In A-Z of Dumfries: Places-People-History, each letter of the alphabet has its own chapter and O is for Old Bridge House in Dumfries, where I have been working as a seasonal museum attendant this summer.
Dating back to 1660, and built into the structure of the 15th century Devorgilla Bridge, it is the town’s oldest domestic building. James Birkmyre, a cooper (barrel maker) built the sandstone house as both his family home and workshop. The town council of the day, worried about his house blocking the bridge insisted the front of the house did not protrude beyond the line of the bridge parapet. He doesn’t seem to have taken much notice of such planning restrictions.
Seen from the bridge, the building looks as though it is only one storey but from the back it can be seen there are two and in fact, when it was built, there was a lower floor which is now beneath the level of the ground. Over the years the house has been an inn, possibly a secret meeting place for Covenanters (using the principle of hiding in plain sight?), a family house and two council flats (more about that in another post) before eventually being turned into a folk museum. Most of the six rooms are crammed with artefacts depicting every-day life from the last couple of centuries.
One room is filled with Victorian dental equipment. I really hate going to the dentist. When I was five or six years old I was thrown out of the school dentist’s caravan because I wouldn’t stop screaming. The fear has remained ever since, exacerbated by being given gas before having teeth removed because the dentist said my jaw was too small to accommodate all my second teeth. I still remember the horrible smell of the gas and coming round thinking I still had to endure the ordeal, despite spitting blood everywhere.
You can imagine how I felt about having to show visitors the Victorian dentist’s surgery in the museum. All the equipment, including the dentist’s foot-operated drill, the stand for the gas canister, the cabinets full of false teeth, the pliers and the chair, were donated by the son of a dentist – Dr Dykes – who had a practice in Dumfries.
The smell of dentistry assails you as you enter the room. One visitor asked if we had a special spray to make it smell that way but, no, we don’t. The odour has seeped into the fabric of the red velvet chair – red velvet, I heard my colleague inform a tourist, disguised the blood stains.
Countless people have stood in that room over the summer telling me their personal horror stories of the dentist. School dentists in the 1950s have a lot to answer for with regard to the state of population’s (of a certain age) teeth. Jane was treated to the story of a woman who even remembered Dr Dykes. One Christmas Eve, aged twenty-one, pregnant and suffering from toothache she called on him. She remembers him putting the gas mask over her face and when she came round it was to find he had removed not only the troublesome one, but all her teeth. She said she went home and cried all night. He probably believed he was doing her a favour.
At one time, people were given the removal of all their teeth as a wedding gift or a twenty-first present. At one time, children were paid to have healthy teeth extracted. At one time, soldiers lying dead on the battlefield had their teeth extracted for use in dentures. We often shake our heads and mutter that the ‘progress’ we make in many areas of life does not always make things better but in dentistry things have definitely improved.
I still hate going to the dentist – have an appointment today for a check-up so didn’t sleep well last night and the horror stories I’ve heard over the summer are not helping. Does anyone else remember the school dentist coming round in his caravan? Or the smell of gas?