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Victorian Edinburgh: powerhouse of the British Empire?

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26th April 2019

Julia Branch

This World Heritage Day the public had the opportunity to join Sir Tom Devine in examining the question ‘Victorian Edinburgh: powerhouse of the British Empire?’ Public interest was high, and the event sold out. Attendees were also keen to have Sir Tom sign copies of his books and meet him in person at the drinks reception.

Sir Tom Devine is a leading historian of Scotland, especially the country’s role within the context of the British Empire. He is Professor Emeritus in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh.

The lecture began by exploring the contrasts between Victorian Glasgow and Edinburgh. Sir Tom argued that the traditional imbalance between Glasgow and Edinburgh discussed by many historians of the Victorian era is ‘nothing other than a myth’. The conventional story of Scotland is that ‘during the 18th century the sun shined on Edinburgh’ but by the 19th century ‘power had moved to Glasgow’.

Sir Tom asserted that ‘despite the greater fame of Glasgow, the Edinburgh model in the 19th century proved more stable and enduring…although Glasgow’s industries were more orientated towards exportation, they were more vulnerable to outside influences including weather, war and economic depression.’

‘Edinburgh was safer as it did not have large scale export industries like Glasgow. The city’s middle-class social composition gave it a continuous buoyancy, which is why in the inter-war period Edinburgh escaped a considerable degree from economic depression’. This reveals the complimentary roles of both cities as powerhouses of the empire: Glasgow as a global exporter of capital goods and Edinburgh as a financial centre that exported capital investment and legal expertise to countries across the empire.

Sir Tom also revealed overlooked evidence of Edinburgh’s Victorian building boom. He commented that ‘between 1851 and 1881 no less than 1,000 buildings were erected in this city’. Victorian Edinburgh’s grand cityscape shows that the city was not in the shadow of Glasgow during this period.

He concluded that there was no need for the question mark at the end of the lecture title as Edinburgh was a powerhouse of the British Empire. He stated, ‘the processes of 19th century Edinburgh became the stable bastions for the existing expertise in 21st century banking, finance and investment, which make the city a financial centre of both the UK and Europe’.

The lecture is available to watch on our Facebook page.