August 9, 2015

The Wallace Tower – Not just any banishment but Marks & Spencer banishment

Wallace Tower  Mention the Wallace Tower and some smart Alec’s bound to chip in, it’s nae the Wallace Tower, it’s Benholm’s Lodgings, to which the appropriate response is, aye I ken but it’s bin the Wallace Tower for well over a century so it’s earned the name Wallace Tower. If someone turned up at my house and insisted it was so and sos because they’d lived there a few decades ago I’d tell them where to get off, wouldn’t you? Built for Sir Robert Keith, whose brother the Earl of Marischal founded Marischal College (once a separate university from King’s College) the house was also known as Keith’s Lodgings. Given its long existence – 500 years – it has seen a lot of comings and goings. For most of that time it occupied a prime position the corner of the Netherkirkgate (the lower gate or port into the town – the Upperkirkgate being the higher up gate), above Carnegie’s brae, which came to be known as the Wallace neuk (corner). At one time the area was known as Putachieside. The home of Lord Forbes at Keig by Alford used to be known as Putachie.  Lord Forbes kept a town house in Aberdeen, near Benholm’s Lodgings and  referring to the area by his country house name stuck. It was near where the Aberdeen Market is now… beside Putachie’s house – Putachieside. I hope you’re still following – and one of the streets, which ran from Carnegie’s brae towards what is now Market Street (or as near as damn it) came to be called Putachie. Putachie has gone. The Netherkirkgate has gone. The Wallace nook has gone. The Wallace Tower has gone. The Wallace name was used when a bar of that name occupied part of the building when it was slap bang in the centre of town not in its present location on a grassy knoll at Tillydrone. The low hill it stands on is the remains of a Norman motte. As for the  name it’s possibly a corruption of wally meaning well (a nearby well-house) with the diminutive ie or y wally hoose or well-house for folks uncomfortable with the Doric. This is all a long way from the Wallace Tower’s current abode at Tillydrone. It’s a fine enough site for this fine wee building but for many Aberdonians of a certain vintage – it’s not its home. Home should be, they believe, somewhere close to the vanished Netherkirkgate – maybe close to the Upperkirkgate… maybe it could have occupied pride of place, or second place to Skene’s House in Marischal Square but then there is no longer to be a Marischal Square so it can be added to my banished list.  Putachie has gone. The Netherkirkgate has gone. The Wallace nook has gone. The Wallace Tower has gone. Marischal Square has gone before it’s ever been. Rewind…why did the Wallace Tower go west? Think Marischal Square – what’s driving this corporate carbuncle? the ugly face of capitalism silly. It was a similar situation back in the swinging sixties. Marks & Spencers wanted to expand their store across from the Wallace Tower and councillors sucked on their pencil tips and thought how old fashioned this auld rickle of stanes looked in what could be a modern shopping precinct. What to do? Before you could say pretty fine example of a late 16th early 17th century rubble-built  Scottish tower house it was howked up and trundled on the back of several lorries far enough away from the city centre that those pencil sucking councillors were no longer reminded that Aberdeen did once have some very fine buildings indeed. The M & S extension turned out to be a not-so-very fine a building or even a half-decent building but who cared? This was the 1960s and anything went then, even prefabricated lookalike every other prefabricated buildings that littered every other town’s high streets. Still, as we know when it comes to Aberdeen city centre it’s a case of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.  Actually I don’t really mind the Tower being at Tillydrone for it is a good enough spot, at the edge of Seaton Park, but look at it – no, really look at it. When did you last see anything of architectural importance in Aberdeen look this bad? Well how about last week – and Westburn House. As far as preserving historically important architecture/introducing high quality contemporary buildings to the city Aberdeen councils would get straight As for corporate delinquency. Here we have boarded up windows to prevent another empty building falling victim to vandalism – the petty kind that ends up in courts and fined not the kind that is carried out on a large scale by local authorities. The original Benholm’s lodging house was constructed as a unique Z-plan tower house that was used as lodgings. In the late 18thC a wing was added and various adaptations have been made. At one time a balcony was built to provide grand views across the south of the area. There have been many plans to get the Wallace Tower back into some kind of useful existence but all fall through. It’s not connected with The Wallace … Aye we ken. Wallace never came this far north… So you say.  Since it is in Tillydrone it would be good if that community could make something of it but everything comes down to having sustainable funding in the end. Given that it is so close to the University it might find a use but not at its loss of it as a public asset (although the Council might question that and presumably regard it as another liability).

You can see the z-plan – or not. Corbelled features. Two round towers. The sculpted knight isn’t Wallace… they insist Aye, we ken, fit exactly IS yer problem, min? Who the rough and ready figure of a knight in a recess is no-one knows. It isn’t Wallace that’s for sure – William Wallace and his dug.  It might be Wallace and Gromit. That is a joke by the way… in case the pedantic echo is still on my case. Some think it came from the nearby St Nicholas graveyard. Whatever’s its provenance it is a rude representation of a Scottish knight with his favourite cur by his feet. He used to hold a sword – the knight not the dug that was made from a bent bit of metal. Definitely not worthy of The Wallace. Who he was we probably shall never know. Wouldn’t it be grand if it turned out his name was actually Wallace. He’s been broken and repaired and painted and broken and painted and repaired and broken.

A remaining armorial panel is not in the finest condition but at least it’s remaining.

Gunport quatrefoil.

The walls had originally been harled and presumable painted in the old Scots tradition. As of March this year planning permission for a change of use from residential dwelling to mixed use as a community cafe and office was being sought. The Wallace Tower which has undergone so many guises including lodging house, bar, tobacconist, snuff merchants was once upon a time a council house, gadzooks, rented out, controversially, to someone who would later become a councillor and Provost. It surprised some Aberdonians that the rent for such a unique cooncil hoose was the same as for ‘any other three-bedroomed council house in the city.‘ (The Herald 3 Oct 1996) but when this tenant vacated the Tower no-one else was given the chance to rent it but we were into the era of selling off council homes so the council did well to avoid falling into that trap with the Wallace Tower. http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12023249.Convoluted_background_to_portrait_of_provost_who_had_listed_council_house/ I’ve been inside the Wallace Tower once or twice and it wasn’t particularly attractive as a home – stairs to everywhere and fitted out in 1970s drab but that is just decoration and doesn’t detract from its importance as a medieval tower-house. There is no question the Wallace Tower is a ‘lost gem’. It lies forlorn and unused. Largely ignored. Unwanted or rather unaffordable for those who would love to bring it back to life.

July 31, 2015

Westburn House is Falling Down

Westburn House

Westburn House

Old buildings can cost money to keep but where they are the responsibility of a local authority then it is incumbent upon that local authority to carry out its duty. You would have thought.

Westburn House  portico and Doric columns

Westburn House
portico and Doric columns

As you can see Aberdeen City Council is guilty of abandoning a category A-listed building to such an extent it looks to a casual observer like me that the Council is hoping one day Westburn House will simply topple down. One less worry for the Council. Frankly the state of this building is a disgrace. All we get from the Council is mealy-mouthed meaningless froth about caring about the city’s heritage  yet the evidence throws up a contrary view.

We will improve the quality and impact of arts, culture and heritage provision across the city

Westburn House  July 2015

Westburn House
July 2015

Then doesn’t .

