Archive for ‘Aberdeen’

December 30, 2015

From Silver City to the Golden Screen: Scotty Brown

 

follow thru

When Scotty Brown went to Hollywood in the 1920s he might have been seeking fame and fortune but he went out as a golfer and it was as a golf pro he was most active in those early years it would seem, teaching the game to Hollywood actors and actresses.

He was involved in an early talkie called Follow Thru from Paramount Pictures; a golfing musical with jazzy numbers and lots of pretty faces based on a stage production.

Brown’s own acting career came to a shuddering halt when he got tongue-tied in a scene with Claude Rains but in which film I haven’t been able to find out.

FollowThru 2

It’s very hard to discover anything much about Scotty during those early years but when the golf and the acting dried up he turned to creating a film distribution business. On the wall of his office hung a banner which read There’ll always be an England, aye and Scotland too.

ciros

His film business with its 2000 plus movies was popular with Hollywood’s motion picture stars who liked nothing more than an evening in watching movies. “That’s why you don’t see them so often at Ciro’s or Mocambo,” he said, “they’re home watching motion pictures.” (Ciro’s  and Mocambo’s were nightclubs on Sunset Strip favoured by movie stars.)

mocambo

Hollywood stars are known to be demanding and thought nothing of phoning Scotty Brown in the middle of the night looking for a film or part for their projectors. Frank Morgan (Francis Wuppermann), the wizard in the Wizard of Oz, was one of his demanding customers. John Wayne was another, once calling Scotty at three in the morning for help in repairing his film projector – “Scotty, the darn projector won’t turn over,” he shouted into the phone.

Many actors’ homes had screens in various rooms, including bathrooms, as well as, of course, outdoors by their swimming pools. Cary Grant was one star with a bathroom cum film theatre.

coogan and bette davis

Jackie Coogan and Bette Davis

Stars appetite for films was virtually insatiable: on occasions Dick Haymes (singer, actor – There’s No Business Like Show Business) watched four films overnight while Jackie Coogan (the kid in Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, Uncle Fester in The Addams Family), John Payne (Miracle on 34th Street) and Donald O’Connor (Singing in the Rain, Ragtime) watched a dozen over one weekend. Bing Crosby was another enthusiastic customer but Brown’s biggest film addict appeared to have been Lou Costello (Abbott and Costello) who had six projectors at home. Apparently when Mickey Rooney and his second wife split up all Rooney wanted to take away from the marriage was his projector and film collection.

Westerns were the most popular films in Hollywood with John Ford’s Stage Coach the most popular movie of all, and anything starring Cary Grant.  Grant, himself, preferred to watch Buster Crabbe (Tarzan and Flash Gordon) and Johnny Mack Brown (Gunsmoke) but he also loved westerns, watching several each week.

ciros 2

Scotty took the Queen Mary home to Scotland in 1949 on a trip which mixed business with pleasure – visiting family in Aberdeen and Partick and purchasing a quantity of 16mm films for distribution back in America.

Trigger

Roy Rogers gave Scotty Brown three solid gold figurines of his horse Trigger, with detachable saddles, and Scotty took models of these with him to Scotland in 1949 which he presented to the children of Aberdeen and Glasgow. I have no idea which organisations accepted Scotty Brown’s gifts but does anyone know where these Triggers are now?

October 21, 2015

Aberdeen City Council is forging ahead with hugely unpopular development

Marischal College is about to be dwarfed and hidden by a hideous commercial development only a handful of planners and councillors and business interests want.

Marischal College is about to be dwarfed and hidden by a hideous commercial development only a handful of planners and councillors and business interests want.

new block

This nasty block development is being built on land the people of Aberdeen wanted as their civic square.

disappearing marischal

Some opposed to this audacious attack on the wishes of the people of Aberdeen have formed a Facebook page as the cranes work away at concealing this masterpiece of civic architecture. The following is from their pages.

Marie Boulton is an independent councillor for Lower Deeside and Depute Leader of the Council and spokesperson for this development.

