KENSPECKLE FIGURES IN PRESTONPANS OVER 50 YEARS AGO
Jessie D Beith
When conditions and people are changing so much today, it is
often a stabilising force to look back on times when people were
in the same occupation for forty years at least. The doyen of
them all was T G Young, headmaster of Prestonpans Primary' School.
Of average height, T G had a short clipped moustache and a manner
verging on the military. He came to Prestonpans from Elphinstone
and as well as an insistence on discipline, which encompassed
teachers as well as pupils, he was devoted to choir singing, an
enthusiasm shared by Miss Hoggan and Miss Main. respectively infant
mistress of the largest infant department in the county (East
Lothian as it was then). Both these elderly ladies trained children
for the Infants' Singing Games Banner at the Edinburgh (Competition)
Music Festival. For as long as I was a pupil and later, after
the Second World War, when I was a teacher. Prestonpans Infants
carried off the Banner. As I recall it fifty years later, this
prized trophy was of navy silk with a fringe, and it depicted
children dancing around the maypole, beautifully embroidered in
delicate colours. It hung in a polished case of solid mahogany
which was attached to the middle of the downstairs corridor in
the "White School".
I started lessons in the old grey school in Miss Craig's class.
The "White School" was well under construction and naturally
Mr Young was determined to arrange a concert of outstanding calibre
to present before Sir William McKechnie, Secretary of the Scottish
Education Department, who was to declare the school open. With
him were: R D Robertson Esq. MA. the Director of Education: James
Reid of Tyncholm, PencaitIand, Chairman of the Education Committee,
accompanied by their wives along with the Rev Dr Logan Ayre. minister
of the Parish Church. This opening concert on a lovely sunny day
marked one of the highlights of my school days, for. since I had
elocution lessons at the time. the headmaster called on me. aged
eight, to give a recitation before this august assembly. Wearing
a white satin dress and a bandeau of pink rosebuds and blue forget-me-nots,
especially made for me by an aunt. and clutching an ivory fan.
the subject of the poem, I walked onto the stage, made the obligatory
curtsy to the principal guests and recited "A Lesson with
the Fan". One more curtsy at the end and the performance
was over. I still see the time on the Parish Church clock - 11.45-for
I kept my eye on its face. rather than the sea of human ones below
me. Summoned to Mr Young's room afterwards. I entered with fear
and trembling to be presented to the Secretary of the Scottish
Education Department. William McKechnie as a noted wag all his
life (I encountered him at student conferences during the Second
World War). "Dressed in white satin, no less!", he exclaimed,
"you should be going to a wedding or a ball. Not a school
concert!" I have cherished that compliment from a great educationalist
to a wee girl at school all my life. It was T G's continuing boast
as he lived to over 90 that he had received more from ELEC in
retirement than he had ever earned. While every child in Prestonpans
was known to T G Young, every adult knew the Parish minister,
the Rev Dr Logan Ayre. Wearing his clerical frockcoat and flat
hat, mischievously referred to as "a shovel hat" by
the irreverent youth, the worthy cleric walked everywhere in the
parish to tend his flock. A gentle soul, he was a real charmer
nevertheless with his educated Irish intonation. He was of slight
build, but spry and his smile was indeed a blessing. Born in Ballymena,
he studied at McGie Divinity College. He was an assistant at St
Mary's. Dumfries, where he plucked Miss Grace Wallace from the
choir and married her. Mrs Logan Ayre was a well-loved figure
to the girls and women. Everyone admired her. She was artistic,
charming and encouraging. Even when she was over 80 she was still
painting the most exquisite china. Their son Peter, born in Kirkcowan
became a minister too and held the Church of Scotland charges
at Calcutta and Geneva with distinction. Margaret trained as an
infant teacher following Froebel methods at St George's Teacher
Training school. As teacher and Guide Captain she was rightly
adored by all who came under her spell. Full of fun and laughter.
