Heroes, and Villains. Tourists and Tragedy.
The Town House was the centre of local government in the 18th and 19th Century. The Bailies (the equivalent of magistrates and town councillors) met there and it served as the courthouse. But the Town House had its own secrets – at a time when import duty on many every day goods such as tea, molasses and brandy was very high, many otherwise law abiding people bought their supplies from smugglers who imported the goods secretly to avoid paying tax. Some of the Bailies were said to have been involved in this trade, and their contraband was allegedly buried under the sandy floor of the Town House to escape the attention of the Government’s hated Excise men, who enforced the taxes.
Outside the Town House is a statue of Field Marshal James Keith, which was given to the people of Peterhead by William the 1st of Prussia. The Field Marshal was the brother of George Keith, 10th Earl Marischal, who was the Feudal Superior for Peterhead. Both fled to Europe and were forced to live in exile after their support for the disastrous first Jacobite rebellion of 1715. In order to support himself, James became an army officer - first in the Spanish then the Russian army, before moving to Prussia to serve under Fredrick the Great. In 1758 at the battle of Hochkirk, James commanded the rear guard of Frederick’s forces which held back the entire Austrian army and gave Prussian troops time to retreat in order. James suffered a serious gunshot wound early in the battle, but fought on until a cannon ball hit his chest causing a mortal wound. The Prussians lost the battle, but the courage of Field Marshall Keith had prevented greater disaster.
The New Inn was opened in Jamaica Street to provide suitable accommodation for people visiting the nearby spa and mineral wells in the late 1700’s. It boasted 22 bedrooms and 7 public rooms, and was an overnight resting point for the Mail coach from Aberdeen, which ran on alternate days. It was also a stopping point for the “Earl of Erroll” stage coach, which left every morning at 6am and travelled at the dizzying speed of 7 ½ miles an hour to reach Aberdeen at 11am. All for a very modest fare of 8 shillings for outside passengers. The dubious luxury of an indoor seat cost an extra 2 shillings – well worth the outlay in winter to avoid exposure to the elements.
The New Inn was a fashionable place to stay, and even after the spa fell into disuse it remained a busy coaching inn. Alas, its reputation deteriorated over the years, and the clientele became more colourful. The rot began with rich but dissolute young men who formed the “Five Bottles Club”. This was Peterhead’s answer to London’s notorious but fashionable “Hellfire Club”, famed for the drunken and outrageously immoral behaviour of its aristocratic members. Around 1840, local courtesan “Lady” Belle Imlah began to hold court at the inn, attended by her “semi-nudist colony of voluptuous attendants”. Lady Belle was reputed to be the confidante of all of the professional men in town, which may explain why her enterprise was not promptly closed down. In consequence, the inn became known locally at the Hallelujah Lobby, not for any religious leanings, but due to the 18th century habit of ironically referring to brothels as “Holy Ground”.
When the last stage coach rolled out of Peterhead in 1861, the writing was on the wall for the New Inn. It closed and turned into housing, which eventually became a notorious and insanitary slum. In 1931, the Town Council bought the building and demolished it, replacing the Hallelujah Lobby with the modern and comfortable homes its residents deserved.
Jamaica Street was also the site of Peterhead’s first museum – the home of Adam Arbuthnot, an avid collector of antiquities, coins and natural history. When he died in 1850, he bequeathed his collection to the town. This formed the nucleus of the current Arbuthnot Museum on St Peter Street.
The roof of 54 Broad Street is decorated along most of its length with ornate ridge tiles. However, a section next to the chimney has plain tiles. When houses in nearby James Street were destroyed by bombs on the night of September 29th 1941, the piano from no. 9 was thrown onto the Broad Street roof by the blast. Wartime shortages meant only plain ridge tiles were available for repairs.
30 residents of James Street died when the bombs fell, including many children. Families were wiped out. The piano’s owners, Mr and Mrs Watson were among those killed. Earlier that evening, the children of James Street had held a concert, raising £10 for charity. Shortly after they returned home, the bombs fell, missing their target in the harbour and devastating the households of James Street. Two houses were completely removed from the map, and two others were gutted by the blast. Amid scenes of unimaginable horror, one room was left with only the mantle-piece still standing, while the children’s chips lay nearby, still warm. These few plain ridge tiles on the roof of 54 Broad Street are a silent memorial to a shocking wartime tragedy which traumatised the tightknit community in James Street.