From Facebook

Marie Boulton – Where are the leases you promised would be signed before you built Marischal Square? We were told that there were 9 interested parties for the restaurants and bars. All Bar One and Lobster Roll have signed, but which others? How many offices are leased? They’re building now, so will you call a halt?

Everything, it seems, is up for sale by this nasty administration, including the 16th century Provost Skene’s House and city museum the public were told would not be touched. skenes
pand j
Jenny Laing is the Labour Party leader of the council perhaps some of you might ask her why she and her party insist on forging ahead with this appalling development.
October 18, 2015

Scotland’s First Oil Boom – the Greenland Whale

Greenland whaling

Scots seamen have been hunting down whales for goodness knows how long and commercially since the middle ages. Aberdeen’s association with whaling is chronicled from the 1750s but its activities are dwarfed by Scotland’s main whaling ports of Dundee and Peterhead. (Curiously and sadly our most significant whaling centres are not featured in the Great Tapestry of Scotland) .

In 1788 the brig Robert, under Captain Geary, sailed out of its home port of Peterhead heading north towards the inhospitable waters that flowed down from the Arctic and home to the great Greenland whales. The lure was precious whale oil and the great fortunes that might be made from it but Geary and his crew did not make their fortunes, not then, but when the good times did come, they came with interest. Their most lucrative year was 1799 when they returned to harbour laden down with 96 tons from 8 whales.

Peterhead Whaling Crew

Peterhead whaling crew

Notable northeast whalers were the Grays from Peterhead , Captain William Parker of the whaler Bon-Accord and Captain William Penny who skippered the first steam whaler out from Dundee (which did not endear him to his fellow traditional whalers who threatened to have him tarred and feathered). Penny was also ‘the first man to winter purposely in Davis Straits’. Greenlanders would normally sail early in spring and return late summer . Traditionally men leaving port would take a cut ribbon from their wives or sweethearts, both holding a half, and the men would knot them together and tie them to the mast where they would stay until the end of the trip.

Penny established a whaling station at Cumberland Sound, part of the Labrador Sea, an area rich in whales and seals. A native of Peterhead he was the son of a whale skipper and his life at sea began when he was 12 years old but despite his adventurous life Penny died in his own bed, at Springbank Terrace, Aberdeen. Many Greelanders were not so fortunate but Penny knew to quit while ahead, retiring as a relatively young man, to Aberdeen.

The Active leaving Dundee

In 1850 Penny led an expedition to find traces of the doomed Franklin expedition that had searched for the North West Passage. He found evidence of their winter quarters and three graves at Beechy Island but little else.

Captain Geary’s eventual successes encouraged other northeast seamen try their luck in the frozen seas off Greenland among them the crews of the Eliza Swan of Montrose and the Hercules and Layton from Aberdeen and the Jane.

On 11th August 1810 the Jane, under its Captain Jameson, scooped the largest cargo of whale oil ever landed in Aberdeen: 17 whales and 383 casks brim-full with oil. It emerged the Captain had captured so many whales he gave part of his catch away to another vessel.

The Jane’s success was commemorated in song:

We’ll gae into Jean MacKenzie’s,

And buy a pint o’ gin,

And drink it on the jetty

When the Jane comes in.

And in 1814, Peterhead whalers killed 163 whales which translated into a huge quantity of oil.

 Cutting up whale

Cutting up a whale onboard

The government paid bounties to the largest of the whaling vessels for it required the oil to lubricate the machinery in the manufactories that powered the Industrial Revolution. Whale oil was used also to light street lamps in an increasingly urbanised country, and later for soap and margarine. In addition to the valuable oil, whale baleen and the flesh were marketable too but for the government having relatively large numbers of men skilled in the toughest of conditions who could then be used to man the navy when required was an additional attraction of the industry. What better school than the treacherous seas around the Davis Straits?

Peterhead ship Hope was in receipt of bounties – a mighty £480 for every voyage she made on top of whatever else was taken for the oil and baleen sold. Baleen, the comb-like filter plates whales use for feeding on krill were eagerly sought-after for use in clothing, including corset ‘bones’ , for umbrella spokes and carriage springs and could fetch £2000 per ton.

