Duncan Street

Bartholomew's Duncan Street premises was home to one of the most influential mapmaking firms in the world.

It was from here that some of the most significant cartographic publications of the modern era were produced. As a reflection of the firm's growing status, John George Bartholomew named the building 'The Edinburgh Geographical Institute', a title which had also been given to Bartholomew's previous premises on Park Road. In the 20th century this name began to fall out of use, and the building became known simply as 'Duncan Street'.

During Bartholomew's time there — an occupation that spanned two world wars and four British monarchs — the firm was subject to numerous changes. But for its staff, Duncan Street was a home from home where co-workers felt more like family

Difficulties at Park Road

Duncan Street was designed under the instruction of the firm's then director, John George Bartholomew (1860-1920). To John George, head of the firm from 1888-1920, Duncan Street was more than just a building. It represented freedom, independence and a break from the difficulties he experienced at their previous premises on Park Road.

Bartholomew entered into partnership with the publisher Thomas Nelson in 1888. The partnership necessitated larger, shared premises, which Thomas Nelson built on Park Road. Bartholomew paid Nelson rent, but it appears they were also expected to act as Nelson's in-house printer, prioritising Nelson’s work over pursuing their own. This was difficult for John George, who required creative freedom in his pursuit of the furtherance of cartography. Although the partnership with Nelson ended in 1892, long-term leases bound Bartholomew to Park Road until 1909.

The Grange Loan option

From at least 1908, John George began to think about a new home for his business. A serious contender for the location was a site on the corner of Grange Loan and St Thomas's Road, in the Grange area of Edinburgh. In his neat hand, John George sketched out his vision for the new building.

However, by December 1908, after almost a year of planning and negotiation the Grange Loan site fell through. An alternative site was rapidly sought and fortuitously, a large plot comprising of a villa and garden, at 12 Duncan Street, became available. Although this was a relatively small plot (146 feet by 150 feet, or about 45m2) Bartholomew's solicitors negotiated with the owners of the adjoining properties, who were persuaded to sell all or part of their properties, enabling Bartholomew to extend the site considerably. The building work began in 1909 and in 1911, the firm moved into their new home.

A carefully designed building

The architect was Cousin, Ormiston and Taylor and their original drawings reveal the thought and care that went into the design of the building.

For example, the draughtsmen and engravers were located on the first floor, to take advantage of better light. The machine room was on the ground floor, to allow for better access to the loading bays, and the entrance hall was large and bright, to allow Bartholomew to exhibit their products.

The design also incorporated one very special feature, one that was extremely personal to John George Bartholomew.

John George and his family had rented a house in Edinburgh called Falcon Hall. By 1908, they had moved and Falcon Hall was scheduled for demolition. John George negotiated with the new owner to have the front portico removed and he had it rebuilt as the entrance to Duncan Street. As a result, Duncan Street must have felt more like a home than a place of work to John George.

Changes at Duncan Street

Duncan Street underwent a number of modifications between 1911 and 1995. It was extended a number of times and had its amenities and facilities upgraded to suit the times.

One major project was the installation of an air conditioning system. This was beneficial to the printing process as a stable environment helped limit the problems associated with paper expanding and contracting due to changes in heat and humidity. The project involved boring a large hole into the floor of Duncan Street to access the cool water that flowed beneath the building.

Bartholomew remained in Duncan Street for 84 years. They welcomed a number of high profile visitors, including the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne in 1971, and a slightly less conventional visit from T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) in 1926. Bartholomew had been commissioned to produce the maps for Lawrence's First World War memoir, 'Seven pillars of wisdom' (1926). Bartholomew and Lawrence had differing views on how to print the maps, prompting an unexpected visit by Lawrence, who came thundering through the suburban streets on his motorbike.

Sale of the mapmaking business

By the 1970s, the commercial climate had started to change. Bartholomew was a specialist firm, producing maps in a way that was becoming unsustainable. It was recognised that serious investment in new technologies, including the burgeoning technique of computer cartography, was needed. As a result, the firm approached one of its best clients, Readers Digest, to buy them out.

In 1980, the sale to Readers Digest went through, although the firm kept its name and remained in Duncan Street. This was not a successful venture and in 1985 Readers Digest sold Bartholomew on to News International, the UK subsidiary of News Corp. Although difficult at times, this proved to be more successful and in fact Bartholomew grew at this time, taking over rival companies Geographia and Nicholson.

When News Corp formed HarperCollins in the 1990s, Bartholomew shifted to become part of this new imprint. But a short time later the decision was taken to dismantle the firm. The editorial side and printing side was split, with the editorial side moving to Bishopbriggs, near Glasgow, and the printing side operating from new premises in Leith.

In 1995 Duncan Street was vacated. The building was sold and turned into flats. However, the Bishopbriggs operation is still very much alive, now rebranded as CollinsBartholomew and continuing in the Bartholomew tradition.

Bartholomew Archive at the National Library

When Duncan Street was vacated in 1995, the Bartholomew Archive was donated to the National Library of Scotland. The Bartholomew Archive spans the period of 1820-2001, with comprehensive business records for the period 1888-1980. It is regarded as one of the most important archives of its kind in the world, and incorporates the administrative, production and financial records of the firm, including extensive correspondence files.

The archive also includes:

In 2007, the National Library of Scotland began a major project of curatorial and conservation work, funded by the John R Murray Charitable Trust. The aim of this project was to ensure the long-term survival of this nationally important resource and to encourage access. Further information about the project, and links to the Bartholomew Archive catalogues and inventories is available on the Bartholomew Archive website.


Go to home page