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The Story of Leith
XXXI. The Commerce of Leith


ANY account bearing upon the history of the commerce and shipping of Leith should not fail to include reference to the body by which the affairs of the Port have been administered—and that with outstanding success—for close upon one hundred years. This, then, may be conveniently introduced at this point.

The Commissioners for the Harbour and Docks of Leith, the title by which they are officially designated, although more commonly styled the Leith Dock Commission, came into existence in 1826. For a very long time previous to that the City of Edinburgh had, by right of royal grants and otherwise, enjoyed the position of proprietor of the harbour, and latterly also of the two docks, the construction of which, as stated in the preceding chapter, was completed in 1817.

To meet the cost of these docks, Edinburgh had had to borrow large sums of money from time to time. Her administration of affairs was not successful; so both her own finances and those of the Port of Leith fell into a serious condition. The management of the harbour and docks was put into the hands of a new composite body of twenty-one Commissioners, on which, however, she continued for about a dozen years to enjoy a preponderating voice. These changes took effect in 1826, and the settlement then made continued in operation till 1838.

In the month of July of that year an Act of Parliament, commonly styled the "City Agreement Act," terminated the control by the municipality of Edinburgh of the management of the docks and harbour of Leith. Certain financial burdens, it is true, were put upon the dock revenues; but these have been redeemed by payments from time to time out of accumulated surplus income, the last being discharged in 1896. By the Act of 1838 the composition of the Commission was entirely changed, and the number of its members reduced to eleven. Of these five were appointed by the Treasury, three by the Town Council of Edinburgh, and three by that of Leith. But to ensure that the affairs of the Commission would be free of the control of either of these councils, it was enacted that no member of either of them was eligible for election as a Commissioner. This prohibition has been removed of recent years, and councillors may now serve on the Dock Commission.

The affairs of the docks and harbour were conducted under the "City Agreement Act" up till 1876, when an Act known as the "Leith Harbour and Docks Act" came into operation. It may be said that this Act forms the basis upon which the existing superstructure of the dock undertaking is founded. Its provisions placed upon a much more popular footing the constituencies which sent representatives to the Commission, as well as the modes of elections; it brought into accord with modem conditions many of the working arrangements; and it revised and simplified the charges upon ships and goods for the accommodation provided and the services rendered. These various arrangements have since been modified in certain directions; and the passing of the "Edinburgh Extension Act" of 1920, by which Edinburgh and Leith were amalgamated in municipal affairs, had a certain bearing upon them. The Commission now consists of fifteen members. Six of these are elected by those who pay dock rates amounting to not less than £4 per annum; three members are chosen by the owners of ships registered at the Port of Leith upon which dues are paid; the Town Council of the now extended City of Edinburgh sends three; while the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, the Edinburgh Merchant Company, and the Leith Chamber of Commerce each returns one member.

Under the administration of the body constituted by these successive Acts the Port has prospered and progressed greatly. The services of the gentlemen who have composed it—for up till now ladies, though eligible, have not ventured to sit upon the Board, by many regarded as the local "Upper House" —have, of course, been given entirely without remuneration. Till recent years contests for the seats pertaining to the ratepayers were of frequent occurrence; but this state of matters may be said to be at an end for the present. While, therefore, it cannot be maintained that a burning desire to serve upon the Commission has been uniformly manifested, it has all along been possible to secure for this branch of public service a constant succession of the most capable and far-seeing men in the business communities of Edinburgh and Leith. It may be justly claimed that the undertaking known as the Harbour and Docks of Leith affords one of the most outstanding examples in this country of disinterested and successful management in the public interest of what in the broadest sense is a valuable national asset. The fact that it has been managed for decades by local individuals, free from bureaucratic interference or govenmental control, has, without doubt, contributed to this in large measure.

Some particulars indicating the extent of the shipping trade of Leith and the financial position of the Dock Commission will be given later on.

In the preceding chapter some account was given of the progress of the Port in the latter part of the eighteenth century and of the first two decades of the succeeding one. About this time steam navigation began to occupy the thoughts of shipowners, shipbuilders, and engineers. In this connection, as in not a few others, Leith was well to the fore. A paddle steamer named the Experiment was built in 1788, to plans made by Patrick Stewart of Dalswinton; but not much seems to have come of this. About five-and-twenty years passed before the first regular steamer traded upon the Firth of Forth. She was named the Lady of the Lake, and sailed between Leith and Alloa. A considerable time elapsed, however, before steam became common as a means of propulsion in the oversea trade of Leith. In the meantime a company was formed in 1822 to carry on trade with Australian ports, chiefly Sydney. It owned four sailing ships of what was then considered large size. For a time the "Australian Company," as it was styled, conducted a satisfactory trade; but it later proved unsuccessful, and was wound up after a trading history of fifteen or sixteen years.