Cutting up walruss tusks

Cutting up walruss tusks onboard

The rush for whale oil gave rise to a free-for-all with ships stalking whales and others stalking whaling vessels, to steal their catches. Many a Scottish whaler crew had to fend off privateers from France and Denmark in particular. The Elbe from Aberdeen was attacked on more than one occasion by pirates. The Latona, too, again from Aberdeen, found itself battling Danish pirates. On one occasion it took the intervention of a London whaler to drive off the determined privateer. Later the same year the ill-fated Latona was crushed on ice in the Davis Straits and sank within minutes.

Hope at Aberdeen 1873

Privateers, weather, ice, storms, icebergs, the perilous Arctic waters and the long months away from home made whaling a trying as well as a highly hazardous activity. Many lost their lives, their toes and fingers and their sanity while crewing these great wooden ships.

An average whaler had around 50 of a crew although some carried far more. Usually they were local men from whaling ports but northeast boats often dropped in by Orkney and Shetland on their northward journeys in hope of picking up some of these islands’ hardy and experienced boatmen, greatly valued for dealing with the hardships that lay ahead.

Eclipse of Peterhead

Whaling ships were notorious for their stench of oil and blood that could be smelled long before they returned to harbour and of course made them extremely slippery and dangerous for the crew. They were often painted black and white and had six or seven whaleboats suspended from the sides of the ship. When a whale was sighted the whaling boats were lowered and the lead harpoon man threw his harpoon with a rope attached at the whale. The barbs on the harpoon would attach to the whale’s body and grip tighter as the animal thrashed to free itself. Each boat would have men shoot harpoons at the whale until it was secured to several smaller boats. The danger for the men was if the whale dived below the surface and dragged them with it. Whales can swim at around 20 miles an hour so it was imperative not to be dragged away, too far away from the ship, especially in poor weather such as fog. Whales fought to free themselves but eventually, exhausted, the parties in the small boats would advance to pierce the mammal through its heart or lungs. This was a long process – maybe as long as 40 hours but a successful kill would end with the whale swimming around and around, like a dying fly spinning uncontrollably. This flurry was followed by the whale thrashing the water with its tail then with a final shudder it died and floated over onto its side. The captured dead whale was then towed back to the ship.(If the ship could be found again.)

By this time the small boats may have travelled a considerable distance and had to return to the ship towing the whale behind them. The whale was secured to the side of the ship while the crew flensed it – stripped off its blubber with knives and sharp spades. An average whale provided around 30tons of blubber. The blubber was cut into smaller chunks and stored in containers.

Harpoon gun

Harpoon Gun

In 1830, 19 out of the 91 British ships working the Davis Straits and Baffin Bay were sunk and 21 others returned home with nothing to show for risking their lives for half a year. Many that did make it back had suffered damage to their ships. Peterhead lost the Resolution and Hope that enjoyed so much success in previous years and all in all 1830 was a dismal year for Peterhead whalers.

In atrocious weather the Mazinthien was wrecked at South Bay, Peterhead on her way to the Davis Straits from Dundee in 1878. Its crew were only rescued by breeches buoy after many hours. The ship was eventually salvaged and returned to Dundee as a wreck.

 

Aberdeen’s whalers fared even worse, losing four from ten whalers: Alexander, Laetitia, Middleton and Princess of Wales while one came back with an empty hold the remainder took only 5 whales.

By the mid-1830s it was clear that whalers had largely destroyed their own industry through greed. In response Peterhead captains looked to sealing around Newfoundland and in that they created a lucrative industry out of one that was taken up to cover whaling losses. Sealskin was hugely popular especially the soft skins from very young cubs which were clubbed to death.

Dundee crews were said to be ‘fitba mad’ and made footballs from seal skins. Teams from different ships competed on the ice. On one occasion in 1875 a bunch of men from the Victor had gone well away from the ship so as not to disturb those who remained on board. In the middle of the game a polar bear emerged through the fog and was seen dribbling the ball. His human team-mates ran as fast as they were able across the ice and fought to climb the only ladder hanging down from the ship’s deck.

