Posts tagged ‘Peterhead’

July 30, 2017

Archibald White Maconochie Part 2:

In Part 2 of the account of Archibald White Maconochie we find those issues affecting his business and the country are redolent of today’s headlines.

Guest blog by Textor

1907

Nearer to home, in the waters of the Moray Firth, Maconochie complained that local fishermen, in particular line-men, were having their fishing grounds destroyed by trawlers both British and foreign. Steam powered vessels were out-competing older fishing technologies and something needed to be done; trawlers should not take the bread out of other men’s mouths complained Maconochie. Just as he called on the state to intervene in overseas markets he also wanted it to be active here; with strong policing to protect the three mile limit even if this meant prosecuting skippers from Aberdeen. Here we can see a clearer expression of self-interest (or perhaps a hint of sentimentality) on the part of Maconochie for his business at Fraserburgh was dependent upon older less technologically advanced fishing methods.

Maconochie’s stance seemed to fly in the face of his deep-seated belief in progress and competition. He had, after all, enthusiastically adopted mass factory production in his food preservation business employing the latest technology and would (as we shall see) lead a campaign to introduce American business techniques to Fraserburgh but he failed to accept trawling as just another leap forward in competition, albeit one that would leave associated industries and communities managing to survive as best they could. Surely this was progress in his own terms? Interestingly Maconochie did favour some seasonal restriction on fishing as a means of preserving stocks a stance which further alienated him from trawling but which found support amongst line fishermen.

Salmon and Shrimp Paste 1926

Returning to international competition, Archibald began to realise that the Liberal dogma of free trade was problematic in situations where rival nations were introducing tariffs to protect young enterprises or where they had developed industries which could compete on a cost basis with British goods. He allied himself with Joseph Chamberlain’s protectionist politics, denouncing the dumping of foreign imports on the home and colonial markets as unfair – that the free market had broken down and British industry needed protection through the state imposing tariffs to stop such surplus products finding their way onto the British market. In his view such a tax policy would not, as the Free Trade Liberals claimed, result in shrinkage in commerce but on the contrary would encourage foreign manufacturers to open businesses in the UK and so competitors would be forced to employ British labour.

This has a familiar ring about it as the very competitive nature of capital at one and the same moment brings success for some and ruin for others. The squaring of this particular circle, up until post 1945, involved variations of protectionism as each industrial concern and national capital struggled for solutions to failing competitiveness. The British had the advantage of an empire which not only could restrict foreign competition through tariffs on some imports to local markets but also put up barriers to prevent penetration of the colonies; the latter question of colonial markets being open to all-comers became a bargaining chip between debt-ridden UK and the solvent USA after World War 2.

In his six years as an M.P. Archibald Maconochie was constantly harassed by the liberal Aberdeen People’s Journal. Apart from being damned for having no political depth he was also criticised for his frequent absences from Parliament including several visits to the USA where he met with major industrialists including Andrew Carnegie. Being a kingpin in the preserving industry his travels in America took him to Chicago the home of a vast beef slaughter and packing industry famously documented by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle. AWM established business contact with The Chicago Pneumatic Tool Company and eventually he became a director of its British division.

Peoples Journal Nov 29 1902

Impressed by American industry, in 1903 he began negotiations to open a “steel works” in Fraserburgh. This was a radical proposal which would extend modern mass production to the fishing-rural economy and introduce a factory system that exploited advanced machine tools and in turn give birth to a concentrated industrial working class in part mirroring the setup already operating at the Kinnaird Head Works but unlike the tinning plant labour would largely be male. The liberal Press’ dismissal of the idea was misplaced as the proposed “steel works” was not a steel mill that required vast quantities of iron and coke but a tool-making business, as stated in the company name.

Criticism fell by the wayside still Liberal opinion fulminated against the new works and Maconochie’s role in bringing it to Fraserburgh. The Unionist M.P. was accused of buying votes with promises to hire local labour but Archibald remained undismayed by the criticism. Neither was he perturbed by the notion of American capital, a “Yankee Trust,” getting a foothold in Britain. So in 1903 plans were advanced for a 50-acre site for the venture and eventually by 1905 Consolidated Pneumatic Tool Co. (better known as CPT) was up and running in the fishing town.

Maconochie had hoped that tariffs would be placed on imported European-made pneumatic tools giving a competitive edge to the US firm but in this he was disappointed. Nonetheless the enterprise proved to be profitable.

