Extraordinary lives uncovered

By Becca Gauldie

Becca Gauldie is a researcher for McManus 168 and her incredible work for the project revealed a fascinating impression of Victorian Dundee.

It would be easy to let the industrial big wigs of 1860s Dundee take all the credit for people buying subscriptions to the Albert Buildings, or Institute. Whilst there was, without doubt, an element of keeping up with the Joneses, or in this case the Baxters, it would be most unfair to give them all the credit.

The number of literary societies dotted around Dundee at the time, and the art college which was about to open, goes to show the underlying feeling of the importance of cultural education. Dundee may have been building a memorial to Prince Albert, who some of the subscribers had met or dined with. But the general feeling was clearly one of the need for an availability of free knowledge for all. Even those who were against the idea of the building, only felt that Dundee needed a new hospital first. In the 1860s, Dundee was a cosmopolitan, culturally aware place, full of innovators and inventors.

This project has been about the provenance of a building. With the provenance of an object, or a person, the genealogy of a family, the study moves around, it is not static to a place or even time. It would be easy to suggest that with a building, the study would be focussed on one place. But with the Albert Institute, that has not been the case. As the painter John Duncan said: the harbour was full of “strange ships from strange places”.

As a working seaport, Dundee has always had strong international links. My research has led me to see that the subscribers to the Albert Institute had many of those same Continental and even American connections.

The maternal family of one of my subscriber studies, The Wybrants Brothers, owned, for many generations, Dundee’s Pleasance and Broughty Ferry’s Balgillo. They owned them from farms through to factories and were major stakeholders in Dundee’s change from rural market town to commercial stronghold. But I had never heard of them. Had I not researched them thoroughly, I would have supposed they were Irish immigrants who had made good in Dundee, not local people who had made money in Ireland before returning to their hometown.

Lipman and Co, were an international company. The Jewish founder, Isaac Lipman arrived from Hamburg to start his business in Dundee in 1844. By the 1890s their business stretched to New York, Germany and Ireland but was still based in Dundee. As the Albert Institute’s near neighbour, their calender and manufacturing works, stretched between Meadowside and the Murraygate. Their premises caught fire three times, in rather mysterious circumstances, nearly setting the museum and gallery alight. During one of the fires, the staff of the Albert Institute fought to preserve the building and its contents. I quote from the Dundee Courier:

“The fire staff of the Albert Institute ‘were ready for any emergency’. They ran out their lines of hose and played water on the roof of the Institute, which was within the range of the intense heat.”

This description conjures a quite vivid picture of close the Albert Institute was to the fire.

Despite this, Lipmans had a close relationship with their near neighbours. In 1883, months before the first electric company opened in the UK, they helped the Albert Institute light its galleries for the New Year festivities, running an unspecified form of generator from their calender works to the museum, a feat which seems to have been forgotten. At the time it was described as: “pronounced by experienced judges to be one of the most successful attempts yet made to use the light in a large public institution”. An important occasion in Dundee’s history.

Very few of the subscribers who I researched could be described as Dundonians. Apart from those from further afield, many belonged to the peripheries, the villages now part of the modern-day Dundee, such as Lochee or the surrounding Angus farming community. One exception to this was Peter Airth Feathers, who was the son of a High Street tailor. Part of his business was to make nautical instruments and for this he is still well remembered today, with objects made by him still fetching high prices at auction and from specialist dealers.

However, he will always stick in my mind for a different reason. A telescope and other artefacts made by him were donated to the Albert Institute in 1893, having been discovered close to the bodies of Eskimos forced into cannibalism whilst searching for Dundee whaling ships in Northern Canada.

It is hard to tell how aware the subscribers were of the long term beneficial legacy of this memorial to a dead prince. All these people, the subscribers, were keen on what was then new and fresh. This is a failing of human nature.
People often do not value what they have until they can mourn its demise. With all the publicity and attention being thrown at the new, fresh, Scottish arm of the V and A, Dundee must remember that it has long had a superb museum, library and gallery and I feel this project will help that not be taken for granted.

Published on 29 June 2018