We will protect and enhance our high-quality natural and built environment through support of initiatives including open space

Blah de blah de blah. Every so often it offers up a Master Plan signifying nothing. Master Plan, Mister Plan, Mistress Plan, Misconceived Plan, Missed Plan – all words and picture projections amounting to sweet f.a.. Aberdeen’s principal architect, Archibald Simpson, designed Westburn House for the Chalmers family who owned the forerunner of the Press & Journal, the Aberdeen Journal, in the 19th century. The Westburn estate comprised large grounds and the house. When the estate was broken up it was bought over by the then Town Council in 1901 and the house converted into a restaurant with some of the acres of land becoming the Westburn Park, including bowling greens and tennis courts in the formal walled garden. Part of the estate houses Cornhill Hospital. The house has been used for a variety of functions since, including a nursery and by community arts. There’s been no shortage of ideas for using Westburn House – a registry office, a council training centre, wedding venue. There were hopes that the building would become a museum for the City’s vast costume collection but nothing came of these plans either, just like nothing has come of all sorts of other noises about setting up museums in the city. The reason? Money stupid. And indifference. It is Aberdeen we’re talking about here so it’s always easier just to let the building decay and fall down than actually see such plans materialise. Aberdeen Council is that aspirational. The building is built of stuccoed brick with a portico with Doric columns and pediment on the western side and a lovely cast iron veranda facing south (added later). Being of brick is very unusual in granite Aberdeen. The Westburn (Gilcomston burn) runs through the park, through the guitar-shaped paddling pool but here too the decay has spread. Look at the state of it. Broken sections and filthy mud add to the evidence of an authority that has lost all sense of pride in the city it purports to look after. Another time, same place… …before this kind of neglect   I don’t think preventing bathing is the most important issue in Westburn Park. This is the flower garden at Westburn House.   The roof and ceilings at Westburn House are falling in, timbers are rotting, grass has blocked up the gutters leading to water seeping through the building. What should be a fine example of Simpson architecture is in ruin. It’s in a worse condition than the abandoned Wallace Tower but that’s a tale for another time.

PS Would it not be feasible for colleges or private businesses who train people in building skills to work with councils on properties such as Westburn House in order to preserve them at little to no cost and to provide practical training at the same time?

Are council employees too locked into their tiny cut-off areas of responsibilities when a wider vision and inclusiveness in the wider community be advantageous to all of us?

There is definitely a man with a clip-board mentality. The man says no.

July 29, 2015

Grrreat Britain’s fast growing banking sector – the food bank

1% of people in Britain own as much as the 55% poorest. There’s not much new in that statement. The rich have always been rich and the poor – except you have no doubt noticed there are no poor nowadays only the less affluent – those folks who stay in less affluent areas, never poor, never impoverished. Less affluent has a ring of ambiguity about it, less of a value judgement (on society and how the 21st century have thrown up a new class of poor). Terms such as affluent and not-so affluent gets rid of that awkward separation between the rich and the poor.

Poverty has become the phenomenon of our time. That thing which we assumed had been largely eradicated through government action, in the name of all of us, but has not. In fact government action has created the situation that has turned into a national disgrace.

‘Every town should have one,’ remarked the hapless Elmer Fudd.

‘Shame on you’ they shouted at the Elmer Fudd of Scottish politics, MP for Dumfries, Clydesdale and Tweeddale aka Scottish Secretary, as he opened yet another food bank.

You can just see the headlines –

Banking sector is thriving in this age of austerity

And so it is. Food banking sector that is. Post-independence failure that Grrreat Britain just keeps on giving. We have the perfect antidote to those over-stretched welfare purse-strings – charity. Charity doesn’t cost the government anything. What a great wheeze.

Bankers, financial that is, love the free market. Free enterprise is essential to the growth of capital and when growth staggers to a halt there is crisis. But during those golden years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis bankers and their buddies in government were madly, blindly, addictively making it big in the laissez-faire economy and becoming so very, very rich, sorry affluent, they thought the good times would never end.

Private marketeers dazzled by paper profits, not even on paper but numbers on a screen, multiplying before their voracious appetites could be sated until one day the numbers started dropping off those screens and they found themselves in CRISIS (the technical term for shit).

When the in for a penny in for a pound doctrine is brought up sharpish by the realisation that a peril of the free market is success is never guaranteed it is time to call in a favour. There’s nothing so comforting to big business than a lapdog Prime Minister who eagerly tells them he’ll do,

whatever it takes

to dig them out of the shit.

food 5

Brown and Darling emptied their pockets – oops, our pockets and handed over a cool £50bn investment stake to the banksters and an even cooler £500bn in the form of loans and guarantees to restore market confidence ie send out a message to the banksters that they could do whatever they liked as the buck stopped with the British taxpayer. Oh yes, there are times when only nationalisation will do. Now you won’t ever hear that from any of the banksters although that’s what it took to save them from penury and prison.

Cue Alistair Darling:

‘The global economy is spluttering back into life. The Tories would have left it to choke to death.’

Really? So how dead is dead Mr Darling? Apologies it is Lord Darling now that yet another Labour socialist had donned the pelt of a dead animal to signify his importance to the running of the state (albeit through patronage and not the will of the people).

And so the banks were handed a parachute as they hurtled Icarus-like down to earth. Not just any parachute but a golden parachute worth billions to prevent them descending into – less-affluence. And affluence after all is a lifestyle choice.

Grrreat Britain is food bank Britain. This wasn’t what we were promised by the better-together Britainics last September.

1% of people in Britain, let’s call them the smug and rapacious for convenience, own as much as the 55% poorest. This was not the assurance – we were promised good times – wealth, health, happiness and dancing girls and puppy dogs whose tails that never stopped wagging. We were promised chubby little goldfish blowing bubbles and fluffy bunnies – oh, yes we got the bunny equivalent, or as near as, in Elmer Fudd. We were promised raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens, cream coloured ponies and crisp apple streudels if we voted yes to stay in the union of Grrreat Britain and all things red, white and blue.

food 4

I’ll tell you what we got. We got Elmer Fudd and the man who communes with unicorns – the one in charge of sums but not it appears Grrreat Britain’s grrreatest grrrrowth sector. Referrals to food banks in Scotland rose by 63% over the last financial year with scarce as sighting of streudel in any I would wager.

As I have said before, the reasons behind food bank use are complex and varied and every individual case is different. Rightly these important issues are debated regularly in both the UK and Scottish parliaments,

said Elmer Fudd.

Hmm, individual cases – in other words the get out clause of the rabid right, that poverty is a lifestyle choice. Let’s have that figure again – 1% of the population of Britain own as much as 55% of the poorest. That is one helluva statistic where individuals and their varied and complex reasons for boosting food bank use appear to be getting overwhelmed by a tidal wave of what’s that thing again? the thing we were promised would sink Scotland if we voted yes to independence? what is it? Ah, yes, financial ruin.

Actually, actually it is all very simple. Britain is a wealthy country. The wealthiest in the EU and 13th in the world which you might think puts the great into Grrreat Britain but not when wealth is so unevenly distributed. You might think that a fairly wealthy country might be obliged to provide a strong welfare system. Well you’d be wrong.

We hear from the usual suspects in the usual suspect parties that we can’t afford the welfare bill and how austerity is the new sexy politics of choice for Conservative, Labour and the rump of sad, swivel-eyed Liberals who’ve found their natural level in the midden heap of politics.

food 3

Poor people expect to be able to eat food. Shock. Horror.

People living in areas of high unemployment are more likely to use foodbanks. ‘Oh?‘ says Elmer Fudd.

People who have their benefits cut are more likely to use foodbanks. ‘Oh?’ says Elmer Fudd.

