Archive for ‘Aberdeen’

June 28, 2017

Cycling through thirties Aberdeen

1936 cyclists parade in aid of the Infirmary fund

Cyclists parade at Aberdeen beach in an event to raise cash for the new infirmary at Foresterhill   1936

Cycling was promoted as a cheap and enjoyable form of recreation and transport rolled into one by Aberdeen Council in the 1930s. Bicycles were becoming lighter and more easily handled by children as well as men and women and a host of cycling clubs sprouted up all around Scotland as people took to the road at weekends and on their annual summer holidays. Aberdeen Wheelers became one of Scotland’s prominent clubs winning numerous national championships that attracted astonishing numbers of competitors. At the Northeast of Scotland’s time trials, its 7th annual rally, held at Rothienorman in 1936 there were over 8,000 participants.

A couple of years earlier it was noted that summer sports were booming in Aberdeen with many participating in football, bowls, angling, golf, athletics, rowing, swimming, tennis and cricket – and not forgetting cycling.

Between 1934 and 1938 the cycling craze saw the establishment of lots of groups several attached to the Northeast of Scotland Time Trials Association (NSTTA): Aberdeen Wheelers, Bon-Accord (the Bons), Barmen, Woodside and District, Bucksburn and District, Footdee and District and Caledonian and from farther north clubs from Keith, Elgin, Grantown, Inverness, Strichen, Ellon and Deveron Valley as well as many more not attached to the NSTTA. One cyclist stood out above the rest – he was George Lawrie and he was a member of Aberdeen Paragons Cycling Club.

1934

Among his many successes Lawrie smashed the Scottish record for the 100 mile time trial held by Dundee CC member Chick Moncur by 11 mins 50 secs in a time of 4hrs 37mins 14secs on the North Deeside Road. That season he broke records for all three distance runs – 25, 50 and 100 miles time trials making him Britain’s second best all-rounder.

1935

The Bon-Accord Cycling Club’s own 25-mile low gear (63 and under) time trial along the South Deeside Road was won by the Bons James Cameron in a time of 1 hr 12mins 20 secs beating the more fancied Stanley Bennett and Robert Penny. Meanwhile Woodside and District’s 25-mile conditional time trial on the Oldmeldrum Road got delayed twice by flocks of marauding sheep adding precious minutes to the winning time of 1hr 15mins 52secs by Alex Murray. The Stonehaven – Laurencekirk road saw a 5-mile scratch time trial prize taken by Stonehaven and District CC with all riders finishing in under 16 mins.

Tommy Bike

Torry Wheeler Tom Corall c1935 came second to the Scottish champion in the Aberdeen to Braemar race

1936

George Lawrie came first in Perth’s Amateur Open annual 25 mile time trial one wet and windy day in 1936. He set a new cycle record in the June at the NSTTA’s 50 miles time trial along the North Deeside Road coming home in 2 hrs 9mins 46 secs beating his record of 8 days previously by 1 second.

Aberdeen council continued to encourage participation in the sport with a programme of fun cycling events in the city’s Music Hall with Cycle Roller competitions including children’s races. G Adams took honours in the message boys’ race on bikes that weren’t exactly sporty. The Music Hall extravaganza was an opportunity for family participation as well as to be impressed by serious cyclists and unsurprisingly it was Lawrie who shone above all others.  

 

Consignment of bikes being taken from the railway station to Alexanders, 339 Union Street, Aberdeen. A frequent sight in the city.

A consignment of bicycles being transported from the railway station to Alexander’s, 339 Union Street. A common sight in the city during the ’30s

1937

In March 1937 Aberdeen Paragon CC’s 20 mile rough riders time trial took place over a difficult course around Netherley district. The winning time of 54 mins 50 secs belonged again to George Lawrie some 3mins 27secs ahead of William King.

Lawrie put in another impressive performance in the Forfarshire Roads CC Open taking first in the 25-mile medium gear time trial held at Dundee in a time of 1hr 5mins 7secs beating the record by over 3 mins. Seventeen riders from Aberdeen took part and again Lawrie’s club mate Willie King put in as strong showing.

July saw 4,000 turn out for a Sunday meeting of the Newmachar annual rally organised by cycle agents and traders in Aberdeen. The youngest competitor was William Chapman aged 6 years.

William from Ruthrieston Crescent in Aberdeen, dressed in white shorts and jersey, competed on a miniature racing bicycle. He and his keen cyclist dad waited on Marischal Street in Aberdeen for the signal to begin their run out to Newmachar. Groups of between 10 and 12 were released by the organisers to prevent congestion on the roads and when William and his dad were waved forward William jumped onto his bike and began pedalling down Marischal Street in the wrong direction. He quickly sorted himself out and was soon confidently cycling along Union Street on the start of his ten mile run.

Men, women and children made up the 4000 competitors – including one small child. A few that day opted for tandems for the competition was a mixed bag – more a day off for some from the usual run of inter-club rivalry although serious challenges did take place.

The boys’ race winner was E. Chessor with J. McKinnie and R. Thomson second and third. M. Morrice took first place in the girls’ pursuit with M. Ferguson and N. Don running in second and third. The women’s slow bike race was won by P. Flynn and the men’s by A. Dickie of Stonehaven.

You didn’t even need a bike to be a winner. J. Dalgarno hopped in first in the women’s sack race and J. Dalgarno took honours for the men. I don’t know who won the wheelbarrow race but J. Bell and G. Black picked up the prizes for the tyre-bursting competition.

 Multiple-talented women from the Sun Touring Cycling Club beat Clarion women in the women’s five-a-side football competition by one corner while the Torry Wheelers defeated Woodside and District for the men by a single goal in extra time. Clarion women got their own back overwhelming Sun Touring women in the tug-o’-war by 2 pulls to one while Bon-Accord won it for the men against Sun Touring men by two pulls to nil.

stoneage tandem beach money effort for RI

Stone age tandem riders raise money for the new infirmary in 1936

Remember the tandem riders? Winner of the slow race was J. McLeod of Aberdeen Paragon who used the novelty as relief from training for a 12 hour time trial but strangely there is no mention of his partner.

Team honours for the day went to Aberdeen Bon-Accord (the Bons) over Aberdeen Paragon but the Paragon’s George Lawrie showed his mettle by taking first place in the 25-mile race in 1hr 4mins 32 secs. One of Britain’s top riders Lawrie established a new record at Dundee of 1hr 2mins 16secs over 25 miles.

1938

On a lovely day in May the Strichen Wheelers 25-mile time trial was held on the Peterhead road with predictably George Lawrie setting the pace in a time of 1hr 3min 26 secs. James Sinclair and Jack Porter of the Bons ran him a close second and third and Lawrie’s dominance was about to wane. The new kid on the block was another Paragon, 20 year old James Smith.

1939

Within 6-months most of those competing in the 1939 NSTTA open would be in uniform and facing an uncertain future for Britain entered World War Two early in September but that April the focus was on the 25-mile run along the Deeside road. John Whyte of Forres and District came in first in a time of 1hr 5min 32secs, his time hampered by strong winds. Fred Murdoch a novice rider with the Torry Wheelers took the Glegg Trophy with ease and another first year member of the Torry club, Alex Sangster, took the second handicap prize.

At the Inverness Clachnacuddin Open 25-mile time trial on the 7th August Aberdeen clubmen showed the Highlanders a clean pair of heels, taking 6 out of the 7 prizes. Torry Wheelers took their sixth successive team championship, squeezing Paragon by 11 seconds. Alistair McKenzie was fastest over the 25-mile race at 1hr 5min 21 secs and Torry Wheeler brothers David and James Ogilvie came in close behind.

Following the race competitors assembled at Elgin’s Masonic Hall to listen to Aberdeen cyclists Alex Christie, Archie Christie, A J Finlayson, L Emslie and CC Russell discuss the sport.

At the outbreak of war club stars – George Lawrie of Paragon, twice holder of the Scottish short distance championship, went into the army as did his team-mate Willie King, holder of the Aberdeen to Inverness and back record. Jack Porter of the crack Torry Wheelers joined the RAF.

Aberdeen’s Paragon, Sprite Club, Cyclists’ Touring Club, Bon-Accord, Clarion, Torry Wheelers all went into abeyance during the war. A few survived it – but not all their pre-war members did. The Northeast of Scotland Time Trials Association never re-emerged after May 1940.