Such were the times the poor bear was shot dead.

Captain John Gray

Captain John Gray

Into the 19th century there was a shift away from wooden to iron vessels and by the late 1850s steam was beginning to supplant sail. This did not please Peterhead Captain Gray who blamed the noise of steam engines for driving whales north out of reach rather than accepting the whale hunters were themselves to blame for the wholesale slaughter of too many whales. Later he did change his mind but placed blame on earlier generations of whalers for massacring immature whales before they could reproduce.

Mangled harpoons taken from a whale

Mangled harpoon arrows taken from a whale

Meanwhile Dundee shipbuilders Stephen eschewed iron for timber, designing a wooden barque-rigged screw steamer that proved highly effective navigating ice-strewn waters. Others copied the design, including the world’s leading clipper shipbuilder Alexander Hall & Co. of Aberdeen who, in 1867, built the Eclipse for Peterhead’s whaling dynasty the Grays.

The whale jaw bones arch was a the Footdee (Fittie) home of Alexander Hall the Aberdeen shipbuilder. There were many such arches in Aberdeen and across Scotland.

A second whaler ship named Hope followed, again for a Gray, Captain John Gray, brother of the Eclipse’s captain. These two ships dominated Peterhead whaling and sealing during the 1870s and ’80s but were still no match for the whaling fleets of Dundee.

Doyle diary 2 (1)

From Conan Doyle’s diary

It was on the whaler Hope that the Scottish writer Arthur Conan Doyle sailed as a 20 year old medical student for the ship’s 6-month voyage to Greenland waters, under Captain Gray in 1880. As the ship’s surgeon Doyle was paid £2 – 10shillings per month and 3shillings a ton oil bonus.

Doyle diary 2 (2)

Pages from Conan Doyle’s diary

The Eclipse, too, had a famous passenger. Walter Livingstone-Learmonth was an Australian born to Scottish parents with a reputation as a ‘keen hunter’. Others might describe him as a butcher. His lust for shooting birds and animals took him aboard the Eclipse, to get to species he had so far not been able to kill. He and Captain Gray did not get on. He also sailed on the Dundee ship Maud from which he shot 26 walruses and seals and 4 polar bears.

polar bear

A proud Livingstone-Learmonth

The Eclipse was sold to the Norwegians and then on to the Russian navy who changed her name to Lomonessoi. She was sunk in 1927, raised and went on to become a research vessel in Siberian waters after that before being finally sunk in 1941 by the German Luftwaffe.

 flencing

Flensing a whale tied to the side of the ship

In 1901 the Hope was lost at Byron Island but the 194 on board were rescued. By this time the northeast whaling industry was all but finished although British whaling did not officially end until 1963.

The industry that had been battling decline found the Norwegians were predominant by the beginning of the 20th century. For the men from Aberdeen, Peterhead and Dundee the tide had turned on an occupation in which they risked their lives on a daily basis, sustained by the potential riches to be made from pursuit of the poor whale.

Where these men’s fathers and grandfathers had taken to treacherous waters in the frozen north to engage in a somewhat equal battle with the magnificent leviathan the whale hunters of the 20th century armed with explosive charges turned whale hunting into nothing short of slaughter.

 Tay Whale at John Woods yard 1884

Whale at John Woods yard, Dundee

 

 

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.

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.

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 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

May 7, 2015

A grisly tale of the councillor and two in a coffin

 

James Dewar

James Dewar

In the midst of the horrors, anxieties and deaths of the Second World War the people of Aberdeen were rocked by a home-grown outrage on their doorstep.

A poem typed on a single piece of flimsy paper dated April 1944 was retrieved from a suitcase of ephemera belonging to a late relative. It was entitled The Talk of the Town and as I began reading I realised I knew nothing of this revolting episode from the city’s past.

The Talk of the Town:

Aberdeen’s crematorium chief –

Not yet convicted as a thief,

May find himself in Peterhead

If it is proved he robbed the dead.

