child's Present Address" reveals that some had been fostered, often for some time outside the city, while others had spent some time in the Industrial School. Indeed, teachers from the Industrial School submitted petitions on behalf of a number of the orphans. Al­though children from the same family often arrived at the same time, a second, and occasionally a third, could appear months or years later as they became old enough for an application to be made for them.

Only the fathers' occupations were recorded consistently but these give a useful insight into the range of families involved. Dundee's connection with the sea was represented by seamen and shipmasters; engineering by mechanics and foundry managers; textile workers by weavers and overseers; and the diverse life of the town was reflected by the shopkeepers, cabmen, teachers, detectives and the like who completed the toll. Figures on employment in the city in 1881 provide a useful yardstick for exploring the structure of the small group: Remembering that while the analysis is based only on a sample, the over representation of the service industries is strik­ing. The dangers of seafaring contributed to this bias but shop-workers, such as watchmakers, shoemakers, tailors, drapers and ironmongers, living a frugal existence in crowded conditions, were at almost as great risk. Spirit dealers faced special hazards to their health. Although 49% of the 1881 workforce were employed in the textile industry a large proportion were women and the proportion of the sample involved in textile man­ufacture was quite consistent with male involve­ment at the time. That 16% of the fathers should have been employed in engineering was probably disproportionate and reflected the danger of fatal disaster, for instance through being crushed by a metal beam whilst installing a new engine. When the fathers' occupations are rated in terms of the level of responsibility or skill involved, six had supervisory or management responsibilities, 49 were skilled workers, 18 semi-skilled, and only eight might be regarded as unskilled. Generally, the range of fathers' occu­pations tends to confirm that the admission pro­cess favoured children from the "deserving poor".

Health and Disease

The later Admission Forms provide an insight into the general health of the children involved and notes were made on a sample of 89 children. The doctor attested that each child was of "Sound Constitution", free from "Mental Imbecility", free from "Contagious Distemper", and not of a "Scrophulous Constitution". The person who completed the form was asked to say whether the orphan had suffered from Hooping (sic) Cough, Measles, Scarletina or Small Pox and to confirm that the child had been vaccinated. The last is interesting in providing a check on the effectiveness of recent legislation since 87 (97.8%) of the applicants could be certain that the child had been vaccinated and, indeed, a few of the children who had been born in England came with a certificate of vaccination. Although entrants should have been at least seven and not more than 11, the children in the sample ranged from 5 years 4 months to 11 years 6 months at the date when the petition was made, with most between 7 and 9 years of age. Clearly some petitioners had had some difficulty in completing the returns about the orphan's medical history but the responses seemed accurate enough to examine in some detail.

Table 2: Infectious Diseases Suffered by Orphans.

Disease Cases Percentage [of 89 children]
Whooping Cough 52 58.4%
Measles 70 78.7%
Scarlatina 35 39.3%
Small Pox 7 7.9%
Typhus* 1 1.1%

* No return was asked for typhus but a case was recorded incidentally on one form.

Table 3: Causes of Parents Deaths

Causes of Death Cases Percent (of 133)
Typhus, Cholera, Dysentry, Typhoid, Scarlet Fever, Smallpox, Measles and other unspecified fevers 24 18%
Consumption 39 29%
Heart Disease 14 11%
Childbirth 13 10%
Sudden Violent Death - through accident, drowning or suicide 9 8%
"Inflammation" 5 4%


What is surprising is that so many of the children had survived these infectious diseases since they were taking a toll of the adult population. The information on 133 parents (of the 89 children sampled) for whom a clear cause of death was identified is interesting. [Table 3]
Although nearly 20% of the parents in the sample were overtaken by various "fevers", the single infection most likely to orphan a child was consumption. Even the Orphanage was no refuge since a boy who had lost both of his parents to the disease in the winter of 1889-1890 succumbed himself less than two years later. He was just fifteen. The 14 cases of heart disease were fairly evenly distributed between the sexes but it was striking that a fifth of the mothers had died during or immediately after the birth of an­other child. For men, death through accident, drowning or suicide was the second most com­mon cause of death, surpassed only by consumption. The effects of childbearing and the possibility of violent death might be gender related but diseases generally struck with impartiality and this makes the five cases of "inflammation", all among women, quite intriguing. Three cases were identified as being seated in the lungs or chest and the inference might be that the cause lay in past employment in the local textile factories. Unfortunately only the fathers' employment was recorded systematically and the hypothesis cannot be confirmed.

