Early photography: Elizabeth Johnston Hall (1822-1901)

Guest blog post by Roddy Simpson, photographer, Honorary Research Fellow School of Culture and Creative Arts and author of ‘The Photography of Victorian Scotland’ (2012).

Elizabeth Johnston Hall

Elizabeth Johnston Hall by Hill and Adamson. Carbon print by Jessie Bertram 1916. University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections Dougan Add. 40

Elizabeth Johnston Hall (1822-1901) is one of the most famous photographed Scottish women because of the superb image of her produced in the mid-1840s, at the very beginnings of photography, by the pioneering Scottish partnership of David Octavius Hill (1802-70) and Robert Adamson (1821-48). She is clearly identified because ‘her name had been written by D O Hill under the photograph’ (see footnote 1).

The beautifully composed and lit image of this Newhaven fishwife has appeared in countless exhibitions around the world, been enlarged to poster size and also appeared on the sides of buses and trams. She has been written about by academics and art critics, even describing her as ‘A Newhaven Beauty’ and the ‘The Newhaven Madonna’. What would a woman from an impoverished background, who had never been taught to read or write, worked physically hard all her life before dying in abject poverty and being buried in a pauper’s grave, on 2 February 1901, think of all this?

Elizabeth spent all her long life in the close-knit fishing community of Newhaven on the shores of the Firth of Forth, north of Edinburgh and west of Leith. The Old Parish Registers record the birth of Elizabeth Johnston as 19 August 1822 (2) and her father was James Johnston (1794-1857), fisherman, and her mother, Elizabeth Liston (1787-1830). [I have used the surname ‘Johnston’ without an ‘e’ throughout because I have not come across any official document that spells her name with an ‘e’.] Her parents were married on 5 November 1819 and their first child, James, was born on 19 August 1820, followed by Elizabeth. There were three further children traced, Catherine born on 5 November 1824, John on 15 January 1827 and Ann on 8 October 1830. John is not on the 1841 census and may have died as these were times of high child mortality. Tragically, Elizabeth, the mother, also died on 13 October 1830, just five days after the birth of Ann and the cause, which is not known, would almost certainly have been complications after childbirth and not unusual. The death of the mother would have had more than an emotional impact on the young Elizabeth as she was the eldest daughter, although still only eight.

However, James did re-marry on 3 March 1833 and his wife was ‘Christian Thomson Relect [widow] of Hugh McColl, Seaman’. A daughter was born later that year on 5 December although there is confusion about the name in the Parish Registers as the mother and daughter are both ‘Christina’. In the 1841 census they are both Christian but the daughter’s age is eighteen when it should have been eight. All the surviving children are still at home; James, Elizabeth, Catherine and Ann.

The name Christian or Christina (3) would very likely have been shortened to Christie so there would be the name Christie Johnston in Newhaven at the time the author Charles Reade was there. He was to give his book set there the title ‘Christie Johnstone’. By the 1851 census both mother and daughter Christian/Christina are now longer in the Johnston household which consists of James, a widower, and his daughters Catherine and Ann as well as a nephew, John Liston aged 24 and a fisherman. In the Funeral Book of the Society of Free Fishermen of Newhaven, under ‘Deaths in 1842-3’, there is the following entry; ‘Christina Thomson Died 7 April 1843’ (4). Elizabeth’s father was a widower again but as she had married and left home it was her sister Catherine who would have looked after the father. She did not marry until 1858, after her father had died. No record of the death of the half-sister Christian/Christina could be traced but not all deaths were recorded until 1855 with statutory registration. However, in the 1851 census there is a seventeen-year-old Christina Johnston, who is a ‘lodger’ and working as a ‘dressmaker’ in Edinburgh who could be the half-sister and has moved away from the fishing community and its physically demanding work but would still have been working long hours for little pay.

On 9 December 1842 Elizabeth was married to a local fisherman Daniel Hall (1820-93) by the Reverent James Fairbairn. She would have been a young married woman when Hill and Adamson came to photograph the fisherfolk of Newhaven between 1843 and 1847. In her famous portrait her features are fine, but her hands already show years of hard work.