Margaret Logan Ayre was the belle of the Masonic Balls, especially
recalled wearing a pink dress. Far from being snobbish, she took
pleasure in dancing with the miners present. Now over 80 and living
in Stenton, Margaret (Mrs MacKenzie), had married Harold MacKenzie.
a rubber pIanter who had been interned in Chiangi Jail, Singapore
by the Japanese in 1941. For their services to Johore after the
war. the Sultan created them Dato and Datin, almost the equivalent
A figure, short, stoutish with a ruddy complexion was another
"weel kent" person perpetually going about Prestonpans
dressed in grey or blue with a grey homburg hat. This was the
Rev Kenneth McLennan. MA, BD, the incumbent of Prestongrange Church.
He always wore thick-soled boots because of all the walking he
undertook. Born in Kingussie, Kenneth McLennan went to school
there. winning a scholarship to Aberdeen University, where he
graduated MA in Classics (Latin and Greek), he was appointed to
the Nicholson Institute in Stornoway but the call to the preaching
of the Gospel was stronger so he went to Edinburgh and took a
BD at New College. He then went to Canada as a "Prairie Padre".
By now the Great War had started and so "Mr Valiant for Truth"
now became army chaplain, leaving behind at Fortrose his wife
Mary McNiven Campbell and tow children (under two years of age).
He served First in France with Church of Scotland Huts and Canteens.
At one period he was stationed at Salonika in Greece. One night
when he was in bed. insurgents invaded the camp. Mr McLeiman escaped
in his pyjamas: lucky to escape with his life. My father always
addressed him as "Padre".
As soon as Mr McLeiman heard someone was in hospital, he was off
to Edinburgh by bus or train to offer solace. Many a deathbed
he sat by in the Infirmary and "saw the soul safely over
to the other side" and I am sure he gave the same service
in the Burgh. Being HighIand he was inclined to be emotional.
Man's a time at Communion, he would administer the Sacrament with
tears streaming down his face. Although reunited with the Church
of Scotland in 1929 and following its liturgy, the services conducted
by Mr McLennan were sIanted towards the Free Church tradition
where the preaching of the Word and ex-tempore prayer were the
outstanding practices. Anyone listening to Ins prayers could not
fail to be moved by his sincerity and depth of experience. His
fervent praying for a member of the congregation after death and
at the graveside left one in no doubt of his belief in God's goodness
and the life everlasting.
His gentle wife and five children (three girls and two boys).
Filled the manse pews with the epitome of a loving, happy Christian
family, the core of the church and participants in all its activities.
The Rev Kenneth McLennan was only a few days off 90 when he died
Over half a century ago everyone walked about the town itself,
only using the bus or train for visits further afield. No one
would have dreamed of taking the bus to Port Scion. Many people
even walked to Levenhall to take a trarncar. at 3d (in today's
currency lp). as this was the cheapest form of transport. Incidentally
the students of Fifty years ago from Port Scion and Prestonpans
used to go to the Saturday evening dances in the "Union"
in Edinburgh. How they travelled home was determined by their
Financial position. If flush, the train at I Id single was favoured.
Sixpence (3p) ensured a scat on the last bus at 10.3()pm but.
provided it was a dry night, the majority caught the last tram
to Levenhall at I lpm and costing only 3d (lp)! What a happy,
good-natured band we were walking home in the utter darkness of
wartime Black-Out by the Looming Braes and the Brickworks.
Perhaps the best-known tradesman was the immaculate Christopher
Whitelaw. undoubtedly "THE" grocer in the burgh. Every
morning quite early he left his semi-detached stone villa opposite
the old Salvation Army premises to make his way to his grocer's
shop about quarter of a mile west of Ayre's Wynd. Here one encountered
the exotic smell of spices, coffee, hams and bacon of all kinds.
sliced meticulously on his Berkel machine. None of the pre-packed,
plastic boxes we have to put up with now! Oh for a smell (and
taste) of smoked Belfast ham! No matter what time ofday a customer
went into Mr Whitelaw's shop, stacked as it was with delicacies
from all over the world, there he stood behind the counter, his
white apron neither creased nor stained, courteously giving his
whole attention, whether for a box of matches or a whole list
of items for a week's family shopping. Although he was the family
grocer par excellence, it had not been Christopher Whitelaw's
intention to be one. He had trained as an engineer, applied for
and been accepted to work on the erection of a bridge in the USA
subject to passing a medical examination. Naturally a young man
in the full vigour of his early manhood thought it a mere formality.