A proposal that bike mad Aberdeen build a sports stadium was opposed by a councillor Mackintosh as too ambitious. Dearie me isn’t it the truth that Aberdeen councillors have a track record of being nothing if not lacking in ambition? If the peoples’ representatives in the council were incapable of building on the accomplishments of the city’s citizens local people at least recognised George Lawrie as a major sportsman who deserved recognition and respect for his achievements in the saddle.

braemar gathering 35 years before 1936

Cycling was popular at Braemar Gatherings

 ***

Finally a cycling tragedy that occurred in 1936 which had nothing to do with racing.

Three brothers from Tullos Crescent in Aberdeen set off for a day’s fishing at Cove. They were making their way along the grassy cliff top and had just passed the Aulton fishers’ bothy where the path narrowed when two dismounted their bikes while the third brother, 21 year old Thomas Stoleworthy, happily cycled on ahead. His pedal caught on the grass and his brothers alerted by a shout from Thomas watched horrified as they saw him hurtle over the cliff. As the younger boy ran back to the salmon fishermen’s bothy to raise the alarm the other brother climbed down to Thomas, lying in a pool of water, badly injured but conscious. Both his legs and an arm were broken but Thomas told his brother, ‘I haven’t shed a tear yet.’

Fishermen quickly arrived by boat and transferred the injured man to their bothy. Having alerted the coastguards at the Gregness station Thomas was taken on an improvised stretcher to an ambulance and on to the Royal Infirmary in Aberdeen where two hours later he died. He had been due to be married later in the summer.

 

June 12, 2017

Aberdeen Music Hall: British Nationalism and the Light Fantastic

Music Hall 1859

Inside the Music Hall 1859

Guest blog by Textor

On April 26 1820 Aberdeen was witness to one of its grandest processions of the early 19th century. With great pomp and even some circumstance around 1500 men (no women) formed orderly lines and marched westward from the heart of the burgh at the Castlegate to Union Bridge above the Denburn and beyond to the site designated for a new Public Hall which would become known as the Music Hall. Laying of the hall’s foundation stone, as it turned out, became an occasion for celebrating local and national pride but first let us establish our historical bearings.

The economic and political disturbances of the wars with France were over. Stability, growth and progress seemed possible and probable with the United Kingdom – Britain (often conceived as England) to the fore. The Public Hall was a sign of this confidence. And where better to show such confidence than on Union Street? Here was a street slowly but surely becoming the grand carriageway for traffic to the city centre and it continued beyond the old town in a semi-rural setting; well away from industry, overcrowding, noise, filth and disease. As one commentator said of the area –

On the whole a more dry, healthy, and eligible situation for Building, is not to be found in the vicinity of the Town.

1828 Plan Union Street

Site of the Music Hall between Golden Square and Union Street 1810

Whether for a new villa or grand public hall the land west of Union Bridge was full of prime sites, ripe for speculative development. As the street was very underdeveloped any impressive new building would stand in near splendid isolation – an emphatic visual sign of confidence and good taste not to mention ostentation.

To note in passing, when the west side of Broad Street was recently cleared to reveal for the first time Marischal College in all its architectural glory (or folly depending on taste) how easy it would have been to emulate the architectural commitment of Georgian Aberdeen but no sooner did we get a tantalising glimpse of what might be than it was snatched away as Willie Young and his Council cohorts spurned the notion of giving the city an iconic architectural facade. Instead they gave Aberdeen the monotony of uninspired glass and steel boxes; like cartoon characters with cash signs in their eyes their vision saw money to be made from the cleared site.

Those private investors in the 1820 hall were also motivated in part by commercial concerns – of what they might make from shares in the enterprise. But they at least recognised that site and architecture mattered. Designs were invited including from Aberdeen’s two foremost architects, Archibald Simpson and John Smith. They were men with established architectural reputations and just as importantly their local work had given them a strong sense of what could and could not be achieved with granite, the local building stone. This is important as the very hardness of the stone and the low-technology available to masons imposed severe limitations on the ornamental styles possible. Granite lent itself to the austere rather than decorative exuberance of freestone architecture. The Aberdeen Journal praised the submitted designs, saying they exhibit a chaste imitation of the simplest style of Grecian Architecture, to which the celebrated Granite of this County is so admirably adapted. Simpson won the commission: local man, local stone, local pride.

And here we are at April 1820. Men assembled, about to march. And not just any men. They were Freemasons. Changed days. Long gone are the times when masons assembled with banners and regalia to march through the town to mark civic occasions or for the funeral of a lodge member. Tradesmen, professionals and aristocrats were proud openly to display their Masonic beliefs. European Freemasons might have been tainted by notions of radicalism and ideas of popular democracy but here in 1820 Aberdeen participants, whether operative members or those drawn from higher social circles were intent in showing loyalty to the Town and to Britain (Crown and Country).

James Duff 4 Earl of Fife (2)

James Duff, 4th Earl of Fife

Heading the Masonic dedication was James Duff 4th Earl of Fife, Depute Grand Master of Scotland. The Earl had fought under Wellington in France; he was a friend of the British King although this did not stop him voting against a Royal tax policy in Parliament. His “liberal” views led him to support Catholic Emancipation and vote for parliamentary reform in 1832. He seems to have been a bit of a loose cannon and far from being in the same reactionary mould of Wellington and his cohorts. But like the Iron Duke he was a staunch patriot.

Duff’s speech to fellow masons was replete with a mixture of calls to patriotism and hinted at concerns particular to his neck of the woods which was Banffshire. With an estimated crowd of 10,000 gathered Rule Britannia was sung, followed by a Masonic blessing of Cornucopia, May the all-bounteous Author of Nature bless this city with an abundance of Corn, Wine, and Oil. The Earl of Fife then got stuck in, telling the multitude, those close enough to hear, how pleased he was at the local initiative and especially happy that the investors had not been obliged to resort to foreign artists to furnish the design for the Public Rooms. Simpson’s work was admirable, he said, as was the industry of Aberdonians, making gems from barren rock, meaning turning brute granite into a material for wealth, utility and beauty.

Local History 010

A more familiar picture of the Music Hall on Union Street now an urban setting

A landowner with a reputation for his willingness to listen to claims or complaints from his tenants on his Banffshire estates James Duff applied himself to their problems and the fact that disparities of wealth were about to be highlighted with the construction of the large neo-classical hall. The granite edifice might well give employment to many quarriers and masons around Aberdeen but at the same time standing on its prestigious site clearly visible from Union Bridge the hall embodied difference and exclusion: its doors were open only to those with wealth and social connections, made more obvious by its countryside setting. James Duff got straight to the point –

…although it was constructed more immediately for the purpose of innocent festivity and
amusement, the wants of the poor and indigent would not be forgot by those within its
walls, who might tread upon the light fantastic toe, and lead the mazy dance; the situation of the public charities of the place would be considered, and liberal contributions made to relieve the distressed . . . and thus prove that, although they [the poor] could not partake of the festivities for which the Building was about to be erected, those who enjoyed them were not unmindful of their privations, but anxious to alleviate them; thereby conveying to them some of the fruits of the social scene, and sweetening as far as is in their power, the bitter cup of their adversity, to receive their blessing in return.

He found in poet James Thomson’s “Four Seasons” moral, patriotic and ideological support for his opinions and the verse from Thomson the Earl chose that day in 1820 included a call for protection of British fishing interests:

nor look on, Shamefully passive, while Batavian fleets
Defraud us of the glittering, finny swarms,
That heave our friths, and croud upon our shore.

British waters for British fishermen. The poem comes from the early 18th century but the message James Duff decided was applicable to the 1820s after seeing off Napoleon the United Kingdom must keep hold of its global maritime power or as Thomson put it, … united Britain make Intire, th’ imperial Mistress of the deep. Maritime freedom was essential as British commercial and industrial might was then in the process of encircling the globe. In the two years following the ceremony Fife backed Banffshire fish curers when they sought relief from the salt tax; similarly he backed local herring fishermen when they asked to be exempt from paying tax on imported European oak staves.