The New Statistical Account of 1833 for Dundee provides a background to the period when many of the children's parents had been growing up. Typhus fever, and dysentery were described as endemic. Diseases came and went unpredictably: an "alarming" outbreak of typhus fever in 1819 had killed 95 out of 1264 cases and in July and October 1832 two "eruptions" of "malignant cholera" had killed 512 out of 808 individuals infected. Typhus-had recurred in the early part of 1833, concentrated on the Seagate and Black's Croft areas, but only a small number had died. The threat of typhus had receded by November 1833, when the account was finalised, and the new concern was about an outbreak of smallpox.


Notes were kept of the teachers' ap­praisals of the "educational acquirements" of 81 children ranging from 5 years 4 months to 11 years 6 months. Unlike the medical opinions which were always signed, usually in the 1860's by the House Surgeon, Matthew Nimmo, the teachers' comments were almost universally anonymous. It was evident, before compulsory schooling became established in 1870s, that individuals had had a very varied educational experience, largely dependent upon family circumstances. The majority of the orphans had had some schooling which was another indica­tion that this is not a typical group, even of the "deserving poor". As recently as the mid-1830s it had been estimated that only one child in 12 was enrolled in day school in Dundee, where there were some 80 establishments at least part-time education but no parochial school.

The recently established Sessional School had 165 pupils and one teacher. It seems likely that the 116 children being educated in the Royal Orphan Institution in 1833, alongside the 18 resident orphans, had a better than average experience. Children who obtained a place in the Institution in the 1860s were still being offered a chance of educational advancement. The high proportion of "marks" to be found on the application forms submitted by members of the children's families reflected the high propor­tion of illiteracy amongst adults in a mid-century Scottish city. It would be easy to be misled by fluency with which employers, ministers or other middle class patrons completed the Admission Form.

Reading was the main focus of the teachers' comments. Their first expectation was that a child should have made a start towards recognising "the letters" since the alphabet was seen as the key to learning to read. Thereafter they made the simple assumption that two and three letter words were easier to read than those of three or four letters. Once children had progressed to reading text their capability was gauged by their progress through the "Books" of a standard series of "readers", probably produced by Thomas Nelson, the Scottish educational publisher. Such progress from book to book provided Victorian teachers with a way of judging children's achievements which would be recognised until quite recently by their modem successors. Using these criteria and taking account of the children's varied ages, it is clear that nearly two thirds of the entrants had already made reasonable to good progress in reading but five who were well over eight years of age had barely started: at this stage limited progress seems to have been less of a bar to entry than at a later period when educational "Standards" were established. What is interesting is that the father of one of the older children who did not know the alphabet had been a mill overseer, suggesting that the lack of schooling was not peculiar to the poorer labourers and weavers. The numbers were too small to lead to a reliable conclusion but the teachers indicated that the girls had made relatively good progress when compared with the boys; However, future employment prospects were unlikely to be changed even for those girls who main­tained their advantage.

Only a fifth of the children had begun to write and most had only begun to form letters on slates. The same number had made a start to arithmetic. Simple addition was the first step after a child had learned to form numbers on a slate. Clearly much depended upon regularity of previous schooling since eight of the older children had not made a start to arithmetic. However, five the oldest and most capable boys had pro­gressed to the "compound rules": making the complicated exchange between pounds, shillings and pence, yards, feet and inches, stones, pounds and ounces, etc. Only three girls had "commenced writing and arithmetic" and another had made a beginning to writing only, which was less than might have been expected but for an inherent gender bias in the system and certainly a clerks' skill in using the compound quantity tables had not been a priority for the girls.

Overall, the teachers' comments confirm that most children who entered the Institution had probably already had a better than average educational experience but demonstrate how chancy Victorian education could be for all but the most wealthy. What had been available was limited, particularly for girls. However, some of the orphans were clearly quite capable, for instance one of the youngest children in the small sample who had begun to write text and made some progress in arithmetic. The Institution had a chance to be inherently quite selective but, for many of the children, obtaining a place provided security but also an opportunity to build upon a modest grounding in education through more regular schooling than might have been their lot.

Leaving the Orphanage - Boys 

A continuing connection between the Orphan Institution and seafaring was to be ex­pected since the Boxmaster of the Seamen Fraternity was ex officio one of the Directors and in the early years a significant proportion of the boys went to sea. However, this form of placement declined in importance by the middle of the nineteenth century when it became likely that a boy would enter a shore-based apprenticeship. Some entries provide details of what the young­sters were to be paid and give an insight into terms of "engagement" for boys in the second half of the century. For example, in the late 1860s, a boy starting as an apprentice was likely to get 4/- [20p] per week with 1/- [5p] of a rise each year although some trades, such as a baker, started at 5/- [25p]. The length of an engagement varied from three years for a grocer to five years for a mechanic or a baker. There were variations, however, even within one trade: for instance the first of two boys starting to become ironmongers at about the same time was engaged for 4 years at At 4/- [20p] per week while the other had 5/- [25p] for 3 years. A few apprentices were given only Bed and Board but one trainee grocer was fortunate also to be promised an additional 2/-
[10p] per week in his second year, 3/- [15p] in the third, and 4/- [10p] in his fourth and final year. It is interesting to compare apprenticeship conditions for a number of the common trades around the turn of the century. [Table 4]

