Last week a plaque was unveiled on John Thomson’s childhood home in Edinburgh, Scotland, in his centenary year. How did it get there?
In 2018, the John Thomson Commemoration Group* formed to restore John Thomson’s grave in south London. During this process, we realized that there were no commemorative plaques for John Thomson (1837-1921) in either Edinburgh (where he was born and lived until the age of 24) or London (where he lived and worked after returning from Asia).
Historic Environment Scotland (HES) run a bronze commemorative plaque scheme to celebrate the link between a significant person and a building. Researching mostly from my home in faraway Bristol, I found out from a parish record on the ScotlandsPeople web site, that John Thomson was born in 1837 at number 3, Portland Place, Edinburgh. Google maps located a Portland Terrace in Leith, Edinburgh, but no Portland Place.
Roberta McGrath, a friend in Edinburgh, visited the resident of 3 Portland Terrace, Leith. But … Thomson was born in St Cuthbert’s parish, which is not in Leith. A neighbour of the resident of 3 Portland Terrace told us about the renaming of the roads: there had been two Portland Places, one in Leith (later named Portland Terrace) and one in Tollcross, Edinburgh Old Town. When the city of Edinburgh expanded into Leith in the 1920s, the Portland Place in Tollcross was renamed Lauriston Place. This information fried the wrong Portland Place red herring. In any case, from Streetview it became apparent that Thomson’s birthplace had long ago been demolished to make way for what is now the University of Edinburgh’s Lauriston Campus.
In 1841, Thomson’s parents and siblings moved from Tollcross, to a larger apartment at 6 Brighton Street. The family is recorded as living at this address in the 1851 and 1861 censuses. This was John Thomson’s home for two decades during his formative years. The Georgian B-listed tenement building in this short street still stands, so 6 Brighton Street could appropriately be named as the site for a plaque. However, the HES application process includes the stipulation that the applicant should seek permission for the siting of a plaque from the building’s owner before submitting a nomination. Letters were duly written to unknown occupants living in various flats at 6 Brighton Street. Roberta kindly visited the building in person, speaking with a resident. Gradually, I was in touch with some of those who lived there or who owned the apartments.
Next up: filling in the HES nomination form, in which I stated, in less than a thousand words, as required, why John Thomson deserved a plaque, detailing also his life and achievements, and why the address was relevant to the nominee. Useful information was provided by Richard Ovenden, author of John Thomson (1837-1921) Photographer, Debbie Ireland, and Terry Bennett. Messages of support were swiftly gathered up from the commemoration group, Roberta McGrath and Roddy Simpson (Scottish Society for the History of Photography) and endorsed by Professor Nick Pearce. The application was proofed by the Historical Photographs of China research assistant, Shannon Smith, and submitting to HES just before the scheme closed for the year’s new applications on 30 August 2019.
The nomination was successful, and was indeed deemed ‘exemplary’ by the independent panel. The commemoration group then decided on the wording for the plaque, for the foundry to cast. We prepared a press release to coincide with the public announcement in March 2020 by HES of seventeen new plaques. Further progress was delayed as the pandemic set in.
Meanwhile, the date of the centenary of Thomson’s death (30 September 1921) was fast approaching. We planned for a plaque ‘unveiling’ event to take place on 29 September, which was the same day as the opening of the exhibition China Through the Lens of John Thomson, at the Heriot-Watt University (the exhibition is part of Thomson’s alma mater’s bicentenary celebrations). Thanks to the efforts of the HES plaques and Estates teams, the plaque was installed in time.
With invitations to the event sent out, I wrote a speech for the ‘unveiling’, an event organised by Betty and attended by more than thirty people, including relatives of John Thomson’s wife Isobel Thomson (née Petrie). Deborah Ireland regaling the gathering with ten things we probably didn’t know about John Thomson, including that he had significantly boosted the Royal Geographical Society’s photograph collection by encouraging explorers to bring back their own or locally purchased photographs, as well as training explorers in photography.
Neil Gregory, HES Deputy Head of Engagement, said that HES were delighted to be able to have the John Thomson plaque installed in time for the centenary. He said that he would like the unveiling to not be a final outcome, but rather more of a beginning: he and his team are currently exploring how an engagement programme for HES’s Commemorative Plaques could be developed which would enable both tourists and online audiences alike to learn more about Thomson’s fascinating life, his remarkable contribution to the development of photography and our knowledge of 19th century China.
In the evening, the exhibition China Through the Lens of John Thomson was opened by Alex Hamilton, chair of the Scottish Society for the History of Photography (SSHoP). There were speeches by Ma Qiang, the Chinese Consul in Edinburgh, by Professor Richard Williams, Principal of Heriot-Watt University and by Betty Yao, thanks to whose tireless work millions of people have a had a chance to see the marvellous large prints made from Thomson’s glass negatives digitised by the Wellcome Collection. Mindful of covid, Betty gave guided tours of the exhibition in small groups.
The events of the day were attended by photo-historians, curators and representatives from the Scottish Society for the History of Photography, HES and the Royal Photographic Society. The opportunity to have face-to-face discussions, so long denied, will doubtless lead to other initiatives. As for more plaque nominations – to HES, English Heritage, other civic organisations – this can only be encouraged. Historic Environment Scotland aim to re-open a call for nominations in Spring 2022.
I recommend a visit to China Through the Lens of John Thomson, on at the James Watt Centre, Riccarton campus, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, EH14 4AS (bus #25 from the Scott Monument) until 24 March 2022.
Coinciding with the John Thomson centenary events, MuseumsEtc has published a two-volume set, comprising Street Life in London by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith, and an accompanying volume with context and commentary by Emily Kathryn Morgan.
*John Thomson Commemoration Group led by Betty Yao MBE: Terry Bennett (photo-historian), Jamie Carstairs (Special Collections, University of Bristol), Geoff Harris (Editor, ‘Amateur Photographer’), Deborah Ireland (photo-historian), Michael Pritchard (Director, Education & Public Affairs, RPS).