Pneumatic Works ADJ March 14 1903

However this achievement was undermined by a scandal which threatened to destroy Maconochie Brothers’ reputation when military authorities in Pretoria condemned thousands of cases of their preserved food as unfit for human consumption. Maconochie was not the only firm involved but it was by far the most prominent and the only one whose owner was a sitting M.P.; elected on the basis of his commitment to empire. The well-being of troops in South Africa and millions of tins of contaminated rations appeared to tell a different story.

Maconochie was confronted in Parliament by Keir Hardie. The socialist member for Merthyr Tydfil turned his anger on the member for East Aberdeenshire accusing him of threatening the welfare of troops as well as wasting tax payers’ money. Maconochie acknowledged that some discolouration of rations might have occurred but this, he claimed, was no fault of the manufacturer rather it was due to storage in tropical conditions. He maintained that Maconochie’s good name was being tarnished to a greater and unjustified extent than the canned meat and vegetables for irrespective of who tinned the rations Maconochie was global shorthand for tinned food. Speaking for the Government Lord Stanley sided with AWM on the stringency of testing of military rations and pointed a finger at the commanding officer in Pretoria for hastily condemning foodstuffs which Stanley claimed were probably edible (although there was no indication any government minister might be prepared to sit down to enjoy a Maconochie for lunch.) In debate Stanley gave voice to the ingrained and prevalent casual racism of the period when he spoke of natives stealing the condemned rations and apparently displaying no ill effects. And he drew laughter from the Chamber when he said it was questionable whether a thing which agrees with a native would always agree with a European. Archibald Maconochie then asked fellow members to give all manufacturers of rations the benefit of the doubt.

Chinese Labour

An issue which has resonance in 2017, namely migration, was of concern to Archibald Maconochie towards the end of his political career, in 1906. Not that he held to an absolute yes or no on the topic. In response to the question of whether migration was good for Britain and its empire he said it depended upon the immediate context – for example in 1904 he favoured the importation of Chinese labour to the mines of South Africa. At the end of the Boer War private capital and the British state were keen for the systematic extraction of minerals, particularly gold. War had disrupted production; local black labour had drifted to rural areas and towns and was showing a disinclination to accept the harsh conditions of mine owners. A suggestion that white labour might be imported from Europe and beyond to support mineral extraction was opposed on grounds that whites working for wage rates and in conditions formerly the preserve of black labour would undermine the racist division of South Africa. Cheap Chinese labour was the answer. As one commentator for the gold interest put it the greatest hopes lay in China where vast hungry populations vainly sought outlets for their energies. Poor wages, harsh conditions, racism and exclusion from civil rights would be the lot of the Chinese labourer who faced expulsion from the country when its energies were no longer required.

Jewish Pogrom

This type of migration was favoured by Maconochie who like so many of his contemporaries did not mind Chinese labour being imported into South Africa yet he had no wish to have Eastern European Jews admitted to Britain.

The Jews in question were not simply migrating on a whim in search of a different life but were refugees fleeing the bloody pogroms overwhelming Russia and Poland. A report in Aberdeen People’s Journal on a pogrom at Homel (Gomel) in September 1903 described the destruction of hundreds of homes with Jews beaten, bayoneted and stabbed as police, the military and civilians ran amok and again comparisons with today are clear with women, men and children fleeing similar persecution. Many thousands sought safety in the USA whilst others came to Britain seeking sanctuary only to find a growing wave of anti-Semitism which culminated in the landmark Aliens Act of 1905. This weasel-words measure couched its ant-Semitism in terms of undesirable immigrants, travelling steerage and landing at British ports without means of “decent” support and those arriving owing to a disease or infirmity . . . [who were] likely to become a charge upon the rates were to be summarily shipped out. A wall of officialdom was built around Britain’s coasts. Humanitarian need found no place in this legislation.

In an election address of August 1900 Archibald Maconochie had told his audience at Maud –

“I have visited many parts of the world, and I know of no part I go to where strangers, no matter of what nationality, are treated equally, the same as every British subject. Can we say that of any other country, and can we point to any other country where strangers are so well treated as in ours? We cannot.”