Union Street from South

Union Street from the south

But the Earl was not satisfied simply with being British. He had a double or more complex identity; two nationalities. He was British and also Scottish – from a country with its own traditions and history and this he employed to enthuse and legitimise the 1820s. Having already used the words of one Scotch poet for defence of Britannia he turned to another for fashioning Scottishness: Sir Walter Scott, prolific author and said to be the inventor of the historical novel. With a European-wide readership Scott’s poetry and novels made him amongst the most influential writers of the period. James Duff found the model and images in he sought in the romantic poem “Lord of the Isles”; a work which extols the virtues of initiative and independence as portrayed in the trials, tribulations and victories of the Bruce. Scott’s narrative tells how the would-be King of Scots defeated the foreign foe, the English. Duff drew Aberdeen citizens into the narrative, explaining that the city had played a noble role in the saga when citizens provided a place of safety for Bruce then pursued by enemy forces. “Inventing” a local history for Bruce the Earl imagined the fleeing man dreaming of Liberty at the site of hills. In the Earl’s imagination Bruce has been inspired by landscape and the loyalty of Aberdonians leading to, in Walter Scott’s words, the heartfelt cry –

Oh Scotland! Shall it e’re be mine/ To Wreak thy wrongs in battle-line/ To raise my victor head and see/ Thy hills, thy dales, thy people free.

On the face of it this was a battle-cry for a return to the former glories of an independent country. But no. The Earl told his audience that the days of the Bruce were past; events that happened in “times of Yore”. Romantic visions of medieval kings defeating foes was a great story but he and his fellow masons lived in the world of Hanoverian settlement and post 1707 Union. It was not political independence he called for but the qualities of determination, commitment, initiative and loyalty which he found in the story of Bruce to be used to strengthen the forces of commercial progress and Rule Britannia. Much like Sir Walter Scott who described, dramatised and absorbed Scotland’s distinct and turbulent past Fife’s lesson was that was then this is now and progress henceforward would come in the guise of a new identity albeit one containing the DNA of previous forms.

Union Bridge

Union Bridge complete with washing line

So James Duff 4th Earl of Fife laid the foundation stone and in doing this provided the multitude with a sense of the moral and political lights that should guide them. Finally turning to the assembled spectators he thanked them for their respectable behaviour, for their silence and proprietary of demeanour all a sure sign of the good sense of the citizens of Aberdeen.

May 28, 2017

Bridge over the Don

The following has been taken from the Flickr account of Aberdeen Granite

34480726680_2229e1dfbf_z

Bridge of Don, Aberdeen

Until the recent opening of a new bridge over the river the Bridge of Don was the main crossing point for traffic to and from the north of the city. Built when Aberdeen was beginning to break free of the commercial and physical bounds of the old town this bridge, like the earlier Union Bridge in the heart of the city, was not only a transport improvement but also a boost for the burgeoning granite industry. The elegant five-arched bridge illustrated the wealth of the area and the showed how the local stone could satisfy aesthetic and engineering needs or as Provost Brown put at laying of the foundation stone in 1827, the designers had looked to “unite utility with ornament”.

Utility, however, was delayed in arriving as there were considerable problems with subsidence of piers, but eventually all was remedied and by late 1830 the bridge was opened to traffic. Design and modification had involved contributions from Telford, Gibb of Aberdeen and the local architect John Smith. And so the “ornament” stood in its original dimensions until the 1950s when the voracious demands of motor lorries and cars led to a widening of the bridge but even so the elegance of the granite structure remains, and the piers still refuse to subside.

May 18, 2017

Fraternising with the enemy: Scots and Germans

Gordon_Highlanders_(1914)

The Great War front line Christmas truce of 1914 is well known, specially that game of football. Truth is there were several similar episodes and one involving troops of the Gordon Highlanders was recounted by two men who took part when they were invalided to Stobhill Hospital in Glasgow.

Privates Garden McIntosh and W. Kiloh from Banff near Aberdeen were serving at the front with the 6th Gordon Highlanders on Christmas morning in 1914 when they were startled to see several German soldiers emerge from their trenches and approach them with their hands held up. Speaking in perfect English the Germans wished the young Scottish troops a Merry Christmas.

Once over their surprise the kilted Gordons happily joined in the good wishes and soon Scots and Germans, who were from Bavaria, were exchanging gifts; long German rolls for bully beef and other rations although the dark German bread rolls were not much appreciated by the Scots.

Present too was the regiment’s padre, Aberdonian Rev. J. Esslemont Adams, who addressed men from both sides with a message in keeping with Christmas and in return he received a generous gift of a beautiful melodeon. It struck the two Gordons this was a considerable sacrifice for playing music was one of the few means of keeping up spirits so far from home and in the midst of the horrors of war and tense frustrating stalemates.

This truce lasted for several days before it came to the notice of German officers -goodness knows where they were all this time but when they became aware of the fraternisation between the two sides they moved their men away to a different position. Until then an occasional German voice would call out in the middle of the night to one of the Scots, addressing him as sergeant —-, and inviting him to “come and have your rum.” The sergeant always resisted the offer to ‘stand treat.”

These particular Scots and Bavarians got on well and it emerged that several of the Germans had worked in Scotland as hotel employees before the war and their hearts were not in fighting but soon that was what they were all ordered to do.

***

At the same time as reading about the 6th Gordons and their Bavarian foe I came across this poignant tale relating to the death of a twenty-one year old soon after he arrived in France from the northeast of Scotland.

In October 1915 Mr and Mrs Merson of 17 Mount St in Aberdeen received word that their son Lawrence, a lance corporal with D Coy., 13 Platoon of the 1/4th Gordon Highlanders, had been killed in action in France.

Lawrence was fourteen when he began work with the post office in Aberdeen and before joining up for war service he was postie at Blairs outside the city. At the age of 21 years he volunteered for the Great War.

A young German soldier came across his corpse in a front line trench and went through Lawrence’s pockets removing his identification disc, papers and letters, including his paybook and sent them all to his (the German’s) sister in Frankfurt asking that she send them on to the Highlander’s family. The sister was happy to oblige and wrote an accompanying letter and forwarded the lot to her uncle in Switzerland that he might send them to Mr and Mrs Merson in Aberdeen. This is her letter.

Frankfort-on-Maine

  It is a very sad matter I am writing you. My brother sent home a letter from the front and begged me to write you.

  He stands in the West, and it was in his first letter since the hard fights there. My eldest brother was killed last year at Ypres, so that I know how glad we were to hear any details of his death.  I think you have already heard that Lawrence B. Merson, whom I believe to be your son, did not come back from the last fight. We were enemies, but pain and mourning are uniting us. So thought my brother, too, for he wrote everything about your son he could find out. I just will translate it to you –

  “We led the way to our position, and found there a dead Highlander, who had a deep wound above the right eye, probably by a thrust of the bayonet. We found the following objects: – Book of payments, mark of distinction, a small sketch, and an instrument against the gases. The dead Englishman had his gun with the bayonet at it (and there were spots of blood on it) on his right side. He was a Highlander with a kilt, and bare knees.”

  My brother sent these photos. I am sure my brother and his comrades did all honour to their enemy who died in their tracks.

The young Germans’ uncle in Geneva also wrote a letter to Lawrence’s parents expressing his feelings:

“My brother is a clergyman for French Protestants in Frankfort, and his son is in the German army, although we are of old Swiss origin, and he sent the intimation to his sister in Frankfort. Your son did his duty for his country, and he will find his reward. God help you in these dark days.”

This was in October of 1915 and Lawrence died in the February that year so it is likely that the Mersons already knew of their son’s death but it is also likely the most affectionate communication wasn’t that of the army but from the ‘enemy’.

 

 

 

April 28, 2017

“Up Fittie down with the Hun”: 1920s xenophobia and trade

Guest post by Textor

On April 2nd as many as 3000 gathered at the fish market intent on stopping all landings. Fish was dumped, boats cast adrift and strike breakers intimidated. At one point police threw a cordon between Torry and the town in an attempt to stop fishermen moving en-masse to the centre. Baton charges were made. Not to be outdone the women of Torry gathered bowls, jars and stones to pelt the police. When police cleared the streets men and women took refuge in tenements reappearing as the waves of law and order moved on, all the better to attack from the rear. Meanwhile across on the north side of the harbour the families of Fittie gathered crying Up Fittie Down with the Hun. With creels and baskets full of stones they proceeded to pelt boats entering or leaving the harbour, forcing skippers to the south side of the channel where they were met by a barrage from the Torry men and women. The police were undone by this pincer movement.

German Trawlers 4

At a time when the unpleasant whiff of xenophobia drifts over the stinking frame of crises ridden economies it’s worth recalling that there is nothing new in this. It’s what the class divided beast does; cling to backward-looking, mythologised national identity; to blame others for what are in fact consequences of the endemic conditions of international competition is so much easier than seeking out the social foundations of crises.