On first reading I imagined it was connected with the grisly tale of Nellfield Pies but quickly realised that gruesome episode came from a much earlier era. (Nellfield is a graveyard – you can imagine the rest) The subject of this poem was Aberdeen’s relatively recently opened crematorium.

Councillor James Dewar, managing director of the city’s crematorium at Kaimhill and Alick George Forbes, an undertaker from Woodside, found themselves on trial in the High Court in Edinburgh during 1944. Dewar was charged with the theft of over 1000 coffin lids, coffins and shrouds while Forbes faced accusations of reset of 100 coffin lids and two coffins. The offences took place between 1939 and 1944.

‘It is a conspiracy’ insisted the councillor on his arrest.

People talk as people will,

And some who’ve never seen Kaimhill

Will tell you yarns with bated breath

Of what takes place there after death.

The initial hearing was held in Aberdeen but aroused so much interest with the public queuing in great numbers to get into the courthouse it was decided to transfer the case to Edinburgh to avoid their ‘ghoulish curiosity’ and ensure the men got a fair trial.

The trial created such a stink (literally) that perfume was sprayed around the court to counteract the odour emanating from repeatedly used coffin lids brought into the court as evidence. The judge resorted to inhaling smelling salts to prevent passing out.

Councillor Dewar who represented Woodside was, as well as being in charge of the crematorium, a police judge and JP. He was also the owner of a garage. When the police had it searched they found a substantial amount of chopped up wood and a number of intact coffin lids. Even more lids were found stored at the crematorium, as Dewar had straightaway alerted them to the basement.

‘What you will find down there is the lids of coffins.’ He explained then the ‘usual procedure’, ‘… when a cremation takes place the coffin lid is removed, and that coffin lid is held here and used as firewood, or is thereafter employed from the economical point of view of not destroying the lid. This is the general practice throughout the whole crematoria movement …the coffins are the property of the company…in the case of babies the coffins are used simply for the service in order to avoid unnecessary expense to the parents. That is all I want to say.’

Undertaker Forbes told how bodies were removed in simple coffins or shells from hospitals or other institutions and taken to the crematorium. There the families would purchase a proper coffin and shroud etc through his shop for the cremation. When the exchange took place the shell was returned to his shop. Forbes explained Dewar and he worked out a deal that Dewar hired coffins and shells from him and following the funeral service the body was cremated sometimes in an open coffin or no coffin at all, squeezing two corpses into one coffin. ‘Spare’ coffins were returned to Forbes’s shop for resale. Similarly with lids, they were removed and stored.

When Forbes realised they’d been found out he went about trying to remove evidence by cutting up lids and hiding what he could of the wood that had been kept to make into other items for selling on, such as rabbit hutches.

In evidence it emerged some of the coffins involved were for children. The lining in one that had been re-used was found to be stained with blood. Another showed signs of wear where the screws had been worked in and then back out again.

Unseemly, but then the evidence was to take a more bizarre turn.

Our Fire Force Leader never tires

Of fighting local city fires,

And sees that coffins never burn

When there is cash for their return. 

At the city fire station headquarters on Queen’s Road the police discovered all kinds of wooden objects from a bureau to a date-rack. Yes, the fire service was acquiring timber from the crematorium for a spot of woodwork on the side in what was described as a ‘hush-hush’ arrangement. The idea there was anything illegal going on never occurred to any of them it was claimed. Dewar insisted the reason he told the firemen to keep quiet about their arrangement was to prevent a general clamour for wood. Asked why he had told the NFS men to pick up the lids at night, Dewar replied that was when they finished their duties.

Imaginative use of flogged-off coffins and lids popped up right across the city. It appeared there were several hush-hush arrangements that led to the production of tea trays, radio cabinets, seed boxes, desks, hutches on a near industrial scale.

It was put to Dewar and Forbes that poorer people were not treated with the respect and decency provided to richer ones when evidence emerged of corpses being cremated together, including adults and unrelated babies who were placed at their feet for cremation.