1905

Constable John Bull: We’ve admitted a good many aliens before now – in fact I’m a bit of an alien myself. But in future we’re going to draw the line at the likes of you!                                                                               1905

Liberal, we might say, to a fault and of course Maconochie found the fault in 1905 when migrants who travelled first class were quite acceptable but the poor, the disabled and the sick in steerage were altogether another matter – that is if they were east European-Russian Jews. His rhetoric, typical of so much at the time caught the vile spirit of the Act. AWM contrasted the historical example of the Huguenots (significantly Protestants) who he held up as having provided yeoman service in the development of our trade with those immigrants then landing in Britain. According to him these new asylum seekers were criminals, paupers, lunatics, or diseased persons and altogether were not the types of people who were wanted in this country and to allow them in would open the door to crime and moral degeneration as well as threaten the livelihood of British workers. The “Aliens” were willing to work for starvation wages, he complained. He recognised that there were no boat-loads of immigrants coming ashore in Buchan and that the “sweat shops” found in London were unknown in Peterhead but he told his constituents that it remained their bounden duty to keep them out. All this apparently said without using the word Jew, the weasel word “foreigner” standing in for open anti-Semitism.

This was a last hurrah for East Aberdeenshire. Standing on a clear pro-Tory Unionist platform and without the benefit of war psychosis to rouse the electors Maconochie’s racism and protectionist politics were insufficient to see-off the Liberals. On a bigger turn out, although with a far from universal adult electorate, the constituency reverted to its trust in Liberalism. James Annand received 6149 votes to Maconochie’s 4319.

may 1905

Nelson and Britannia May 17 1905
Shade of Nelson – What do you call these, Ma’am?
Britannia – Oh, they’re some of my alien pilots.
Shade of Nelson – What, in British waters? H’m – in my day we kept our secrets to ourselves!
(59 foreign pilots were employed on British coast while British ships abroad were compelled to take native pilots let to calls for an Act to prevent aliens from being granted pilotage certificates for English [sic] waters.)

In 1910 the “Lipton of tinned fish”, as he was once called, asked the voters of Partick to support him. As he’d done ten years earlier he hammered home the message of the German threat. On this occasion Archibald emphasised Germany’s growing naval power as a dangerous challenge to Britain. Germany was after colonies and Maconochie feared a mortal injury would befall the British Empire. Four years later he might have found electors more willing to listen to his woeful prognosis but as in 1906 the electors of 1910 decided to go for the Liberal.

July 26, 2017

 Archibald White Maconochie: Tinned Fish, Tariff Reform & War – Part 1  

A W Maconochie (2)

Guest blog by Textor

At a time when political rats of all descriptions are scuttling to fight for or against Brexit it’s worth bearing in mind that ghostly shadows of today’s dogmas, bigotries and self interest are to be found in the past. Not because the world never changes, but because the stresses and strains of capitalism presents supporters and opponents of different factions with a limited bag of solutions. Eerily for today the brief party political career of Archibald White Maconochie (AWM) mixed the “common sense” of a businessman, ill-trained in politics, with bellicose aims, scandal, racism and demands for something to be done about unfair international trade.

Ad of 1877

 

 Archibald White Maconochie’s business was canning; putting fish, meat and vegetables into tins as well as preserving fruit and making pickles. In the early 1870s with his older sibling James he became one half of Maconochie Brothers. Based in Lowestoft the firm initially dealt in handling and curing fresh herring; a massive trade in late Victorian Britain and supplied fish to the British and European markets. Business grew and by 1878 the brothers had developed a network of contacts around the British coast and in Ireland. Skippers and their boats were contracted as sole suppliers of herring while at the same time the brothers bought fish on the open market.

Pan Yan Pickle ad

Keeping an eye out for opportunities the brothers turned to food preserving – an industry pioneered by Pasteur’s science of sterilisation and with expanding global urban markets the commercial potential was enormous. The Maconochie Brothers while still curing food by older methods enthusiastically entered the new world of tinned foods so much so that by 1878 they were promoting themselves as The Largest Fish & Meat Preserving Factory in Great Britain. Thriving and struggling to cope with the demand for preserved fish James and Archibald decided to go to the heart of the Scottish herring industry, to the Buchan coast and specifically to Fraserburgh where they built Kinnaird Head Works. There at the factory’s two-acre site literally millions of herring were filleted, cleaned and washed by fifty “girls” and either packed into wooden barrels or preserved and canned using up-to-date scientific methods. Above the fish processing area was the tinplate department where men manufactured cans for the busiest season, July and August. The store had capacity to hold up to 2 million tins. With smooth continuous factory production being one of the keys to the profitability of the new industry the empty tins were carried by a shoot to the processors below. Five herrings were packed into 1lb tins by women and lids were soldered on by men prior to entering high pressure steam vessels for sterilisation. It’s worth noting how important female labour was in this system and how up until mechanisation was introduced the handicraft skills of the tinsmiths were crucial in the early days of the trade.