Politicians slavering at the prospect of 10% added to an already impressive salary will claim food bank popularity is the result of an argument that runs along the lines of

the more they see it, the more they will use it.

It is a comfort blanket argument. For every 1 per cent cut in welfare spending there is 0.16 percentage rise in emergency food parcels. When a Jobseeker claimant is sanctioned for an infringement of Department of Work and Pensions rules designed to trip him or her up so that his or her benefits can be lawfully cut there is a 0.09 percentage point increase in food parcels.

The UK government does not monitor food bank use possibly because if it did then the sheer scale of impoverishment and need which has become dependent on ad hoc charity would be shown up and be used to attack the freeloading policies of the Department of Work and Pensions.

As it is the government is able to carry on in blissful denial that there is any causal relationship between its inadequate welfare policies and an ever-growing demand for emergency food parcels. The DWP’s driver to reduce the costs of welfare led to an increasing number of sanctions slapped on work-seekers at Jobcentres. For those already on the breadline this makes the difference between eating and not eating. Sanctions, it seems, are deliberately set up to catch out jobseekers – for as minor acts as filling in a form wrongly or being late for an appointment irrespective of the reason. A sanction is not just a slap on the wrist it is the removal of benefit for up to 13 weeks. People suffering from mental health issues are particularly vulnerable to this vindictive policy.

We haven’t always had a welfare state. There was a time, not so long ago when poverty was wholly relieved, to the extent it was, by charitable contributions. It didn’t work very well which is why it was decided that any society worth calling itself society ought to take care of those unable to look after themselves – for reasons complex and varied as Elmer Fudd might say – such as unemployment, illness and accidents. That was then, when Britain was wealthy, runs one argument. Britain is still wealthy. Those who are obscenely wealthy are very determined to hold onto their wealth so it suits them to see poverty as an individual failing – for which society should feel no guilt. Unemployment after all is a result of the market. And the market is always right. Except when it fails the banksters. Then it is the state’s duty to step in, according to the argument.

Unwilling to see poverty as a consequence of the failure of capitalism the average apologist for free trading with a parachute goes into denial mode.

Scroungers. A lifestyle choice. Why should hard-working taxpayers have to support THESE PEOPLE? There are charities for that.

To put it simply. The message from government is – you’re on your own. Happily those who have suffered most in Austerity Britain are not on their own but are being helped by collective action from within their communities.

You can’t just walk into a food bank, you must be referred by some organisation with authority, Citizens Advice, police, Jobcentres. Figures are hazy. A bit like the casualties from the Iraq war – never regarded as important enough to keep a tally.

food

Of all food bank providers the Trussell Trust is the largest. It fed nearly 1.1 million people for three days in 2014-15 from its 445 food banks (up from 56 in 2009). Above this add another 50% or so food banks provided by local communities and other charities including soup kitchens and emergency food providers and you can understand why this banking sector is on the rise.

Elmer Fudd and the government may refuse to accept there is a link between spending cuts, benefit sanctions, unemployment and an increase in use and number of food banks but the BMA does.

The point is ladies and gentlemen, that indifference and selfishness is behind the expansion of the food bank sector. Government reaction to this social crisis is very different from how it approached the financial one, when it stepped in to prevent financial chaos, entirely the fault of the banksters. When it comes to the welfare crisis it is behind the chaos. Central to its welfare cuts policy is that while British institutions have to be supported and preserved individuals may perish.

There’s no nobility in poverty, as someone said and it wasn’t Elmer Fudd.

It’s all about bucks, kid. The rest is conversation.

The rightwing press rails against what is regards as politicising the issue of food banks. They condemn the increasing reliance on them as a phoney reflection of the state of welfare support in this country. It’s nothing to do with poverty levels increasing. Goodness food banks can even be a means for tackling food waste from supermarkets. Nice symmetry that chimes well with deluded views.

Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles for the 1%.  Well you didn’t really believe the rhetoric about safety net Britain (unless you are a bankster) did you? In austerity Britain there are no rules except the rich get more affluent and the less-affluent are definitely poor.

http://www.theguardian.com/business/2008/dec/28/markets-credit-crunch-banking-2008

July 1, 2015

The Ersatz World of Germany

hunger berlin

Throughout Europe and large parts of the world the 1930s was an era of extreme levels of poverty and suffering. The Hungry Thirties as they were called followed on from the hardships of the post-Great War twenties. The twenties, following the huge expenditure of that obscene war 1914-18, and the misguided peace settlement that the French President insisted would squeeze Germany until the pips squeaked did just that, creating economic, social and political chaos in Germany.

German scientists looked to the country’s greatest natural resource – timber to provide solutions to its increasing shortages of food and other products. It is just incredible what could be produced from felled trees during pressing times and with a high level of imagination; sugar and sweets and bread, cellulose clothing, wooden shoes, mattresses, bedding, chair covers and cushions stuffed with wood-pulp. Coal and chalk were turned into glass. Nettle fibres replaced wool to make jumpers. String was made out of cellulose. Fish skin was turned into slippers (there’s a great coat made of fishskin at Aberdeen University) and can you believe it? Germany’s most loved food, the sausage was made from fish (all of the fish, not just the skin). And on the subject of fish it was pulverised and mixed with flour to create an egg substitute when stocks of eggs disappeared – only the flour wasn’t so much grain flour as potato flour (also used as a substitute for wheat flour for bread in Scotland during the Great War when importing flour from Canada was problematic) combined with a pinch of wood-fibre.

cellulose

The early twenties saw German workers collecting their pay by the barrow load, sometimes twice daily, because hyperinflation had eroded the value of the mark and hourly depreciations of the currency meant as soon as wages were received they had to be spent on buying essentials for even an hour or so later the cash value would have reduced still further and the barrow full of near useless paper might buy a fraction of what it could have earlier in the day.

Inflation Geldscheine werden gewogen

In 1914 four marks was equivalent to one US dollar but by July 1923 one dollar cost 160, 000 marks and by November you needed 4, 200, 000, 000, 000 marks to exchange for one dollar. The impact on Germany was devastating. The country was not able to produce enough food to feed its own population and had no currency to purchase imports. Then in 1929 there came the Wall Street crash and the Depression affecting much of the world just got deeper. In Germany it was no longer hyperinflation that caused widespread unemployment and poverty but deflation which had much the same effect.

The middle classes had lost all their savings, the working classes were impoverished still further. These people looked for political solutions from the left, right and centre. A message offering an escape from their predicament and swallowed by many came  came from Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. By 1938 when Leonard O. Mosley’s piece appeared in the Press & Journal Hitler’s Nazi party had been in government for five years. While some commentators warned of impending war Mosley did not believe this. He was sympathetic to Germany’s struggles over two decades and looked to that country for lessons on how to cope with crisis.

People had to eat and where there wasn’t food something to fill their bellies had to be found. So ersatz became the means of tackling hunger and shortages.

Mention ersatz and it is generally ersatz coffee that springs to mind but there was more, much more to the imitation business going on there than that. I would use ersatz as an adjective but in Germany it is a noun, being strung together with whatever it refers to: Ersatz – a substitute becomes Ersatzkaffee – ein kaffee, bitte became ein Ersatz, bitte. Germans became fairly adept at ersatz nearly everything it seems.

Mr Mosley report on Germany shrugged off the opinion of some that the work of its scientist producing inspired ersatz goods was part of the preparations for self-sufficiency during what some feared was impending war in Europe. Mosley explained that Germany had a long track-record of being creative with, well, resources. Mind you so were food producers in Britain who thought nothing of adding floor sweepings to loose tea, alum and plaster of Paris to flour and strychnine to beer to enhance its flavour. That was adulteration and fraudulent. What Germany was doing was creating cheap as-near-as. Everyone knew, I’m supposing, what it was and was not.

