Ruby’s house: where local history intersects with snooping
We went to view a house today. We haven’t been planning a move – except in the sense that we’re always vaguely planning a move, only the last time we put our too-small flat on the market was in early 2008 just around the time of the bubble bursting, and you can imagine how well that went. Since giving up on the sale after a few months of precisely nobody coming to look at it, we’ve had another child, I have been made redundant and started freelancing, and we’ve sort of semi-accepted the fact that yes we’ll be in cramped quarters for a while, but it could be worse, at least we have a home, etc. It’s probably past time that we tried selling again, but the very idea is just so damn exhausting that we keep putting it off.
This listing, however, jogged us a little way out of our inertia. The property is in our neighbourhood, near the school where our eldest will start in August. It has lots of space and lovely views. What sets it apart is that it’s amazingly cheap for the area, because it is “a project” rather than a ready-to-live-in home. We could hardly not wander across the park and have a look, so that’s what we did this sunny morning. My partner’s parents, who know more about fixing up houses than we do, drove over and met us there.
It was clear the moment we arrived that this would be too complex a renovation job for a couple of DIY novices like us, with limited funds and small boisterous children, to undertake. The house is like a time capsule: as the estate agent’s rep explained, it’s had one resident – an elderly woman, who died very recently – since the 1960s or perhaps earlier, and it is completely unmodernized. Ancient wiring is exposed here and there, there’s no central heating, and the kitchen range dates to the 1920s. It’ll be a really amazing home for someone braver than us (maybe the young couple who were exploring it at the same time as we were), but we decided pretty quickly, if a little regretfully, that we wouldn’t be pursuing it.
We then spent a few minutes chatting to the rep, who gave me the go-ahead to take some photos. I only had my iPod camera, which is supremely pixelly and awful, but combined with the official listing linked above, they still give you some idea of the atmosphere of the place.
In the kitchen, a few pieces of post sat neatly stacked – recent junk mail addressed to the late owner, picked up from the mat by the rep this morning. So now we knew her name, the woman who’d lived here for so long: Robina. Coincidentally, she had the same slightly uncommon surname as the local family who used to live in our flat. We wondered whether there was a connection as we made our way outside and stood in the sun, and then we took our leave of the friendly rep and went away to have lunch: a big three-generation family group, cluttering up a flashy new branch of Pizza Express.
One long, busy Saturday afternoon later, sitting in a darkened bedroom this evening waiting for our restless toddler to fall asleep, I scrolled through the photos again and on impulse, Googled Robina’s name. A newspaper death notice came up, as well as a short post from a few years ago on a family history site by a relative of hers, mentioning her and giving a bit of info about their family – part of a long line of fishermen in Newhaven, apparently. And it seems she didn’t go by Robina, but by Ruby.
This was almost enough to make me feel I could justify my interest on legitimate local history grounds, because the Newhaven fishing community is a subject of so much study. Really, though, I know I was (still am, some hours later) just satisfying basic curiosity, poking my nose a little way into someone else’s life. I hope that is harmless; it’s just that Ruby’s house got under my skin a little. It is a bit spooky to think of a place that was her sanctuary for so many decades, and that just this morning was full of sunshine and the conversation of strangers of all ages, now sitting dark and empty on the other side of the park as I type. I wonder what the amazing view over the Firth of Forth from the bay window in the master bedroom looks like by night. I wonder whether the rep has closed Ruby’s curtains.
Here, anyway (without actually naming her family, who might with some justification think I’m a complete loon/stalker) is what I learned about Ruby (assuming I do have the right Ruby) with a few clicks around those Google hits and the Scotland’s People website. Nothing very personal or illuminating; I don’t know, for instance, what she did for a living. Just a few bullet-point facts, unconnected dots, about a local woman who lived a long and hopefully contented life in her own home, from which all the evocative traces of her domestic routine will almost certainly have been swept away by this time next summer.
- Ruby (Robina) was born in 1916, in the same part of Edinburgh where she lived for most – perhaps all – of her life.
- She was named after her paternal grandmother Robina, and her middle name was her grandmother’s maiden name, too, which helped me to identify the right family from a few possible options in the records.
- She had at least one sibling: a brother, called William.
- Their father, also William, was a local fisherman, as was his father, also William.
- Their mother, Helen, was from a Newhaven fishing family as well.
- At the time of William senior’s death in 1942 (accidental fall), the house that I looked at today – which dates, I think, to the 1920s – was already in the family: Ruby’s brother, who witnessed the death certificate, gave it as his address. Whether or not she herself was actually living there at that point, I don’t know.
- Ruby’s mother Helen died in 1968.