Sepia Saturday 188: The Melvin/Melville Family of Leith


SS 188Despite my late response to this week’s Sepia Saturday post, this theme produced an instant image association. It was so reminiscent of photos I’ve seen of the old harbour in Leith – the port for Edinburgh, Scotland, over many centuries. Just imagine the whisky that may have been shipped!

Cassell's Old and New Edinburgh by James Grant Vol 6. This 1829 engraving reflects life in Leith as my ancestors would have known it.

Cassell’s Old and New Edinburgh by James Grant Vol 6. This 1829 engraving reflects life in Leith as my ancestors would have known it.

My own Melvin (aka Melville) family were closely associated with the waterfront of Leith for many generations. Much of the time they lived either on the Shore or very close by. I first visited Leith in 1992 when it had that run-down, vaguely seedy atmosphere stereotypically associated with busy working ports. On my most recent visit in 2010, gentrification had settled in, with Michelin-starred restaurants and flash water-side apartments.

Cassell's Old and New Edinburgh by James Grant Volume 6: Leith Shore.

Cassell’s Old and New Edinburgh by James Grant Volume 6: Leith Shore.

Despite this, so many of the old buildings remain that it’s easy to see where my ancestors lived and, with some imagination, envisage the bustling scenes they’d have witnessed daily as goods and ships were loaded ready for their voyages up or down the English coast or across the North Sea to Scandinavia.

Image of Leithh shore including the Martello tower. © Pauleen Cass 2010

Image of Leith Shore including the Martello tower. © Pauleen Cass 2010

My Melvin family included porters (perhaps bustling with the whisky casks being loaded) and many merchant seaman, some just ordinary seamen but a few who were also the ship’s cooks or stewards. The life of a seaman is not an easy one, with the risks of the sea and the economic hazards of getting work. The evidence suggests that my ancestors were fairly poor, living in the tenements near the waterfront in small rooms, but they presumably gained regular work.

Shore, Leith © Pauleen Cass 2010

Shore, Leith © Pauleen Cass 2010

Of all my emigrating ancestors the Melvins were perhaps the best prepared for the long voyage ahead. They would also become the first of my families to make the voyage back and forward to the old land: international voyagers. The price they paid can be counted in the graves of Janet Peterkin Melvin, my great-grandfather’s first wife, who died at Peel Island in Moreton Bay shortly after arrival in Australia or that of my great-great grandfather Laurence/Lawrence Melvin who is buried somewhere in Rotterdam.

Leith and Australia have other connections. Governor John Hunter was born here.

Leith and Australia have other connections. Governor John Hunter was born here.

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6 thoughts on “Sepia Saturday 188: The Melvin/Melville Family of Leith

  1. It is such a small world! My Scott family were from Leith (he was a tailor). ScotSue from Sepia Saturday also had family from Leith.
    One day I will visit but i really enjoyed seeing the photos in the meantime.

    • It’s moments like these we realise what a small place the world can be Sharon. One of the things I like about Leith is that you can get the sense of the place even now. The header photo which I had on with this story is of the Shore in Leith (white buildings in a row).

  2. I can see why that prompt image reminded you of your ancestors. Isn’t it sad to see that Janet died so soon after arrival? To survive all the hazards of the sea voyage and then not live to reap any benefits of a new life.

    • Yes I think it was quite tragic Little Nell. Imagine her distress to know she was dying at such a young age and leaving her husband and young child behind.

  3. Hi Pauline! I was reading Silver Voice’s blog when I side-tracked to yours, and have been enjoying reading your descriptions of childhood. Then I saw the Leith post! My name is Leith, given by my parents to honour a friend. I’ve very recently discovered that my Scottish ancestors were married in the church in Leith Street Edinburgh in 1829! It’s been tricky at times, to spell or pronounce, and as well as being a “unisex” name it’s a surname! I like your old and recent photos of Leith. I chanced upon the neighbourhood on a visit to Scotland in 1999. Now I feel I’d like to return to see that church if possible.
    And I’ll return to your blog!
    Best wishes,
    Leith – in Perth WA

    • hi Leith, yes I can imagine that Leith as a first name would be unusual and keep people hopping. I wonder which church is in Leith St, Edinburgh? Do you know? There are some good sites out there for old Leith photos (don’t have them off the top of my head, try typing historical photos Leith in Google). Look forward to revisits from you. I am reminded of the old rhyme to test for drunkenness (or sobriety come to that!): I guess you’ve heard it ad nauseum: the Leith police dismisseth us. Thanks for dropping by. Pauleen

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