Alas it revealed that he had one arm slightly shorter than the
other - not noticeably so. nor was it defective. But no job in
the USA! One of eight of a family, he didn't move far from his
birthplace in Caird's Row. Musselburgh. when Mr Whitelaw set up
as a grocer in High Street. Prestonpans. A family man. he had
a son and three daughters, the youngest of whom. Jean, now retired,
was his worthy successor in the business. Everyone agrees Jean
made a wise decision when she rebuilt and enlarged the shop with
a flat above. Jean always had a reputation as a tomboy, a very
good-natured and ingenious one. This is best exempliFied by as
escapade in early 1939. Opposite the old grocer's shop were the
offices of the Gas Company owned by a Mr Maedonald who came from
Inverbervic. He was a jovial man with a ginger moustache (caused
by smoking we would declare nowadays) with many interest and especially
interested in youth and education. He eventually became Provost
of the Burgh. He owned the gasworks and its one dumpy gasometer.
In the spring of 1939 he directed two of his staff. Dave Ostler
and David AlIan to strip off the 19 coats of paint on the gasometer.
It was hot and tiring work and occasionally either of the men
came down the ladders, walked along to Whitelaw's for Five Woodbine
cigarettes. Jean soon worked out a wonderful ruse for she wanted
to see the marvellous view of Prestonpans from the top of the
tank. Of course this was forbidden by safety regulations. Jean.
however, was not to be so easily put off She arranged for the
men to signal to her about noon and along she ran. clutching the
thin pale green packet of Five Woodbine, climbed the ladders,
got to the top of the tank and revelled for a few minutes in the
panorama of sea and countryside spread below. Maybe she was extra
careful, for the old cemetery was just over the wall!
Jean's photo shows this is certainly
a "high" in her memories!
One of the fascinating
objects in the grocer's was the set of scales. None of your wee
dials but a majestic column of brass 3ft high with a round brass
pan on one side for the weights and a gleaming white rectangular
swinging "shelf' on the other, ready to weight anything from
an ounce of pepper to a "forepit" (3'/2>bs.) of tatties.
Beside in military precision were ranked the weights from Viw.
to 141bs ( I stone) and always they were gleaming and spotless.
Another respected figure in Prestonpans was Mr H T Laidlaw who
was on the road from his house in the village of Preston to his
business premises in the High Street early, before 6am. six mornings
a week. Like his fellow businessman Mr Whilelaw. H T was always
immaculately dressed: suit. shirt and tie always, well polished
shoes and a grey homburg hat which he kept on all day. Like himself.
Laidlaw's newsagent. stationer and tobacconist was always ship-shape
and Bristol fashion - absolutely tidy and spoticssly clean. A
big man in every sense of the term. Mr Laidlaw was an earnest
Christian. Along with "old" Dr McEwan he ran a boys'
club to help to provide interest and activities before and during
the Depression of the '20s and '30s. On account of his Christian
commitment he never sold Sunday papers. Before moving up to Station
Road with his handsome family of three sons and a daughter. Mr
Laidlaw lived in a house in the Iane at the side of his shop.
The Iane ran from High Street down to the shore. During the War
the three sons were in the Forces. Bill and Harry in the RAF,
both alas killed, and Jim. the eldest, who learned his father's
business before training for the ministry and then serving as
a chaplain in a submarine. Strangely enough Jim's First wife struck
her head on a bulkhead when visiting him at Rosyth. She died some
time later as a result of her injury. In spite of all these blows
of fate. his wife having predeceased them. Mr Laidlaw remained
a supreme example of a good Christian.
