Dunbar | Local Government 1945-2000

Stephen Bunyan

It was a time that saw much change. The burgh celebrated its 600th anniversary in 1969-70, but five years later was abolished in the first of two major re-thinks of local government in Scotland. The town council, which had in one form or another existed since the burgh’s inception, was abolished and a single district councillor replaced the twelve-member council. At the same time the county council was abolished, being replaced by a new ‘district council’; some of its functions were absorbed by Lothian Region Council. The elected member representing Dunbar on that body had a large constituency that encompassed much more than the old burgh of Dunbar. In the 1990s the system was revolutionised once more. A single unitary East Lothian Council was instituted, at first reducing Dunbar’s representation to a single member, although a second post was added to reflect the growth in the town’s population. Throughout the period of reforms a community council had been instituted (at first elective and later by nomination) to provide an outlet for local concerns and feedback. This body continued to use the old council chambers in Dunbar Town House. One of the most marked changes in local government over this period was a remarkable growth in the number of employees. At the outset of the period scarcely 100-150 people (professionals, teachers, tradesmen and others) in Dunbar could count themselves in this category. At the end, East Lothian Council employed around 4,500 across the county!

Burgh employees, 1958 – 65

LInk to larger image if Burgh employees list Link to larger image if Burgh employees list
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The Burgh or Town Council

The Provosts:

  • Phipps O Turnbull 1937 – 47
  • John R Hannan 1947
  • Alexander J Manderson 1947 – 57
  • W G R Findlay 1957 – 63
  • H T More 1963 – 66
  • Mrs Violet B Kirkwood 1966 – 69
  • Reginald H James 1969 – 75

At the end of the second world war, Dunbar had to adjust to a greater extent to the peacetime world than many other small burghs. The town had been heavily militarised with an Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU) occupying the Barracks and the main hotels, and other units deployed elsewhere. In addition, the burgh was in a sense a fortress for much of the war and for a period travel was restricted and communications harder than otherwise.

At the time of the Third Statistical Account the impression was that the community was fairly integrated but with distinct groups and still a fair amount of poverty. The burgh was administered by a council of 12 elected members including a provost, three bailies, dean of guild, treasurer and six ordinary members. Four councillors were elected in October-November of each year, providing a rolling turnover but always an existing pool of experience. The councillors themselves then elected (or selected) the occupiers of the senior posts. There were three paid officials, (town clerk, burgh chamberlain and burgh surveyor) and in addition, a gas manager and an increasing number of tradesmen and workmen (joiners, refuse collectors, and seasonal positions for leisure facilities, cloakrooms, and so on) and office staff. Most major jobs were contracted out to local businesses, which was part of the duties of the chamberlain and surveyor. The councillors themselves came from the local community, where many had their own businesses. Interestingly, women, who had first appeared on the council in the previous half-century, were an increasing presence and one, Mrs Violet Kirkwood, rose to chair the council as provost and others served as bailie.

The council had taken over the supply of gas in 1886 (from the Dunbar Gas Company in which they were major shareholders) but it was nationalised after the second war and in 1960 the gas works was closed as the national gas grid came into being; the gasometer was retained for a considerable period but the former showroom and office on Belhaven Road was demolished and the site was allowed to lie derelict after being cleared. Natural gas came in 1971.

The councillors had various responsibilities. They had some responsibility for law and order and minor offences, for example, enforcing local by-laws, breach of the peace and public nuisance (e.g., urination in public places). Offences were tried by the bailies in their capacity as Magistrates, but the days that they had the power of life and death in the burgh court were (fortunately) long past.

The councillors were responsible for the general administration of the burgh although some functions had been transferred progressively to the County Council, as noted subsequently. To undertake this business the council had several long-established committees that met to consider delegated matters and make recommendations to the main council for homologation. At 1975 these committees were:

  • The Planning and General Purpose Committee, which considered issues like civic week, local holidays, and matters relating.
  • The Housing, Property and Health Committee, which was concerned with housing matters and Common Good Property: council owned premises and land the revenue of which was applied ‘to the common good’.
  • The Streets and Harbour Committee was concerned with the state of the streets, infrastructure and closures and the state of the harbour and landing dues and the like. It regulated and maintained the ports, earning revenue from landings and berth charges.
  • The Magistrates Committee was made up of the provost and bailies and considered issues like granting permission for fairs, the burgh courts and other legal matters.
  • The Parks and Swimming Pond Committee, which considered problems relevant to recreation.
  • The Entertainments and Publicity Committee, which concerned itself mainly with the summer entertainment programme (thus securing complimentary seats at Miss Dunbar competitions for themselves).
  • The Finance Committee, which seemed to be the full council, dealt with all the financial matters. The council presented accounts annually, setting rates and expenditure. Both the accounts and the Valuation Rolls were published and sets exist in the National Archives.

The functions of public health, roads, police and education had been transferred to the County Council in 1929. The burgh was represented on the County Council by three senior town councillors; the council was also represented in the annual Convention of Royal Burghs.

There was a shortage of housing and the building programme undertaken before the war had only begun to address the problems. As the post war period began proposals were in hand to build houses between Belhaven and the town (the completion of the Boroughdales ‘scheme’ and the new ‘tree scheme’). A replacement for the burgh school proposed before the war was still to be built.

