Pioneer of the Settlement: Grace Drysdale
(In an interview with Edinburgh Evening News. 5th June 1950)
Over 2000 men and women said “thank you” to a woman who has given a lifetime’s devoted attention to their welfare at a ceremony with a family atmosphere about it in Cameron House, Edinburgh, the other evening.
They were not all there of course, for the little dining room could accommodate only 40-odd. But their representatives from the University Settlement groups at Prestonfield, Kirk o’ Field, and High School Yards crammed in to pay tribute to their inspired leader, pioneer of the Settlement and recent warden of Cameron House, Miss Grace Drysdale. J.P.
In 1940 Miss Drysdale left Cameron House to become depute secretary of the Scottish Council of Social Service: two months ago she retired from public service, and it was to say a second “goodbye” that the ceremony was held.
But even in the autumn of her life, Miss Drysdale’s intense interest in social welfare will not stop. She has taken a country house in Gifford, and will accommodate elderly people who need a summer holiday.
That is typical of this tireless humanitarian, who’s facility for cutting through “red tape,” for putting her case forcibly enough to sway the hardest hearted, and for achieving success where failure seemed inevitable, has won the admiration, gratitude, and love of thousands.
Before the ceremony, when a grey-marled radio was presented to her, Miss Drysdale sat in an upstairs room remembering the past struggles for recognition of the cause. She looked out of the window and smiled at my question: “You want to know where we started?” she asked in her soft voice. “Look over there in that three-roomed house. That’s where our first Prestonfield Settlement was”. And then she told me her story.
Completing her school education in Edinburgh, she went to London for training in social service, and on to Bristol to finish it. She took her diploma at the School of Social Study in Edinburgh, however, and in 1911, competently qualified, she began the kind of work nearest to her heart at the University Settlement, High School Yards. When the 1914-18 war interrupted her career, she went to London and managed to fulfil a long-cherished desire for experience in public health work and the care of children.
Returning to the Edinburgh Settlement in 1919, she was appointed warden under Sir Richard Lodge, the chairman. “The Settlement then was a most insanitary and appalling building, but we enjoyed our work enormously”, she said.
Work was developing in the High School Yards, and, in those green years, Dr James Watt, who became chairman, was Miss Drysdale’s great supporter and helper, she recalled. Housing problems were always on her mind, and a great deal of her energy was directed towards helping to solve some of the difficulties. For nine years, since its inception, she served on the Scottish Housing Advisory Committee. Then came her greatest success – Cameron House.
Miss Drysdale had become vitally interested in the question of the new estate at Prestonfield and the housing of the people from the neighbourhood of the Settlement. “But we had no intention of going there,” she commented with a laugh. “That came later. We only prepared them for going into the new houses. However, a group of our people demanded that we should go and see the place, and, once the seed was sown, the plan became fixed that we should extend the Settlement there.”
With that object in mind, Miss Drysdale visited Sir John Findlay, Bart. She put her case eloquently. “At the end of my interview, I can remember he said, ‘You are profoundly right.’ and gave me a cheque for £250 to help us.”
The city added its support, renting them the three-roomed house mentioned earlier. That was in 1924, and the night it opened, the crowd was so great that Miss Drysdale clearly remembers the momentary fear she experienced, thinking it had gone on fire!
A year later, with the help of Sir Andrew Grierson, the Town Clerk, Cameron House as we know it was given to the Settlement by the city for a period of 25 years. If it carried out its purpose successfully as a community centre – and the town made a grant of £500 and the Pilgrim Trust £2000 to help – it was to become the Settlement’s own property. Last year saw the end of the 25 years and Cameron House is their very own.
Miss Drysdale would be the last person to accept full responsibility for the Settlement’s achievements. “Our work has always been done in a team,” she declared, “and the University students have worked wonders. Seventy-two have passed through Cameron House, and I have had nothing but help and support from them.”
With that she hurried away to receive the many verbal bouquets from her enormous circle of friends.
This is part of the Edinburgh Settlements digital archive collaboration with Ragged University: