Body Snatchers and Tortured Spirits: The Dark History of the South Bridge Vaults of Edinburgh
Beneath the ancient fortified city of Edinburgh, Scotland lies the South Bridge Vaults—notorious underground tunnels and chambers which became the dwelling places of the impoverished and the villainous. The dark stone vaults served as houses and workspace for tradesmen and merchants, but as conditions deteriorated, the chambers and tunnels were where the poorest of Edinburgh’s citizens lived, and very often died. Prostitution, poverty, violence, and illness consumed the vaults, and infamous serial killers hid their dirty work in the stone recesses.
But it wasn’t always like that.
The Early History of the Edinburgh Vaults: Shops and Living Quarters
The city of Edinburgh straddles seven major hills. The iconic Edinburgh castle has been a site of human habitation since the second century AD, and was built into formidable fortifications as of the 12th century to protect against dangerous invaders and sieges.
The imposing castle of Edinburg as seen in modern times, from the north. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Naturally, the closer one lived to this castle the better, and so bridges were built to span the deep ravines that sloped away from castle itself, modern highways of their day.
The 19 arches to support the southern bridge were built in 1785, and vaults, chambers, and tunnels were established beneath the bridge-top surface, walled in, and sectioned off in descending levels. In all, approximately 120 vaults or rooms were built beneath South Bridge. It opened officially in March 1788.
Detail of Edinburgh, scanned from a reproduction of 'Civitates orbis terrarum', c.1581. ( Public Domain )
The South Bridge surface was a booming location for businesses, especially during the Industrial Revolution. Beneath the thriving merchant areas were workshops, and beneath those were living quarters.
The Lower You Were Under the Bridge...
It was under all this that an underground city inevitably grew, eventually descending into slums filled with poverty, illness and violence. The lower you were under the bridge, the lower your social class was.
Cubby holes inside the Edinburgh Vaults, as seen on a ghost tour. ( CC BY 2.0 )
- Gilles de Rais – violent predator or political victim?
- Elizabeth Bathory – 16th century deranged serial killer or victim of betrayal?
- Man Intent on Fixing Toilet Uncovers Centuries-Old Subterranean World Beneath his Basement
The industrial age in Scotland brought work and wealth, but housing, planning, and public health did not improve at the same pace. Living conditions in cities were very bad. There was overcrowding as families of more than 10 people lived in cramped rooms, mortality rates were high (higher than in England and other European countries at the time); and with no sanitation, no running water, and no sunlight, illness spread, and tuberculosis was a growing problem.
Storage inside the vaults. ( CC BY 2.5 )
For those who lived deep in the Edinburgh Vaults, the troubles were compounded. The Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1847 flooded Scotland with refugees, who often ended up at the very bottom of South Bridge. In addition, criminals and underworld dwellers moved illicit materials through the tunnels in a black market, established a red-light district with gambling and countless pubs and brothels, and crime, robbery and murder flourished.
A Haven for Serial Killers
The conditions were so bad at one point, that serial killers were reportedly able to murder over a dozen hapless victims and store bodies in the vaults, all without being detected or stopped.
One infamous instance of this is known as the Burke and Hare murders. In 1828 two Irish immigrants, William Burke and William Hare, allegedly killed 16 people (mostly women), stashed the dead bodies in the tunnels and chambers, and then sold them to a surgeon for dissection during his popular anatomy lectures. The demand for cadavers during a time of advancing medical science meant bodies were a valuable commodity, and the fact that corpses were not detected so close to the people living in the vaults speaks volumes about the conditions there.
Portraits of serial killers William Hare and William Burke circa 1850. ( Public Domain )
The Closed and Forgotten South Bridge Vaults Is Rediscovered
There are indications even the poorest citizens were leaving the South Bridge slums between 1835 and 1875. The vault complex was purposefully shut down, and tons of rubble were dumped in at some point, although the date isn’t found in any remaining records.
The dark history of the South Bridge vaults was forgotten in time. In the following decades, all forgot that families had lived down in the tunnels under Edinburgh.
Over a hundred years later, in 1980, a Scottish rugby player inadvertently rediscovered the hidden tunnels and chambers, and they were excavated and restored with the removal of hundreds of tons of rubble. It was only when excavators unearthed children’s toys, medicine bottles, plates, and other household items in midden heaps that researchers realized the South Bridge had been home to many unfortunates.