The three buildings in this block are all category B listed buildings built in 1859-61.
In the late 1850s The Edinburgh Railway Station Access Company commissioned leading Edinburgh architects, Peddie and Kinnear, to design a street to provide a direct connection between the Old Town and Waverley Station.
The proposed ‘serpentine’ curved route, with a gradient of no more than 1:14, required wholesale demolition of a large section of the northern Old Town.(1) The new buildings were however required to ‘preserve as far as possible the architectural style and antique character of the locality’. When completed the street was named Lord Cockburn Street after the famous old town conservationist, although this was soon abbreviated to Cockburn Street.
The building at 26-30 was purpose built as an office and printing works for ‘The Scotsman’ newspaper owned by John Ritchie and Company.(2) This included advertising and publishing offices on the ground floor, and various printing rooms including machine rooms capable of printing and folding 36,000 newspapers per hour. The Scotsman had dedicated sidings at the station and special trains in order to put out early editions to all parts of the country.
Externally, The Scotsman masthead was carved below the second floor windows and remains to this day, along with an heraldic shield with a lion rampant and the words ‘IN DEFENCE’. The shop at number 26 was let to a publication called ‘The Scottish Farmer’.
The neighbouring tenements provided housing offices and shops including a seedsman, who presumably also benefited from the easy distribution of his products offered by the railway station. In 1882 an engraving of the Scotsman Office in Cockburn Street was used as an illustration in James Grant’s famous ‘Old and New Edinburgh’ and provides a vivid image of life in late Victorian Edinburgh.(3)
The success of the Scotsman led to its expansion into the neighbouring buildings in the 1890s thereby bringing the entire block into one complex. Even this expansion did not meet the Scotsman’s growing needs, and in 1902 they left Cockburn Street for much larger premises on North Bridge and Market Street opposite the station.
In the next three decades there were many varied occupants of the buildings. Number 26 was occupied by Arthur Chesarkie, Furniture Dealer, and in 1920, at number 28 was James Simpson, ‘instructor of boxing’. HM Postmaster General had ‘grant of wayleave’ to use number 20 for use of telegraphic equipment.
The larger spaces at number 30 were occupied by Bernard Ginsburg’s ‘Waverley Billiard Rooms’ and also, in the 1930s, the Savoy Dance Club. This was clearly a lively venue as evidenced by an incident recorded in the Glasgow Herald on 7 February 1928:
EDINBURGH DANCE CLUB RAIDED
In the early hours of Sunday morning a number of plain-clothes policemen carried out a raid on the premises of the Savoy Dance Club, Cockburn Street, Edinburgh. Dancing was in full swing and around 300 persons present when the police arrived. The dancing was immediately stopped and the officers went around the company taking names and addresses, a task which, owing to the size of the assembly, occupied about an hour and a half. As the policemen were leaving, the band struck up ‘Will ye no come back again.’It is understood that, in consequence of complaints received by the police, the premises have been under observation for some time. Further proceedings, it is stated, are likely to be taken.
We can find no record of the reason for the complaint!
By the 1950s the billiard rooms were still in existence and the dance hall had become first the ‘Lido’ and then the ‘Cockburn Palais’. Much of the street facing accommodation was now occupied by Borthwick’s Cycles. By 1954 Edinburgh Corporation was the proprietor of most of the properties, although they continued at that time to let most of the premises including a lease of part of number 30 as RAF Association clubrooms.
In the following decades the City authorities were to increasingly use the premises as Council offices and stores, although some of the shops were let to private retailers.