Booked into the past

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My good friend Jessie McGregor, who was a great help to me when I was writing about Falkirk Infirmary, has given me an early Christmas present.

A relative in the north-east came across a little book about Falkirk in a church sale and thought it might interest Jessie.

Now it has been passed on to me and I was delighted because it offers us a fascinating picture of Falkirk just over a century ago.

The book was published in 1898 as an official guide to a fund raising bazaar held in Falkirk Town Hall and the next door Masonic Hall over three days in September. The aim was to raise the £1200 required to complete the new town mission which was already under construction just off the Cow Wynd.

Victorian Falkirk, with its growing workforce, had many families with no church connection and the mission acted as a point of first contact to help ‘capture’ these souls and pass them on to the established congregations.

The book describes the mission from its beginnings in 1852 in rooms in the Pleasance from where it sent missioners to Bainsford, Grahamston, Laurieston and Glen Village.

By the 1890s the premises – by then they were in the Assembly Rooms behind the High Street – were inadequate and the decision was taken to build a new mission.

The book includes a short history of Falkirk with some early photographs and also the programme of the bazaar itself. One special attraction was the described as follows:

“To add to the brilliance, the Bazaar will be lit up with electric light, the installation being made by Messrs T. Laurie & Co. from dynamos.” There were stalls of all kinds each provided by one of the local churches and a ‘Café Chantant’ in the Masonic Hall by the British Woman’s Temperance Association. Here you could have a sandwich for tuppence, a glass of milk for a penny and a piece of veal and ham pie for sixpence.

In the main hall there were musical recitals from the Trinity Brothers Orchestra or the celebrated violinist Signor S. D. D’Agrosa. Add Punch and Judy, Palmistry, a Self-Registering Weighing Machine and a “truly shocking’ Electric Battery and a good time was guaranteed for all!

But the best part of the book for us today is the section advertising nearly 40 local shops each with a photograph and a description written in the flowery language

that our Victorian ancestors loved.

Many names will be familiar to those who have been around Falkirk for a few years like Malleys with their own designed bicycle the ‘Brockville’ and gents outfitters Andersons in Newmarket Street offering stock for “all classes from

the haut ton to the lowly artisan”. Then we have Watsons boot and shoemakers, Urquhart’s the umbrella shop, Sutherland’s fishmongers where “the denizens of the deep” are laid out for inspection, and Mathiesons “the happy hunting ground of weary commercials and hungry farmers”.

I particularly like Mrs Tod’s grocers where the smoked hams “are sliced with a skill that provokes admiration” and McDonald’s hairdressers where “the hair brushing is done by machinery”.

The bazaar was a great success and the mission building was completed the following year. It is still there as the Struthers Memorial Church but every time I pass the door from now on I’ll be thinking of the Café Chantant and the good folks of Falkirk sipping their milk and listening to Miss Dawson of Powfoulis declare the great event open over a hundred years ago.

Ask Ian

Did Tarzan really come from Camelon?

In 2000 there was a newspaper story which claimed that Edgar Rice Burroughs had based his Tarzan stories on the true adventures of a sailor from Camelon called John Selkirk. Like his namesake Alexander, this chap was said to have spent 30 odd years living on an island but he had apes as his companions instead of Man Friday.

Unfortunately we have no evidence to support the story but when a Camelon Mariner is involved you never know!