At this time several Leith vessels were engaged in a trade which later became quite extinct here—that is, the whale fishing. The ships composing the fleet usually sailed on the same day some time in March, and it seems to have been regarded as a general holiday annually. The fishing grounds were customarily either off Greenland or in the Davis Straits. In the latter case seven or eight months would be occupied, the voyage to the former being generally somewhat shorter. When time permitted, the vessels frequently made an additional trip within the twelve months to the West Indies for rum and sugar, Leith being at that time one of the centres of the sugar-refining industry in Scotland. Several of these whaling ships belonged to the brothers Wood, Peter and Christopher, who carried on a blubber-smelting business in the Timber Bush. The smell was naturally strong and rather offensive; and with the wind in certain directions while the process of smelting was going on the people of Leith would remark to each other that Peter Wood’s scent bottle was at work that day!

The rapid extension of the shipping trade, the increasing size of the vessels, and the introduction of steam navigation, presented problems to the reconstituted Dock Commission immediately after its formation in 1838, as already recounted. Reports and plans were prepared by several gentlemen during the ensuing six or eight years; but it was not until 1847 that parliamentary powers to increase the accommodation were obtained. The construction of the Victoria Dock was commenced forthwith, and completed in 1852, although the sheds and equipment, and other improvements connected with the piers, etc., were not finished till about three years later. For about ten years after the Victoria Dock was opened the accommodation of the Port sufficed for its needs; but the continued growth in the volume of traffic called for not only more dock and quay space, but that that should be suitable for the requirements of a constantly increasing size of vessel. To provide this the Albert Dock was begun in 1863, its construction occupying six years. It was equipped with hydraulic machinery, the first of its kind in Scotland.

While the Commissioners, as will be thus seen, were continually striving to meet the demands of the trade of the Port, so far as their financial resources permitted, these demands continued to grow at a constantly increasing rate. Graving docks of larger and still larger sizes had to be provided; increased shed accommodation had to be supplied; more quay space for the storage of timber and similar commodities had to be found; and a handsome swing-bridge across the harbour had to be built. This bridge, it may be said, was for a considerable time the largest of its kind in this country, the clear span being one hundred and twenty feet. All these. and other extensions and improvements, were carried out from time to time as the needs arose, and as circumstances allowed. And yet the incessant call was for more, and still more.

About this time, also, a matter was taking place elsewhere which had a bearing of some moment upon Leith ships and shipping, both then and since—the construction and opening of the Suez Canal. Among the more enterprising of the Leith shipowners of that day was a Mr. Donald R. Macgregor, who later became Member of Parliament for the Leith District of Burghs. Foreseeing that the new route to the East could not fail to greatly affect the flow of commerce between Great Britain and India, China, Japan, and our Australian Colonies, Mr. Macgregor set himself, with characteristic vigour, to meet the new conditions in the Far Eastern trades. With the aid of local capital, ships and men were provided and connections formed which, for a considerable period, brought profitable employment to both. Mr. Macgregor himself, it is true, was not entirely successful financially, but up till the present day the relations thus brought about between Leith and the East remain in part at least.

The growing trade, particularly with America, and the still increasing tonnage of the vessels frequenting the Port, put pressure upon the Dock Commission for further dock and quay accommodation, and led to the making of the Edinburgh Dock. This necessitated, to begin with, the building of a great seawall on the sands to the east of the then existing dock works. Begun in 1874, this occupied some three years; and by it over one hundred acres were reclaimed from the Firth of Forth. Within this area the dock itself was made; the work being so far completed by July 1881 as to permit of its being opened for traffic by the Duke of Edinburgh.

Imperial Dry Dock and Entrance to Harbour

A lapse of about a dozen years served again to bring up the ever-recurring subject of additional accommodation. The greatly extended trade with America was attracting to Leith vessels of a size taxing to the utmost both the depth of water available and the capacity of the sheds to accommodate the cargoes. Parliamentary powers were therefore obtained for a new deep-water dock upon the foreshore to the north-west of the Albert Dock. Being entered from a point considerably farther down the harbour than any of the other docks, it has a substantially greater depth of water, the gauge sometimes registering at spring tides fully thirty-one and a half feet on its sill. The Imperial Dock, as it was named, was opened in 1904. Equipped with extensive sheds, hoists of exceptionally large size for shipping coals and similar bulk cargoes without handling, powerful cranes for dealing with heavy pieces of machinery and cargo, and with a most valuable adjunct in the form of a very large dry dock, it very quickly proved a splendid addition to the undertaking under the charge of the Commissioners.

