MarySmith’sPlace – O is for Old Bridge House #OpenWide

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.

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The kitchen – no sink as there was no running water when it was occupied.

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.

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Recognise items here?

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The school room/toy room

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The scariest doll ever!

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.

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Sorry about the reflection in this pic – those are teeth.

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.

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The Chair

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?

20 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace – O is for Old Bridge House #OpenWide

    • I survived my appointment and just need a tiny filling which will be done next week. She said it was so superficial I might decide not to have it numbed up, looked at my face and added that lots of people opt for numbing.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. My Mum was told she should have all her teeth out before she went to Africa in the late 30s, because ‘they were so bad’. She lost her first tooth at age 84.
    As for me, we went to a dentist in a house, who I won’t name. He ruined my teeth by filling all the grooves on the underside of my top teeth. That’s why I have such an awful smile now. One tooth is still alive, and white, the rest have been through just about everything. I mentioned this to my older brother, and he said ‘oh, him, he was a butcher!’

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  2. poor dentists! My dentist is a lovely woman who does everything she can to make you comfortable – unlike the rather weird one in East London who saw all his patients in a shop window so passers by could watch, up to about twenty years ago. That red chair is very sinister too.

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    • My current dentist is a lovely person, too. I have been with her for a few years and she has done much to help me be a little bit less fearful of the procedures. When I saw her today she laughed at the idea of me talking visitors through Victorian dental practices. As for that chair – apparently some of them had restraints fitted on the arm rests.

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  3. Yes my maternal grandparents had their teeth removed as a wedding present. Sad because Mum and her sister had teeth that lasted very well. I too had healthy 1st and 2nd teeth removed because there was not enough room. The first time I had gas I saw a tank with a skull and crossbones – and another emergency oxygen tank. I believe there was always a doctor present if you had gas.

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    • Presumably the removals were followed by full sets of dentures! Yes, you are right, a doctor had to be present to act as anaesthetist. When I had gas I remember being told to ‘blow away the nasty smell’ and trying really hard not to breathe it in – because it did smell nasty – but, of course, I succumbed. I don’t remember the next bit but my father told the story so often I feel I remember it. After the teeth extraction the doctor kept telling me to wake up but I refused to open my eyes. The doctor said he wanted to go home for his tea. Dad, trying to be helpful leaned over to shake my shoulder, stood on the pedal for the drill which started buzzing and in his fright he leapt back, hit the instrument tray and scattered everything on the floor. In the midst of the chaos I said I felt sick and was escorted into a cool waiting room and encouraged to put my head between my knees. I do remember being afraid of what was going to happen, not realising, despite the blood everywhere, my teeth had been pulled. Thank goodness things are different nowadays.

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    • Thanks, Pat. Oh, my goodness, I didn’t know you were a dentist! I’m sure you have never been responsible for the trauma experienced by many of us when visiting the dentist in childhood 🙂 That’s funny that you resent visiting the oral hygienist.


  4. Pingback: MarySmith’sPlace – Granny Black & the Old Bridge House | Mary Smith's Place

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