This is not to say that xenophobic opinion has no location in objective reality, that it is necessarily the manifestation of mad psychologies. No. The current spectre haunting Europe and beyond draws on ways in which the “free movement” of labour has increased competition between workers and helped keep wages down. In other words “foreign” workers are in a sense a threat to older labour markets. But it is the underpinning forces which mobilise them.

In the 1920s Aberdeen was hit by problems and disputes across two of the most important sectors of the local economy: trawling and granite. The foundation of both lay in intensification of international competition and the legacies of the Great War, and both centred on foreign labour undermining British industry.

 

German Trawlers 5

Trawling

It was hardly surprising that when the German trawler Bremerhaven attempted to dock and land fish in Aberdeen in 1919 that there was a wave of revulsion. The war had just ended and Aberdonians, like so many others, had suffered deeply in the slaughter of 1914-18. Men gathered at the quayside to refuse the Germans the right to land. Following its search for a berth the trawler eventually grounded and its crew stoned with the demand the German flag be run down. The local paper described the skipper’s attempt to land as brazen insolence and sinister and making clear its animosity to German trade said it was an unfriendly act of a nation not penitent but revengeful. The editor went so far as to sneer at the country’s Kultur of dried raw fish as a delicacy. Bremerhaven was forced out of Aberdeen, eventually landing at its home port where the Social Democrat Party came to its fishermen’s defence and denounced the Aberdeen men as an English rabble claiming Aberdonian screamed Baby killers. Pigs. Shoot down the Huns.

Three years later the trawler Else Kunkel II steamed into Aberdeen hoping to land its fish; again there was opposition to former enemy, now called alien exploiters who were threatening the livelihoods of local families. Aberdeen’s fishermen were said to hold bitter hostility against their former enemy. However their fish was landed and so the trade was continued sporadically through the year. Skippers and mates appealed to the Government for enforcement of the Reparations [Recovery] Act and that it applied 26% duty on German fish. No help was forthcoming. Matters were made more difficult when the particular interests of buyers and fish processors opposed the embargo demanded by trawlermen; and there was local bitterness when Peterhead harbour offered to give room to German boats, not through internationalism but for the money to be made. The local newspaper acknowledged the need for Europe-wide trade in fish but realised with more powerful trawlers and crews able and willing to fish dangerous Icelandic waters the local industry faced a serious threat: A German monopoly of the fish trade of Aberdeen would leave the consumer in the grip of alien exploiters and would mean a disaster to a great local industry.

German Trawlers.jpg

 

So matters simmered until February 1923 when skippers and mates voted to strike. Once again the rhetoric of wartime found a voice: you are fighting the Hun a second time for your rights. By the end of the first week of March 100 boats were tied up with hundreds of men out of work. Share fishermen, skippers and mates, led the dispute fearing for their livelihoods. Waged men, deckhands and engineers, were what you might call victims rather than being instrumental in this strike. Although local communists mobilised meetings around the notion of the internationalism of the working class as distinct from men such as skippers and mates there is no evidence that any significant animosity split the ranks nor that the waged men felt kinship with the German crews despite rumblings about some share men having avoided service in the war and making money out of wartime demand.

In fact solidarity within and across the fishing communities of Torry and Fittie was strong enough to draw them together to fight German landings, strike-breakers and police. When one local boat decided to scab hundreds turned out from Torry to confront the skipper and turn him back. Boats were sabotaged including the German trawler Senator Sache; while its crew slept the moorings were cut; eventually saved from grounding by the local pilot. Porters landing German fish were threatened with violence and police were defied. On April 2nd as many as 3000 gathered at the fish market intent on stopping all landings. Fish was dumped, boats cast adrift and strike breakers intimidated. At one point police threw a cordon between Torry and the town in an attempt to stop fishermen moving en-masse to the centre. Baton charges were made. Not to be outdone the women of Torry gathered bowls, jars and stones to pelt the police. When police cleared the streets men and women took refuge in tenements reappearing as the waves of law and order moved on, all the better to attack from the rear. Meanwhile across on the north side of the harbour the families of Fittie gathered crying Up Fittie Down with the Hun. With creels and baskets full of stones they proceeded to pelt boats entering or leaving the harbour, forcing skippers to the south side of the channel where they were met by a barrage from the Torry men and women. The police were undone by this pincer movement.

But so much conspired against the lcoal trawling industry, both men and forces of international trade. Trawl owners looked for compromise, buyers needed the Icelandic fish brought by Germans, the herring industry needed access to the German market and the British government was unwilling to hamper this sector of international trade. From the German side it made so much sense to continue coming to Aberdeen or failing this perhaps Peterhead. With the German Mark devalued, and the hyperinflation of 1923, the prices realised at British ports easily covered the costs of labour and coal. Stones and insults were little compared to the high explosives of the Great War.

 

Granite Yard

Granite

Much less militant but driven by very similar forces Aberdeen’s granite industry also found itself in 1923 under threat from German competition. It is probably the case that much of the militancy of the fishermen and their families was born from the closeness of their communities with so many of them living together in the tenements of Torry and Fittie. Granite workers had a much more fragmented life style.

Granite like fish was as open to international competition. And like the owners of trawler Bremerhaven German manufacturers could and did take advantage of the opportunities afforded by devaluation. Selling in the British market was more profitable and vitally gave payment in Sterling, then an important international currency.

Just as the trawler dispute had at times adopted a stance of being anti-German as opposed to anti German competition so also did the dispute with foreign granite traders. Not that Aberdeen’s stone trade was against the import of foreign granite in fact since the later 19th century the trade had depended on imports to meet the fashion for greater variety of colour in memorials. What disturbed Aberdeen’s granite manufacturers was the threat of dressed stone being sold to British customers.

The first hint that there might be competition coming from Germany was reported in 1921when the defeated nation was found to be trading in France. Bad enough there being a competitor on the block but made worse by the belief that monuments made by the one-time enemy were to be erected over the graves of dead French soldiers. In the following year one Friederich Hagelauer of Fürth was said to have been offering memorial crosses for British graves.

German Granite Leaflet 1923

By 1923 the “scandal” was being highlighted in Aberdeen’s Press & Journal with German’s accused of dumping fish and dumping granite. The Sunday Post took up the cry of an insult to our heroic dead the stones being erected where woman pray . . . and children weep. Aberdeen’s granite manufacturers sided with the newspapers and led the way in Scotland to enforcing an embargo on this foreign stone. However, it was one thing to achieve success in the home country it was another to get English dealers and customers to agree to a boycott. For customers there was the incentive of cheaper stone, if they were willing to turn a blind eye to origins; and for dealers there was the carrot of more profit. With the English market still accepting German imports Aberdeen’s trade with the south was threatened.

The difficulties Aberdeen’s stone trade faced were nothing compared to the chaos hitting Germany as it struggled to meet reparation demands of the Versailles Treaty. Its economy had all but collapsed, made worse when France occupied the Ruhr bringing its vast coal industry to a halt. Compared with the French the British state favoured a more conciliatory attitude to the defeated enemy, favoured international trade and stabilisation of the German economy.

Consequently when the granite traders approached the Government and asked for an increased tariff on German stone, like the trawlermen they met with refusal, indeed they faced the prospect that the existing tariff might be cut. The Press & Journal argued the local case, believing (and this sounds eerily like opinion in 2017) that by giving up free trade and enforcing tariffs the grave menace of foreign competition could be brought to heal. Regardless of the clout the local press had in the North East its opinion failed to sway the government and into 1926 imports continued.

Employers led the way in this dispute. There were no bands of granite-cutters and families guarding cemeteries, dinging doon German memorials; the nature of the trade simply did not lend itself to this form of action. But labour did have a voice which put itself behind the demands of the masters. George Murray, who lost a son in the Great War said it made his blood boil that German stone should even be offered as suitable material for British graves. Putting a stop to this, he said, was not only the correct thing to do but also good for the industry and what was good for business was good for workers: We in Belmont Street [offices of the Trades Council] are always favourable to the bosses . . . but of course we expect a good living wage from them in return.