The writer was impressed, not for the sake of it of the ingenuity but its capacity to deal with the growing mountains of rubbish accumulating in European countries not least Britain and the prospect of turning that waste into something wonderful, or close to it, was welcomed by him. The German government went as far as introducing laws against waste – clothing rags, items containing metals such as copper, nickel, tine, aluminium, lead, iron and steel including toothpaste tubes, paper, glass bottles, rabbit skins, bones were collected and reused or transformed into something else. Unwanted food redistributed. What was unsuitable for human consumption went to feed what pigs remained on farms.

Shop bought jam used to be notorious in Britain for using neep (cheap) to bulk out more expensive fruit. I’ve even heard of wood shavings for pips to create the illusion of authenticity so it may surprise you to discover German jam did actually contain fruit though of course not real sugar but Germans love their meat and jam proved less than popular spread on their neep flour bread than you might imagine.

 

 

The article claimed around 90% clothes and furniture in Germany were ersatz by the late thirties and nearly 50% of the country’s food. There were drawbacks, for example a man caught wearing timber-sourced trousers in a shower of rain could expect 20% shrinkage which wouldn’t be a great look. Coats were often paper which restricted their use. German men had to endure getting a baldy with each visit to the barber for human hair was saved and used for manufacturing carpets and felts. The country’s buses ran on tyres made from coal and limestone which were not as good as rubber but then Germany did not produce its own rubber.

Oh and the coffee? It was might be made from, well virtually anything – ground acorns or sugar beet or barley or oats – roasted of course – or chicory or carrots or the old standby, the neep. The bland flavour enhanced by a soupçon of coal tar.

 

Germany doesn’t waste even Barbers’ Clippings The Aberdeen Press & Journal Friday June 3, 1938

June 22, 2015

The House of Lords is fundimundily wrong

The Sunday Times 1 Feb 2015

There are around 200 more members of the unelected House of Lords than sit in the House of Commons, surely an indictment of the state of democracy in the UK. Westminster is rotten at its core. The shamefully undemocratic nature of government in the UK is boosted and bolstered by the self-proclaimed progressive parties; Labour and Liberal and their eager members eyeing up a place in the second chamber – men such as Alistair Darling – one-time socialist and now new boy to those coveted red leather benches. darling a peer Our politicians don’t so much represent life outside Westminster as create a parallel existence within its walls that can extend to careers beyond the normal stretch of a working life. Labour, the fundillymundily party, has huffed and puffed for over a century but it is a game it plays and its supporters pretend to believe it is serious when it promises to reform the Lords. All bluster of course for Labour MPs and their cronies are falling over each other to reach those red benches alongside their pals, where the powerful go prior to death. foulkes There are inevitable attempts at justifying their pampered existence – claiming to bring experience and expertise to scrutinise government but only to a point for only the most corrupt of governments in the world operates a chamber as iniquitously  stuffed as this one. john reid As the Conservatives, Labour and Liberals all support the Lords there is no prospect of real advances in democratising government in the UK, certainly not under the party which speaks so often of reform then goes on to inflate its membership there, Labour. In any case why is it talk of reform? There should be no place for any such unelected chamber that makes government into a perk for the few in the 21st century. Michael Martin No the fundilymundily party is in love with the whole panoply of the Lords; the ermine robes, the cosy camaraderie within its soporific atmosphere, optional working hours, the £300+ a day plus expenses, the subsidised food and drink – what’s not to like for erstwhile lefties such as Alistair Darling? darling young List of Labour Party peers Labour Peers

June 19, 2015

The Monarch Abideth: Queen Victoria Comes to Aberdeen

Victoria

Guest blog by Textor

 

As much as Scotland has now a reputation for trashing the status quo in British politics it’s sad but probably true that the Scots since the Union of 1707 have favoured monarchy over republic.   Even the attempt to overthrow the established state in 1715 and 1745 was in large part to do with re-establishing the rule of an ousted royal family, the Stuarts.   The Stuart cause was defeated, extreme violence, cultural suppression and changes in the mode of Highland landholding took the heart out of the clan system.   And irony of ironies by the end of the 18th century many of the members of the formerly oppositional tribes had rallied to the British flag (with the enthusiastic urging at times of their commercially orientated clan betters) with the kilted Highlander becoming an icon for all that was brave and loyal in the post 1746 world and after the Crimean War many a kilted “Jock” proudly wore the mark of valour, a Victoria Cross.

Having leased Balmoral Castle Queen Victoria first journeyed to Aberdeen in 1848. She swiftly adopted not the manners and culture of the locals but what she thought was their mode of dress.   She and her husband Albert adored tartan and when in 1852 they bought Balmoral, their Highland Home, tartan became de-rigueur, found on floors, walls, attendants and covering the Royal torso.   With the political and military threat from the Stuarts dealt with, so the trappings (or what was claimed to be the trappings) of clan society could be brought back to the daylight and used to demonstrate the Royal affinity felt for the Scots’ traditions and their nation, at its most visually preposterous when George IV wore pink tights in 1822.

For Aberdeen Victoria’s Balmoral, the royal connection became an object of local pride and a cultural link in an ideological chain which helped secure many Aberdonians fast to the established order.   Until the 1840s Royal Visits had been few and far between, but now, with Balmoral so close to the city visits became at the very least an annual affair affording subjects frequent opportunity to see the monarch.  

When Victoria first landed at Aberdeen the harbour was in the process of converting from entirely tidal to one with a lock system ensuring some deep water berthing at part of the quayside although other areas at low water still stank and consisted of mud banks, betraying effluent and occasionally bodies.   And it was to this mix of a very insanitary and an increasingly viable commercial harbour that she arrived on the 7 September 1848.   The Aberdeen Journal, a local conservative newspaper, was overjoyed and immediately set about constructing an identity for Victoria and Balmoral, something which the paper hoped would lead Aberdonians to show deep respect and some reverence (being then a Presbyterian country straight worship of the monarch would have been idolatrous) not only for the Queen but for all that she embodied, in other words the British state.   Aberdeen, Victoria and Balmoral all became agents in an ideological threesome.

When it became apparent in August 1842 that the Queen was to tour Scotland Aberdeen Journal assumed that all who bear the name Scotsmen would be naturally aware of their duty and have the correct inclination i.e. fervent loyalty. This for a tour which missed Aberdeen.   Six years later the Queen’s highland jaunt was scheduled to include Aberdeen, the local newspaper was overjoyed: God Bless Her; the new harbour lock almost completed was, if not the very wonder of the world then at least one of the noblest work in the kingdom and would provide an impressive berth for Victoria’s ship.   By the end of August 1848 the Town Council had prepared to meet Her Majesty and the editor of the Journal believed that the visitors would find a city at fever pitch with loyalty, greater than any ever previously seen in the Granite City; sounding like a free market in ideological emotion the editor wrote that citizens will vie with each other in acts of devotion.  

