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The Fourth Statistical Account of East Lothian

Pat O'Brien (1941) - Prestonpans 1940s and 50s

I was born in 1941 at number 1, Gardiner Crescent, Prestonpans. My earliest memories are of growing up during the war years which, as a child, seemed exciting in many ways. As my Dad was a miner, he was unable to join up, so my immediate family was together during that time. My mother was a mill worker and I was one of seven children with five brothers and a sister.

My granny lived close by in Schaw Road and I have many memories of people coming and going on leave from war duties. It was of course a time of personal tragedy and my dad’s brother, Matthew O’Brien, was killed in August 1944. He was part of the Normandy landings force which started their offensive on 6 June. For two months he must have been in the front line of intensive fighting before his death. On the 50th anniversary of D-Day, I was fortunate enough to travel to France and visited the war cemetery in Caen where my uncle is buried. It was a very humbling experience to see the rows upon rows of graves stretching out into the distance, the inscriptions clearly detailing the loss of life of so many young men only in their teens or early twenties.

Paddy Grimes , my dad’s cousin, was a merchant seaman on the Norwegian ship ‘Baghdad’ and served in the North African campaigns. He is buried in a war cemetery in Nairobi, so far away from home and family.

The local communities in East Lothian worked together to assist with the war effort. I remember clearly helping with various fund raising events and concerts held in Anderson shelters. My dad worked at the St Germain’s mine and only had one week’s holiday each year – without pay. At weekends, he worked on building anti-tank defence blocks along the coast. The remains of these huge concrete constructions can still be seen today at Prestonpans and Longniddry. Happier times arrived with the ending of the war and on VE Day my granny joined in the celebrations by putting an effigy of Hitler onto a bonfire!

Prestonpans was a thriving industrial town with a number of local industries, all employing local people. As well as the mines, there was a brewery, saltworks, brickworks and soapworks. As a child, I thought everyone lived as I did and felt well looked after. Hardships were shared by everyone and I think we were luckier than many others.

In 1946 I started school at St Martin’s primary school in Tranent. I liked Tranent and knew it well, as my dad was from the town. My school uniform was short trousers, blazer and tie. Every boy from the age of five to fifteen wore short trousers. I enjoyed my school days and had lots of good friends. 1947 brought some of the worst ever snow storms in Britain. Fifteen feet high snow drifts blocked the roads and we weren’t able to get to school. The severe conditions did not stop our fun and we enjoyed snowball fights and sledging.

I was never bored as a child. I loved being outdoors and exploring the beach and coastline as well as the woods and neighbouring countryside. We played football, marbles, chap door run, kick the can – and all respectable ‘Pans boys had a firing can (syrup tin filled with coal and with a copper wire). We had a very good picture house which had the unfortunate nickname of ‘the scratcher’. {This was probably unmerited but since cinemas were dark and crowded places, it was the custom to give them unsavoury nicknames]. When the Pathé newsreels came on and Winston Churchill appeared, he was always booed because of his unpopularity amongst mining communities since he served as Home Secretary during the miners strike of 1926.

After qualifying, I went up to Preston Lodge school. I spent three years there and enjoyed playing rugby for PL. It’s a regret that I did not continue playing the sport but rugby remains a great interest to this day, both at club level with Preston Lodge and watching local youngsters play in the Scottish team. I made a lot of good friends at PL, who remain close to this day. Maurice Lee, John McPhee, Jim Anderson, Peter Jarron and John Bellany. One of my school friends, Etta Horne, emigrated to Australia. Her daughter Mary married the Crown Prince of Denmark in 2004.

When I left school I became a bricklayer and served five years with Cruden’s. In 1961, I applied to emigrate to New Zealand but with only three weeks before the agreed departure date, the emigration offer was cancelled. Bricklayers were apparently no longer a priority trade for the country and so I stayed in Prestonpans where I still live with my wife Margaret. We have three children and six grandchildren.

I entered the world of full-time politics when I was elected to East Lothian District Council in 1977. I remained within local government for over thirty years and heldseveral posts including group leader at East Lothian District Council and Provost of East Lothian from 1995-2007, when I retired. I was instrumental in setting up the East Lothian Community Development Trust, which built several leisure centres and swimming pools in the county. I established the Pennypit Trust in Prestonpans, to promote new sporting and community services. I have a great love of horse racing and served for many years on the Musselburgh Joint Racing Committee.

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