Elizabeth Johnston Hall

Glass negative by Francis Caird Inglis (1876-1940), copying the image of Elizabeth Johnstone Hall by Hill and Adamson. ‘The Newhaven Madonna’ is scratched on the emulsion. Negative 16/9, University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections

Elizabeth and Daniel appear in the successive censuses for Newhaven until their deaths, but always just the two of them. No records of any children could be traced. Until 1861 they would appear to have rented accommodation, but their fortunes must have improved because on 19 March 1861 Daniel Hall purchased a property in Wester Close, Newhaven for £103 (5). This was to remain their home for the rest of their lives and 2 Wester Close still stands, although renovated and altered internally. The Valuation Rolls show that the property was two houses with Daniel and Elizabeth occupying one with the other having a tenant, which would have provided rental income. Daniel was not only a fisherman but a boat owner because two advertisements have been found in The Scotsman for Daniel Hall of Newhaven offering a fishing boat for sale. (6) It is not certain that this is Elizabeth’s husband, as there was another Daniel Hall, his younger nephew but he would only have been in his teens. Given that Daniel senior was able to buy property, it is very likely that he was the boat owner.

Although Elizabeth’s last years were spent in poverty there were times during her married life with Daniel when she was likely to have had a relatively good standard of living. They owned their own house and, for most of the time, had the rent from another and Daniel was a boat owner. At the same time as Hill and Adamson made their famous photograph of Elizabeth other compositions of her were made and one shows a smiling and happy young married woman. (7) In both this and the well-known photograph, her hand is positioned to clearly show her wedding ring.

Very little can be traced about Elizabeth and Daniel’s lives apart from the official records. There was an incident in which Elizabeth was almost certainly involved that shows the spirit and tightness of the Newhaven fishing community. In 1867 there was a dispute about the fishing of oysters in the Firth of Forth and plain clothes policemen had come to Newhaven to gather evidence against the local fishermen. However, when these detectives were pointed out:

‘some women who were standing at the foot of Wester Close raced away and brought other women from their houses…the band of women rushed to the pier and knocked down a detective, who ran for shelter in a house but he was dragged out and went away a sack of sore bones. Another one ran up the street and was overtaken by the women and what he got he knew best himself. The third when he saw what was going on came up the high part of the pier as if he was not one of the party, but he was discovered and in a moment, when he thought all was right, his hat was over his eyes and he fell down. As soon as he got to his feet again he ran very fast with a mob of women and children pelting after him.’ (8)

2 Wester Close, Newhaven

2 Wester Close, Newhaven, cyanotype from calotype negative. Used with permission (c) Caroline Douglas, 2018

There may have been more details of their lives if Daniel had remained a member of the Society of Free Fishermen of Newhaven. This Society looked after the interests of the fishermen as well as the welfare of them and their families. Daniel withdrew from the Society’s scheme that paid for funerals in a rather dramatic way. The entry for Daniel Hall in the Society’s Quarter and Funeral Book reads: ‘On 28 December 1872 the above named person came himself and seared his name out of the Books’ and there is a line through his name. (9) This was to have later consequences for Daniel and Elizabeth. A document of the Society titled ‘1886 Members Names and Address’ does not include Daniel Hall. (10) Strangely, in a quirk of history, given Daniel’s apparent antagonism to the Society of Free Fisherman, his and Elizabeth’s former home at 2 Wester Close became the meeting hall of the Society in the 1970s. (11)

Not every fisherman in Newhaven was a member of the Society, although most were, but the reasons for Daniel’s decision to leave are not known. He may have had a grievance or because of his financial position as a home and boat owner, he felt he would never need the welfare benefits of the Society. If it was the latter, there is some irony. There are also records that he had earlier benefitted from the welfare provisions of the Society because in each of the years 1865, 1866 and 1867 he had received a few weeks of ‘Sick Money’ of four shillings a week. (12) Possibly he was impetuous and there is a newspaper report of a breach of peace involving a Daniel Hall at Newhaven Harbour in 1878, when a boat was damaged by another and a man had his arm dislocated but the charge was found ‘not proven’. (13) Daniel was still described as a fisherman in the 1891 census and Elizabeth as a fishwife but at their age it is uncertain how much work they would be doing. There is a newspaper reference to show that Elizabeth may have taken an interest in politics. At a meeting of Leith Women’s Unionist Association in Granton Public Hall in 1892 it is reported that ‘there were also a few Newhaven fishwives at the meeting, including Mrs Hall’. (14)