Balmoral

There is a question mark over the extent to which the weekly newspaper directly impacted on the working classes of Aberdeen as it was relatively expensive (4½ old pence) there still being a tax on newspapers, a circumstance introduced specifically to put radical publications out of circulation. The Journal was not directed at working classes but largely at the “opinion forming” men (not women) of the city, primarily businessmen and professionals including clergy, especially men of the Church of Scotland most of whom could be relied on to give a lead or place a restraining hand on all who might be inclined to republicanism.   This was not an academic question as it was a time of revolutions on the Continent and Chartism at home, not to mention unrest in Ireland .   So serious was the latter that Victoria and her advisors decided to cancel a visit to this particular “dominion”- The Times noted that sound-minded and sound-hearted Englishmen would approve cancelation of the Irish tour as it would save the Queen being confronted by wretches and seditious and calumnious cries.   Just in case any wretches might confront the Queen in Aberdeen Special Constables were sworn-in to keep order as the royals processed through the town.

The occasion became an opportunity to show loyalty and make money.   Leading the charge in this was a local shopkeeper, Martin the Hatter on Union Street, a man with a keen sense of advertising who placed many humorous and lengthy ads. in the Journal.   Victoria’s coming visit was too good an opportunity to miss: he called for Three Hurrahs for our Noble Queen for the mother of Britain’s future, and was pleased to report that Scotland has not degenerated from the loyal and patriotic feeling which has ever characterized her as a nation; first extolling patriotism he then went on to the hard sell advising customers it would not do to gaze at the Queen wearing an unseemly old hat better that they should be seen in Martin’s beautiful Satin Hats.

As Martin laid in a stock of silk hats so also the Town Council prepared by commissioning the building of a triumphal arch bearing the Royal Arms and national banners all under the supervision of the City Architect John Smith.   Additionally an immense ampitheatrical stage was erected to hold 2000 spectators anxious to behold the person of their beloved Queen.   The Journal confidently predicted that Aberdonians, a free and enlightened people, would show a deep feeling of attachment . . . towards the person and Government of Her Majesty.   The beauties and tranquillity of Balmoral and Deeside were emphasised and the editor asked that Victoria be allowed to enjoy them undisturbed much as was said to be attainable by her humblest subjects.  How far the lives of Aberdeen ‘s unemployed, not to mention the distressed in Ireland, were tranquil and beautiful is a moot point and not one that concerned the Journal.  

Effusive exclamations of loyalty began to pour from the mouths of the North East’s great and good.   Civic heads, churchmen and local aristocrats met to assert their devotion to Victoria and all that she symbolised stressing that in no part of the Empire could your Majesty be surrounded by more loyal, more attached, and more devoted subjects.  

In the event the royal party arrived twelve hours early on the 7 September, catching the expectant Aberdonians off-guard, many still in their beds, but in an act of gracious condescension the Queen chose to remain on board the royal yacht in order that her subjects were not disappointed.   Victoria and Albert appeared on deck with their interesting children . . . arrayed in the simplest garb . . . the picture presented was one of high moral power and grandeur, producing an ecstasy of feeling which could only vent itself in tears.   The Queen stood on deck as mother of her children and by implication mother of the nation, capable of love, affection and through her government a strong hand when required, as had been applied to Chartists and others.   Hinting at how things had changed since the Stuart’s had sought to impose themselves upon Britons through Divine Right the editor stressed devotion was freely given by rational beings, not because of idle or superstitious regard for rank or outward show, but from a solid conviction of the many privileges and blessings which they enjoy under her sway.   In other words she was monarch under parliament.

Victoria

It was from this visit of September 1848 that the whole sorry mess of Victoria and Deeside emerged.   There’s little doubt that the area gained from the royal connection, especially after the railway was pushed westward 1853-1866 (although Victoria insisted as much as the hoi polloi might love her she did not want them disgorging from trains near Balmoral, hence the railway stopped at Ballater).   She bought Balmoral from the Earl of Fife’s estate in 1852 and finding the property, a pretty little castle, too modest had built the silliness which stands by the banks of the Dee.   Almost 170 years on and Balmoral remain a favourite amongst many Royals and is still a potent part of the ideology of the British state even if today the Monarch must tolerate the great adoring unwashed walking in the castle grounds, through the castle doorway and gawking as she attends services at Crathie Kirk.   Some might see this as a sign of the willingness and ability of the of the Royals to be “just like us”.   But they are not like us, they are part of an institutional framework which helps maintain class divisions and the ruling power of capital.   Reminders of Victoria’s foundational role in this abound in the North East not the least being signage for the Victorian Trail.   In this tale of forging mind-chains the Queen is dead but the Monarch abides.

June 7, 2015

Picture of the Month: Darkened Figure by Anthony Scullion

Anthony Scullion Darkened Figure

Anthony Scullion Darkened Figure

Anthony Scullion’s figurative paintings are ethereal and mysterious. To me his subdued palette emphasises a profound sadness that haunts the people that populate his canvases.

Sketchily drawn figures move silently across his pictures, oblivious to the viewer, intent on activities we cannot even guess at, absorbed in their own worlds, or else gaze out, their stare seldom engaging with us.

His figures are like characters from a play or people inhabiting a parallel universe that seems consumed by conspiracy or anxieties – victimised and vulnerable and to me reminiscent of Goya although he is influenced by the ‘chiaroscuro of Rembrandt and the spirituality of Giacometti and distortions of Francis Bacon’.

This Scottish artist, born in East Kilbride, studied at Glasgow School of Art in 1992.

Darkened figure oil on canvas

This monochrome study of a female drawn entirely in black emerges from a greyish-white background exudes mystery and contemplation. The girl’s downcast eyes suggest her uncertainty, her vulnerability, that makes it uneasy for the viewer staring at her as if we’re intruding into her thoughts.

May 27, 2015

What next for Broadford Works? An auld sang nae ended

There’s an amazing historic industrial collection of buildings in the heart of Aberdeen which comprises the largest group of A-listed buildings in Scotland – although alarmingly I’m informed fewer than there used to be.

How does that happen? Enquiries please to Aberdeen City Council.

 

Broadford Works, Aberdeen

Broadford Works, Aberdeen

Known locally as Richards or Broadford Works  it stopped operating as a factory over a decade ago and according to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) was/is the

‘oldest iron-framed mill in Scotland and the fourth oldest known to survive in the world (after others of 1796, 1804 and 1805, all inter- related). The adjoining South Mill may be the third iron framed building in Scotland’

This impressive maze of incredible architecture in red brick is distinctively un-Aberdeen – the city built of mainly grey granite and is the frequent victim of fire-raising.

But who cares?

 

There was a plan to transform this large site into an urban village. It seemed a great plan. Across the road from Broadfords is another red brick building, a former store, which was very successfully developed as a block of flats, known as the Bastille. Surely the Broadford site would make a stunning and important architectural asset to the city and mark its contribution to Aberdeen’s industrial past.

There is an owner, reputed to be the 12 richest man in Scotland and certainly very, very rich, Mr Ian Suttie.

Now I don’t know anything about its owner Mr Suttie so I went looking at newspaper reports from around the time he took over at Richards (Broadford Works) and some more recent ones popped up as I googled on.

Short clip of women working in Richards in 1962 from the Scottish Screen Archive

I found this in a newspaper from 2011 –

“More damaging, though, was the saga of Richards of Aberdeen textiles, which he (Mr Suttie) bought when it was on the brink of receivership in 2002, moving it from city-centre Broadford to a heavily subsidised site at Northfield on the outskirts of the city. However, the company collapsed in November 2004 and 196 workers, many of whom on low wages, lost their jobs and pensions and received little or no redundancy. Although Suttie was not solely to blame (the pension fund was in a parlous state when he bought the company and by 2004 was £5m in arrears) the former Richards workers’ received an average payout of £3,500 each from an employment tribunal.

