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17 Jun 2024

Jane Pirie: a complex woman connecting 19th-century Edinburgh

Written by Indigo Dunphy-Smith
A large drawing room with a patterned carpet, a chandelier, a gold guild mirror, and pictures hanging on the wall in gold gilded frames. There is also a fireplace at the end of the room, a window to the bottom right and a door on the left. There are various pieces of furniture in the room.
The Georgian House Drawing Room. The view from the windows looks out across Charlotte Square. Lady Cumming Gordon lived at No. 22 while the Lamonts lived here at No. 7.
To mark Pride Month, Indigo Dunphy-Smith, Visitor Services Assistant at the Georgian House and co-chair of the Trust’s staff and volunteer Pride Network, delves into the life of Jane Pirie, an early 19th-century woman in Edinburgh.

One of my favourite parts of my role is researching the history of the properties the Trust cares for. Over the past few years, I’ve been focusing on uncovering the LGBTQ+ connections to our places. I believe that by broadening the historical narratives of our properties to include those that have been historically marginalised, we can deepen our understanding of the context in which the original owners of our properties lived. Jane Pirie, an intriguing figure from early 19th-century Edinburgh, has captured my attention. By examining court documents from her legal battles, we can learn valuable lessons about the societal attitudes towards race, class and sexuality during her time.

A print of an old map of Edinburgh with some red dots.
Plan of the city of Edinburgh including all the latest and intended improvements, Thomson, Charles, fl. 1820-1831 (National Library of Scotland). The red dots mark locations connected to this story.

A city with two personalities

At the turn of the 19th century, Edinburgh was a city of stark contrasts. The Old Town, with its labyrinthine streets and steep steps, was a bustling hub of activity, while the New Town, still under construction, offered a vision of spacious streets and private parks for the affluent. The Trust is fortunate to have a property on each side, a testament to our commitment to preserving Edinburgh’s diverse built heritage.

Gladstone’s Land is one of the oldest houses on the Royal Mile and represents three centuries of business and lodgings, dating back to the 16th century. In contrast, the Georgian House at No. 7 Charlotte Square is an example of a townhouse at the heart of the wealthy and fashionable New Town.

Jane Pirie was immersed in both sides of this changing Edinburgh. She grew up in lodgings at Gladstone’s Land in the heart of the Old Town but worked and lived just down the road from No. 7 Charlotte Square in Edinburgh’s developing New Town. In early 1809, Jane Pirie and fellow teacher Marianne Woods founded Drumsheugh School, where Drumsheugh Gardens now stands.

The two women had met in an art class some years before and quickly formed a close relationship. To me, Pirie seemed to become particularly attached to Woods. In 1805, she turned down a governess position, reasoning that she would have to relocate to Glasgow and therefore be away from Woods. In celebration of the school opening, Pirie gifted Woods a book of poems by Anna Seward, many of which were written about the poet’s feelings towards her close friend Honora Sneyd. Today, we might read these gestures as early moments of a romantic relationship forming. The joint founding of the school was a way for Woods and Pirie to create a life together. They marketed it as a prestigious new boarding school catering to Edinburgh’s wealthy New Town residents.

The streets of Edinburgh's New Town viewed from the air, with Charlotte Square at the centre. A road wraps around a green space with trees, while houses line the sides.
An aerial view of Charlotte Square, Edinburgh

Charlotte Square, Jane Cumming and the trial

One of the first pupils at Drumsheugh School was 16-year-old Jane Cumming, whose grandmother and guardian, Lady Cumming Gordon, lived in Charlotte Square. If you look out the windows in the drawing room at the Georgian House, you can see her residence at No. 22, diagonally across from our property at No. 7.

Until the age of seven or eight, Jane Cumming had been raised in north-east India. She was the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of Cumming Gordon’s son and an Indian woman, named only as ‘lady of the north’ in historical records. A few years after Cumming Gordon’s son died, she made plans for Jane, along with her brother Yorrick, to relocate to Scotland.

Cumming Gordon had plans for Jane to assimilate into Edinburgh’s genteel society. She enrolled Jane, along with her two cousins, at the newly established Drumsheugh School, a convenient five-minute walk from her house in Charlotte Square. However, Pirie and Woods were initially uncertain about accepting Jane Cumming as a student at their school, as they were concerned about how Jane’s circumstances (being mixed-race and illegitimate) might affect its reputation. They eventually concluded that as Jane was the granddaughter of the wealthy and influential Lady Cumming Gordon, it was worth the risk. Regardless of this, over the next year, Pirie continued to express her racial prejudices toward Jane through targeted mistreatment and harsh discipline. From the case records, we know that Jane kept a notebook in which she brooded over this targeted mistreatment. I believe this indicates a build-up of spite that eventually pushed Jane to retaliate.