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Archibald White Maconochie (AWM) was aware of the potential for tinsmiths to hobble his business for he knew these skilled men could withdraw labour at the height of landings, and with herring being highly perishable there was a real threat of losing fish, losing profits and customers shifting to competitors. This could be managed either by introducing new technology or taking a hard line with workers. In 1888 at Lowestoft the extent of AWM’s enthusiasm for stopping fractious labour showed when he grabbed tinsmith David Brown by the throat, knocking him down with the apparent intention of strangling him and shouting I’ll have the life out of you yet. Violence was his negotiating stance when workmen had the temerity to question the rate of work and the tools supplied for soldering. The boss was charged with assault and at the Police Court he was found guilty and  fined £2 with the option of one month imprisonment. He chose to pay the fine. But the Maconochie Brothers had the last laugh as they vindictively sued men who walked out in sympathy at the Lowestoft factory at the time of the assault. The company claimed men had broken a legal contract and that under the conditions of the Employers’ and Workmen’s Act of 1875 they, the company, were entitled to £10 compensation from each of the six men pursued. In the event the firm was awarded £1 damages from each man with the tinsmiths also forfeiting two days wages. Not difficult to see who came out of this affair least affected.

An endnote to this tale is that machinery had been developed in the 1870s to put lids on tins which removed one component of the canning process to semi-skilled status. This was not enough for AWM and in 1901 he still fretted over the canning operation and eventually came up with a machine for beading tin lids and so doing away with the need for soldering. With a single operator the mechanism could manufacture 2500 containers per day but this was further improved by his design of a 4-man operated beader which could deliver 6000 tin an hour. These machines he said gave the edge to employers and tinsmiths could no longer hold up the trade.

Maconochie's Ad 2

And trade was not held up. The world became the company’s marketplace especially countries of the empire and as provisioning of British military forces became a necessity Maconochie found the State an enthusiastic customer for his products. Late Victorian imperialist wars were fed by Maconochie and what better to supply the troops than rations with a shelf life of at least two years. According to Baden-Powell

With morale and Maconochie the British soldier can go anywhere and do anything.

 “Maconochie” had become a global brand  Unsurprisingly when Archibald Maconochie turned to politics the problems of the British Empire were central to his campaign.   

Political cartoon AWJ election Sept 26 1900 p.7

It was the General Election of 1900 that achieved a small political profile for AWM when he was elected to represent the constituency of East Aberdeenshire. He’d stood on a Liberal Unionist  platform against the sitting Liberal member T. R. Buchanan a man who favoured Gladstone’s Home Rule for Ireland agenda. In Maconochie’s eyes Irish Members of Parliament, and by extension their supporters, through their demand for Home Rule threatened the very existence of Britain and its empire (it seems that his anti-Irish bias extended to him having a condition in his will that should any of his sons marry a Catholic they would forfeit their inheritance.) As much as he loathed home rulers it was not this that brought him to politics but the more immediate and bloody struggle being fought out in southern Africa, the Boer War. Fought essentially over who would control the area’s goldfields and get access to the strategically important ports round the Cape this, the final war of Victoria’s reign, was a sure indication of mounting international tensions which divided liberals such as Buchanan and socialists like Keir Hardie from bellicose defenders of the rights to empire.

Maconochie fell into the pro-war camp and found a ready supporter in Aberdeen’s conservative paper the Daily Journal. However, regardless of the fact that his business was selling vast amounts of tinned food to the army it would be wrong to attribute his support solely to self-interest. Like so many others of the time his notion of what was best for Britain inextricably linked business and politics with Britain bringing civilisation and some form of material well-being to the rest of the world: plant the flag and let business follow and so native populations could be given proper  “care and protection”. He believed what he described as the Anglo-Saxon race had a great and heavy responsibility. If we look at the way Maconochie treated his own white labour, from direct assault to paternalism, we can conclude how he thought the colonised should be handled. Archibald had in fact a very straight forward way of addressing politics. Sophisticated notions of negotiation, of moral authority and international law were beyond him. In his view all government required was application of business principles to the nation’s affairs.

Maconochie Accident APJ Aug 22 1903

Mr A W Maconochie, MP, had a nasty motor spill on his way to political meetings at Tarves and Methlick last Saturday. The Liberals of East Aberdeenshire are doing their best to effect another spill later on.