“Worse for Suttie, not only did tribunal chairman Nicol Hosie say that “staff were treated in a cynical and insensitive manner”, but there was fury when it emerged that Suttie’s First Construction company were planning a £50m “urban village” development on the Broadford site. Union leaders accused him of “asset-stripping”, and implied that the Richards workers and their pensions had been sacrificed so Suttie could get the site.”

(Scotsman Sat 01 October, 2011)

In 2002 a consortium headed by businessmanIan Suttie bought over the Richard’s factory on Maberly Street, Aberdeen when it was about to go into receivership. Within two years the business had shut down throwing 200 employees out of work, some of whom had spent their entire lives working at Richards. That was bad enough but the first any of the workforce knew of being made redundant was when they went to withdraw their pay and discovered it hadn’t been paid into their bank accounts.  They had been told nothing about the factory closing. There were also real concerns for their pensions for it was public knowledge there was a large shortfall in the fund.

 

Union officials hit out at Mr Suttie’s “mismanagement” of the company and described his behaviour as “barbaric”.  http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/4022695.stm

There had been warning signs immediately before the closure when supplies to the mill suddenly stopped. Union official Graham Tran commented at the time,

” For a multi-millionaire to treat people on the minimum wage like this is just absolutely disgraceful,”

and he demanded answers from Ian Suttie who declined to talk to the union.

The 200 year old mill had been a major employer of Aberdonians, once the largest single employer in the city, it was built in the area known as Broadford, and the first manufactory opened for business in 1808. With its closure ended Aberdeen’s textile production. When it suddenly closed Aberdeen City Council’s head of economic development, Rita Stephen, described its closure as, “disappointing”.

There were people in Aberdeen who recognised this site’s importance just not anyone in a position to do anything about it, it seems.

Sir John Maberly, whose name lives on in the street on which the old mill lies, was an entrepreneur and speculator. When he bought over the factory in 1824 it was Scotland’s second power loom linen weaving factory.  Almost immediately he sold it to Richards & Co. who used it to produce heavy canvases and similar products were manufactured ever since.  Richards was an important and major employer – including from among my own family.

Precious little is preserved of Aberdeen’s very varied industrial heritage, partly because the city has been run by people with little grasp of history and even less interest in it. There is scarce pride in Aberdeen of the lives and occupations which shaped the city, instead there is only enduring ignorance and a desire to replicate other places in preference to preserving what is unique about Aberdeen.

The plans for the urban village appear to have fallen through because no agreement could be reached over the precise arrangements for the development.

Since 2009 an increase in the incidences of fire-raising in Richards led to a risk assessment survey in 2012 that highlighted potential hazards and a Dangerous Building Notice was served on Mr Suttie for protective work to be carried out.

At the start of May this year the Evening Express reported Mr Suttie was served with a second dangerous building notice – for the former E&M building, on Union Street.  Aberdeen Council’s head of planning was quoted as saying the property constituted, “a danger that requires to be reduced or removed.” The report ended by saying Mr Suttie complied with both notices. (Evening Express 2 May 2015)

Ten years earlier, in November 2005 the Press & Journal’s front page featured a report entitled,

“Tycoon thought fraud inquiry ‘a nuisance'”.

It told of an Inland Revenue investigation which resulted in Mr Suttie appearing in court in Aberdeen charged with trying to cheat the taxman out of £21,000 by failing to declare more than £179,000 of interest from a bank account. One of his accountants was quoted saying in evidence, Ian couldn’t understand why this had been raised.’

He was further ‘charged with trying to defeat the ends of justice by submitting a falsified report to try and get the Inland Revenue to stop scrutinising his business affairs.’

Broadford employees angry at their treatment

Broadford employees angry at their treatment

At the time Mr Suttie’s former employees at Richards were continuing their desperate struggle to recover something of the pensions they had paid into for years. Hopes to alleviate something of their loss of wages and pensions rested with the then Blair government but it showed no sense of urgency to deal with their claims for assistance.

Aberdeen was represented then by three Labour MPs. One, a Frank Doran, was reported to have written to the liquidator to disclose if,

“Richards has been paid a substantial portion of the £2.9million it was owed by another company which bought some of its assets.

“The politician also wants to know if the £5million for land bought at Richards’ former Broadfold(sic) Works home by a firm called Hawkrow, in which Mr Suttie is a director, was paid into Richards’ accounts.” (Press & Journal Thursday Nov 25, 2004)

It emerged in the same report that Scottish Enterprise Grampian had paid over £127,000 of public cash to Richards in 2003-04 and Aberdeen City Council provided over £1million in grants and for buying premises for the firm to lease smaller out of town premises.

The same newspaper mentioned that Mr Suttie was believed to have spent in excess of £10million on the Richards venture.

“He could recoup some of this if Richards’ former site at the Broadford Works in the city centre wins planning consent.” (Press & Journal Tues 7 December 2004)

The same newspaper had the previous month reported on Mr Suttie’s other business interests.

“Mr Suttie, 59, holds 18 live directorships of trading companies, but he is reticent when it comes to speaking to the press about his ventures. He has not commented to date on the Richards’ liquidation.

“Mr Suttie is chairman of a holding company called Arnlea, whose subsidiaries included Richards, Inverurie-based technology provider Arnlea Systems and Aberdeen bar Enigma.

“Arnlea accounts for the year to the end of April, 2003, showed pre-tax losses of nearly £2million. Mr Suttie also owns independent energy operator First Oil, which had pre-tax profits of £199,000 that same year.

“The businessman has amassed a multimillion-pound fortune from his oil industry ventures. His biggest payday came in 2001 when he sold oil service outfit Orwell Group to Weatherford International in a £100million-plus deal.”

Despite the city’s triple-lock of government party MPs nothing was going well for the former Richards employees. The liquidator brought in to wind-up the company told the press he was surprised at the delays the workforce had to endure without even an acknowledgement of their claims by the government’s Redundancy Payments Service far less a payment by them for those wages they did not receive from the company. Normally applications were acknowledged within 5 working days with payments following within 6 weeks.

Humiliation upon humiliation was piled on the Richards workforce. One of the great brains of the Labour government then made the staggering observation that, ‘In this case the claims seem to have got held up.’

The Richards’ former workforce were about to embark on years fighting for their pensions.

When weemin were wrochtin roon o’ the clock

At the Jute Works or Broadford’s auld mills

They’d set aff wi’ a shawl and a kwite owre their frock

To try to get owre a’ their ills.

By gaun ilka pay-nicht alang Cassey-eyn

To buy there o’ mair than ae size

Sae tasty as kitchie, het, sappy and fine

Jist ane o’ John Bendelow’s pies.

As for Mr Suttie the Scotsman published a profile of the elusive businessman and was complimentary about his philanthropy but added a paragraph referring to his “mixed reputation” in Aberdeen,

“Last year his First Construction company was sued by Archial Architects for unpaid fees, which eventually put the architects into administration, while in 2002, Arthur Anderson sued him in the High Court for £151,000 of unpaid fees.”

The same article referred to his trial on charges of tax fraud in 2005 and followed it with,

“Nor has Suttie always been popular with the Granite City townspeople. In 2005 he was forced to deny that his donations of £23,600 to former deputy first minister, Liberal Democrat MSP Nicol Stephen and almost £4,000 to then Lib Dem transport minister Tavish Scott were connected with his opposition to Aberdeen’s controversial Western Peripheral Route’s passing near to his Pitfodels home and close to a luxury housing development that one of his companies has just built. Pitfodels disappeared from the plans soon after. (Scotsman Saturday 1, 2011)

Mr Suttie was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Aberdeen in 2012.

http://www.scotsman.com/news/profile-ian-suttie-tycoon-with-natural-reserve-1-1887410

I have no idea what will happen with what remains of Broadfords site. Any more delays in transforming it into something beautiful and extraordinary for future generations of Aberdonians would be an outrage and disgrace.

