The making of modern Dundee. The platform for today’s V&A Museum

Late in 1867, the doors of what would be one of the town’s finest buildings were opened. This was the Albert Institute, now the McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum. The Institute was the centrepiece of an unprecedented programme of urban refurbishment. The making of modern Dundee. The platform for today’s V&A Museum.

The catalyst was the death, on 14 December 1861, of the Prince Consort, Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband. Immensely influential, Prince Albert was mourned across the nation. Manufacturing towns like Dundee had been particularly strongly attached to him: Albert had been one of the organisers of the 1851 ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations’, which had highlighted the triumphs of Britain’s industrialists. Not only had he been a patron of the ‘industrious arts’; Albert too had supported many causes that chimed with the liberal values of many Dundonians: the abolition of slavery for instance.

Within days of the Prince’s passing, attention in Dundee (and elsewhere) turned to the question of how ‘Albert the good’, should be commemorated.

Entirely coincidentally, for Dundee this provided an opportunity for the airing in public of something growing numbers of the town’s influential citizens felt increasingly embarrassed about: Dundee’s image.

As the Dundee Courierput it in January 1862, when ‘persons of taste’ visited the town, they were inclined to ask, ‘Where are your monuments?’ The answer was that in Dundee there were none. This, the editor remarked, was ‘not as it should be’ for a town that considered itself to rank behind only Edinburgh and Glasgow.

No-one doubted Dundee’s global pre-eminence in linen and jute manufacturing, but, as the Rev Archibald Watson, one of the town’s ministers, remarked:

You may walk from Blackness down to Craigie, and the Harbour to the top of Bonnet Hill, and you will see no work of art; you will, in fact, see nothing to show that we have got beyond the enterprise of money making.

This, it was argued, had to change.

Initially (as there were no public statues in Dundee), what was called for was a statue of Prince Albert, either in bronze or stone.

Early on however – late in January 1862, another type of memorial was proposed. This was the brainchild of Provost Charles Parker and others. Their idea was for a new, free, public library that would also serve as a memorial to Prince Albert. Parker, who was Provost of Dundee from 1861 until his death in 1867, was known within and beyond Dundee for his advocacy of free library provision, aimed at working people; reading was seen as an antidote to their wayward habits, and the working classes’ potential for riot, if not revolution. What was wanted too was a means of countering the ‘insensible effects of business’, and of raising the intellectual tone of the town. At the time, there was a belief amongst Britain’s urban elites that great public art and architecture could do just this.

Parker was also keen to have a conference facility that would elevate the town’s prestige, and be a welcome boost economically. The jewel in the conference crown was the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which he had for some time had his eye on.

Consequently, over the following months Parker’s proposal became more ambitious. By the time subscriptions (in the form of shares) were called for, the proposed Albert Institute was to comprise a free library, a natural history museum, reading rooms for ladies and gentlemen, facilities for lectures and concerts and, if possible, ‘a picture gallery’.

A suitable site was quickly identified: land to the south of the recently completed Royal Exchange building – fast replacing the Cowgate as Dundee’s business hub. On the Old Meadow, as it was called, was an ‘obnoxious conglomeration of bunks, pig-styes, and slaughter houses’. However, replaced by the Albert Institute (which was to harmonise with the Exchange), the anticipation was that Dundee would have ‘a mercantile centre not surpassed by any town in the kingdom.’ A bold aim, reinforced by the decision to employ the renowned architect Sir George Gilbert Scott as the designer.

From the outset, there was general agreement that funds for the project – £20,000 was the original estimate, although this was increased to £22,000 – should be raised by public subscription, with subscribers buying £10 shares in what would become the Albert Institute (Limited).

The lead was taken by Dundee’s manufacturing and commercial elite. Figures like Sir David Baxter, Edward Baxter and John Symers (a banker) each initially subscribed for one hundred £10 shares, their largesse made easier by the fact that 1863 – when the subscription opened – was the most prosperous year in Dundee’s history.  When progress slowed after the initial burst of enthusiasm, even more of the funding burden fell on the shoulders of the Baxter family (who in 1865 between them held 680 £10 shares), and the town’s flax and jute merchants.

Striking though, was ‘the great liberality [in terms of financial contributions] of the less highly favoured.’ When ‘half shares’ were offered, at £5, several of these were taken up by what today we call the lower middle classes – shopkeepers for instance. On the lists, we even find men like Mr R Powell, a waiter, of Lamb’s Temperance Hotel, who subscribed for a single £5 half share.

Even so, within a decade the Albert Institute as originally conceived was completed. Rarely has Dundee witnessed such a surge of civic pride. Hundreds of the town’s inhabitants put their hands in their pockets, selflessly and for the public good; 327 of them were shareholders in the Albert Institute company. Their legacy remains.

But we know rather too little about who they were. They are amongst Dundee’s unsung heroes (and heroines), who deserve their place in the historical record.

Professor Christopher A Whatley.