 Britain was not alone in the imperial chauvinist dream; Germany and France in particular envied and challenged her as the then premier world power. Archibald Maconochie recognised these growing threats; to take an anti-war position was to open the door to competitors. The only way of confronting commercial-political enemies he said, was the extension of the Empire in order to keep open markets for British trade. Supporters of AWM stressed his local connections and in particular the hundreds employed at the Fraserburgh works pointing to the fact that full employment meant no need for a soup kitchen in the town. Addressing electors Maconochie said Boers needed to be defeated, integrated and made part and parcel of our Imperial Empire. His rival the anti-war Liberal Buchanan fought to retain his seat but he was denounced for his support for Home Rule as giving succour to the enemy and of not supporting troops who were dying on the battlefields of the Transvaal and despite Aberdeen’s liberal newspaper the People’s Journal condemning AWM for having no other platform than being anti-Boer Buchanan lost the election by 73 votes.

In local terms this was a big event as liberalism had long been backed by the area’s agricultural and fishing electorate. The conservative Press was ecstatic; Maconochie had broken the evil tradition of Aberdeenshire Radicalism. In Fraserburgh Kinnaird Head Works declared a half-holiday and workers marched through the streets shouting Maconochie forever. We can imagine that the local anti-war and pro-labour voters were all but silenced at the unionist success but we can only wonder what they thought when in the midst of Fraserburgh celebrations the new Member of Parliament found eager workers willing to unhitch horses from his carriage and yoke themselves to draw Maconochie to his factory. It is undoubtedly the case that Archibald’s victory was down to his opposition to the Boers and defence of British troops then dying on the veld. Fourteen years later a similar febrile, pro-empire mood also had men swarming to the flag.

1900

Columbia to Britannia: You mustn’t mind those noisy boys of mine, it’s election time. May 16 1900

Maconochie’s anti-Boer view reached fever-point in 1901 when he told the good folks of New Deer that it was for every man to do his utmost to support the Government . . . If a man encouraged the enemy he was no patriot, and was not fit to live among us . . . kid gloves must be taken off and war ended as speedily as possible a sentiment endorsed by the editor of the Daily Journal who described Radicals as a cause of humiliation and shame to Scotchmen in all parts of the world. Addressing constituents at Strichen AWM went so far as to sympathise with the view that anybody expressing support for the Boers should be shot.

 With the end of the Boer War in 1902 the central plank of Maconochie’s platform fell away. He was a bit like Donald Trump left with a rag-bag of opinions and prejudices which mingled commercial instrumentalism with half-digested economic theory. For example on taking his seat in Parliament he was astonished at how backward and hidebound by tradition the process of parliamentary voting was, with walking in and out of yes-no lobbies. This he said could be made easier, more efficient by giving each member electric bells to register approval or disapproval of motions resulting in more or less instantaneous results. In a similar rejection of tradition AWM wanted to throw out aspects of the humanist education syllabus in particular he saw no need for Greek and Latin to be taught. These languages served little purpose in a world of competitive commerce he claimed, better that students spoke German and French. Maconochie did fall in with fellow liberals in his support for old age pensions and as for trade unions he judged them okay so long as they did not actually interfere with employer’s right to set the rates of production. Too often, he said, unions were implicated in ca-canny policies, robbing management of its rights and undermining competitiveness. In other words they might be fine as friendly societies but unacceptable if they challenged the distribution of property and economic power.

MB ad 1877

As manager of a business with international reach Maconochie’s view of the world was saturated with notions of competition. He saw the world in terms of struggles, between firms, between nations and also a social-Darwinist hierarchy of racial division. And there’s no doubt that he was correct to identify deepening international competition as being profoundly important to the well-being of the British Empire. Times were changing, the historical advantage industrial and commercial Britain once had was under threat. Across the pond the USA had emerged as a growing power with its state providing protection to some home-grown industries. In Europe Germany in particular was aggressively pursuing industrialisation and colonisation with the intention of promoting what it regarded as its national right. In Britain these antagonisms highlighted the need for an active and even aggressive defence of national interest. Private capitalism and state institutions were in deep embrace, or as Archibald put it trade followed the flag, for trade was sustained by the flag, and the trade led the flag. So it was with some prescience he predicted that this competition would lead to war with Germany.

unnamed

Planting the flag

Part 2 to follow

The demonisation of foreign workers; the emergence of the Consolidated Pneumatic Tool Company; dodgy war rations; continuing xenophobia- Chinese, European Jews and threat to the Empire.