 

 

Apart from the notable success in Scotland the best legislative advance made was to seek the protection of the Merchandise Marks Act, at one point speaking to Sidney Webb at the Board of Trade arguing that the granite imports should be marked “Made in Germany”. Eventually in 1929, after extensive evidence given including opposition from granite retailers, the Government decided that stone should be marked with its country of origin. Although important to local communities across Britain the Government had decided the granite industry was of no great significance in the national economy hence refusal to “safeguard” it from overseas competition. Marking stone was the most it would concede but even here it was niggardly in the eyes of merchants as only the slightest of marks-stencilled- was insisted on, not the heavily-cut lettering asked for by manufacturers.

The year after being given nominal protection the complaints continued. Germans were accused of stealing designs, appropriating the names of granites made famous by the Aberdeen industry and despite the legislation they palm off cheaply produced monuments . . . as British made.

British made; a rallying cry of the period as the United Kingdom hoped to engender patriotism in consumers and at the same time draw from the still important empire preferential treatment for manufacturers. But even here, with the cold wind of protectionism blowing across economies dealing with slump and the fall-out from the Crash of 1929, even here Aberdeen’s granite merchants struggled. Canada, for instance, did a curtsy to the “Mother Country” but refused to bow the knee. Canada gave some slight advantage to British granite but it still bore a tariff of 27% thus favouring Canadian manufacturers.

 

Cheyne Nellfield granite Works 1915 (2)

And so the Aberdeen granite industry, along with other British manufacturers, found the battle largely lost, found its markets shrinking and in an increasingly unstable world was forced to look to improving its competitive position by reorganising the use of labour and introducing new technology to raise productivity. And where in 1936 did Aberdonians go to see how granite could and should be handled? Germany.

Under the auspices of the British Institute of Quarrying a deputation representing the trade plus engineer Frank Cassie were content to take lessons from “the enemy”. At one site near Dresden they visited a quarry where 2000 men were said to be employed, where 250 men working at stone-splitting machines produced thousands of granite setts. Although Frank Cassie believed Aberdeen granite was unsuitable for mechanical sett-making overall the deputation was impressed by the thoroughness with which the German does the job, and the importance attached to organisation. Three years into Hitler’s rule the British deputation was envious of Germany’s road and bridge building – a policy they said the British government should put in hand. Whether the deputation witnessed other aspects of the young Nazi regime is not recorded.

 

Pneumati Tools

The pressures of social disruption and global economic crises exposed the trawling and granite industries as poorly equipped to meet the threat of external competition. Trawl owners were content to fish middle-distance waters using an ageing fleet and granite merchants managed an industry characterised by a few large employers in a sea of small businesses, far from ideal when foreign competition became very keen.

April 11, 2017

The day young Byron was nearly lost in a snowstorm

Engraving based on the Kay portrait

Engraving of Byron as a boy based on a painting by John Kay

Into the midst of a great snowstorm and winds of unusual strength emerged a group of schoolboys. It was a wild wintry day during the late 1790s and the folk of Aberdeen had never before seen anything like the ferocious gusting blasts swirling hale and the driving snow that fell with such intensity that stepping out into it was fraught with danger. Yet at twelve mid-day pupils from Aberdeen’s Grammar School set off as usual towards the St Nicholas Street school where they were due to attend Mr Duncan’s writing class.

The Grammar School was in Schoolhill and the boys thought to follow their normal route cutting through St Nicholas kirkyard. By luck the high wall there offered a degree of protection from the windstorm and drifting snow but still progress was tricky. It was when they came to where the wall finished, to the gate, the boys were taken by surprise by the intensity of the tempest, a hurricane it was described, against which the smallest boys could make no progress but were driven backwards and scarcely able to keep their feet. So they retreated to the relative safety of the wall too petrified to move. One of the wee boys was George Gordon Byron.

Two of George Gordon Byron’s bigger classmates took hold of the his hands and they tackled the blinding snow together but the ferocity of the wind proved too much and it became every boy for himself. Poor wee George Gordon’s hands were let go of and he was swept back into the graveyard by the hurricane.

When by evening he failed to return home one of the servants was sent out in search of him. At the home of one of his fellow-pupils she was told about the struggle at the height of the snowstorm and how it might be the poor lad was still in the churchyard, hiding under one of its many large flat ledger tombstones.

leaves in St Nicholas graveyard cropped

Ledger tombstones in St Nicholas Kirkyard

A party of men was hastily dispatched, lanterns in hand, to search the now dark St Nicholas kirkyard and eventually they found the lost and tearful George Gordon Byron shivering and on the point of collapse under a ledger. And so the world of poetry was not deprived of a genius of verse.

However, as an old man, another of Byron’s school friends told a different version of the incident.

“No such thing! I was with him,” he recalled, “the weaker boys could not get into the churchyard at all. We could not leave the Schoolhil, and we found shelter in Mr Leslie Cruickshank’s hosiery; in whose kitchen we were dried and warmed, and sat waiting till our friends fetched us in the evening, when they could get to us, and found where we were.”

Of course both accounts could be largely true; that the boys battling through the unrelenting storm were so exhausted and frightened they gladly retreated to the warmth of the hosiery while the bigger loons (Aberdeen Doric term for boys) continued on to Mr Duncan’s writing class. And there is no dispute that several boys, including George Gordon Byron, had still not made it home by the evening.

One of George Gordon Byron’s fellow- pupils, of the name Cruickshank, remarked many years later that it was while sheltering at the hosiery they became aware of Byron’s ability as a story-teller when he captivated them with his rendering of “a beautiful tale out of the Arabian Nights.”

 ***

Mither Kirk St Nicholas

As an adult George Gordon Byron’s behaviour was frequently looked on askance so it is little wonder he was a mischievous wee devil as a child in Aberdeen.

Late in his life one that knew George Gordon Byron at the Grammar School criticised him for having a “most damnable disposition” and told of the day they were sitting together in a classroom when Byron cut the buttons off the boy’s coat. He added that he gave the young Byron a “good hiding” in return.

The same man also recalled that Byron loathed ‘dumpy women’ although this man commented that Byron’s own mother was ‘the dumpiest woman I ever saw in my life.’

 ***

Morven

Morven

Byron spent his childhood in Aberdeen close to his mother’s family estate north of the town and loved the bonnie countryside out to the west* – returning there to renew acquaintances and walk up the hill of Morven one last time. It was in Aberdeen he learnt to swim and became an accomplished swimmer by all accounts; as an adult he swam the Hellespont Strait between Europe and Asia. In Aberdeen he also became a proficient boatman.

George Gordon Byron and his mother left Aberdeen when he was ten and became the 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale. The boy’s friends discovered his inherited knighthood when the attendance was being taken at the Grammar school and instead of the teacher calling him George Gordon Byron he referred to him as Georgi, Baro de Byron. Instead of his usual reply Adsum (I am present) the boy burst into tears and ran out of the classroom.

His nurse May Gray stayed behind when Byron and his mother left for the south and young George Gordon gave her his watch as a parting gift along with a full length portrait of him painted by Kay of Edinburgh in 1795 in which he posed with a bow and arrows and long hair falling about his shoulders.

Finishing his education in England Byron then left for Lisbon and the Mediterranean at the age of 21, famously taking part in the Greek civil war and it was in Greece he died in 1824 aged 36.


*Lochnagar

Away, ye gay landscapes, ye gardens of roses!
In you let the minions of luxury rove;
Restore me the rocks where the snow-flake reposes,
Though still they are sacred to freedom and love;
Yet, Caledonia, beloved are thy mountains,
Round their white summits though elements war;
Though cataracts foam ‘stead of smooth-flowing fountains,
I sigh for the valley of dark Loch na Garr.

Ah ! there my young footsteps in infancy wandered;
My cap was the bonnet, my cloak was the plaid;
On chieftains long–perished my memory ponder’d,
As daily I strode through the pine–covered glade;
I sought not my home till the day’s dying glory
Gave place to the rays of the bright polar star;
For fancy was cheered by traditional story,
Disclosed by the natives of dark Loch na Garr.

“Shades of the dead! Have I not heard your voices
Rise on the night–rolling breath of the gale?”
Surely the soul of the hero rejoices,
And rides on the wind, o’er his own Highland vale.
Round Loch na Garr while the stormy mist gathers,
Winter presides in his cold icy car:
Clouds there encircle the forms of my fathers;
They dwell in the tempests of dark Loch na Garr.

