St Johns Edinburgh and the Battle of Waterloo

The congregation of Bishop Sandford in Edinburgh, the subject of my PhD research, built their striking new chapel of St Johns in 1818. So it is not surprising that a few years earlier, when still meeting in their little classical Charlotte Chapel in Rose Street, they should have some Waterloo connections.

Charlotte Chapel, Rose Street, Edinburgh

Mary McLeod, daughter of the chief of clan McLeod, came from Skye to marry David Ramsay, a Royal Navy captain. Now in their sixties, they lived at 24 Dublin Street, a house with “an excellent dining room… an elegant drawing-room… a large room lighted from the street, well-suited for a writing-chamber”,  and “a three-stalled stable and coach house”. Between 1793 and 1808 David had commanded the Queen, the Agreeable, the Pomona, and the Euridice. Since then he had been responsible for overseeing the defence of the Port of Leith, and organising the press-gang. Trinity House presented him with a silver snuff box in recognition of his work in 1813.

Major Norman Ramsay Galloping his Troop Through the French Army
to Safety at the Battle of Fuentes d’Onoro, 1811

Yet, the following years were ones of tragedy. Their daughter Catherine died in October 1814, and was buried by Bishop Sandford. The following February they gave up the house in Dublin Street. In January 1815 their second son Alexander, a Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery, was killed at New Orleans, although news did not reach Edinburgh until March. On 19 June 1815, their eldest son William was killed at Waterloo. finally, on 31 July 1815, their youngest son David, a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, died in Jamaica. David himself died in November 1818. Mary, who still had three surviving daughters, outlived him by ten years. The pride they took in their gallant sons is demonstrated by the monumental tomb they commissioned for them in Inveresk churchyard.

Part of the family of Ramsay of Balnain, David was related to Bishop Sandford’s successor, Edward Bannerman Ramsay, Dean of Edinburgh and St John’s most eminent Rector. However, this was not just a church for those in high society, as its other Waterloo connection demonstrates.

Margaret Mitchell gave birth to a daughter in March 1813, a fortnight before her husband John joined as a Private in Captain Miller’s Company in the Rifle Brigade. The daughter, Eleanor, was baptised by Bishop Sandford the following June. As fans of the Sharp novels know, the Rifle Brigade were an innovative part of the British Army, in which soldiers were highly trained, armed with the accurate Baker Rifle, dressed in close-fitting green uniforms, and expected to operate independently ahead of the main army, with officers and men working closely together. John was wounded at Waterloo, but was invalided home to Margaret and little Eleanor.

A Rifleman’s uniform

Waterloo was, however, a long way from the west end of Edinburgh, where members of Charlotte Chapel were engaged in church wars and canal wars. Bishop Sandfords congregation had recently begun discussing the construction of the new chapel, and on 8 June proposed to the neighbouring episcopal congregation that they unite to build one splendid church. On 12 June, a week before Waterloo, the proposal was rejected by the Cowgate Chapel. The ostensible reason was that one large chapel might “create jealousy against us in the established [Presbyterian] church”, but one suspects that the “very respectable number” of the congregation who were “decidedly of the opinion that the union… is inexpedient” were thinking more about the fact that Bishop Sandford’s congregation contained a lot of riflemen and sea captains, not to mention shopkeepers, nabobs, and suchlike. The Cowgate Chapel congregation was, as its Rector Archibald Alison explained in 1820, “of a peculiar kind… composed almost entirely of persons in the higher ranks, or in the more respectable conditions of society”. It seems likely that the Cowgate congregation, which built St Pauls in York Place, wished to retain its exclusivity. The two churches raced to complete their new chapels in 1818, a little ecclesiastical battle which St Paul’s won, thanks to a huge storm which blew the newly-erected Gothic pinnacles of St Johns tower through its roof, just before it was due to open.

St John’s Chapel, opened 1818

Meanwhile, on the day of Waterloo itself, one of those St John’s nabobs and a future vestry member, Robert Downie, convened a meeting of the Subscribers to the Union Canal. The “Union Line” which Downie was promoting with the support of various members of the Whig party, was fiercely opposed by the Tory city council who preferred an alternative “Upper Line”. Downie, whose immense wealth made his proposals difficult to argue with despite his humble social origins, so the Union Canal through to a successful completion, and gave his name to Downie Place, the section of Lothian Road which overlooked the canal’s terminus, Port Hopetoun.

Downie Place and Port Hopetoun

For the west end of Edinburgh, Waterloo symbolised far more than military victory. After twenty-five years of war, it signified a moment of social, technological, institutional and cultural advance (an anonymous member of the community had just published Waverley and Guy Mannering). The following years witnessed social unrest, economic depression, and ultimately the eclipse of Edinburgh by Glasgow and other industrial cities. Yet, 200 years ago, in Bishop Sandford’s congregation, it might have felt like the optimistic dawn of the modern world.

Sources
“Box, presented to Captain David Ramsay”, National Museums of Scotland
George Caldwell and Robert Cooper, Rifle Green at Waterloo
Caledonian Mercury newspaper
Minutes of St John’s vestry
Sermons of Archibald Allison
Letters of Walter Scott