March 2, 2017

The Fate of the Embroiderer from Peterhead

It was in 1707 that fraudulent bankruptcy became a capital crime in England; what the penalty for personal sequestration in Scotland was then I have not been able to discover but I suppose an English hanging may have been preferable to the French punishment of strangulation. 

embroidery-1

Peterhead’s Alexander Thompson was about thirty years old when he found himself on trial at the Old Bailey in London in February 1756. Brought up in the Blue Toon in the northeast of Scotland, Thompson was educated to some degree, as were most Scots children, in the basics of reading and writing.

Like many of his countrymen and women before him, Thompson travelled abroad, first to Paris where he learned the specialized craft of embroidery.  No mere stitchers embroiderers were skilled in designing patterns used to create gorgeous intricate needlework that would be used decorating clothing worn by the wealthy and for home furnishings. 

After five years in France and still a young man in his early twenties Thompson took his experience as an embroiderer to Holland where he carried out his trade for several years, enhancing his reputation as a successful businessman in both Rotterdam and Amsterdam, before turning up in England.

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In London he took lodgings in a ‘reputable’ coffee house and enjoyed the high life of the city; forever visiting entertainments. It was at a dance he met his prospective wife, Lydia Davis, but safe to say her father wasn’t keen on his prospective son-in-law. Lydia, or rather her father, had some money as apparently did Thompson and the couple moved into a comfortable house in St. James’s, Westminster. From there Thompson earned a living as embroiderer, dealer and a chapman (seller of cheap popular books.)

However, Thompson was of the mind that all work makes Jack a dull boy and quickly the marriage turned sour and the couple separated. Then one evening Thompson asked his wife to go dancing with him and together they went to Fish Street Hill which appeared to have prompted something of reconciliation. They were at a friend’s house when at around four in the morning on the 20th February 1755 the marital home, where Thompson still carried on his business, went up in flames. Fortunately it was well insured nevertheless all his work materials were lost as well as personal belongings and more importantly two people, both servants, died in the fire.  

Rumours abounded that Thompson had been seen in the neighbourhood before the fire broke out, denied by Thompson who maintained he was with his wife the whole of that night. He collected an insurance payout of £500 despite the property having been insured for £900 and immediately went off to a tavern with his father-in-law and a friend to pay off a debt. It emerged Thompson was in debt to several people but despite having enough money in hand he chose not to discharge his debts which amounted to no more than £200 and sent a note to his wife informing her he was leaving London.

His marriage over Thompson sailed for Scotland and in his absence he was declared bankrupt by the courts in England. He later claimed he knew nothing of this although he would have been well aware when he turned his back on England he left as a debtor and failure to discharge debts was then a very serious offence.

Thompson arrived in Edinburgh, described erroneously as the north of Scotland in English court papers and in the southern press. He was still only in his twenties and before long he got married again. History repeated itself when he found this father-in-law was none-too-keen on him either and kept at him to pay off his debts which Thompson must have admitted to so Thompson, possibly reluctantly, sailed back to London. Knowing he was in trouble not only over the money he owed but having committed bigamy Thompson persuaded a woman he met there to impersonate his English wife and swear before a lawyer that they had not been married but only cohabiting in an attempt to make his Scottish marriage legal.

embroidery-3

The attempted fraud was quickly discovered when under pressure the woman broke down and admitted the deception. Thompson was apprehended and dragged before his English father-in-law who identified him. In no time Thompson found himself locked up in Clerkenwell New Prison and later Newgate. His bigamy was by now the least of his worries.

During his absence in Edinburgh the London courts issued an order for his appearance before the Commissioners in Bankruptcy at the Guildhall “to make a full discovery and disclosure of his estate and effects, when and where the creditors are to come prepared to prove their debts.” Having failed to comply, Thompson hired a legal representative to argue he had no knowledge of the matter, being in Scotland at the time. He was put on trial for bankruptcy and failing to comply with an interdict to deal with it. His declaration he knew nothing of the action did not wash with the jury and he was condemned to death for not surrendering himself to the Commissioners’ scrutiny.

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

William Robertson’s portrait of Flora Macdonald

Meanwhile at Edinburgh Baillie Court that July an action was taken out against Thompson by William Robertson, a limner,* for what I don’t know  as the court papers are missing and an application was made by Margaret Lamb, daughter of George Lamb, a wright of Potterow, against Alexander Thompson for his bigamous marriage to her.