Fishwives' Skirts, Newhaven Harbour

Fishwives’ Skirts, Newhaven Harbour, salt print from calotype negative. Used with permission (c) Caroline Douglas, 2018

Daniel Hall died on 15 August 1893 and his death was registered by his nephew, also Daniel Hall, and it was from his nephew’s home that the funeral left for the interment in an unmarked grave in common ground (also known as unpurchased, free or pauper’s ground) in Warriston Cemetery, (15) Edinburgh. Following her husband’s death, it appears that, for the rest of her life, Elizabeth had severe financial problems, although she was more fortunate than some others because she had property. She also reverted to her maiden name of Johnston, (16) although in Newhaven married women continued to use their maiden as well as their married name and married men often had their wife’s maiden name added to their surname e.g., ‘Daniel Hall, Johnston, Fisherman,’. (17) His nephew appears as ‘Daniel Hall Flucker, Willow Bank Row’ in the ‘1886 Members Names and Address’ as he had married Isabella Flucker in 1879. In relation to women’s maiden names, the legal position in Scotland was, and remains, that a woman’s name is her maiden surname, although commonly, since about the 1850s, married women have been known (as was always traditional in England) by their married names. That was not the case in Scotland prior to the 1850s when married women always appeared in records under their maiden names. (18)

In less than a year after Daniel’s death, in May 1894 Elizabeth borrowed £35 (19) with her property as security and in March 1896 she sold one of her houses to Robert Paterson for the sum of £20 and for freeing Elizabeth of the £35 loan. (20) This may have been her nephew because in 1858 Catherine, her sister, had married Robert Paterson and one of their sons was Robert born in 1863. The deed for the sale of the property also reveals that Elizabeth could not write and it states: ‘Mrs Elizabeth Johnston or Hall who declares that she cannot write on account of never having been taught’. The reference to ‘never having been taught’ may be her making clear that she could not write because she had never had the opportunity and more a grievance than a stigma. There was a school in Newhaven when Elizabeth was a child but there were fees to be paid for attendance and expenditure not possible for all families or all children, especially girls. Children were also expected to work to contribute to the family income. Any likelihood of Elizabeth going to school would have gone when her mother died when she was about eight and as the eldest daughter would have been expected to take on more domestic responsibility until her father remarried three years later. Her elder brother James could write as he signed the death certificate of their father, James, in 1857.

The Scottish Reformation had brought in a school for each parish which was in advance of other countries but by no means provided universal education and ‘in the early part of the nineteenth century, the parish school system catered for only one third of the school population.’ (21) Illiteracy was widespread and the situation only improved with the Education Act of 1872 with compulsory schooling for all children.

In January 1898 Elizabeth borrowed £20 with the property she was occupying as security and in January 1899 that property was transferred to Leith Parish Council, although Elizabeth continued to live there. It was sold ‘without any price being paid’ but ‘for certain good and onerous causes and considerations’ and Leith Parish Council did repay the £20 loan. (22) The deed again states that ‘she cannot write on account of never having been taught’. (23) Leith Parish Council was responsible for the payment of poor relief and Elizabeth would have been in receipt of poor relief and the Council could recover assets and took ownership of her home. The last years of Elizabeth’s life were spent in poverty but at least she remained in her home instead of the Poor House and she died at 2 Wester Close on 31 January 1901. Her death certificate gives her age as 75 but she would have been 78 and her mother’s name was ‘Catherine’ instead of Elizabeth. Her death was registered by ‘Ann Paterson, niece’ and this is confusing because no niece of that name can be traced as her sister Catherine only had sons. However, one of these sons, James, married Ann Murray, so it was a niece-in-law who registered the death, and this may have contributed to the inaccuracies. Confusingly, it is the same mother’s name on Daniel’s death certificate, Catherine, MS Liston, which was registered by his nephew also Daniel Hall, while his mother was Mary Bringins, (24) although her surname has various spellings in the records. Not having had children themselves may have meant that family details were not passed on. Like Daniel, Elizabeth was buried in an unmarked grave in common ground ‘shared with another 4 people’ (25) in Warriston Cemetery, but a different area of common ground to where her husband had been buried.