For £50 they’ve each found bail,

And there is many a gruesome tale,

Of dark deeds done at dead of night,

When moon and stars are hid from sight. 

You can only imagine the impact these revelations had on the people of Aberdeen whose family and friends had passed through the crematorium during the war years until 1944.

In evidence Dewar described seeing a hand from a corpse move in the intense heat as he watched through the peep-hole of the furnace door, for the coffin was without a lid, it having been removed, he said, to prevent it being blown off and damaging the furnace brickwork.

His defence for running the crematorium in this appalling way implied too little was paid by Aberdeen hospitals for disposal of bodies: 21 shillings for a stillbirth and 25 shillings for newly born babies. Defiantly he maintained there was no obligation to provide coffins, and it was an unnecessary expense for parents.

When pressed on the treatment of dead children whose mothers had trustingly placed them with an undertaker and paid for a coffin and funeral Dewar argued that when the coffin with the child reached him from the undertaker the need for the coffin was completed – the child could then be cremated without a coffin, it having become scrap.

One such ‘scrap’ coffin was discovered to have been repeatedly reused in the crematorium between 1941 and 1944.

This month we speak of April showers,

Though some may talk of re-sold flowers,

And gazing up at darkening clouds

Will ask, who buys the dead men’s shrouds? 

In his defence Dewar hinted there was nothing underhand going on and that the crematorium was liable to be inspected at any time. When asked if it had ever been inspected, he replied, ‘No.

It emerged that brass name plates and handles had also been removed. This was explained again as being necessary to prevent damage to the furnace.

Let each one to his daily task,

And no more Kaimhill questions ask,

Like Asquith you must wait and see

The verdict of the powers that be. 

It took the jury 26 minutes to find them guilty. When Dewar heard his sentence of three years penal servitude his head fell back and his face flushed. Forbes, given six months in prison, showed no emotion. 

In total Dewar was convicted of stealing 1000 lids from unknown persons, 44 lids from known persons and 2 coffins. Forbes was found guilty of reset of 100 coffin lids.

Both appealed their sentences arguing under Scots law it was not possible to be convicted of stealing from the dead. Their appeals failed. Anyway I would have thought it was the living who made funeral arrangements and purchased coffins etc..

Finally it is interesting to note that a local doctor, who counter-signed cremation certificates, without checking identities of the deceased, was given a reprimand. I suspect there may have been a degree of class prejudice involved in his light slap on the wrist.

In the end justice was done. I expect Dewar was found employment in the quarries around Peterhead prison for his spell behind bars. What happened to them on their releases from prison goodness knows. Their faces would not have been made welcome back in Aberdeen, of that I am sure.

The crematorium at Kaimhill is no more. It was replaced by the current one at Hazlehead. But it too has been embroiled in unsavoury activities relating to the cremation of babies. It seems lessons are never properly learned by the people who need them most.

April 27, 2015

The M’Pherson brothers comb makers and Chartists

Tombstone of James and John M'Pherson, comb makers and Chartists. St Peter's graveyard, King Street, Aberdeen

Tombstone of John M’Pherson, comb maker and Chartist.
St Peter’s graveyard, King Street, Aberdeen

Guest post by Textor

Hidden away on the west side of St Peter’s cemetery is a memorial to comb manufacturer John M’Pherson It sounds unlikely to us in the 21st century but at one time this Aberdeen industry was pre-eminent in Britain if not the world. John, with his brother James, was one of a number of local manufacturers producing combs by the thousand; the largest employer in this trade was Stewart of Aberdeen Comb Works, a firm which imported vast quantities of horn from across the world as well as tortoiseshell for the luxury end of the comb market.

James and John M’Pherson, however, should be best remembered for their radical politics in the 1840s, when both men stood for the Charter and against political corruption and privilege. Aberdeen was then no sleepy political backwater but part of a large national movement which saw thousands of disenfranchised tradesmen and others demanding the right to a voice in Parliament. Chartists wished to see all males over twenty-one given the vote, regardless of wealth, and as part and parcel of this struggle take political power out of the hands of the aristocracy and large property-owners. They argued for a secret ballot to remove intimidation by landlords and employers that occurred with open voting, payment of Members of Parliament so working men could attend parliament, equal so fairer constituencies and annual Westminster elections to counter corrupt practices.