Despondent in his English goal Thompson wrote several letters imploring understanding of his situation including one sent to his English father-in-law demanding his help. Thompson, a Protestant, also railed at the church for failing to support him and increasingly desperate angrily declared his desire to die a Catholick. His rekindled interest in religion found him penning prayers, attending chapel and spending time in quiet devotional meditation which led him to regret his ill-treatment of his English wife. And so a contrite Thompson calmly faced the hangman’s rope – and in doing so left two widows.

* artist, or portraits or miniatures

July 2, 2016

Scotland’s Gulag Peterheid Jail takes no prisoners

Scotland’s toughest jail – Peterhead or Peterheid as it is rightly known with emphasis on the heid more than Peter has its roots in the Blue Toon’s huge whaling and fishing industries which made the town into the largest fish market in Europe.

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When, in the 1880s, the Admiralty proposed a need for a harbour of refuge in the north of Scotland Peterhead bay, stuck out into the North Sea (German Ocean), and a thriving port to boot with stone quarries nearby came top of the list as the obvious choice. One potential setback was that the industrious and wealthy folk of Peterhead had no desire to do any backbreaking quarrying themselves so the question was posed where might they find a reservoir of labour in no position to turn down what amounted to very hard labour?

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We’ll build a prison, some bright spark suggested. And build a prison they did. Scotland’s hardest jail which housed the country’s biggest criminals, thugs and heidbangers was also conveniently distant from the foci of political agitation and so came to house Sinn Feiners, socialists, communists and anarchists in the earlier twentieth century. Peterhead, Scotland’s Gulag claimed those who regarded anywhere north of Perth as close to the Arctic Circle.

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In 1889 Peterhead Prison opened in the Blue Toon and construction of the new harbour began, along with roads and a railway running between the prison, the local quarries and harbour. Seven days a week convicts were wakened around 5am, given breakfast then transported, still shackled, on their own dedicated trains. They sat in windowless compartments, around 100 at a time, for the short journey to the main quarry at Stirling Hill, along with equipment, sledgehammers and such used to smash stone. Granite, sand and gravel were transported in the opposite direction – to the harbour where other men were employed in building the new safe harbour. The Peterhead Prison railway became Britain’s first state owned passenger railway.

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Wagon from one of Peterhead prison’s railway stock

This project was unique and an immense undertaking which accounts for the seventy years it took to complete the north breakwater. By that time Peterhead jail was a fixture in the town. That original prison, or part of it, exists today as a museum – and what a fascinating place it is. There is still an active prison in the town, housing women as well as men; a modern facility with single en-suite accommodation, video-links home and gym featuring a glass wall facing the sea.   DSC02668

The old jail is well worth a visit. The buildings that have been turned into a museum retain something of the atmosphere of a prison without the stench not least because of a very good narrative provided via headphones.
Immediately striking is the size of old cells: 7 feet X 5 feet and 9 feet high – tiny spaces with a small window of reinforced opaque glass. A curious exception was made after the Great War when some English convicts were sent north for another construction venture, this time an aerodrome, and their cells were two knocked into one. Perhaps their conditions had to match English prison regulations but that’s just my speculation.

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As places within Scotland’s prisons grew scarce prisoners had to budge up and Peterhead suffered from overcrowding which must have made it difficult for inmates and warders trying to supervise out-of-cell activities such as washing and slopping out; the earliest prisoners would have been kept in manacles most of the time.
There was never a shortage of men to fill Peterhead’s cells; its initial intake arrived from Glasgow by special train called the Black Maria in 1889. The men, often violent and dangerous, soon found they were in for years of hard labour and regulars on the quarry trains, under the constant eyes of armed guards – for the men had to be unshackled to work and there was a great chance many would attempt to escape.

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The jail’s warders were at first armed with cutlasses and swords and later redundant rifles after the Great War. Prisoners were forbidden from getting any closer than an arm and cutlass distance from a warder or risk being slashed.

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Special cell to house vulnerable prisoners painted in soft colours with safety a priority

Cell doors all had ventilation flaps which must have done little to help the circulation of air in the stifling atmosphere crowded men who rarely washed.

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D-Hall

Cells were simply furnished and what was there had to be screwed down so not to become potential weapons. The first cells were lit by wee gas lights which were protected from inmates interfering with them and in early years beds were narrow hammocks.