Ill–starr’d, though brave, did no visions foreboding
Tell you that fate had forsaken your cause?
Ah! were you destined to die at Culloden,
Victory crowned not your fall with applause:
Still were you happy in death’s earthly slumber,
You rest with your clan in the caves of Braemar;
The pibroch resounds, to the piper’s loud number,
Your deeds on the echoes of dark Loch na Garr.

Years have rolled on, Loch na Garr, since I left you,
Years must elapse ere I tread you again:
Nature of verdure and flowers has bereft you,
Yet still you are dearer than Albion’s plain.
England! thy beauties are tame and domestic,
To one who has roved o’er the mountains afar:
Oh for the crags that are wild and majestic!
The steep frowning glories of dark Loch na Garr.

George Gordon Byron

Mad, Bad and Dangerous

FICTION – The Gowk

April 1, 2017

News in Scotland 100 years ago today

Some of the stories making the news around Scotland on 1 April 1917 (outwith the Great War with over a year to run.)

dundee

Daughters of some of Dundee’s men at the Front

  • Aberdeen to get women police patrols.
  • Proposal to start a co-operative jute factory in Dundee.
  • Edinburgh grocers are in favour of a card system for sugar distribution.
  • Some Glasgow grocers are selling sugar in pennysworths.
  • Holidays in munition areas are to be deferred until after the end of July.
  • It is reported that 11,000 teachers in Scotland are getting less than £100 a year.
  • Protests in Lochgilphead against Sunday labour in the woods and fields.
  • Net profits of £270,432 reported by the Bank of Scotland for the past year.
  • There is a credit balance of £150 from the British Industries Fair recently held in Glasgow.
  • Crookston Combination Poorhouse is to be taken over for the reception of mentally afflicted soldiers.
  • A ban on the sale of spirits in parts of Argyllshire and Buteshire has come into force.
  • Some conscientious objectors from England are to be employed in forestry work at Ford in Argyllshire.
  • The Marchioness of Graham has undertaken to provide Lamlash with a convalescent home for the wounded.
  • The Dunoon and District Merchants’ Association have agreed to hold the Fast Days.
  • The fishing village of Whitehills near Banff has lost in one week four men who were on Admiralty service.
  • Tillycoultry Parish Council has decided to proceed with an extension of the cemetery at a cost of £2000.
February 20, 2017

STOP PRESS: Russian Revolution 1917

It was almost incredible that it could be true. We stood together in the darkened street, half delirious with joy, while tears mingled with our laughter.

1

Guest post by Textor

Emotionally charged, with an echo of Wordsworth’s response to news of the French Revolution, these are the words Aberdonian John Paton on hearing that the Tsar had been overthrown. It was March 1917. It was the Russian Revolution. The thirty one year old socialist was leaving an election meeting where he’d supported the anti-war stance of Ramsay MacDonald. Since 1914 millions had been sucked into the bloody maelstrom of world war. For small bands of socialists across Europe the war was final proof of the bankruptcy of capitalism and as such had to be opposed despite lies in the press, willingly if not happily accepting threats of violence and imprisonment.

Anti-war socialists saw glimmers of hope in working class militancy which continued through these desperate years. Rent strikes, demands for 40 hour working week, the emergence of an unofficial shop steward movement all implicitly challenged political authority so much so that by 1917 “Red Clydesiders” were being harassed, sent to internal exile and gaoled. Socialists were buoyed but faced the fact that in Britain and across Europe, particularly in Germany, social democratic parties had taken up their respective national flags and helped drum men to the battle-fronts.

When John Paton left the election meeting on that fateful evening he met with a comrade who was almost choking with excitement at the news of the fall of the Tsar. Hardly surprising that local election politics were for the moment put into the shade. For John Paton events in Russia spurred him to greater political activity which eventually resulted in him becoming a leading figure in the Independent Labour Party.

In a similar fashion the cub reporter James Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon) was inspired by the later Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia so much so that he and a colleague could not sleep o’nights. We prowled Aberdeen . . . talking the moon into morning about jolly and heart-some and splendid things: life, death, the Revolution. Young Mitchell was then working for The Aberdeen Journal; the city’s most important newspaper. Since the 1740s the Journal had served Aberdeen with a generally conservative view of the world. In its time it had wagged a political and moral finger at the excessive demands of Chartists and seen off more radical newspaper rivals by accepting some of the liberal policies of the 19th century. Basically the Journal wanted men to be politically sensible. Political militancy, whether it was votes for women or re-division of land, was unacceptable, at least in the parliamentary “democracy” that was Britain.

James Leslie Mitchell’s enthusiasm was not shared by the Journal nor by its stable-mate The Evening Express.   However, this is not to say that the earlier phase of the Russian Revolution which had so captivated John Paton was denounced by the Aberdeen newspapers. We must remember that the British state and its mouthpieces were concerned with the prosecution of the war. Where John had seen universal hope for an end to the slaughter and the building of a more just world the Aberdeen papers believed that far from doing this the fall of the Tsarist autocracy would mean a more rational organisation of Russia’s military forces, taking power from the hands of an incompetent regime, with what they called dark and mysterious forces behind the throne, and placing it with men in the Russian parliament, the Duma; in other words a new regime with some sort of political legitimacy, consequently better able to work with Britain and her allies by marshalling workers and peasants to fight the German enemy.     

In March 1917 Aberdeen Daily Journal welcomed the “Revolution” and confidently predicted that a more democratic empire could be built with the help of Grand Duke Michael and on this solid foundation the energetic prosecution of the war [would be] their first consideration. And at the same time that it praised Russia for holding fast to the European battlefields where millions were dying the newspaper congratulated Russia for not taking the bloody path of the 1905 revolution or that mapped out in France in 1789. As the Evening Express put it the simple-hearted, generous, hospitable Russians were following a course of common sense in showing a willingness to keep the slaughter going.

On the other hand there was an enemy in Britain, conspiring to defeat the just ends being pursued by the state, personified in the person of Ramsay MacDonald: Aberdeen wants no peace bargainers, no mischief makers, in a time of national crisis. Russia, said the Journal must also beware Socialists and fanatical Revolutionaries. Ramsay MacDonald is now one of the great villains of Labour history; the man who sold out to the National Government and Conservatism. But this is to forget he and others had the courage and we might say the decency to stand against the bloodletting of 1914-18 even if this was from a pacifist stance rather than, as the young John Paton would have demanded, a revolutionary overthrow of the property owning class. 

2

It just so happened that Aberdeen played its own small part in ensuring the pacifist MacDonald with his M.P. colleague Fred Jowett of Bradford were prevented in June 1917 from attending an anti-war socialist meeting in Petrograd. Aberdeen was the “certain port” from which these two men attempted to sail only to be stopped by organised labour under the leadership of Captain Edward Tupper of the seamen’s union. Pickets at the harbour threw their luggage ashore and followed them to their lodgings to keep them from sailing. Needless to say the local press was enchanted by this show of militancy, displaying a support for picketing which tended to be conspicuous by its absence in earlier industrial strikes.

When the Bolshevik Lenin was given safe passage by the Germans to the Finland Station in April unsurprisingly he was said to be an agent of the Kaiser, the editor of the Evening Express advised the Russian state now is the time for a supreme effort to trample down the internal enemy before hurling back the invader. Equally unsurprising the newspapers also saw MacDonald and his ILP comrades as doing the Kaiser’s work not to mention men and women going on strike threatening to disrupt munitions production.

Regardless of all the political guidance being given and the moral exhortations made it still looked as if the events in Russia had a dynamic beyond the control of any of the states involved in mutual destruction. The “moderate”, pro-war, Russian leader Kerensky seemed unable to guide things to the desired end. In Aberdeen’s Mither Kirk (Parish Church) on the third anniversary of the outbreak of war Colonel the Rev. James Smith preached asking God to intercede on the side of Britain: he prayed to God that a better day might speedily dawn upon distracted Russia and that the men of patriotic spirit and invincible courage be forthcoming to lead one of the greatest and most ancient of Empires to the destiny that awaited her. That destiny turned out to be not the one desired by the Rev. Smith or the local editors. Perhaps the call for God to intercede had not been heard or God (some Hegelian might say History) had set course for a future beyond their imaginations.

