Wednesday, July 07, 2021

The Shocking Case of the Saltmarket Cannon

On the evening of May 24th a group of boys in Saltmarket Street, Glasgow fired a 'small cannon', which consequently struck Mrs McGeough square in the face. The woman sustained a 'deep and severe wound on the right cheek'.

Thus reads another exciting installment in the life of Glasgow police surgeon Dr Macewen. In the late Nineteenth Century Dr William Macewen was a pioneer in modern brain surgery and is now considered the father of neurosurgery. However in his early medical career (when he first qualified as a doctor) he was employed as a police surgeon in Glasgow. 

Glasgow in the Nineteenth Century was home to some of the world's busiest docks and was one of the world's leading ship-building centers. It was also a city which could be violent and dangerous. Some of that danger comes across in a new interactive map created by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. 

William Macewen's Police Surgery Map plots a number of the crimes which William Macewen attended in his role as police surgeon in Glasgow (most of which were a lot more violent than the firing of what appears to have been a toy cannon by a small group of boys). The map features newspaper reports into stabbings, suspicious deaths, suicides and a case of rotten fish being sold on the High Street! In his role as police surgeon Macewen collected newspaper reports in which he was mentioned. These newspaper clippings were found in one of Macewen's scrapbooks, scrapbooks which are now part of the Royal College's archive collections. 

You can get a better sense of the city in which Dr Macewen was serving as police surgeon in the National Library of Scotland's map of vintage Glasgow photographs. In the 1860's the city of Glasgow commissioned the Scottish photographer Thomas Annan to photograph the city centre. In 1866 the decision was made to clear the slums in the centre of Glasgow. Annan was employed to photograph the Old Town of Glasgow before it was torn down and rebuilt.

Thanks to the National Library of Scotland you can view Annan's wonderful collection of photos of Nineteenth Century Glasgow centre. Thomas Annan's Glasgow includes an interactive map which allows you to browse the collection of historical photos by location. The map even includes a vintage 1850's Ordnance Survey map of the city so that you can view how the city looked before the slum clearances. 

A small close off Saltmarket Street in 1868

In 1872 Dr William Macewen attended a case of a stabbing on Saltmarket Street. Edward Brown was reportedly stabbed by eighteen year old Miles Harkins during a 'quarrel'. The map of Thomas Annan's Glasgow features a number of photographs taken along Saltmarket Street, including the picture above, taken in 1868.It isn't difficult imagining that this is an environment in which violent crimes may have occasionally occurred. 

Broad Close, High Street 1868

In May 1872 Edward Britton was arrested for murdering his wife in Nicholas Street, off the High Street. Directly opposite Nicholas Street, on the other side of the High Street was Broad Close. The picture above shows Broad Close as it appeared in 1868, before the slum clearances.

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