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Doing porridge at Peterhead obviously included porridge for breakfast as well as traditional Scotch broth, a lot of bread, tatties and herring in season. We all know that when we are hungry, bored or stressed our thoughts often focus hugely on food and with so it was at Peterhead where protests often centred on what was on the menu.

Red Clydesider John MacLean described his time at Peterhead – prisoners were awakened each morning when the 5am bell was rung. They made their beds and washed then took their breakfast which consisted of a substantial bowl of porridge made from half a pound of meal and three quarters pint of skimmed milk. They were then let out of their cells and searched before boarding the quarry train or to the harbour for its construction. Back to the prison then at 11.30am for dinner of broth, beef and tatties, maybe cheese, bread and marg. After more hard labour they returned to jail at 5.30 for supper of nearly a pound hunk of loaf and pint of coffee. Lights out was at 8.30pm.

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Being incarcerated in Peterhead must have been horrific and there are always vulnerable people who slip into situations that lead to imprisonment – people who shouldn’t be jailed but treated but there are others who are just plain bad (I’m not a psychoanalyst you’ll have noticed.) For the early prisoners carrying out hard labour in the granite quarry life must have been truly horrendous. Because they could move around in the open air they were tightly guarded by armed warders. At least one prisoner was shot attempting to escape from the quarry. The work itself was backbreaking and carried on seven days a week. For some that was enough to destroy their health.

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A gang feud ends in violence

I mentioned prisoners working in the quarry were unshackled from necessity but normally prisoners were kept in chain in their cells until the 1930s. You’d have thought there was little opportunity for prisoners to cause problems for the warders but certainly they did with punishments meted out including the car o’ nine tails. Prisoners were secured to a frame and the lash applied to their backs. DSC02672

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Prisoners were secured to this frame to receive whipping from the cat o’ nine tails

Peterhead prison had became Scotland’s main convict jail because of its remoteness from its main catchment, Glasgow. The notorious gangster T. C. Campbell complained it was responsible for ruining his family life as it took such a long time to drive from Glasgow to Peterhead in the days before there was a motorway even to Aberdeen. I should point out there is still no motorway to Aberdeen from the south OR the north. Motorways in Scotland stop at Perth but that doesn’t stop criminals continuing to come north to deal drugs or commit robberies.

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Isolation cell, soundproofed and dark to deprive a prisoner on punishment of all sensory stimulus. The bed is a concrete slab.

The well-equipped laundry which existed towards the latter years of the prison provided a service very different from those early years when underwear was changed once a fortnight. Prisoners’ uniforms differed over the years but heavy moleskin featured a fair amount throughout.

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Dirty protests in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s

Peterhead had a number of small exercise yards all with locked doors – obviously and one of those yards was made into an aviary by Peterhead’s equivalent of the Birdman of Alcatraz. Patiently day after day he surreptitiously snipped through its chain link fence until he was able to squeeze through, climb out and up and make his way across roofs, over the perimeter wall and away under cover of darkness but he injured himself in the process and was soon recaptured.

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Another story told at the museum is of a prisoner who missed the train back from the quarry and was found making his way back to the prison along its railway line but anyone thinking of escapes from Peterheid will immediately recall Johnny Ramensky.
Ramensky was a Scottish career criminal specialised in safe-blowing and became a long-term resident of prisons. Gentle Ramensky, as he was known, spent most of his life in prison – forty out of sixty-seven years. He made five escape attempts from Peterheid, none too successful but full marks for invention and determination. A book about him is on sale at the prison.

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All kinds of drugs find their way into prison

Ramensky’s skills were put to use for the war effort during WWII when he became a Royal Fusilier -in January 1943 (straight out of Peterhead.) He was transferred to the Commandos to teach them how to handle explosives.
He was also dropped by parachute behind enemy lines to carry out sabotage operations including blowing up German command safes holding military documents. Having a Lithuanian background he was also employed as a translator during the repatriation of Lithuathians from Germany.

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Another famous episode in the life of Peterhead jail was the D-Hall riot and siege in September 1987 when prison officer Jackie Stuart was beaten up and taken prisoner by inmates, tied him with ropes and forced onto the prison roof. This was a tense time for all concerned and after 5 days Thatcher sent in the SAS to end it.

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I urge you to get yourself along to Peterhead Prison aka Admiralty Gateway and experience life behind bars, if you haven’t already, for it is a different world in there.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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