MarySmith’sPlace – Granny Black & the Old Bridge House

In a previous post about my summer as a museum attendant in the Old Bridge House, Dumfries, I showed our Victorian dentist’s surgery, which you can read here. This time, let me introduce you to Granny Black who was a resident for over forty years.

Granny Black

Granny Black

In the early 1900s, the council divided the building into two, three-roomed flats. The three rooms consisted of a bedroom, kitchen and parlour. There was no electricity, running water or sanitation. The latter was probably dealt with by emptying the contents of chamber pots into the river. Fresh water was certainly being piped into the town by then so drinking water would have been available, possibly from a nearby standpipe or  a well.

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Dressing table in the downstairs flat

Annie Black (nee Lind) and her husband, John, moved into the first floor flat around 1910. Annie was illegitimate and worked as a farm hand before she married. They had six children, including one set of twin girls.

Granny Black - Keith (Custom)

We know very little about John Black. He’s been described as earning his living as a ‘jobbing painter’ – guessing this means painting houses rather than pictures. The only other things we know about him is that he liked to drink – his grandson James Murray said it was his greatest talent – and that he died after an accident when drunk. Outside the building are large sandstone ‘skite’ stones, put in place when the house was built to protect it from being struck by wagon wheels. John Black fell down drunk and cracked his head on the skite stone. This may be why the couple only had six children at a time when families of ten were not uncommon.

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Cradle and child’s high chair

Annie, or Granny Black as she became known, worked as the local midwife. She also laid out the dead. A number of visitors of the museum told us their grandmothers or great aunts did the same job, attending to both the beginning and end of life.

Granny Black and her downstairs neighbour went together every week to the public laundry where she always had the use of the best tub. She could also have a bath as above the laundry was the public bathhouse where people could pay for soap, towel and half an hour’s soak in a hot bath. She also liked to sit in the doorway to the flat and knit while watching the world go by – she would have known everyone and everything that went on in the area.

Public Laundry (Custom)

The laundry and public baths on the right, sadly, demolished as is the swimming pool pictured on the left.

She died around 1955 at the age of eighty-six. After Annie passed away the council made the decision to turn the building into the museum it is today.

Her grandson, whose mother was one of Granny Black’s twin girls, James Murray remembers going to stay with his grandmother in the Old Bridge House. He is professor emeritus of applied mathematics at University of Washington and University of Oxford, known for his authoritative and extensive work entitled Mathematical Biology. What a leap in two generations. I am pretty sure Annie Black made sure her children did their homework!

22 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace – Granny Black & the Old Bridge House

    • Her grandson certainly visited the museum a few years ago and provided some of the information we have. He has written an autobiography, the name of which escapes me right now, in which he mentions his holiday visits to his granny’s home. Some local visitors have said they remember her sitting in the doorway.

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  1. I find this post absolutely fascinating. My guess is that this woman, “Granny Black,” was as intelligent as she was industrious. She was also so strong, to grow up “illegitimate” (thus probably shunned), yet marry and bear six children, and then be a single mom with the death of her (alcoholic, it sounds like) husband. What stories we harbor inside us. She certainly did. And how proud she’d be of her progeny.

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    • Oh, thank you, Pam. I agree Granny Black was an intelligent woman – a true matriarch. She looks quite stern in the photo but that’s how photos were taken then and from what her grandson wrote of his visits when he stayed in her apartment she was very loving. Her husband definitely had a drink problem. My colleague and I often wondered if she missed him. I so wish I could sit down with her and hear her talk about her life.

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      • It would be fascinating to hear Granny Black’s story from her own lips. Differently from you, I imagined she was relieved when her husband was gone (sorry, sounds horrible) but she didn’t have to worry about more babies, and a drunken husband. 😦

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        • Oh, we tended to think she didn’t miss him! I don’t think he contributed much to the family either financially or in any other way and it must have been a relief to have no more pregnancies – bringing up six children would have been quite enough.

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    • I’m surprised at how recent Granny Black’s story is, Jemima. It’s not something way back in the mists of time but in my lifetime. At least, I was born before she died. I love the cradle, too.

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  2. Mary, a fascinating post about Annie Black. Such humble beginnings and then herself to work with people both at the beginning and end of their lives – truly humbling and a privilege. What a wise decision at the time of her passing to save the house as a museum.

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