After his war service, the Rev James Laidlaw was called to the
parish of Whithorn in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright. After his
early death he was succeeded by the Rev Peter Logan Ayre when
he retired from St Andrew's Kirk in Geneva. Such is the long arm
of coincidence in Prestonpans.
Living near H T Laidlaw in Station Road was the Hunter family,
comprising Mr and Mrs Hunter. their only son Lindsay and Mrs Hunter's
sister Miss Helen B Smith. The headmistress of the four-tcacher
infant school at Cuthill. officially West Prestonpans but usually
referred to as "the kittle". Miss Smith was a stately
figure at all times, but especially on the old-fashioned upright
bicycle with strong guards to prevent her longish skirt becoming
entangled in the spokes of the rear wheel. She cycled to school
and even went home for lunch. In her day. as now. long pendant
carrings were fashionable and she wore beautiful jade and tortoiseshell
ones. Green was her favourite colour. From her I learned the precept
I put into action many years later - "firm but fair".
Miss Smith taught the entrant infants herself with patience and
encouragement. In my time at the West School. I cannot recall
her raising her voice let alone her hand.
There is an amusing social commentary on these times. The Hunter
family, who attended the Parish Church, were very straight-laced,
but sincere. When the son Lindsay came to prepare for his first
Communion, they asked the minister to arrange that wow-fermented
wine should be used as they did not wish their son to get a taste
for alcohol from having wine at Communion!
Many years later in another parish the same request for unfermented
wine was made when changing over from the common cup to individual
cups or glasses. "Do you mean to say that people entering
the church are to be asked, 'Common or individual cup? Fermented
or unfermented wine?' God forbid!" The minister in question
was himself strictly TT but favoured fermented wine.
Commercial vehicles operating in Prestonpnas were mostly horse-drawn.
Coal in bulk was delivered in a high sided two-wheeled cart. In
my mind's eye I can still see Dod Anderson with his ruddy complexion
and 'Kaiser Bill' moustache perched over 6ft above the road in
his fine green cart with its big red wheels. He had the contract
for delivering the miners' coal. Household coal for other people
came in hundredweight bags costing from £l-£2 per
ton depending on the quality. Naturally the household coal was
transported on a low flat cart. By law the carter or coalman was
obliged to carry scales and if anyone was dubious of the weight,
they could demand to have the bag reweighed. No housewife worth
her salt would fail to have the empty bags folded and placed at
her feet. especially during the Second World War when coal was
In mentioning fuel. I am reminded of one of Prestonpans annual
"treats". The gas office had a big plate glass window
in which, at Easter, Mr Maedonald. owner of the gas works, placed
an incubator heated by gas which hatched hens' eggs and the chickens
were there in the window for all to enjoy. Another of Mr Maedonald's
acknowledgment of the curiosity of children was to give a prize
to Preston Lodge for the pupils who, after visiting the gas works,
wrote the best account. It could be either from the scientific
angle or historic.
Preston Lodge had as its rector then Andrew H Millar, MA, BSc,
a very distinguished graduate of Glasgow University, a brilliant
mathematician and excellent administrator. He knew every pupil's
background as well as his academic potential. To Pupils he was
always approachable but only one's best endeavours would satisfy.
In my time credits came from a pupil named John Campbell from
Ormiston who came first in the National Miners' Scholarship. He
studied medicine. There was Kathleen Harkess who came first in
both the Edinburgh and St Andrews Competitive Bursaries in 1942.
No automatic grants then. Bursaries were won by intensive study
and external examination.
Incidentally Prestonpans was well endowed for education of its
sons by the Schaw Bequest. I believe the last winner of "the
Schaw" was Peter Logan Ayre. His immediate predecessor was
David Neilson who after War Service became the headmaster of Gifford.
Having taught under him I would say he was the last of the village
dominies, wise. experienced, patient with a kindly sense of humour.
he commanded the respect and admiration of pupil and staff alike.
In the mid '30s. the Education Authority, then an ad hoc body.
in its wisdom, amalgamated all the county's endowment funds -
thus reducing the amount allocated for further education in Prestonpans.
