A House History – a Case Study (Part 3)

The local history and archive search rooms are based on the first floor of the John Gray Centre. You can visit at any time within opening hours but preliminary contact with staff (by telephone or email) will help you to get the most from your visit. For the purpose of this case study we will limit the ‘first visit’ to directories, old parish records, and valuation rolls. A selection of the results is presented below, with comments.

Electoral roll: ‘Daniel Muir, shopkeeper, t.’, recorded in the Haddington County List, 1833 (Daniel qualified as a burgh elector in Dunbar by reason of the value of his tenancy).

Dunbar Town Council 1848: ‘Daniel Muir, shopkeeper, councillor’, recorded in the East Lothian Annual Register.

The valuation roll for the year 1860 informs us that Matthew Watt of Belhaven owned the whole property. It was triply sub-divided. Miss Barclay, Dunbar’s postmistress, leased the ground floor; George Smith, mason, leased the first floor, and William Howell, bookbinder, leased the top floor. The rateable values were £10, £4 10 shillings, and £3 15 shillings respectively (the house is in multiple occupancy).

The census of 1861 fills in some further information. George Smith, his wife & 3 children occupied 2 rooms, their third was sub-let to Donald McPhie; William Howell and his wife sub-one of their rooms, to David Young, and even Miss Barclay let out the back room of the Post Office to John M’Cliskie, his wife and child (so there were 12 people in residence and the post-office within this small building; general reading reveals that properties such as this still relied on water carried from wells on the High Street and were unlikely to have gas lighting).

John Muir's Birthplace, 126 High Street, DunbarDepending on how much time you have you can increase the level of detail you uncover in subsequent visits: valuation rolls were published annually from 1855 to the middle of the 20th century and censuses every ten years so in principle a near yearly account could be compiled. Information about families resident in the building and, in this case, the activities of businesses operating from it can be sought in the local press. We worked through the many postcards and photographs in our collections and extended the search through Scotland’s People, the National Records of Scotland and eventually the National Archives at Kew. Our research stopped with a testament (will) that mentioned ‘that new-built house’! Where will yours lead?

If you wish to undertake a house history (individually or as part of another project) please don’t hesitate to get in touch or leave a comment below. We hope the hints and guidance in this case history are useful: the information uncovered during this research has been used in factsheets, a town trail John Muir’s Dunbar, and staff at John Muir’s Birthplace use the information to help deliver a comprehensive service.




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