The Story of the Nelson Pillars

The two pillars at the east end of Melville Drive were erected by Thomas Nelson and Sons, Printers and Publishers, in 1881.

Description of the Pillars

Two square freestanding polished ashlar pillars are surmounted by carved heraldic beasts. The lion atop the north pillar supports the castle emblem of the City of Edinburgh with a shield below which reads 'The Right Hon. Thomas J Boyd, Lord Provost 1880'. The shield under a unicorn at the south pillar reads 'Presented to the City of Edinburgh by Messrs T Nelson and Sons'. The pillars were designed by John Lessels (1809- 1883) in 1880 and erected in 1881.

Thomas Nelson & Sons

Thomas Neilson, later spelt Nelson, (1780-1861) opened a second-hand bookshop at West Bow in 1798. He started printing books and moved to a larger premises at Castle Hill. This became such a success that Thomas and his sons William and Thomas junior acquired a site to build a purpose made printing works at Hope Park End (now Hope Park Crescent) in 1843. In 1850 Thomas junior improved the Rotary Press, which revolutionised printing, and the Nelson works expanded to become the largest printing and publishing house in Scotland.

Fire at Nelsons printworks 1878

In 1878 a huge fire completely destroyed the Hope Park works. (See contemporary picture above.) At that time Nelsons was of major importance to the Edinburgh economy, employing around 600 workers. The City of Edinburgh, in recognizing this, provided Nelsons with a temporary site opposite the destroyed works at the east end of the Meadows. The new printing presses allowed the business to continue until a permanent location was found. Luckily all the original plates were stored in fireproof safes and survived the fire.

Fortunately the ideal site was soon acquired nearby, adjacent to Holyrood Park on Parkside, fronting Old Dalkeith Road. The new building opened in 1880 and the temporary printing works were removed from the Meadows. In the same year William and Thomas junior commissioned the design of these two pillars in gratitude to the City and people of Edinburgh for providing a site to enable them to continue printing after the 1878 fire. The printing works were demolished in the 1970s and the 'A' listed Scottish Widows office opened in 1976. As for Nelson's, the publishing business was, after several owners, acquired by HarperCollins and, in 2019, trades under the name 'Thomas Nelson' in Tennessee, USA.

Neil Roger

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