Elizabeth Johnston Hall’s Burial Plot, Warriston Cemetery. (c) Roddy Simpson, 2018

In a strange co-incidence of history, a few days before Elizabeth’s death Queen Victoria (1819-1901) had died. Their lifespans almost mirrored each other but they lived very different lives. It is difficult to think of two more contrasting funerals that took place on the same day, Saturday 2 February 1901.

Thanks to the ambition of Hill and Adamson to photograph ordinary people and the artistic qualities of the portrait they made of this Newhaven fishwife, a woman who lived a remarkably hard life is still remembered and celebrated and continues to fascinate.


This research was developed from working with the Scottish photographic artist Caroline Douglas who is doing a project-based PhD on women in early Scottish photography at the Royal College of Art, London, and I am grateful for her assistance and that of Dr Sara Stevenson and Alex Wood. I am also grateful for the assistance and information from staff at: City Archives, City of Edinburgh Council; Bereavement Services, City of Edinburgh Council; and staff at National Records of Scotland.

1) Sara Stevenson, The Personal Art of David Octavius Hill, Yale University Press, 2002, page 3.

2) National Records of Scotland OPR 692/1 Leith North page 145.

(3) Alex Wood has noted in his research that the names Christian and Christina are commonly interchangeable and that girls baptised Christian (and thereafter recorded as such in church registers) were known routinely as Christina.

(4) National Records of Scotland GD265/11/4.

(5) National Records of Scotland RS27/2269/168 folio1

(6) The Scotsman 11 June 1866, page 4 and 20 June 1872, page2.

(7) University of Glasgow Library Special Collections HA0763.

(8) Robin M Black, Editor, Society of Free Fishermen of Newhaven: A Short History, The Society of Free Fishermen, Edinburgh, 1951, pages 71-2.

(9) National Records of Scotland GD265/11/5.

(10) National Records of Scotland GD265/15/3.

(11) National Records of Scotland GD265/16/10

(12) National Records Scotland GC265/6/1.

(13) Edinburgh Evening New 2 March 1878.

(14) The Scotsman 12 May 1892, page 7.

(15) Emails from Bereavement Services, City of Edinburgh Council, 7 and 8 November 2018.

(16) National Records of Scotland VR55/43/266.

(17) National Records of Scotland VR55/33/642.

(18) I am grateful to Alex Wood for this information.

(19) National Records of Scotland RS108/5007/15

(20) National Records of Scotland RS108/3046/96.

(21) Heather Holmes, Editor, Scottish Life and Society, Compendium of Scottish Ethnology, Institutions of Scottish Education, Tuckwell Press, East Lothian, 2000, page 109.

(22) National Records of Scotland RS108/3972/141

(23) National Records of Scotland RS108/3654/160.

(24) National Records of Scotland OPR 692/2 Leith South page 8.

(25) Emails from Bereavement Services, City of Edinburgh Council, 7 and 8 November 2018.


Categories: Archives and Special Collections


4 replies

  1. Now the photographer focuses on capturing the intricate details of your wedding hence per wedding photo shoot gives you an idea of how good the photographeris.

  2. What a poignant, illuminating article!

  3. Reblogged this on Claimed From Stationers' Hall and commented:
    This makes me think of the early photograph of an old lady, Mrs Bertram of Edinburgh. (As readers of Claimed From Stationers Hall blog and the EAERN project blog will realise, I think it highly likely that it’s “our” school proprietress, Jane Bertram.) I’m intrigued that so much can be found out about the subjects of early photographs. Hopefully I’ll be able to reach out to the authors of Glasgow University Library’s blogpost to see if they’ve ever encountered her!

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