The population of 5440 in 1951 was largely temperate with 19 licensed premises (which stands in contrast to earlier statistical accounts). The town was trying to rebuild its holiday trade and was not happy with the bus parties arriving for the day on Sundays, which seemed not to be temperate and were probably a result of the ‘bone fide law’. (Only ‘legitimate travellers’ were allowed to avail themselves of refreshment at licensed premises on Sundays; this rather ridiculous law was a form of prohibition and was bedevilled by enforcement problems). In 1946 Cllr. Rev. A. D. Munro commented on the problem of their effect on a holiday town. Cllr. Mrs Kirkwood reported that there were over twenty buses parked about the town (on a Sunday). The older pattern of wealthy city people with second homes had given way to boarding houses and large number of day trippers which made the town exceptionally busy for two summer months. Although this boosted the economy the benefits were compressed into a shorter period in comparison to before the war, which affected local employment and businesses.

The council managed its tourist facilities to the best of its ability, being as it was always answerable to its rate paying electorate who were sharp to pick up on ‘wasted’ spending. In the 1950s, however, the putting greens, pond, selling stances, concessions and other facilities brought positive revenues to the council’s balances. The outdoor pool had been a great attraction when it was first built and its popularity continued in the post war world, although it was always a problem to find the capital required to maintain it.

Elsewhere, Sinclair Cunningham had established a golf course at Winterfield prior to the war and the lands were sold to Dunbar Town Council in 1947 (ticket evidence suggests that they had already had a hand in managing the course for the public prior to the war). This made good sense as the property directly adjoined the council’s major sports facility, Winterfield Park. Jumping forward just a bit, Mrs Beveridge sold St Margaret’s (the former Cunningham mansion) to the town council in 1970 although its use was to be an early problem for the new District Council and it was a while before it was opened as a clubhouse and headquarters for the golfers.

The Duke of Roxburge sold land at the Deer Park to the council for a cemetery in 1951, to replace the former Dunbar cemetery adjacent to the old kirkyard at the parish church. However, burials continued there as family lairs filled and the Deer Park Cemetery was perhaps slower to fill than anticipated as cremation increased in popularity (despite the necessity of travelling to Edinburgh).

For several years the military maintained a presence in Dunbar. In 1952 the council was concerned about the effect tanks (used for training by the Lothian and Border Horse) were having on the roads, particularly at the entrance to the Barracks. A solution was found by moving the tanks to sheds beside the ranges at Hedderwick.

The councillors enjoyed their opportunities to represent the public face of the burgh. A good example occurred when the burgh was honoured by a visit by HM the Queen and HRH the Duke Of Edinburgh on 7th July 1956. Her Majesty came on the Royal Train to Dunbar and returned to Holyrood by car through the county. The council paraded in robes and with the appropriate burgh officers carrying halberds to meet the Queen.

The council was deeply concerned about unemployment, which had been a problem in the inter-war years and was looming again as the war ended. One of the solutions was the grant-supported council house building programme that had begun before the war and consequently various house-building programmes were undertaken.

South of Belhaven Road on the former lands of Summerfield a new scheme was developed. All the streets were named after Scottish tree species – ash, cedar, pine, rowan, elder, elm, plane, beech and poplar. In 1962 an agreement for Glasgow overspill led to 157 houses in Edinburgh Road and in 1965 another 48 houses were built by Robert Matthew, the design of which had begun as a project for Edinburgh University Students; these projects included both tower blocks and a new terrace. About the same time a major part of the old town around the old Writer’s Court was redeveloped for council housing. In 1967 there was a proposal for house building at Rosebank (Belhaven) that did not go ahead although a number of private ventures were built in an extension of Beveridge Row towards the hospital. At other places, such as Rigg and Floors, Countess Crescent, and Letham Road commercial private housing was built. The final scheme begun under the aegis of the town council was south of the railway on the former Lochend Estate. The north part of the side was burgh council housing and the south county council housing; in the event, the homes in both schemes were administered by the district council.

Relations between the town council and county council were sometimes strained. For example, there was tension in 1967 over the development of Castle Park for tourism, a long running dispute that erupted again in 1971 when the issue was again Castle Park and the question of investment in Dunbar. Dunbar’s tourism problem exercised the ingenuity of the council – their solution was adventurous, creating a new post in 1963 and appointing one of the first tourism officers in Scotland. For a period the town really buzzed in the summer. Many of the acts appearing at the Edinburgh Tattoo were enticed to perform on Dunbar High Street; the old gym of the Barracks was reborn as the Victoria Ballroom, which served as a wet weather venue and as accommodation for a continuation of the pre-war summer entertainers. At other times it was used for local dances (the pool ballroom gradually being allowed to fall into disrepair), boxing, wrestling and other events (some of which it shared with the Corn Exchange, also now operated by the council as a venue and concert hall rather than a market. The tourism officer also began to explore the international dimension of Dunbar’s history when the American Vice-Consul in Edinburgh was invited to open the town’s first John Muir Exhibition in 1965.

The council continued to adjust its responsibilities, eventually agreeing to transfer library provision to the county library service of the county council. In 1970 the library moved to the renovated Castellau House from its cramped quarters behind the Town House.

1970 was the 600th anniversary of the charter by which David II authorised the establishment of a free burgh and port at Dunbar and Belhaven and the council arranged to celebrate in various ways. A combined service was held in the Parish Church, where a plaque was unveiled (it survived the fire). An exhibition was held in the Victoria Ballroom and a host of schoolchildren participated in a grand pageant recalling the town’s history. The town council allowed residents to receive burgess tickets by paying a fee – discussions had already begun about abolition and it was felt that traditions might disappear.

The last meeting of the Provost, Magistrates and Councillors of the Burgh of Dunbar was held on Thursday 15 May 1975 at 8.30 p.m.

Link to larger version of the last minutes of Dunbar Town Council, 1975 The last minutes of Dunbar Town Council, 1975
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This account was mostly supplied by Stephen Bunyan, whose record of service to local government in the Dunbar area was unequalled over the last quarter of the 20th century.