What we have here is an example of what is so wrong with land holding in Scotland and why it is imperative that communities, urban as well as rural, should be able to influence what is theirs and our shared heritage.

RCAHMS have a wonderful series of photographs of the Broadford site:

http://canmore.org.uk/site/76204/aberdeen-maberly-street-broadford-works-hackling-building-and-sundial

McJazz has a good piece on Richards

 http://mcjazz.f2s.com/BroadfordMill.htm

There are some photographs and information relating to production at Broadford Works at Aberdeen Quest website

May 20, 2015

Rebel without a cause: Seatgate – Dennis Skinner rebel or establishment?

Rebel without a cause

Skinner

The House of Commons rebel, in name at least, doesn’t care much for rebellion it seems – not when it involves him. The House of Commons rebel is a man of custom, sedentary custom. This rebel is not in the vanguard against the British establishment, no  this rebel is none other than Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs or the Great and Powerful Oz – for this week the curtain was drawn back exposing him to be a puny yet ardent stickler for convention in the tradition of the most obsequious envoy of the British empire proudly planting the Union flag on some piece of foreign territory in the name of the monarch and the Empire by God.

The man who once terrified the establishment is now a compliant part of it, albeit the circus act. He is less firebrand than damp squib. Socialist? up to a point Lord Copper, up to a point.

If socialism extends to pushing others out of the way, he’s a socialist. If being a socialist is insisting a public bench belongs to him by rights or custom, he is a socialist. If being a socialist comes down entirely to age then he is a socialist. If socialism is about common ownership he is not a socialist. If socialism is about sharing the means of production then his jibes about Scots (SNP) and their Barnett Formula suggest he is not a socialist. At best the rebel champions not socialism but localism.

When the great rebel accuses the people of Scotland of living off his constituents you have to question the extent of his  socialism..so much for sharing the burdens placed on us by capitalism. If the establishment’s rebel really cared he would not be carping on about what monies Scotland has but demanding his constituents should match them, instead of grousing that the Scots have too much. That we should all wallow in equal levels of poverty seems to be the ambition of Labour, rebel or not.

His comment about North Sea Oil lacks a punch line so I don’t know what he meant other than another apparent disparaging aside aimed at us in Scotland which again doesn’t sound too socialist to me. Certainly not internationalist which is what so many self-proclaimed Labour lefties say they stand for. His remarks seem grudging and bitter and divisive, not at all what you might expect from a socialist or even anyone in the Labour party.

The rebel believes he has traditional rights no different from an 18th century English country squire or absentee Highland laird wielding their power to evict their tenants from their (tenants) land by any means available to them.

The rebel who is happy to sit for 45 years issuing the occasional humorous one-liner is not a threat to the system he claims to despise. What exactly is he rebelling against? At the moment it looks like the audacity of the new intake of Scots to demand equality with old-timers in the Commons. They are public benches and unless he is advocating privatisation of them then he ought to practise what he preaches.

Labour lefties come in a range of shades; espoused socialists who retire from the Commons or public life straight into that most undemocratic house of cronyism, the House of Lords; wealthy Chelsea and Kensington deluded types who talk the talk but take a taxi or limo in preference to walking the walk; hoary-handed salt-of-the-earth types who live off reputations carefully nurtured and preserved but amounting to very little in the grand scheme of things. And they don’t like it when someone comes along and exposes them to be none other than Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs instead of the rebel whose socialism amounts to nothing more than sporting a red tie.

http://www.newstatesman.com/staggers/2015/05/dennis-skinner-warns-snp-mps-trying-take-his-seat-one-victory-it-will-be-battle

May 12, 2015

Washerman’s itch, vermin, TB and scarlet fever: the perils of the laundress

Laundry carriers in Aberdeen (Aberdeen City Libraries)

Laundry carriers in Aberdeen
(Aberdeen City Libraries)

 

Before washing machines the weekly wash was a major event as many a household manual will testify. Fabrics tended to be heavy…very heavy when wet. Woollens, flannels, cotton, muslin, lace, prints, cretonne, silks… all sorts of fabrics requiring special treatment: handkerchiefs, shawls, stockings, sashes, ribbons …you get the idea. Women worked with scalding hot water and freezing temperatures in those outside tenement washhouses and in wringing wet clothes and bedding through a mangle in the back green then hanging it all out to dry.

Washday might begin the previous evening with the steeping of soiled articles. Then it was a case of up well before dawn to fill the washhouse boiler with pails of cold water and light the fire beneath it; soap, very likely from Soapie Ogston, already shredded into a jar of water and melted into jelly. This along with washing soda and starch – hot, cold or gum – were in every working woman’s armoury. Heated water was scooped into wooden sinks for soaking or washing coloureds and woollens while whites would be boiled directly in the boiler. Before detergents, dirty and stained linen was scrubbed clean on a washboard, extremely tiring, as was agitating the wooden dolly to plunge the washing. Every clean rinse took several bucketfuls of water. Whites were treated with washing blue, a cube of bleach wrapped in muslin, thanks to Scottish chemist and friend of Burns, Charles Tennant who created the first bleaching powder commercialised a century later in 1897.

As the population of Aberdeen expanded so did its hotels and boarding houses for travellers and weekly boarders. How could an entrepreneurial mind fail to recognise a business opportunity in the mountains of bed linen produced as a result?

The lack of domestic running water in the past created difficulties with cleaning and while today we link dirt with disease until Pasteur and Koch presented their research into germs in the 1860s and ‘70s no such relationship had been made. For people living cheek by jowl and without sewers and safe drinking water life meant running the gauntlet of numerous fatal illnesses; Aberdeen’s own Professor Alexander Ogston continued important work into the identification of staphylococci.

The notion of cleanliness might not have been associated with hygiene but it did take on social significance as a further distinguishing feature between rich and poor. The aspiring and the wealthy desired clean clothing and bedding and it was someone else’s job to provide it. Domestic staff included a laundress…live-in or hired once or twice weekly. For working class women there was a living to be made from taking in other peoples’ washing. Some advertised in the local Post Office Directories, others would spread the word by mouth. But even in this apparent innocuous occupation dangers were lurking.

A special commission published in The Lancet in 1877 pinpointed laundry handled by washerwomen as a significant source of smallpox. Washerwomen were susceptible to contamination from soiled linen and in turn they were likely to be carriers of disease. And not only smallpox. Scarlet fever and tuberculosis were widespread among laundresses.

Smallpox claimed the lives of several Aberdonians during the 1870s and at the end of this decade Aberdeen Steam Laundry was launched, the city’s first commercial laundry, opening in May 1879. A ‘select company of ladies and gentlemen’, including Lord Provost Jamieson, made their way to Claremont Street to hear reassurances from its Directors that ‘all the bad features of public steam laundries have been got rid of’ – a reference to careless handling of linen rather than any hygiene worries and promising to make washing day a thing of the past in Aberdeen – for a few perhaps. The forty people employed at the Claremont serviced city businesses but the majority of people could not afford the luxury of a laundry.

