Edinburgh Before Wilfred Owen: The Royal Navy at Rosyth

The Grand Fleet in the Firth of Forth, 1916

As for myself,” wrote Owen on the 2nd October 1917, “I hate washy pacifists as temperamentally as I hate whiskied Prussianists.” He went on, “Therefore I feel that I must first get some reputation of gallantry before I could successfully and usefully declare my principles.”

It’s one of the great universals, that, isn’t it, a man’s longing to be brave, or to be seen as brave — and Owen might easily have been writing from Wellington’s front in Napoleonic Spain rather than his room on an upper floor of a requisitioned hotel on a hill on the edge of Great War Edinburgh. Owen, a failed student and struggling language teacher before enlistment, was at Craiglockhart as a victim of shell-shock and one who feared accusations of cowardice. He couldn’t have known, then, that he’d spend the last days of the war a highly-respected leader of men with a Military Cross in the offing. And in any case, the “whiskied Prussianists” who’d so won his dislike were army men: only that past Friday he’d been in the company of the Royal Navy — a quite different set altogether.

Of course, the Edinburgh of the Napoleonic era had been a quite different sort of place from the one Owen found himself in. It was still the Enlightened Capital then, and in the aftermath of Waterloo it augmented the almost-completed New Town with Raeburn’s sweet suburb for returning army officers on a western hill overlooking the Water of Leith. By 1917, however, the New Town was bookended with foundries, breweries and railway yards, the tenement empires of Broughton, Dalry, Gorgie and Greenside had been built, and industrial smoke had eaten deep into the city’s gravestones in the graveyards at Calton, St Cuthberts and Greyfriars. Overhead and everywhere telephone wires stood out against the sky, and telegraph poles marched down every road out of the city. Perhaps it was the high point of industrial design - the Caledonian Railway locomotives on their way west to Glasgow were painted a gorgeous duck-egg blue — but it was also the most unapologetic and intrusive era in our technological history, and in visiting the Navy at Rosyth, Owen was entering in upon the newest and largest expression of it.

Owen’s very journey to Rosyth was a thing of technological novelty and innovation. Either a motor taxi (“cab” was a term reserved for the few lingering horse-drawn vehicles for hire left in Edinburgh) or a decade-old tram (driven by cable from a power station whose chimneys stood eight minutes from the New Town) took him to the still youthful Waverley Station, and then a train along the new main line and across William Arrol’s also still new and still miraculous Forth Bridge brought him to the Grand Fleet. Without that bridge, without that main line, the Navy might never have looked at Rosyth as a northern base for the Grand Fleet, and the contract to build the new dockyard wasn’t signed until as late as 1903.

By 1916, when Rosyth accepted HMS Zealandia as its first ship, it covered no less than 12,000 acres of land and stretched a full three miles along the coast. No backwater this: only the southern coast held anything bigger, and Owen reported being shown over “the longest fighting ship in the world” (which the editor of his letters, John Bell, tentatively identifies as HMS Repulse). The glass plate images in the Imperial War Museum, shot from the air, show a vast modern fleet, with dozens of ships spread out across the glittering water. Rosyth was another triumph for William Arroll, and two of the company’s cranes — one at 100 tons, and a second, newer one at 250 tons, dominated the skyline of the dockyard.

Edinburgh’s waterline had scarcely stood still since Napoleonic times — the docks at Leith had grown to vast size, and until the coming of the Forth Bridge, rail traffic crossed the river by means of innovative rail ferries shuttling between Granton and Burntisland. Even Newhaven, the sleepiest and most stable village on the coast, had acquired rail connections, tram lines, a new lighthouse and a busy, cosmpolitan fishmarket whose building stretched the full length of the augmented pier. But the presence of Rosyth brought something new and sinister into the offing: it brought Edinburgh to the attention of the United Kingdom’s enemies in a way that hadn’t happened since 1745. Granton was now the control site for a complex sequence of submarine nets and surface booms. In April 1916, Zeppelins came to attack the fleet at Rosyth; losing formation off the east coast, they emptied their bombs over Edinburgh instead, and new airfields at Turnhouse and East Fortune were built to prevent it happening again. (Turnhouse became the station for the great aerial photographer Alfred Buckham, whose archive is one of Edinburgh’s greatest modern artistic treasures).

Rosyth Garden City before 1914.

Of course, with the war well underway and a dockyard first to build and then to maintain, the new settlement at Rosyth could scarcely fail to thrive. There is no “old Rosyth,” unless you count the settlements at Inverkeithing and North Queensferry: it is a place created entirely by and for the Royal Navy. The most cherished part of the Navy’s dockyard town is Rosyth Garden City, a stretch of pleasant avenues of small semi-detached houses aimed at dockyard workers and their families. It was one of the first parts of the town to be completed, and was part of the backdrop to Owen’s day with the Navy. The “Garden City” is appropriate and misleading at the same time. The sense of space, the gardens front and back, and the design of the houses themselves, recall aspects of earlier similarly-named settlements such as at Welwyn, and explain why people are still keen to live there today. They set the standard and the tone for Rosyth streets ever since. Rosyth is still a small town, however, with none of the size or varied nature of a genuine city, although perhaps that is true also of Letchworth, or of Welwyn itself.

But these are the wrong comparisons to make. Rosyth Garden City is important not merely because of what it was — an effort to house people properly and for the long term, a display of commitment if you will — but because of what it wasn’t. Rosyth Garden City was not built as tenements. On the other side of the water in Edinburgh, the five years either side of the death of Queen Victoria had seen something of a building boom, with new tenement kingdoms springing up at the end of new tramlines at Comely Bank and even in Leith’s beautiful Georgian suburb of Trinity. Although Edinburgh’s tenements were, for the most part, a great housing success, proving popular, comfortable and flexible (at Comely Bank, tenements were built both for the working classes commuting to Canonmills on the tram and for the middle classes whose paterfamilias would be driven over Dean Bridge to his New Town law office every morning), the English were building houses for all but the very poorest. And at Rosyth, they built houses. After the war, working class suburbs bearing a great resemblence to Rosyth Garden City would appear on empty ground at Edinburgh’s margins — at Pilton, Restalrig, Craigleith and Niddrie.

Owen saw Rosyth when it was brand new, and experienced the building of a vast British naval dockyard on a virgin site as a contemporary event. But not everything that was underway on Edinburgh’s coastline was growth and innovation. On the day of his visit, the Edinburgh Evening News reported that the traditional yawl fishing at Newhaven had ground to a halt, and that the market was surviving on the sale of consignments of haddock. Even these, it said, were mostly of small, juvenile fish that in peacetime would have been thrown back overboard. Newhaven had been in a steady, almost stately decline for some years by that stage, and it would take the forced rehousing of the village in the 1960s and 1970s, combined with pollution and overfishing, to push things beyond the bounds of recovery. But after 1914, like so much else about pre-War Edinburgh life, things would never be quite the same again, and that sense of breakage, of irredeemable damage, that one feels over the death of Wilfred Owen in November 1918, finds its echo in so much else about the Edinburgh of the time, the city that made him a poet.