Come October-November 1917 and pro-war elements had their worst fear was realised: in Petrograd and beyond workers and peasants organised in councils sought peace and began to imagine a world which might be other than the one they now lived in. This was, however, more than a mental act. The councils, packed with voices from all parts of the political spectrum, were organised around degrees of holding power, making decisions which carried force and when necessary using armed militias to achieve their ends. This is what the British and other voices of “reason and common sense” could neither comprehend nor accept.   The Bolsheviks were wiser, their political programme, as much as it might have been made on the hoof at times, recognised the dynamics of class action and were able to place themselves at the head of this deeply revolutionary situation. Where revolutionaries saw liberation and new found freedoms the status-quo perceived only anarchy, an upsetting of the natural order and more immediately the loss of privilege and power. 

3

One of the local editors wrote: It is incredible that the Russian people would long tolerate a system which aims at undermining the foundations of the whole fabric of society . . . But undermine it they did. The exploited across Russia and many beyond its frontiers recognised that the “foundations of the whole fabric of society” included systematic exploitation of workers and peasants, imperial adventures and colonisation which had given the world the blood drenched trenches across Europe. Who held power, and to what ends, this was one of the keys to explaining 1917 and indeed equally important to understanding the future of what became Soviet Russia and the emergence of a regime which eventually needed no lessons in how to repress and control civil society.

But this was in the future. Socialists might at times be star-gazers but they are not clairvoyants. The emergence of workers and peasant councils pointed to new social forms around which a new world might be built. One hundred years on John Paton’s words hint at how it must have been:

 Every day brought its fresh excitements and new hopes that even now something of lasting good for Socialists in Britain was to come out of the war.

February 2, 2017

The day the Food Controller banned the buttery rowie

 

rowie-closeup
Rowie, buttery or Aberdeen roll

Threat to Aberdeen’s Morning Delicacy

ran the headline on an inside page of the local press on 27th August 1917 under pictures of some of the latest local men killed in the Great War – Trimmer Adam Clark of the navy, private William McRobb and gunner James Hutcheson from Turriff.

The rowie warning also appeared below an article on a joint socialist proposal to end this horrific war. Its main thrust was a need for independence for Belgium, Alsace and Lorraine, Polish unity, self-determination for Armenia, India, Egypt, Ireland and Algiers, formation of a Balkan Confederation, a League of Nations and a hands-off approach to German trade – all in all a ‘people’s peace’ they called it.  Of course self-determination and independence are no longer supported by some of today’s ‘socialists’. As with many things a lot has changed in the intervening one hundred years, including the meaning of socialism.

dead-of-aberdeen-newspaper-1917

For the good souls of Aberdeen who were not laying down their arms, legs, minds and lives for the king of more immediate concern was a threat to their fresh hot morning buttery rowie.

War resulted in restrictions and controls over food supplies and the emergence of ‘the Food Controller’. Aberdonians were, and many still are, fond on a warm rowie in the morning. Unfortunately for the buttery rowie one of its main ingredients, butter, or often lard or margarine, distinguishes it from a bread roll or bap. It is frequently compared with a French croissant by those unfamiliar with it – as it is assumed people will be more acquainted with something French than something that comes from the exotic and far-flung northeast of Scotland (a faraway place of which they know little.)

Aberdeen’s buttery rowie was duly sent to the Food Controller with an explanation that it should not be considered as bread but a different product entirely, one that should be consumed within 12 hours of baking. As anyone who has eaten a buttery rowie knows they are soft and melt-in-the-mouth straight from the oven and different, though not unappetising later, when reheated.

The Department of Food had stipulated that bread could not be sold until it was at least 12 hours out of the oven. This was to restrict its consumption. Fresh bread doesn’t slice easily and tends to be sliced thicker than stale loaf so doesn’t stretch as far but that would not affect rolls, also slapped with the same restriction, so alternative thinking was that as fresh bread was tastier than older bread more would be eaten than less appetising stale bread.

Initially the local Food Controller swallowed the difference between the buttery rowie and ordinary bread rolls and decided this was, indeed, a miracle of the baking oven and so exempted it from the 12 hour ruling. Bakers in and around Aberdeen carried on producing buttery rowies while in other parts of the country bakers, ignorant of the marvellous Aberdeen buttery rowie, gnashed their gums, furious at this exception to the bakery rule. But, all good things come to an end and after a few months of exemption from the restriction officialdom proclaimed that the morning buttery rowie –

was to be banned!

Apart from being a low blow to the stomachs of Aberdonians this hit bakers in the city and shire for the sale of buttery rowies made up a significant bulk of their trade. The baker’s union, which nationally used to have its headquarters in Aberdeen in the good old days before Scotland was centralised, and master bakers got together to discuss how they could fight this attack on their trade.

An appeal to the Food Controller again argued the buttery rowie formed such an important part of the food of the working classes in industrial centres the banning order should be remitted.

rowie-3

Aberdeen roll, buttery or rowie

Aberdeen Trades and Labour Council approached the local Food Control Committee in defence of the buttery rowie. It complained the committee had no representatives from the working class – the very people who relied on the rowie for sustenance through their working hours as well as the  workers who produced them – and working people in Aberdeen were tired of profiteers and those who exploited the working class representing them on committees.

It was argued that while Edinburgh and Glasgow bread rolls had been stopped because of the war the Aberdeen roll was of a very different order, its high lard content making it more akin to ham and eggs than the bread roll that was made everywhere else – meaning it was breakfast for many poorer people in Aberdeen – except in the case of Co-op rowies which were inferior in every way and no different from ordinary rolls found elsewhere around the country.

But the Ministry of Food declared no bread could be sold which contained butter, margarine or any sort of fat so the fresh Aberdeen rowie’s days were numbered. No longer was it possible to run to the local baker shop for a handful of halfpenny rowies hot and greasy in the paper on the way to work or take delivery from the bakery boy  on his rounds so that households would have buttery rowies warm from the oven to eat at breakfast. By the end of September 1917 the morning buttery rowie was but a memory. They could still be bought late in the day having sat around for the requisite 12 hours or indeed those baked the previous day but that meant no rowie on Monday mornings fresher than those baked on Saturday mornings. 

Several cases of the courts seizing Aberdeen buttery rowies ensued with bakers taking matters into their own hands and baking and selling them fresh none-the-less. In July 1919 bakers Peter Main of King Street and Matthew Mitchell of Summerhill Farm, South Stocket in Aberdeen pleaded guilty to selling  halfpenny buttery rowies fresher than 12 hours old. Advocate G M Aitken, a name that will be of significance to rowie aficionados, explained to the Sheriff Court that bakers had been forced to stop making the morning rolls because people did not want to buy day old rowies but his argument fell on deaf ears. The bakers were each fined 20 shillings equivalent to 480 buttery rowies.

war-time-food

In 1919 an appeal was sent to the Ministry of Food requesting permission to produce buttery rowies again. It made the point that these rolls along with porridge and milk made up the ordinary workman’s breakfast in Aberdeen. This was rejected on grounds of economy and labour which appeared to be based on the situation in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Again an appeal was made objecting to difficulties with labour elsewhere being used to determine what happened in Aberdeen.

By early August of that year the unpopular order that caused so much public resentment in the city was revoked allowing Aberdonians once more to enjoy their hot buttery rowies.

December 19, 2016

From Shorter Hours to Zero Hours

Guest blog by Textor

…the mere creature of business . . . his ledger was his Bible, and his heaven was the shop.

In 1847 counter assistants (all male) employed in Aberdeen’s drapery and grocery shops got bees in their bonnets over working hours or rather they recognised that the extremely long hours they worked were, as they said, pernicious and hurtful; detrimental to their health and well-being.

pratt-keith

Pratt & Keith, Aberdeen

To their fellow Aberdonians toiling in unhealthy and dangerous textile mills where work was deeply repetitive the shop assistants’ complaints might have seemed a bit of a joke: serving behind a counter was paradise to the “white hell” experience of factory hands. But workers selling their labour must take what they get and regardless of the relative ease of shop work assistants were, nonetheless, exploited according to the demands of the market place and the whims of employers.

In this respect the life of mid-19th century shop assistants differed little from their 21st century counterparts whether among the “fulfilled” staff in one of Amazon’s warehouses or employed on zero hours contracts in high street chains. Still there are differences and they are significant and they tell us something of the past and present trajectories of capitalism.

