IN THE YEARS just after the middle of the nineteenth century, Sir Thomas Dick Lauder described Peebles as a town with a 'singular air of decayed royalty' hanging over it, that blended with its 'perfect simplicity and rurality'.1 It is true that Peebles lies in a perfect rural setting in a site chosen by the first settlers of a bygone age; chosen because it was a fertile valley and a meeting place of two rivers that provided natural protection from marauders. As the 'settlement' grew over the centuries and became a town, it did so with a natural simplicity.
It is also true that, Peebles more than any of the other Scottish Border towns, had a right to talk of royalty. A royal poet sung of her Beltane Feast and it was at one time a favourite place of the Scottish monarchy. However, if a century and half after Scotland's royal court had moved to London there was any lingering atmosphere of 'decayed royalty' hanging over the town, it was soon to be buried by the changes which came about in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The dynamics of change were the new work opportunities which became available for the townspeople - slowly at first and then at an accelerated pace as the Thorburns and the Ballantynes developed their woollen-mills. The success of the mills created sufficient jobs to attract crowds of incomers into the town and a great many more houses were built and new districts and streets came into being. Peebles took on an air of enterprise and its pace of life quickened as it became a different place from what it had been in the middle of the eighteenth century. This chapter is about these changes and how they affected the life of the townspeople.
The population was 1,898 when the census was taken in 1841 and there were just eighty-four more people in the town ten years later in 1851 when the census count showed 1,982.