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On This Day... 25 November 1861: Joseph McIvor, Disaster Survivor.

By Alexander Clapperton, November 25, 2014 - 3:45pm
The aftermath of the Heave Awa' disaster

In the early hours of this morning in 1861, an entire tenement block on the Royal Mile collapsed, killing almost half of its residents. This event is recalled today as the Heave Awa' Disaster, after the words of one of the few survivors, twelve-year-old Joseph McIvor. McIvor is often said to have been the only survivor of the collapse, but there were in fact several others (one of whom, William Geddes, was photographed with his rescuers shortly afterwards).

The scale of the disaster, and the incredible good fortune of those who made it out alive, was dramatically described in the Times of London the next day:


At ten minutes past one o'clock on Sunday morning, one of the immense piles of building characteristic of the High-street of Edinburgh suddenly and without a moment's warning fell, burying a great number of people in the ruins. The house was situated on the east side of the High-street, about halfway between North-bridge and the ancient building known as John Knox's house. To the front of the building showed seven stories, and in the rear there was an additional story, owing to the sloping character of the ground.

On Saturday afternoon, the occupant of one of the shops on the street floor observed a slight break in the plaster and a deflection of the roof, and immediately sent for a builder to examine the structure. A temporary prop was inserted and after examining the upper stories of the house without discovering signs of a general depression the builder concluded that the flaw was merely a local one, and no further steps were taken. Within twelve hours, however, the whole house fell inwards and collapsed with a fearful crash.

The work of excavation is still going on in the ruins of the fallen building. The total of the dead is now thirty-two, but more are expected to be found.
Many remarkable escapes were made, and one or two instances occurred of preservation of life under almost miraculous circumstances. A young man, named Adams, was carried down by the falling wall and deposited on the pavement on the opposite side of the street with only slight bruises. Just before the accident, a police sergeant was passing the building when his attention was attracted by a slight scuffle on the other side of the street and he crossed over just in time to escape the avalanche which might have crushed him to instant death. A little boy was extracted by the firemen, after about five hours' digging for him in the morning, and the little fellow was heard to encourage the efforts in his behalf by calling out, "Heave away, my lads; I'm no deid yet."

Joseph McIvor's cheerful encouragement was quoted in almost every report of the incident, his bravery becoming the best-remembered detail of the entire incident. Aside from him (and the others mentioned in the article), seven other children were rescued uninjured, and several others escaped the disaster through fortunate coincidences which kept them from being at home at the time. However, 35 of the building's 77 tenants were killed in the collapse, among them entire families who had been asleep in their beds.

Ultimate responsibility for the disaster was laid squarely at the door of the Edinburgh Council, who had been failing miserably to improve (or even maintain) living conditions for the poor in the Old Town. They had allowed the city to be horrifyingly overcrowded, with over 160,000 people crammed inside boundaries which had barely expanded since the Middle Ages. The building which collapsed had survived since the sixteenth century, and there were countless others which were just as ancient, in similar states of disrepair, and in some cases twice as tall. The potential for a tragedy of vast scale was obvious, and the Council were finally forced by the Heave Awa' disaster to take the matter seriously.

In 1867 the City Improvement Act was passed, beginning the gradual dismantling of the Old Town's medieval closes and wynds which, but the end of the 19th Century, had been almost entirely replaced by the sturdier Victorian buildings which make up the bulk of the historic "Old Town" today; ironically making it less old, brick-for-brick, than the "New Town". Among them was the new block over Paisley Close, the lintel of which bears a bust of Joseph McIvor, though "my lads" was replaced by the more genteel "chaps". The expansion of the city limits gradually eased the overcrowding and led, eventually, to the elimination of the Old Town's slums.

Unfortunately, it's not known what became of Joseph himself after his miraculous escape, or even whether he ever benefitted from the improvements made to his hometown. However, since he and most of the other surviving children were orphaned by the tragedy, he was probably delivered along with them the following morning to the city workhouse.