For some time previous to the outbreak of war in 1914 plans were in existence for a great extension of the dock estate. These provide for the reclamation of a large portion of the foreshore between Leith and Newhaven. This, it will be remembered, was proposed by Rennie fully a century earlier, although in a somewhat different form. On the ground so reclaimed it is contemplated to place further dock accommodation; to supply greatly increased facilities for the prosecution of the fishing industry; and to afford room for the storage of wood and other commodities. The present conditions as regards two most important factors, however, militate strongly against proceeding immediately with this work. On the one hand the costs of construction meantime stand at an unprecedented height. This would place an exceptionally heavy burden for many years upon the resources of the Commission if the undertaking were carried out while this continues. The volume of traffic, on the other hand, has as yet shown only a partial recovery from the great set-back experienced in several directions during the war. This, again, while minimizing the need for increased accommodation for the present, also reduces substantially the surplus revenue at the disposal of the Commissioners for such purposes. It seems probable, therefore, that some years must elapse before this projected extension can become an accomplished fact.

The area of the existing dock estate is 375 acres, of which 1044 acres are occupied by the docks and harbour. There are six wet docks and eight dry docks, the length of the quays of the former and the inner harbour measuring 24,020 feet. As already stated, the recent war greatly interfered with not a few branches of the shipping trade of Leith—quite a number of these, indeed, were completely stopped, of which several have up till now given no indication of an early resumption. The high-water mark of Leith’s shipping trade as regards volume was reached in 1913. According to the statistics compiled by the Leith Dock Commission, the imports amounted during the twelve months to Whitsunday in that year to 1,564,991 tons, while the exports reached 3,081,046 tons, a total inward and outward of 4,646,037 tons. The quantities of the more important commodities were:-

Import - Exports

Many of these classes of goods, it will be seen, constitute the raw materials or the finished products of not a few of our local industries.

The total revenue of the Commissioners in the year in question amounted to £163,546, comprising £40,082 upon ships, £76,606 upon goods, and £46,858 for charges for the use of dry docks, sheds, rails, and other miscellaneous sources of income. Owing, however, to the greatly enhanced rates which the very much higher costs of working and maintenance necessitated, the revenue for the twelve months ending Whitsunday 1921 reached the amount of £299,159, being about £2,000 below that of the preceding year, which constituted a record in the annals of the Port. The amount to May 15, 1921, represented £96,053 upon ships, £94,421 upon 958,489 tons of imports and 727,725 tons of exports, and £108,685 of miscellaneous receipts.

From first to last the sums expended upon the harbour arid docks and their equipment have exceeded £3,500,000. The present value of the whole undertaking is put considerably above that; while the debt remaining upon it at Whitsunday 1921 was £1,008,639.

West and East Piers

Of the shipowning companies and firms whose headquarters are at Leith the oldest is undoubtedly Messrs. George Gibson and Company, Ltd., which was founded in 1797: indeed it is recorded that as far back as 1758 a Mr. Mungo Campbell Gibson was connected with the shipping trade of the Port, and it is believed that this connection has continued unbroken from then till now. There has recently been incorporated with the company the firm of Messrs. James Rankine and Son, whose head office was in Glasgow, although their principal shipping port was Grangemouth. The combined fleet numbers seventeen steamers, by which an extensive business is conducted, principally with the Dutch, Belgian, and northern French ports. These trades lying directly within the scope of the naval operations in the North Sea during the late war, it fell to the lot of quite a number of their steamers to traverse during its course between one hundred and two hundred times the zone most frequented by the enemy submarines. It is therefore not a matter of surprise that ten of their vessels were sunk by them.

