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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: The Old Sailor's Ark

Looking Back

Friday January 14 2022

Looking Back: The Old Sailor's Ark

Published in January 1936, a look at a new building erected according to a sailor's bequest to feed the poor in Edinburgh city centre.




FOLLOWING Life and Work’s special Christmas number survey of some social and home mission activities of the Church, there comes to hand news of an enterprise in Edinburgh of a scope and originality hitherto unparalleled.

If you walk down the Canongate you will find, some way below John Knox’s house and on the same side, a building at present in the process of construction. This is the “Old Sailor’s Ark” in the making.

Here is the story behind this building.

On the eighth of September 1911 there died Captain Charles Taylor of Stonehaven, an old sailor who had the welfare of the poor so much at heart that in his will he left a sum of money to be devoted to them. He also provided that this sum should not be put to any use until, accumulating through time, it should reach a certain sum. In 1932 the accumulation ceased and the money, then amounting to £91,000, had to be put into operation.

It was Captain Taylor’s wish that the income on the first two years after his death should be devoted to a window in St. Giles’ Cathedral, commemorating his father and mother, his sister, and his affection for Edinburgh. This great window, which is one of the finest examples of Dr. Douglas Strachan’s work, occupies a place over the north door of the cathedral.

It was Captain Taylor’s wish that with the rest of the money a handsome building should be erected for the provision of cheap meals to the deserving poor of Edinburgh.

A board of management made up of representatives from many religious denominations came into being. The Very Rev. Charles L. Warr, representing the Church of Scotland, was elected chairman by the representatives of the United Free Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland, the Episcopal Church in Scotland, the Roman Catholic Church, the Congregational Church, the Unitarian Church, the Methodist Church, the Baptist Church, and the Church of Christ, who together comprise the board.

Under the terms of the will the Board had to find a site for the building within a certain area centring in the High Street. Finally the Canongate site was chosen.

The architect, Mr. Harold Tarbolton, has designed a building that promises to fulfil far more than adequately the purpose of the bequest. Broadly speaking, it is of modern design, though this has been planned so that it will accord with the architectural character of the Canongate. One particularly interesting point is that the kitchens have been put at the top of the building, communicating with the restaurant below by service lifts. In this way unpleasant cooking smells are obviated.

Prices in the restaurants will be as low as possible. It might be possible to give a threepenny breakfast of tea or coffee, eggs, rolls, and butter; a six-penny lunch of soup, bread, meat, and vegetable; a threepenny supper of tea or coffee, fish, perhaps porridge and tea-bread.

The more people use the place the less the meals will cost. Although the “Old Sailor’s Ark” has plenty of backing to stand losses, it might even make a profit if sufficient people patronise it. Profit or no profit, it sets out to remove all anxiety as regards nourishing food from the minds of the unemployed.

A very happy inspiration has led to the inclusion on the ground floor of a kitchen and restaurant for those on special diet. Poor people can rarely afford the time and money required to fulfil the doctor’s orders after a serious illness. It is hoped that it will be patronised to a certain extent by maternity cases and by mothers with small children. A special children’s restaurant has been provided, and here the children will be fed while the mothers, close at hand, get a little rare peace and quiet for their meal.

The Ark is to be rather more than just a restaurant. Rest- and reading-rooms are being provided, footbaths are a feature of the lavatories, and there is a magnificent roof garden over-looking the north side of the town which ought to be very popular, particularly in summer.

This is the great age of the tin. You can get practically any food in synthetic form, but home cooking, although we may be slow to realise it, is still unbeatable. The “Old Sailor’s Ark” promises to show this. And if it makes it possible to live, and live well, on a shilling a day, then the gratitude of a great number of people who go hungry to-day will perpetuate the memory of an old sailor who could surely have wished no better memorial.

The building served its purpose, providing a million meals a year to hungry families before and after the second world war. However, it has been mostly unused and in poor condition in recent years. Despite calls for it to be saved, it is to be partially demolished as part of the redevelopment of the area.

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