Challenging Assumption, 1909

In 1909, Blantyre residents were in a quandary on a delicate matter around the town’s most famous son. Considerable interest was growing on the approaching 1913 centenary of David Livingstone’s birth and some residents wanted to explore the idea of creating a museum in his name. This is of course some 20 full years before the actual museum opened!

The controversial subject matter was one which left people divided. Where ACTUALLY was David Livingstone born? Was it in Shuttle Row, as generations before had assumed, or was growing evidence, that it was actually nearby in the Blantyre Village to be believed, as some popular opinion at the time also suggested? The matter was important, for if a museum was ever to be built, it the birthplace should be recognised in fact. Now whilst at the time a woman living in Shuttle Row was showing paid guests around her home saying it was Livingstone’s birthroom, it was suggested by some, that this was exploitation conjured by her to her own exclusive benefit. With nobody alive remembering if Livingstone did actually live or was born there, it had been accepted as such, but still on the minds of many that it was merely an assumption.

This article in no way sets out to discredit Livingstone or dishonour him, but the argument about his birthplace which raged in Blantyre prior to WW1 is one worth mentioning. The Hamilton Herald and Lanarkshire Weekly published this following article on 9th October 1909. The photo taken from that era.

“In view of the centenary of Doctor Livingstone, which falls to be celebrated three years hence, considerable interest has of late been aroused in the matter both locally and throughout the country. A few weeks ago, it will be remembered, under the auspices et the London Missionary Society that an “at home” was held within the policies of Blantyre Lodge to consider how best to honour the memory of the great missionary.

Close by these grounds stands a two-storey property with a single apartment on the upper flat, which is claimed to be his birthplace; and it was suggested that the building should be bought outright and turned into a museum in the missionary’s memory. No one will refuse to honour the name of David Livingstone, whose memory has and will be an inspiration to the nation. To have struggled out of the obscurity of the village life wherein his lot was cast would have created him a knight of industry and perseverance but to master the Latin grammar as it hung on his loom, and to complete with honour a course of surgery, makes him the hero which he became in liberty, philanthropy, and religion. We would not seek to raise a cloud of controversy around a name so sacred were it not that this new suggestion to purchase the “Shuttle Row” is based on an assumption which by many authorities in the Blantyre district, is claimed to be without proper foundation and cannot be sustained.

The appeal for finances to carry the project into effect will go out to the scientific societies which revere his name for his explorations and discoveries, and coming from his native village unchallenged they will accept the claim.

Again, those of a missionary bent of mind, who worship the memory of a man who single-handed gave a Continent to Christianity, and flung himself body and soul against the slave traffic, will accept in good faith this tradition.

Locally it is claimed to be as nearly certain as anything can be, where proof depends on living testimony that the Doctor was NOT born in the “Shuttle Row” at all. That he was (from very early years brought up in the single room at the top of a spiral staircase is granted by all; but the crucial question, particularly when an appeal is being made for funds to purchase his birthplace—is, Where is that spot?

In every biography of Dr Livingstone—Blaike, Wells,’ and Hillis’, etc.—the whole question is passed over with the simple remark that “he was born on March 19th, 1813, in the village of Blantyre.” The word “village” is significant, as natives always separated the village from the “Shuttle Row.” Blantyre Village consisted of three rows—Back, Middle, and Glasgow, respectively—and “Shuttle Row” stood in a separate category. Again, Livingstone is said by some to have been born in East Kilbride, and brought by his parents as a very young child to the “Shuttle Row” So far as that theory is concerned, it is sufficient to point out that David was the second child of the family, and that his perents came from Glasgow to Blantyre before the first child was born.

They took up house in the Middle Row. There were two stairs, one going to the right and the other to the left. On the left hand side the parents of Livingstone are said to have lived in an attic, while on the right-hand side, old Nannie McCall (as she was called) resided in another attic. At the last close and left hand stair from the front, right above the house co-occupied by an old lady recently deceased, was the home which properly claimed the honour of being the place where our hero first saw the light. The present writer knows of a photograph taken of this room when in the possession of a lady named Mrs Smith, and when the old joiner’s shop existed below it. In this same building was a family who had an intimate acquaintance with David and his parents members of whom are still with us.

Some short time ago the sanitary authorities condemned property in the village, and David Livingstone’s birthplace it is asserted was then demolished and and cannot now be purchased for any money. If this is disputed, we would welcome proof to the contrary. If we mistake not, one of the doctor’s sisters is still living. It would be a matter of surprise if the correspondence and private journals of Livingstone did not contain reference to the point under discussion.

Perhaps the best and most satisfactory method would be to consult the few remaining links with the family, who are fast dying out, and have it definitely settled whether it was in the house in the Shuttle Row or in the attic in the Middle Row to the left where Livingstone was born. In the latter the roof was low; on the right-hand side stood the bed ; right in front was the fireplace, with a half-round fender; and a clock hung on the wall. To the left of the fireplace a door led to a cupboard where the necessities of life were kept to feed the four inmates. It is known to be a tradition in the Livingstone family that the grandfather could look back on six generations, not one member of which ever told a lie.

If in view of the doubt which appears to exist on the very important point raised in this article the house in the Shuttle Row is purchased and turned into a museum without having its claim fully substantiated, it will ever be held to be inconsistent with that tradition.

There is sufficient admiration to respond to an appeal to honour Livingstone’s memory at the forthcoming centenary, and the London Missionary Society is to be encouraged and congratulated on the efforts which they are putting forth to raise a memorial worthy of his great name. His researches in geology, botany, and zoology; his 29,000 miles of travel; his valuable assistance to philologists and commerce will command a ready and liberal response to the appeal which the society, of which he was a servant, is making for the necessary funds. There are many, however, who would advocate that the appeal should be based on a truthful acknowledgment that the Doctor’s, birthplace is in the dust, and on the determination to raise on that bare spot of ground a fitting museum. Besides being more truthful, it would have the further advantage of being cheaper to buy the land then build on the spot which would be forever sacred.”

Of course the argument is settled in this modern day, and Blantyre now has a most fitting and beautiful birthplace to mark the life of Livingstone…at Shuttle Row. Further reinforced by the stamp of approval of Livingstone’s own relatives. These old controversies of an age gone by, are thankfully put to bed.

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