Picture taken about 1933. Front row in the middle: P.M. Verloove
Picture taken about 1933. Front row in the middle: P.M. Verloove

[From 1927 till about 1934 my grandfather, P.M. Verloove, has been manager of the branch office of Gibson & Rankine's at Calandstraat 7, Rotterdam. The Chamber of Commerce of Rotterdam has kept no files of this branch office, although it was entered in the commercial register. So I would like to inquire at the present-day company of Gibson & Rankine's, or their successors, if they have kept some historical information about their former branch office (for example letters written by my grandfather, staff lists). Moreover I have a picture of my grandfather with his staff (above) and perhaps visiting staff from Scotland. Perhaps they can help me to identify (some of) the persons on the picture. If you know anything then email remraap@hetnet.nl]

The present head of the company is Mr. Robert A. Somerville, who is assisted by his brother, Mr. Hugh C. Somerville, and Messrs. John and David Macgill. In the year 1850 the firm of Messrs. Gibson put its first steamer; the Balmoral, into the Leith and Rotterdam trade. Previous to that time it had been carried on by sailing vessels of moderate size. The occasion of the first strike of dock workers recorded at Leith, which took place in connection with a steamer which Messrs. Gibson had built some years later, may be worthy of mention. To facilitate the work of loading and discharging steam winches had been provided; but on her being berthed at Leith the men refused to make use of the gear, as it would "take the bread out of the mouths" of several of them by reducing the time taken to do the work, and perhaps also the number required.

The Clipper "Isabella"

It was stated in the preceding chapter that the London and Edinburgh Shipping Company, Ltd., was established in 1809. These were the days of the famous smacks, which were followed by the almost equally famous Aberdeen-built clippers. It was one of this Company’s clippers, the Isabella, from Canton, that brought into Leith the first cargo of tea which had ever been shipped to any British port except London. This was in 1833, when the Charter of the East India Company, which up to that time had the monopoly of the tea trade with China and British India, came to an end and the trade became free. The cargo, whose arrival excited the greatest interest in the Port, was for Messrs. Andrew Melrose and Company, the well-known tea merchants, who now own extensive warehouses in Leith.

A few years later, however, the general introduction of steam navigation entirely put an end to the service carried on by these very fine and splendidly commanded vessels, and the introduction of a fleet of steamers for the trade between the Thames and the Forth took place. During the war the company lost four of its vessels, the fleet now numbering seven. The manager is M.r George C. Duff, who joined it in 1907 as assistant manager, and was promoted to his present position in 1916.

Although its foundation was somewhat later, The Leith, Hull, and Hamburg Steam Packet Company, Ltd., has become possessed of numerically the largest local fleet. About the year 1836 a few gentlemen combined to run steamers from Leith to Dundee and to Hull. It is said that for a time their starting point was the now defunct Chain Pier at Trinity, and that the Fife ports formed their objective. One of the leading partners was Mr. Thomas Barclay, a brother of the head of the great shipbuilding concern known latterly as Messrs. Barclay, Curle and Company, Ltd., Glasgow. The venture prospered, the fleet increased, and various new trades were in turn inaugurated. In 1862 the late Mr. James Currie joined the company as manager, his brother, the late Sir Donald Currie, having become a partner some time before. Mr. Currie died in 1900, and his elder son, Mr. James Currie, M.A., LL.D., J.P., was appointed to the vacant post. The management continues to be conducted under the style of "James Currie and Company," Mr. Currie’s brother, Mr. Alastair Currie, C.A., being associated with him in the conduct of the company’s business.

When the war with Germany broke out in 1914 its fleet numbered thirty-six steamers, besides about a score of small vessels for local services. Among the ports with which it carried on regular services were Newcastle, Sunderland, Hull, Hamburg, Bremen, Christiansand, Copenhagen, Stettin, Danzig, Pillau, Königsberg, and Libau, besides less frequent sailings to other Baltic ports, and to those in the Mediterranean and North Africa. As the direct outcome of the years of war the company lost eighteen of its steamers—sunk by submarines or mines or seized by the enemy—besides two detained in German ports on its outbreak, but returned after its conclusion; and three other losses of which two were indirectly occasioned by the war. Besides its other services it carries on a long-established trade between Liverpool and Manchester on this side and Hamburg and Bremen on the other. Its fleet at present numbers twenty-one.

Of considerably more recent date than those already mentioned, the firm of Messrs. William Thomson and Company owns a fleet of twenty steamers—the well-known "Ben" line—which by reason of their large size give at present a greater total tonnage than that of any other Leith concern. These are mostly engaged in the Far Eastern trade, their principal port for loading and discharging in this country being London. They are, however, not infrequent visitors to Leith, their home port. The principal managing owners are Mr. William Thomson and Sir James Wishart Thomson. The manifold public services of the latter gentleman, both at home and in the East in the course of the war, during which his company lost five large vessels, earned for him the well-merited title of K.B.E.