During a visit to her grandmother in Charlotte Square, Jane reported the two schoolteachers had shown ‘inordinate affection’ for each other. Appalled by this, Cumming Gordon sent off a flurry of letters informing the other parents, encouraging them to withdraw their daughters from the school. The school was empty by the end of the week. Over a hundred years later, this moment would inspire Lillian Hellman to write The Children’s Hour (1934), which was later developed into a film (1961) starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine.

A photo of a round picture in a gold gilded frame hanging on a wall with cream patterned wallpaper. The picture depicts two women in Georgian dress, caressing each other.
‘Classical Scene with Sappho’ in the Georgian House bedroom. Sapphic was commonly used during the Georgian period to refer to a woman who was intimate with other women.

During the case, Pirie and Woods v. Cumming Gordon, the existence of ‘tribadism’ (a form of sexual activity between women) in Scotland was extensively debated. Lord Hope argued that the idea there was any truth to the claims made by Jane Cumming was just as likely as ‘thunder playing the tune of God Save the King‘. Cumming Gordon‘s legal team responded by producing a lengthy document of detailed definitions of ‘tribadism‘ from all over the world. However, regardless of what was found to be legally correct, the swift removal of pupils from school suggests that negative attitudes towards sapphic (a word commonly used during the Georgian period to refer to a woman who was intimate with other women) relationships in the early 19th century were prevalent. This meant that the accusation and what it resulted in threatened both teachers’ reputations and livelihoods.

Not only does the case highlight socio-cultural attitudes towards women’s sexuality in early 19th-century Scotland, but it also provides insight into the role race played in these conversations. How Jane knew the teachers were ‘engaging in irregular sexual practices’ and ‘lewd and indecent behaviour’ was interrogated in the courtroom. Jane’s mixed-race background and childhood in India were used to discredit her. It was suggested that India’s ‘hot eastern clime‘ was a place with loose morals ’where such corruptions may well have occurred’. Jane‘s ability to create such a convincing and detailed story was due to her upbringing in India, where she had learnt about sapphic practices. This kind of rhetoric indicates how heavily influenced the courtroom and society were by the imperialistic attitudes of the time.

Researching this case has led me to wonder if our first owners at the Georgian House, who lived at No. 7, the Lamonts, were acquaintances of the Cumming Gordons. Elizabeth Grant, who was born at No. 5 and then later lived at No. 6, recalled enjoying spending winter evenings with the Cumming Gordons. Is it possible that the Lamonts were also among the guests? Did they know and speak about the accusations? I wonder if they or their neighbours held similar views towards race and sexuality?

An old-fashioned parlour room with a fireplace and ornate wall hangings. The furniture is dark, and the table is set for tea.
The Georgian House Parlour. I have often wondered if Mrs Lamont entertained her neighbour Lady Cumming Gordon here, or if the case of Pirie and Woods was a subject of conversation.

Pirie and Woods sued Cumming Gordon for defamation, seeking £10,000 in reparations, which is just under £1m today. Although they initially won the case, Lady Cumming Gordon fought a lengthy and expensive legal battle to appeal the verdict. By the time it was dismissed nine years later, the teachers had won but were left with a mere £500 each after paying all their legal fees.

Following the trial, Pirie and Woods went their separate ways. Woods relocated to London and managed to find work as a part-time teacher. Pirie, however, stayed in Edinburgh. I found her name again in the legal archives, this time taking her sister to court over property in Gladstone’s Land.

A view into a side street with a sign above that reads 'Lady Stair's Close' - this is also etched in the stonework of the street.
Lady Stair’s Close where the entrance to Jane Pirie’s Gladstone’s Land flat is located. Image: Zoe Conroy, Instagram: @conroy.photography

‘Third story back’ at Gladstone’s Land

In this second legal battle Pirie argued with her sister Margaret and Margaret’s husband over inheritance rights to a set of flats she grew up in, in Gladstone’s Land.