Lest it be thought only academic distinction was encouraged at
PL. here is a list of occupations where former pupils were outstanding.
especially after the erection of the "Mining Buildings"
about 1938: brewing, law, medicine, nursing. banking, engineering
of every type, civil servants.
To everyone's distress Mr Miller took seriously ill during the
war and was confined to bed for fully two years. To relieve the
tedium of lying still in bed, Mr Miller spent much of his time
using his mathematical aptitude to invent knitting patterns. His
devoted nurse was his charming wife. a teacher of English. The
mathematical ability was evident in their daughter Helen's success
at St Andrew's University, while her brother George became an
astronomer. Andrew H Miller died at the age of 42. deeply mourned
by the whole community. The iniquity of tied houses was never
more poignant or evident than when within two months of her husband's
death Mrs Miller had to leave their home Preston Park to become
Headmistress of the one-tcacher school at Spott.
In Prestonpans there was always a respect for education to the
extent that the older members of families helped their parents
to put the younger ones "through college". A notable
example was the Bogie family at Morison's Haven. The father was
an oversman at Prestongrange. There were six children. Thanks
to the encouragement of their mother, the youngest. Albert became
a minister in the Church of Scotland and his tall. fine-looking,
earnest, helpful sister was one of the earlier woman chartered
accountants. An older son worked as a miner and a daughter, wearing
clogs and a leather apron, walked daily from Morison's Haven to
Besides Fowler's Brewer}. Summerlee Iron Company employed several
hundred men in Prestongrange Colliery and its neighbouring brick
works. The company had built their own settlement just east of
the Grant-SutherIand estate at Cuthill. There were four long rows
of red brick terraced houses. "Front Street" alone had
long narrow gardens and back courts enclosed by 8ft high walls,
behind which were the coal cellar and the outside we with running
water. "Front Street" was intended for the most skilful
tradesmen, shot firers, joiners etc.
In Middle Street, two rows of terraced houses had a kitchen, a
scullery and two bedrooms upstairs. Families of six to eight children
were brought up there, some in squalor, other sin clean and well-managed
poverty. Summerlee Street was where many of the younger miners
lived. The terraces had two flats with outside stairs. Two rooms
with two box beds each comprised the accommodation. I can barely
remember the dry outside lavatories called "shunkics".
What an outburst of rejoicing there was when bathrooms and sculleries
were built out to the south! Of course, the pithcad baths were
not built until after the War.
One cannot mention Summerlee without including the company's best
known employee, the housing factor, "auld Davie Neilson".
Small of stature with longish white hair ("longish"
when a very short back and sides was the norm) under his tweed
bonnet and clad in a beige waterproof. Mr Neilson's keen blue
eyes missed nothing. He had to inspect premises for repairs and
he collected tlie rents. The bags of silver and coppers he accumulated
on his rounds were exchanged at the Post Office for bank notes
-much easier to carry up to the Colliery Office at Morison's Haven.
Mr Neilson's brother George was the pit manager. His family consisted
of two daughters and three sons. Willie. David and Ben, who all
became managers of branches of Prestonpans Co-op: Willie had one
daughter Nan who had a very successful career in banking: David
had a son and a daughter Margaret, both teachers, whereas Ben
had no family.
Another well known, much admired family in Prestonpans was the
Hanrattys. Mrs Hanratty lived in Front Street where, with the
help of the older ones. she brought up six children after her
husband's death. Stoutish with a lovely skin and luxuriant brown
hair. Leeby, as she was known to her contemporaries - though no
child would have thought of. or dared to address her as other
than "Mrs Hanratty" - was warm-hearted if apprehensive.