The firm of Messrs. Chr. Salvesen and Company, with a fleet at present of eleven steamers, carries on an extensive general trade, largely with Mediterranean ports. It has also a numerous fleet of other vessels engaged in the interesting industry of whale fishing at South Georgia, in the far south of the Atlantic Ocean. Eight of their steamers were lost during the war. The three partners in the firm are Messrs. J. T. Salvesen, F. G. Salvesen, J.P., and T. E. Salvesen, J.P., the first-named gentleman being Norwegian Consul and the last named French Consular Agent and Vice-consul for Finland.

Undoubtedly the largest proportionate loss of tonnage arising out of the war was sustained by Messrs. James Cormack and Company. Their pre-war fleet numbered eleven, and of these the war deprived them of ten. Their trade was mainly conducted with Russian ports—Riga and Archangel, chiefly—and this is one of those which up till now have shown no signs of an early revival. The head of the firm is Mr. James Cormack, J.P., who is assisted in its management by his two sons, Messrs. James Cormack, Jun., and A. C. Cormack.

The other local shipping companies and firms include Messrs. Thomas C. Steven and Company; the New Line, Ltd., managed by Sir Richard Mackie’s firm of Messrs. Richard Mackie and Company; and Messrs. A. F. Henry and Macgregor, Ltd., all of whose vessels are employed in the general European and coasting business.

Besides those already named, a number of others carry on very extensive shipping trades with Leith, although their headquarters are located elsewhere. Among the more important of these are the North of Scotland and Orkney and Shetland Steam Navigation Company, Ltd., whose designation amply indicates the sphere of its operations; Messrs. Furness, Withy, and Company, Ltd., by which a very extensive American trade is conducted, as well as others with Danish ports and with Iceland; the Coast Lines, Ltd., whose steamers call at the various ports between Leith and Liverpool, besides at one or two on the north-east coast of England; the General Steam Navigation Company, Ltd., conducting a regular service with London; the Antrim Iron Ore Company, Ltd., whose vessels trade regularly between Belfast and the north of England, calling at Leith and the Shipping and Coal Company, Ltd., which carries on a line with Amsterdam.

From what has been already said, it may be gathered that the services rendered to the nation by the shipping community of Leith during the Great War were, in proportion to its resources, surpassed by none, if equalled by any other. The shipowners and their men vied with each other in their willingness, even their anxiety, to respond to their country’s call. However heavy the toll taken by the enemy submarines upon his own or his neighbours’ vessels, no shipowner hesitated for a moment to place his ships at the disposal of the Government. However serious the risk to life and limb, no vessel was ever detained for one hour by hesitation on the part of the crew to embark on the most perilous of voyages. In two or three cases the owners of fine steamers and of handsome yachts placed these for lengthened periods at the disposal of the authorities free of all charge. Men who had undergone shipwreck by mine or torpedo, sometimes more than once or twice, and whose shipmates in many instances had perished before their eyes, were found as ready to "sign on" again for further service as before their first experience of this nature.

The fifty-five vessels of the eight shipping concerns already referred to as having been sunk or otherwise lost through the war by no means exhaust the list of those belonging to Leith whose end came about in this way. Practically one half of the tonnage of the Port was thus destroyed. But the men who, knowing the dangers and daring all, went forth on their hazardous enterprises that Britain might be served and saved—went forth, but returned no more—these men, good and true, heroes all, Leith holds in everlasting remembrance their name endureth for ever. And of the others who, going about their peaceful business in great waters, met and fought and overcame their country’s foes as gallantly as did their progenitors of earlier centuries - shall not a word also be set down to record their deeds?

S.S. "Coblenz" in Kiel Canal, 1921

One such vessel, the Coblenz, commanded by Captain Henry G. Speed, on a homeward voyage from Italian ports, encountering an enemy submarine, was subjected to a lengthy attack. Armed with a small-calibre gun for purposes of defence, the master mustered his men, made his dispositions, and replied with such spirit and effect that after a two hours’ combat the enemy was fain to submerge and escape from the deadly counterattack of the brave men from Leith. But for the fortunate circumstance that an enemy shell which lodged in the coal-bunker failed to explode, probably not one of the passengers or crew would have been left to tell the tale. While the ship suffered severely from the battering to which she was subjected, the gallant men aboard of her did not get off scot-free. One passenger was so badly wounded that he succumbed and died in two or three days, while a member of the crew had his leg shattered, and, there being no doctor aboard, the captain, after driving off the enemy, had to get out his surgical instruments and amputate the damaged limb. Of such stuff are Leith’s seafarers still made—worthy sons of their gallant sires, some of whose exploits have already been recounted in these pages.


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