Needless to say Aberdeen Journal, forerunner of The Aberdeen Press & Journal, showed its class bias when it mocked the notion that working men might be given a say in the running of the country. As in more recent examples of class prejudice the then editor believed that those with property and wealth had a God-given right to rule.

But Aberdeen’s Chartists were not to be ridiculed and as early as May 1832 thousands of Aberdeen working men took to the streets to demand a greater say in how the country should be run. In alliance with middle class reformers they believed their time had come.

The Great Reform Act that promised so much had proved a damp squib, enfranchising middle class men but denying the same rights to the working class. They had been sold down the river by the middle class happy to turn their backs on their fellow campaigners in the reform movement. And so Chartism was born.

In 1838 Aberdeen Workingmen’s Association (AWMA) was formed, an organisation in favour of the Charter and against middle class reformism. Despite the very male-centred politics of the era the following year, 1839, saw the creation of The Aberdeen Female Radical Association which believed that all capital springs from labour, and therefore the working classes having no capital, are robbed of their hard-won earnings. Thousands of Aberdonians signed the Chartist Petition demanding political rights. Many hundreds attended open air and indoor meetings, including James and John M’Pherson.

James and John stood against the lies and deceits of the Whigs (Liberals) and Tories; both men became active in Town Council affairs and were not afraid to contradict and clash with prominent political leaders such as Provosts Blaikie and Thomson as well as Member of Parliament Alex. Bannerman. The comb makers steadfastly argued for the right to vote, education for all working classes, improved housing and shorter working hours for factory operatives.   During a debate over “City Improvements” when Whig Councillors wanted to imprison ratepayers who fell into arrears, James M’Pherson’s anger and sense of injustice is obvious in his statement: You have all heard of the great Autocrat of Russia. The improvement Bill is equal to any one of his acts.

An indication of the corrupt nature of British politics was made abundantly clear in 1847 when James M’Pherson won the popular vote of thousands gathered at a meeting outside the Town House to become the candidate in the forthcoming General Election. However the majority participating and voting for the Chartist had no legal right to vote which meant the Tory and Whig apparatchiks demanded a count of registered voters be taken. Not surprisingly James M’Pherson no longer headed the pole although a small number did back him. He was entitled to speak and made short-work of his opponents: he highlighted the opposing candidates’ military and naval backgrounds, (they) had made a profession of the destruction of men – that they made it their business to destroy their fellow creatures, and devoted their lives to carrying suffering to mankind, saying Great Heaven! Had it come to this, that in this peace-loving country, they had no choice left but to send warriors to Parliament? He called on electors to rally round him and do away with class legislation and he continued, agitation might teach the people what they could accomplish.

chartist

It was radicalism such as this that the Whig Provost Thomson described as dangerous and likely to give working men notions above their station in life; in other words the people were liable to be deluded by dangerous demagogues. He was correct, at least as far as dangerous went.   The exclusive right of the propertied and wealthy to control political power was indeed threatened by Chartists, particularly those who supported using physical force to achieve Universal Suffrage – in 1839 the AWMA passed a resolution stating Parade not your arms at public meetings, but keep them bright and ready to defend your Queen, your country, and your liberty. In April 1847 there were rumours that Aberdeen’s Chartists were arming themselves.

The truth to tell, stories of armed insurrection were exaggerated and might even have been encouraged by agent provocateurs – certainly shoemaker David Wright was known to have been a spy for the British state. It is certainly true that men such as James and John M’Pherson and Mrs Ogilvie of the Female Radical Association were courageous political souls willing to make a stand in dangerous times, against a seemingly all-powerful and at times vengeful state.

When you pass their headstones give a nod of acknowledgment and even thanks to the brave comb makers James and John M’Pherson, and recognise their contribution to an ongoing struggle for freedom from the shackles which continue to bind.   The enemy might be strong but it is not omnipotent.