Most of the apprenticeships were in quite conventional occupations and those starting in shops made a prosaic beginning as "message boys" or 'Van boys". However, an unusual opening was offered to one boy in 1897 when he was engaged to a dentist in South Tay Street. He was to be paid 3/-, 4/-, 5/- and 6/6 per week which did not compare particularly favourably with what was offered to other trades around the same time. For instance an apprentice hairdresser started at 3/- [15p] per week in 1895.

Dentistry was not thriving since the arrangement for a second boy, in 1899, was offered only 6/- [30p] a week in his fourth year and not surprisingly he did not com­plete his training.

Table 4: Apprenticeship Terms

Year 1
Year 2
Year 3
Year 4
Year 5
5/- or 6/-
Pattern Maker

As the years progressed new occupations appeared: for instance in the late 70s one boy entered a 5 year apprenticeship as a compositor with the Advertiser starting at 4/- [20p] per week and another joined his uncle in 1893 to team photography. Later notes made by staff show also that boys who completed an apprenticeship had access to jobs in the developing city services: a young mechanic who trained at the Ward Foundry subsequently found employ­ment with the Dundee Tramway Company in the 1890s.

4/-, 5/-, 6/- and 8/- [10p to 40p] per week, clerical engagements were more likely to be based on an annual salary. For instance an apprentice clerk in the 1870s was engaged for 3 years at £10, £15, and £25 whilst another's conditions were £5, £10 and £15 with dinner. What makes these fascinating is that they could represent a lower weekly remuneration than that obtained by many of their "practical" fellows. Status was clearly important with the anticipation of "advancement" and increase in salary in the long term.

It was unusual for shop apprenticeships to be quoted in terms of annual payment but one boy was engaged to an ironmonger in St An­drews for 5 years at £10, £12, £15, £20 and £30. Interestingly, an aspiring Chartered Accountant, starting five years later, began on slightly less favourable terms: £5, £10, £15, £20 and £30. By the beginning of the twentieth century the connection with seafaring was re-emerging but the earlier "engagements" to shipmasters changed in character and young men were being apprenticed for four years to Charles Barrie & Son at £2, £4, £8 and £12, presumably "all found". These new apprentices were likely to have spent two or three years on bursaries at the Morgan Academy and clearly had been identified as young men of promise. The shipping company was giving them an opportunity to qualify as officers and one was later noted as having "Passed as 2nd Mate" in his fifth year at sea. However, academic success fostered by the Orphan Institution could not guarantee future advancement.

An apprenticeship as a Pattern' Maker would seem to be a small reward for an orphan who had spent three years at the High School, on a bursary, and who had won a major prize and the Science Medal. His later move to work with an armament manufacturer at Barrow-in-Furness was probably inevitable.

Most boys moved out of the Institution when they began their employment but for a few, towards the end of the century, the first weeks of an engagement appeared to be a probationary period and the boy was allowed to stay on in the orphanage. About the same time a series of boys went from the Institution to places in what was described as in one entry as "Mr Rankine's Home for Apprentices" at 3 West Bell Street. The Dundee Directories for the period confirm that George Rankine was superintendent of the Working Boys' Home at that address and that it made provision for "orphan, destitute and home­less lads". A separate Boys' Home at 9 West Bell Street was connected with the Industrial Schools.

Leaving the Orphanage - Girls

Some of the girls' records are incomplete and appear, at times, to have been maintained Jess studiously than those for the boys: for instance, three girls who entered in March to May 1853 simply have no further information against their names - their fate is intriguing. A steady trickle of girls were "re-discovered" by their families with a fair number being "taken home to keep her sister's house". However, relatives could step in more positively and for a small number of children a brother or sister, uncle or aunt provided a passage with them or to join them in America or one of the colonies. One of the first girls to go abroad went to Maine in the US.

However, from the outset the majority of girls went into domestic service. In the 1830s most started at 12 or 13 years of age, and indeed one went to work for "a distant relative" in London when she was only 11. By the 1840s, however, girls were more likely to remain in the Institution till they were at least 14. Wages were not indicated in the early years but in the 1860s girls were starting in domestic service at 307- [£1.50] or 35/- [£1.75] the half year. As the decade progressed a 14 year old might have been expected to start work at £2 51- [£2.25] to £3 for their half year. These girls would be going into service in a wide variety of homes: including those of spinster ladies, grocers (many in the early years), a baker, a brewer, doctors, shipowners and mill managers. Most were found jobs in and around Dundee, including in the Institution itself.

