The Merchant Maiden Hospital was founded by Mary Erskine on the 4th of June, 1694.
The name of the Merchant Maiden Hospital is a wee bit of a misnomer by modern interpretations of the word ‘hospital’. In fact, the role of the Hospital was the housing and education of women who had fallen upon hard times, rather than a place for curing the sick. The Merchant Maiden Hospital is now better known for what it later became; the Mary Erskine School. Named after its eponymous benefactor, the Hospital was founded in the Cowgate, in Edinburgh, by the philanthropist, Mary Erskine.
Born Mary Erskine, this interesting woman lived from 1629 until, unsurprisingly, her death, when she passed away on the 2nd of July, 1707. Mary had a home in a close off the High Street in Edinburgh, to the east of St Giles Cathedral and near to the Cowgate, which was then a fashionable suburb. In 1661, Mary married he first husband; a writer whose name was Robert Kennedy. ‘Mr Erskine’ died in 1671, leaving Mary with considerable debts, although she managed to pay those off through careful management. She was a canny wee creatur.
Then, on the 23rd of September 1675, Mary Erskine married her second husband, James Hair, in North Leith. They had a daughter named Eupheme. James Hair was a chemist or druggist in the parlance of the day and owned a chemist’s shop on the High Street. He was considerably younger than Mary Erskine, but he also died, in 1683. Mary was a tad unfortunate in some ways in her choice of husband. However, all was not doom and gloom if you like as by the contract of marriage, Mary Erskine inherited most of what belonged to her husband. It seems that this was not a large sum, but Mary used the money to set up a private bank, and built up a considerable fortune.
After being widowed for the second time, Mary established herself in business by letting out property she owned in Edinburgh. She was considerably financially astute and became a successful businesswoman and financier. She was also an upmarket moneylender or private banker, dealing with clients, including professionals and businessmen, and women seeking to carry on their husbands’ businesses after widowhood or establish businesses of their own. Thus, when she generously donated funds to help create the Maiden Hospital, she had survived two husbands and the loss of at least one fortune.
In 1694, Mary was approached by the Company of Merchants of the City of Edinburgh to help establish a hospital school in the Merchants’ Hall in Edinburgh's Cowgate. Mary Hair generously donated 10,000 merks for the foundation of the Merchant Maiden Hospital, which opened its doors on the 4th of June, 1694. The newly formed Company of Merchants of Edinburgh was the co-founder of the hospital, whose purpose was to be the housing and education of destitute daughters of decayed merchant burgesses of Scotland’s capital. It was in the Merchants’ Hall in the Cowgate that the first girls took up residence, in 1696.
Later, in 1704, Mary Erskine went on to found the Trades’ Maiden Hospital in Edinburgh, which was situated on the eastern side of Argyle Square. The book, ‘Old & New Edinburgh’, comments that “the hospital was intended for the daughters of decayed tradesmen and was a noble institution, founded in 1704, by the charitable Mrs. Mary Erskine, the liberal contributor to the Merchant Maiden Hospital [who] was a joint foundress of both.”
In 1706, after the Merchant Maiden Hospital had been in existence for ten years, Mary enabled the purchase of premises and land to allow the school to relocate and expand. With this second major donation from its benefactor, the school was able to purchase a house and garden-grounds outside the City wall, near Bristo Park. Upon Mary’s death, on the 2nd of July, in the following year, she left a large bequest of a further 4,000 merks to the Hospital School, retaining the right to appoint two members of the Erskine family as governors. And, in 1707, through one of the very last measures passed by the Scottish Parliament before its extinction, the foundation obtained statutory ratification.
Although the Merchant Maiden Hospital found a new home in Lauriston, in 1818, the essential foundation remained unchanged for 163 years after Mary Erskine’s death. The Merchant Company continued to administer the Hospital with great care and zeal. Britain, however, already lagged behind other states in its provision of mass education and a Royal Commission on Scottish education recommended that the benefits of educational trusts should be applied more widely. The Merchant Company took immediate advantage of this and the Merchant Maiden Hospital of 75 girls was re-founded as a day school and became, in 1870, the Edinburgh Educational Institution for Girls, with a population of 1200. In the following year the new school moved to Queen Street.
In 1889, the Edinburgh Educational Institution for Girls was renamed Edinburgh Ladies’ College and it rapidly became one of the famous schools of the day. Since 1944, on the 250th anniversary of Mary Erskine’s original foundation, the school has been known as The Mary Erskine School and currently caters for some 700 pupils. It is one of the oldest girls’ schools in the world.
The Company of Merchants of the City of Edinburgh, also known as the Merchant Company of Edinburgh or just the Merchant Company, is a livery company of the City of Edinburgh. It was originally founded in order to protect trading rights in the City and also carried out a significant amount of charitable and educational work. In keeping with its Guild origins, its members shared many common interests. The Merchant Company took an interest in the running of the City, covering such fields as taxation, postal services and the water supply. The Company was also involved in educational and charitable work. As it grew in importance and repute, charitable trusts were often left to the Company to be administered. In such a manner, the Company came to operate several hospital schools.