Whenever he reached school leaving age. Edward, the oldest, against
his mother's wishes, went up to Prestongrange Colliery to look
for a job. As he was crossing the internal rail system, he was
knocked down by the "pug" engine and lost an arm. He
took various clerking jobs till eventually he qualified as a teacher,
his mother's intention for him. Peter. the youngest, studied maths
at Edinburgh University. He had barely started teaching at PL
when 1939 brought the War. Peter volunteered for the RAF and trained
as a pilot. Because of the excellence of his mathematical ability
he became one of the famous daring Pathfinder pilots who went
allead of the main bomber squadrons and marked the targets by
dropping flares. I can always remember when he was flying his
Mosquito to La Spezia, the Italian naval base. His apprehensive
mother watched anxiously for my father coming home to lunchtime
(the Hanrattys lived next door to us) in order to ask if any telegrams
announcing lost pilots had come in. I'm glad to report his reply:
"It's alright Leeby lass. He must be safely back." Mercifully
Peter survived the war. returned to teach in PL a changed man.
but died comparatively young, the result of the strain of his
Possibly the best known person around Prestonpans Primary School
was Mr Thomson, the janitor, better known as Rab. He was indeed
a colourful character. Cockenzie was his birthplace. Immediately
he left school, he joined his father on a fishing boat. "The
Daisy". When the Great War broke out. Rab joined the Royal
Navy and served on small destroyers. It was when he dived overboard
to save a shipmate that he lost a leg caught in a hawser. When
the new janitor's lodge was built at the entrance to the White
School. Mr Thomson moved in and he began his career as school
janitor. Naturally he needed a stick to keep his baIance with
his artificial limb. This stick he used to great effect in keeping
discipline in the playground.
Prestonpans had its eccentric characters too. There were Joe and
Aggie Bagnoll. a couple of Cockneys who somehow Ianded up in the
Burgh. They had a fruit and vegetable shop situated between Ayre's
Wynd and New Street. Only run-of-the-mill goods were stocked,
cabbages, turnips. carrots, potatoes, apples, oranges and bananas.
Avocado pears and kjwi fruit were beyond their ken. Their untidy
premises would not be tolerated by the Environmental Health inspectors
nowadays. Joe and Aggie hawked their produce on an ancient four-wheeled
car - no rubber tyres cither - pulled by an equally ancient but
good-tempered horse. They visited different parts of the town
with their produce on different days. If the goods were wrapped
at all. they were in newspapers, but each purchase was accompanied
by amusing Cockney repartee. Whatever the weather. Aggie wore
a fur-collarcd coat and a cloche hat and Joe his cloth cap and
muffler over his collar-less, tie-less shirt!
The "big store" in the High Street, in addition to being
an emporium stocked with goods. groceries, clothes and gear, was
the place where another of Prestonpans "characters"
was to be found. Colin Campbell. a shoemaker to trade. In Scottish
towns the cobbler's shop lias always been a focal point where
menfolk congregated to discuss the latest news in the daily papers:
again these were days before "the wireless" as the radio
was then called. I always regarded it as a treat when I was sent
with shoe repairs, because for some five minutes I was allowed
to sit on the bench beside the men gathered there and listen to
discussions on trade unionism, football, horses, the Town Council
and any other weighty matter worthy of discussion. All the while
Colin was hammering and stitching, "putting people back on
an even keel", as he called it. During the Second World War.
he skilfully worked miracles to keep everyone's well-worn but
precious, shoes serviceable.
The first people to change from walking to driving to speed them
on their rounds were the doctors. Old Dr McEwan - I never knew
his Christian name - had originally used a horse-drawn vehicle,
but by 1930 Dr George and Dr Willie had cars. Dr George was tall.
thin. dark-haired. He wore a moustache. Softly spoken and gentle.
Dr George was much esteemed. On the other hand Dr Willie was shorter
and burlier. He was much brisker in his manner and favoured by
the males in Prestonpans. Neither doctor ever carried a penny,
for their father in his time had given away a fortune to his patients,
so distressed was he about the poverty he encountered. In the
1950s Dr George retired to Kenya. Later on Dr Willie retired to
Longniddry where he enjoyed golfing and gardening.
Doctor, grocer, teacher, miner and all their associated trades
and professions by their endeavours have. through the past half
century, ensured that Prestonpans has maintained its strong sense
of an integrated community. I am sure there are worthy people
today to carry on the tradition for another fifty years.