In 1809, the same year Drumsheugh School was founded, Pirie and her other sister, Euphemia, inherited a flat each from their aunt (also called Euphemia). In this case, we hear that in 1814 (two years into the Woods and Pirie vs Cumming Gordon case), the sisters divided up their property inheritance. Euphemia takes the ‘first story front’ and Jane the ‘third story back’ – originally entered via Lady Stair’s Close. Pirie claims in this case that when they were dividing up the inheritance, she was pressured by her married sister Margaret to give over her share of the inheritance, to which Pirie (now regretfully) agreed. Margaret hadn’t received any property in the will for reasons unknown. I wonder if it was because she was already married and, therefore, comparatively financially secure?

A re-constructed 17th-century bedroom, with a four-poster bed complete with heavy fabric hangings. The wooden ceiling has an original painted decoration. The walls are mustard yellow and the room is lit by the window to the right.
The bedroom at Gladstone’s Land, referred to as the ‘third story front’ when it was transferred to Euphemia as part of the inheritance division between herself and Jane Pirie.

A year later, Margaret and Jane’s sister Euphemia died, leaving her share of the inheritance to Margaret. Suddenly, Margaret went from owning none of the inheritance to owning all. After the Drumsheugh School case was dismissed in 1819, Pirie finds herself ‘totally ruined ... entirely disabled from employing whatever talents she may possess’. She began to rethink her decision to give over her Gladstone’s Land property to Margaret and attempted to win back these lodgings, probably in pursuit of securing some financial comfort for her future.

Pirie brings the case before the Court of Session, an institution she is now intimately acquainted with and perhaps feels confident navigating. She claims her sister ‘Margaret had acted in an illegal and most unkind way’ and that the document Pirie signed was not legal because it hadn’t been properly witnessed. However, she was unsuccessful, as in 1821 the court decided against her. She then disappears from the historical record for around 12 years. The last pieces of information we have about her are in her will. It is through this document we can judge that after the case against her sister and brother-in-law closed, they do not turn their backs on her. She dies at their residence in Glasgow in 1833 aged 54. I wonder where she was in those 12 years? There is some information to suggest she had a nervous breakdown and I suspect that is fairly likely.

A room painted blue with a window and yellow curtains. Three straw hats with ribbons hang from the wall on the right.
Three straw beregre hats hanging in the 18th-century dressmaker’s shop in Gladstone’s Land. An essential fashion accessory for a woman in the Georgian period. Image: Zoe Conroy, @conroy.photography

A complex life in the records

Pirie’s life is captured almost exclusively in court and legal records, giving us a very specific set of sources through which we interpret her life. The Drumsheugh School case shows us how Pirie and the others involved were all victims of discriminatory social structures of the time. However, it’s important to remember they were also all perpetrators of it too. It’s an interesting insight into how power dynamics played out between women from a range of circumstances in the early 19th century. There are elements of racism and homophobia at play; the way Jane retaliated against Pirie’s racial prejudices towards her suggests Jane knew that accusing the teachers of sexual contact was a good way to get revenge. The dynamics of age and class play a role, too; Lady Cumming Gordon used her social position to make damning public accusations and then her money to overturn a decision from the highest court in Scotland on the word of her child ward.

The second case, in which Pirie battles over her share of Gladstone’s Land properties with her sister, highlights her struggle to bounce back from this accusation financially and the pressure that put on family relations. Reading the cases together gives us a unique insight into the consequences of a working woman having her sexuality publicly questioned, as well as the unchecked influence racial prejudices had in Edinburgh, from the school room to the courtroom.

My colleagues and I at Gladstone’s Land and the Georgian House are continuing to research Jane Pirie’s connections to our properties. You can learn more about her story during Pride Month this June at Gladstone’s Land and the Georgian House at our ‘Society, Scandal and Security in 19th-century Edinburgh: the real story behind The Children’s Hour’ starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLain at Gladstone’s Land on 28 June.

References:

Clerk, John, The notorious Drumsheugh Case of 1810: Miss Marianne Woods and Miss Jane Pirie v. Lady Cumming Gordon of Altyre, The Signet Library, Roughead Collection R343.1 H865

Donoghue, Emma, Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668–1801, HarperCollins, 1993

Faderman, Lillian, Scotch Verdict: The Real-Life Story That Inspired “The Children’s Hour”, Columbia University Press, 1983

Faderman, Lillian, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present, William Morrow & Co, 1981

National Records of Scotland, Burgh Register of Sasines for Edinburgh B22/4/31

Rupp, Leila J, Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women, Beacon Press, 2009

Singh, Frances B, Scandal and Survival in Nineteenth-Century Scotland: The Life of Jane Cumming, NED-New edition, Boydell & Brewer, 2020

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