Who were these Victorian protesters and what was the problem? The Early Shop-shutting or Shorter Hours movement as it was known was in fact a loosely formed nation-wide organisation. The Aberdeen branch appeared in January 1847; a time of emerging economic depression, militant Chartism and glimmerings of revolutionary activity on the Continent of Europe. But it’s clear that as much as the assistants wished to shorten the working day their newly formed Association was not seen as a threat to foundations of capital. These Victorian shop men were workers just like factory hands to the extent that their livelihood came from wage labour but unlike industrial workers they were not aggregated in hundreds rather they toiled in a fragmented sector of the economy, dealing directly with customers and frequently in daily contact with employers. Beyond this shop work for time-served grocery and drapery assistants was seen as socially superior to dirty labouring trades. And important as retail was it did not have the economic clout of factories and workshops.

Consumerism, which is a fundamental part of contemporary capitalism, was largely confined to middle and upper classes.

It is not surprising that shop assistants had little problem attracting goodwill from Aberdeen’s middle class including its “ladies”. Provost Thomas Blaikie who was hostile to Chartism was quite taken by the Association, seeing its demand for shorter hours in the context of the world’s moral and intellectual improvement. Reduced hours presented no challenge to the rights of business, the alteration of working hours could be accommodated through customers becoming more thoughtful and finishing their purchases by the closing time of 7pm. In practice this meant middle class women who shopped personally or their servants following their instructions to complete shopping by seven. Coming from an iron founding business, however, Blaikie recognised the need for men and women factory hands working their long hours to be able to shop and this could be achieved through extended shop opening hours, particularly on pay-days such as Thursdays or Saturdays.

james-gordon-silk-mercer-1840s-castle-street

James Gordon, Silk Mercers, Aberdeen 1840

Professor of Anatomy, Jardine Lizars, spoke up for shop assistants and labour in general – nothing was more desirable and necessary than shorter hours for shopkeepers, mechanic, and persons employed in the mills. He described how some assistants were working as many as 16 hours a day and in extreme cases might only be permitted a 15 minute break for dinner. According to the professor this placed too much stress on mental and physical capacities of workers on top of their exposure to too little daylight resulting in their greater susceptibility to illness and disease.

James Hadden, speaking for the textile interest, was less convinced. He accepted that shorter hours could improve the lives of shop assistants; what Amazon might call (but not give), affording greater fulfilment. Hadden understood this was workable in the retail trade which he believed could make the same profit in 11 hours as it did in 12, but manufacturers had no such leeway as they competed in national and international markets precluding any reduction of factory hours. For him mill hands working 69 hours a week was both normal and acceptable. The proposal to reduce the working week for shop assistants he hoped would not be imposed, no improper means would be used to force any one to do that which he did not conceive to be proper – in other words moral exhortation was unobjectionable but there should be no militant action such as striking.

The assistants rhetorically asked customers:

Have you given thought as to the life of the young man who served you?
Has it ever occurred to you that, tied to the back of the counter from morning to night, his life must be one of tiresome monotony, and one for which you would not willingly exchange?

But neither Hadden nor shop assistants expected shortened hours be extended to factory labour. Their concern stopped at the shop counter. Literally what the assistants demanded was not the formal working day be cut rather that they should only be expected to labour contracted hours. By 1848 shop assistants had successfully rallied support of customers and employers and in the higher ends of the trade shops were closing by 7pm. The Reverend David Simpson of the Free Church praised the campaign for being respectful and conciliatory; and attributed its success to a lack of harshness towards their employers, with no accusations that their masters were unreasonable, avaricious and tyrannical.

The “struggle” was largely couched in terms of moral and intellectual possibilities and responsibilities. Being in Scotland and coming shortly after the 1843 split in the Established Church discussion over altering working hours took on religious connotations. David Gray, Professor of Natural Philosophy, linked the call to curtail shop opening hours to the word of God and the notion that it was not sufficient to recognise the capacity of man for improvement but it was a duty to provide him with opportunities for moral progress and allow him to get home early in the evening to enjoy leisure for reading and so on and keep him out of drinking dens.

It is important to note that whilst there was considerable success in the move towards reducing hours across the city not every employer complied with the assistants’ request. No doubt industrialist James Hadden with his knowledge of competition saw that coming; faced with the chance of a faster buck some employers insisted in staying open beyond the accepted hours eliciting the following response from shop assistants:

…we despair of success, even for the most limited period, so long as a class exist where feelings no appeal of a philanthropic character ever warmed, and who thoughtless of the consequences of the system they are perpetrating, never dream that the youth who serve them ever feel fatigue, or that they have minds capable of expansion, by the interchange of ideas round the domestic hearth.

In other words despite strong moral support the logic of the market place continually reasserted itself tending to leave employees faced with the stresses and strains born out of competition.

Into the debate stepped another professor, John Stuart Blackie, armed with a strong humanist philosophy. His open and welcoming Christianity contributed to a critique which never defied the logic of competition but went a considerable distance to expose the problems facing Victorian and post Victorian labour.

He began from the observation that protracted hours in the Retail Trades are highly injurious to the bodily health, and form a barrier to the social, intellectual, and spiritual improvement of those engaged therein. Additionally he understood the unrelieved working day of the assistant was liable to make him fusionless (weak). What Blackie called the mechanical life of retail was so detrimental that people would become little better than machines and he concluded that it was a duty of Christians and what he called thoughtless madams to support shop assistants.

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Schoolhill, Aberdeen

What Marx and Engels were just then beginning to characterise as the problem of capitalism and commodity production Professor Blackie was groping towards when he cited the question of the shop as, one of the great evils of these times . By this he appeared to be saying men and woman were in the thrall to commodity production with buying and selling taking precedence over moral and intellectual values. Assuredly his critique owes something to the biblical story of driving money-changers from the temple but almost certainly it was motivated by the burgeoning and at times devastating impact of commercialism and industrialisation. Lust was a lesser evil. People, he said, had their moral sense [more] undermined by the shop, than by what is termed the flesh. Men had cast aside the primacy of morals and had reduced everything to what Thomas Carlyle called the cash nexus. The living sentient human was no longer central, what mattered was place and function in the accounting system: a man was the mere creature of business . . . his ledger was his Bible, and his heaven was the shop.

But for all that, and for all the evils of capitalism since the 1840s the ability of labour to struggle for its own immediate interests and with the system able to accommodate some of its demands lead to capitalist power improving material well-being across most social classes. This was a bumpy historical ride in which many sectors of labour benefited. Hours of work were restricted by local regulations and state law: unions became negotiators of wages; health and safety standards were enforced etc. This improved working environments as well as saving an otherwise rapacious system from fracturing. Within this model the struggle of the shop assistants was a moment in a rising curve which nonetheless continued to leave many in its wake particularly if they existed outside the centres of capital.

The fate of those in the retail trades, and beyond, today show how things have changed. The halcyon days for labour was probably through the 1950s to the ’70s when post-war growth was rapid, profitability of capital re-emerged and it seemed the benefits of the system were unlimited for the metropolitan countries. Since then growth has faltered, stagnated and recently fallen back calling into question the very historical viability of the system. Apart from the wars, the corruption and financial criminality of the past four decades capital has taken on organised labour and more often than not defeated it to such an extent that the protections which took years of struggle to introduce have been shoved aside. The sense of progressive improvement which characterised much of 19th century capitalism has been lost. Capitalism now promises nothing other than might be accrued through deepening debt and ever harder working conditions.

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A.S. Cook, Aberdeen

If Aberdeen Victorian drapery assistants thought they were having a hard time they would surely have thanked their lucky stars they were not 21st century automatons in gigantic warehouses regulated by the speed of computers, tracked by GPS coordinates and observed, no doubt, by “fulfilled” managers. Today’s employee: often casual labour, searched like prisoners and with no rights beyond that of obeying the machine. This is probably the most extreme end of shop work exploitation where discussions over moral or intellectual improvement are reduced to slogans and propaganda to keep control of labour and exploit the gullibility of the consumer. At the sharp end of the shop counter it is now common to find virtually zero hour contracts where labour has to be ready to accommodate the “flexible” needs of the employer with no wage for standing-by time. It is a bit like the emergency services being on call without either the cash or the social caché. All these assistants have is poverty wages and few “prospects.”

Who can say what the future for capitalist development is? It has all the signs of a system unable to solve a multitude of problems. First it breaks the power of organised labour, tries inflation, privatisation, colossal private and public indebtedness, austerity, quantitative easing, negative interest rates, increased rates of exploitation and still it remains in crisis. Professor Blackie could hardly have imagined the depths to which the shop machine could sink as it struggles to survive.