A tall gravestone marks the resting place of nearly a whole family: James Stevens and his wife Harriet, both their sons Thomas and James, Thomas’ wife Elizabeth, and their infant son. St. Mark’s graveyard has a significant number of wealthy inhabitants connected to colonial and military backgrounds. This part of Portobello society shaped the area with large Georgian houses that are still a feature today. But their presence also created employment and retail opportunities, such as those that the Stevens family undertook. This family’s story like so many highlights the fragility of life then. But it also shows that human compassion is timeless and that friendships sometimes were able to reach across economic classes.
The 1861 census shows that James Stevens was living in Portobello working as a Spirit Dealer. The census also tells us that James was born in England as was his wife Harriet. This may explain their connection with St. Marks. They are recorded as living in Tower Street with their 2 sons Thomas and James, and are able to afford a servant. By 1871, they are living on the High Street. The term Spirit Dealer seems to be have been quite wide in definition. A spirit dealer license was required by inn/ hotel keepers, public house keepers, and grocers who also sold spirits. It seems to have been a surprisingly common source of employment, although the government was becoming increasingly concerned at the level of sales and the perceived rise in anti-social behaviour and poverty as a result. It isn’t really clear what type of spirit dealer James Steven was and whether he had a shop premises or was acting as a publican elsewhere.
James and his wife had two sons, Thomas born in 1856 and James born in 1858. In 1871 the family are recorded living on the High Street. James Stevens died in 1874. His death certificate records that he died from meningitis, and that his father had been a domestic servant. Harriet died the following year from Bright’s disease which today would be described as acute or chronic nephritis, a condition affecting the kidneys. On Harriet’s death certificate we learn that her father had been a gardener. She is described as being the widow of a Spirit Merchant. This term and Spirit Dealer may have been interchangeable, or perhaps James had improved his business to be more in wholesale or supplying the increasing number of large houses in the area. As a couple they had established themselves beyond the domestic service their parents were in.
Thomas Samuel Stevens married Elizabeth Bryson in 1879. He had followed in his father’s footsteps and was a Spirit Merchant living at 45 High Street. Elizabeth was born in 1855 in Tradeson, Glasgow. On the marriage certificate, she is described as a lady’s maid, working at 11 Adelphi Place. Census records for 1871 and 1881 show that this was the home of the Esplin family. Charles Esplin was also a Wine and Spirit Merchant, which might have been how Thomas met Elizabeth. Interestingly Margaret Esplin was English so the connection may also have come from both families attending St. Marks. Thomas and Elizabeth had their wedding at St. Marks.
Their first son James Bryson Stevens was born in 1880. The 1881 census records them living at 43 High Street with Thomas as a Spirit Merchant employing 1 boy. Thomas’s brother James was now an Architect’s Assistant lodging with a family at 118 High Street. Thomas and Elizabeth then had a second son, Thomas Samuel named after his father in November 1881. However, just when it seems that this family are managing well, everything changes. In February 1882 Thomas Stevens died aged 26 at home. The following month the infant Thomas died aged 4 months and 2 weeks. He died at 118 High Street where James Stevens was lodging. It’s possible that Elizabeth may have taken him there for help, or he may have been cared for there because of his parents’ illness and risk of infection. In August 1882 Elizabeth died at 43 High Street. Elizabeth and Thomas are recorded as dying of phthisis pulmonaris, with the baby dying from bronchitis. The disease that swept through this family with such devastating consequences within 6 months is tuberculosis. The causes and treatment for TB were only starting to be understood in the nineteenth century, with the suspicion that it was infectious not being properly proven until 1882. Whilst those in the upper classes could afford treatment in sanatoriums for “consumption”, for many the outlook was much bleaker with a long painful slide into poverty and death. Overcrowding and poor living conditions contributed to the disease’s infection rates and it was a common cause of death amongst urban populations. Although the Stevens owned a business, their living quarters would still have been cramped, and their flat or rooms would have been part of a packed street. Five years later in 1887, James Stevens, now an architect also died of tuberculosis aged 30. It would be interesting to know how many people died of TB in Portobello in this period, and whether this was part of a larger epidemic.
Out of this family, one child remained, James Bryson Stevens who would have been 2 years old when his parents and baby brother died leaving him an orphan. He was not named on the gravestone, so I wondered what had happened to him and whether he would even be traceable if he had entered state care. But amazingly he appears alive and well in the 1891 census which records a James B Stevens aged 10 living in Mentone Avenue with Margaret Esplin, the woman his mother had worked for prior to marrying Thomas. She was by that time a widow, living on private means. There is no way of knowing if Margaret Esplin and her former employee Elizabeth had been friends but such an act of kindness and generosity does seem to suggest there was a strong connection between them.
Margaret Esplin died in 1900. What happened next for James Bryson Stevens does then become much more difficult to determine. Frustratingly, he seemed to vanish from Scottish records or records in England. I wondered if he had changed his name, or headed overseas. Interestingly a James Bryson Stevens appears in a Canadian family tree on Ancestry UK. The birth date is slightly out, being recorded as 1883 but the birth place is Edinburgh although the parents are unknown. This James Bryson Stevens marries twice, first to Eliza Elizabeth Sheffield, and then to Ida Mae Reynolds. He has one child with Eliza and nine with Ida. He died in 1954 aged 71 in Toronto, Ontario. The decade between 1901 and 1911 saw the largest loss of population in Scotland by migration in one decade yet recorded. It would be easy to see why a nineteen year old with no family ties in Edinburgh and an uncertain future would look further afield to somewhere like Canada. Is the James Bryson Stevens in Canada the boy who was born in Portobello? With nearly the whole Stevens family disappearing within about 10 years, the idea that James might have survived and gone on to create a whole new life for himself with a large family of his own is a heart-warming one. I certainly hope that this is what happened. But the kindness of Margaret Esplin is much more certain and without her support, it is unlikely that James would have survived to have had any sort of future.