Aberdeen Steam Laundry Claremont Street

Aberdeen Steam Laundry
Claremont Street

There was great anticipation however at its opening and William Clark, an old hand in the workings of steam laundries in England, and his staff of ‘neat and tidy maids and dames’, including the manageress Miss Porter, led the official tour of the washhouse with its steam washers and range of hand tubs, boilers, rinsing vessels, hydro-extractors and so on. Outside there was ample space for open air drying and traditional grass bleaching but the laundry also had indoor drying and airing facilities with fans circulating currents of hot air.

Aberdeen Steam Laundry, believed to be the earliest in Scotland, need have had no concerns over its durability for it was still operating a century later – its 120 foot chimney (erected in 1917) was demolished in 1977. Aside from washing, the laundry provided carpet beating and later French cleaning, dry cleaning and linen hire. It serviced the city’s hinterland by rail and road; north to Elgin, south to Stonehaven and west up Deeside but its principle business came from hotels, institutions, shipping and public companies, manufacturers, clubs etc who were charged 8/4 per hundred articles in those early years.

Incidentally the first BBC studio, set up in Aberdeen in 1923, transmitted via masts attached to Aberdeen Steam Laundry’s chimney at 40 Claremont Street.

Aberdeen Steam Laundry Ironing Room from Aberdeen Libraries Local Studies M45_22

Competition to the Claremont arrived in the form of the Bon-Accord Steam Laundry in 1886 at Craiginches, Nigg. It was also financed by a syndicate of local business and professional men. An astounding 400 guests were taken to what Aberdonians affectionately refer to as the Laundry Brae from Market Street in what would have been a trip to the outskirts of the city for tea, coffee, aerated waters and fruit to the accompaniment of the Aberdeen City Artillery Band. Of course there were the inevitable speeches with proud Chairman, Baillie Kinghorn waxing lyrical on the advantages of the 3-acre site removed as it was from the smoke and dust of the city with its abundant water supplies gathered from neighbouring hills and collected in a 6000 gallon holding tank – water pure and soft and filtered before touching a single garment.

In the 34 ft long sorting room items were given bright red identification numbers then stored on corresponding racks. The washing room, nearly twice as long was where the initial rinsing took place and if necessary an overnight soaking in big slate tanks before being placed in one of the state of the art perforated hexagonal concentric dash wheel washing machines. These early washers were slightly corrugated inside replicating the action of a washboard, again unique in Scotland, and the frequent changes of water during the washing process prevented dirt residues building up. Wet linen was fed through a wringer before a further soaking if necessary, in boiling water this time, then wrung and rinsed in a tank of filtered water. Whites would be treated with washing blue then put through the mangle or partly dried in a hydro extractor, an early form of spin dryer.

The 41ft long drying room was fitted with 22 closets; heated to 100 and 150 degrees, the cooler for blankets and flannels. In each closet a 12 ft iron clothes horse ran along double tracks so linen could be loaded and removed easily. Above, a further heated area was available for drying and stretching long curtains.

All the work was done without any form of protection, no rubber gloves for example and inevitably the washroom floor was slippery with soapy water. In the ironing room the problem was sweltering heat and hot scalding steam. Here in the 108ft long hall large rollers pressed sheets, curtains and tablecloths while smaller items were finished with a range of hand irons for calendaring and polishing collars and cuffs to give high gloss finishes and goffering pleated garments.

This impressive set-up cost just short of £7,000 including the building, machinery, horses and lorries and its costs were met by its 121 shareholders’ purchases of £1 shares.

The Directors were at pains to deny they were encroaching on any other business (meaning the Aberdeen Steam Laundry) maintaining there was plenty of work for both. This was possibly true for within a decade a third steam laundry, the Belmont in Chestnut Row, was up and running but such were its concerns that it sued (unsuccessfully) its former manager Robert Innes when he left them for their rival in Claremont Street.

Aberdeen Steam Laundry  ironing hall

Aberdeen Steam Laundry
ironing hall

Other city laundries were to follow among them the Empress and Stevenson’s both Seaforth Road; Borthwick’s of Gilcomston Steps and Holburn Street; City, Seagull, Hygienic, Whitehall – one of whose employees later recalled pushing baskets of linen on a trolley to out to Culter, a distance of several miles. Her pay day was a Monday, to ensure she and her fellow workers returned for work each week.

There were lots of smaller laundries. Who could resist Miss Green’s Snowdrift laundry? or Miss Hogg’s Victoria Hand laundry? It was clear than these home-workers satisfied a niche demand. Torry had one on Sinclair Road, King Street had Mrs Smith in Jasmine Terrace, Mrs Strachan was at Whitehall Place, the Finery laundry on Rosemount Place, Sunlight Hand laundry on Thistle Street and the Central Hand laundry and dye works on Crown Street. All followed in the footsteps of laundresses M. Petrie of Long-acre in 1828 and Mrs Rhind of Burn Court Upperkirkgate in 1850.

Working from home offered flexibility to women and they competed with company laundries in a sense but they would have drawn their customers from a different clientele.

Irrespective of where it was being done, laundry work was physically demanding and dirty. Even the mechanised systems in the company laundries offered little respite in that regard and the hours were long and gruelling. There were concerns about the extremes of temperature women had to work in, the hot, steamy washing and ironing rooms, the stifling heat of the drying halls, the frequent cold outdoor drying and bleaching greens and of course perpetually wet floors. This was especially true in bigger laundries where the hot steam in badly ventilated halls was suspected of causing phthisis (wasting of the body associated with tuberculosis of the lungs) among women and girls and there could be no argument over the high incidences of TB among laundresses. The main danger, however, lay in the sorting room where soiled items were carriers of disease. A bill went through parliament in 1873 to restrict women’s employment in commercial laundries within a month of having a baby such was the fear for mothers and their children but worry over profits superseded any such concerns and the legislation was delayed for 30 more years.

In an 1890s issue of the Aberdeen Journal weak young women enduring extreme temperature fluctuations at work were advised to dose themselves with Dr Williams’ pink Pills for Pale People as they were credited with having saved an English laundress ‘from the jaws of death.’

In addition to the ailments mentioned laundry workers were susceptible to dhobie or washerman’s itch, a form of ringworm caused by damp conditions. Its association with men doubtless comes from its prevalence in non-Western countries where laundering was often the work of men – think of Chinese laundries. Dhobie was contracted from dry laundry containing moulds and bacteria.

Infestations of vermin were a phenomenon of poverty and overcrowding so when cotton cloth became more widely available it assumed importance for being able to be boiled and so destroy, however briefly, disease carrying beasties in clothing and bedding.

A century after the first commercial laundry opened in Aberdeen five operated out of the city. The Claremont was still around, its catchment stretched from Shetland to Fife. Then there was the Gordon Cleaning Company, Modern Method Dry Cleaners, Silver City Cleaners and Stevenson’s –all with branches and agents operating widely. Notice the term ‘cleaners.’ Increasingly affordable domestic washing machines, the 1960s vogue for nylon shirts and sheets and commercial linen hire spelled the end for the old laundries but dry cleaning was carried out with toxic substances such as benzene, petrol or chemical solvents so unsuitable for the home.

And there was a new contender on the block, launderettes. Cheap and quick, they were popular with those who didn’t care about extra finishes.

We still do the washing but it has become a matter of popping clothes into a high-tech machine, adding detergent and closing the door. That’s it. Our fabrics are lighter and more manageable than ever. Gone is the hard, health sapping labour. Gone are the lice and fleas which spread so much disease. Even the hot steam has gone. The cold winds whipping around the ropes remain.

15 Feb 2012 010

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