As the years progressed a wider range of employment opened up for the girls and a mile­stone was reached in 1867 when one girl left to learn millinery. In the same year another two girls went together to be shop assistants in the same establishment in the Overgate - a business run by spinster ladies. No wage was quoted for the prospective milliner but the shop girls each began at £3 per half year. Entry into domestic service was no longer inevitable and in the following year a young woman was taken on by a leather mer­chant to learn "the Sewing Machines". Hardly progress perhaps but her wages of 4/- [20p] per week represented £5 4s [£5.20] the half year which matched the income of many of the boys and was much more than the other girls were getting. By this time most girls were 15 years old before they left the Institution but there were exceptions: the first Pupil Teacher left to start her 5 year "engagement" in May 1868 when she was just 14 years and 3 months old.

Of twenty or so girls who left during the 1870s, two went to train as tailoresses, one as a mantle maker, one as a cloak maker, and five to learn "the Steam Looms". Unfortunately there is no indication of their wages but the remainder, who still entered domestic service, were starting at £3 10s [£3.50] the half year. The cost of employing a new girl in the house rose quite sharply at the end of the decade: to £4 for six months in 1879 and £10 per year by 1882. Rising wages may have made domestic service more attractive but the alternatives remained few and far between. Training as a tailoress was the most common option among the forty or so girls who left during the 1880s although one, at fourteen years and six months, became a Pupil Teacher in the relatively new Hawkhill Public School. The beginning of the 1890s saw another new opening, as a cash girl in a grocers' shop with wages of 5/- [25p] per week (£6 10/- [£6.50] the half year) but it took another five years for a similar post to appear - with Wm Low & Co, Tea Merchants, Blackness Road. However, general domestic service would continue as the main starting point for girls leaving the Institution to the end of the entries in the Ledger. Some of the exceptions hint at girls of special character: simply having the personality at 16 to be selected as a nurse for a household in Broughty Ferry, but most strikingly, being able to complete a 2-year training as a teacher after being a Junior Student at Morgan Academy. It was hardly surprising that, by 22 years of age, this girl should have returned to be a teacher at the Institution itself.

And Afterwards

The notes made by staff in individual children's records in the Register show that masters kept in touch with, or were aware of, the subse­quent careers of some of their charges. Many of these notes were initialled "WSP" - Mr WS Peddie. His obituary, reprinted in the Dundee year Book for 1911, noted that he came to Dundee in 1858 as Superintendent of the Orphans Institution, then situated in Small's Wynd, with Mrs Peddie as Matron. Mr and Mrs Peddie oversaw the move, ten years later, to the building in Ferry Road and "presided over the activities of the Institution with great success for nearly forty years" until their retirement in 1893.

The annotations serve as a reminder that con­sumption continued to take its toll and that sud­den death remained an ever present threat. An entry in 1901 recorded the death by drowning of a young man who had left the Institution more than thirty years earlier to start a three year apprenticeship as an architect at £20 per year -one of the most highly paid at that time. A very different series of annotations follows the exploits of a pair of boys who gave up the promising engagements obtained when they left the Institution to become grocers' boys and then left Dundee together "on board a steamer as stowaways". The deaths of several young men in the First World War form a sad catalogue. Probably the first to die, fatally injured in the "Retreat from Mons" in September 1914, had been a regular soldier since joining the 3rd Battalion Black Watch in 1899.

He had been born in 1881 and had spent more than eight years in the Institution before training as an upholsterer. Another boy, who had trained as a mill mechanic after his stay in the orphanage, joined the Royal Engineers and survived the war in South Africa but was recalled after a time at home and died of wounds in France in May 1917. Boys who had gone abroad returned to fight in the war: one to be Killed in Action with the Australian Forces in December 1917 and another came from his new home in Montreal to die on the Somme in November 1916. Dundee's seamen were also caught up and one ex-pupil was killed when the SS Dundee was sunk in September 1917. In a happier vein, it must have been gratifying for staff to record marriages between former pupils. Marrying ex-schoolmates seems to have been a minor tradition of the Institution and continued con­tacts ensured that these events were noted a decade or more after the young people had left the Institution. For the girls who had spent a fair proportion of their childhood in the security of the Institution and were then employed there as domestic servants marriage must have been a major step into the wider world.

A lecture given by Jerry Wright on 3rd October 1996


Iain D. McIntosh, 2020