Tranent | Economy

Mining | Opencast | Other industries | Other employment | Agriculture & horticulture


Mining ‘seems to have a bright future’ suggests the Haddingtonshire Courier retrospective for 1946. The Fleets Pit was employing upwards of 800 miners and nationalisation was imminent. Had their reporter looked more closely however he or she may have been more concerned – nationalisation also meant rationalisation, and only five pits in the whole of East Lothian were taken over.

However, within a year a proposal to close a portion of Fleets and to transfer miners to a pit outside the county ‘where facilities are less favourable to the men’s welfare’ was being mooted (Haddingtonshire Courier 1947 December 26). The transfer was strongly resisted by miners ‘who are confident of coming to a settlement with the coal board and have invoked the help of Mr J.J. Robertson MP in the matter’.

The county council was by this time taking a less sanguine view of the industry’s future: the Haddingtonshire Courier annual review for 1952 reported that the council

foreseeing a gradual decline of manpower employed in the mines within East Lothian and realising the desirability of decentralising industry from large centres have zoned sites at Haddington, Prestonpans, Macmerry and West Barns for industry; all of which are capable of expansion if necessary.

Work in the Fleets is recalled by John Sneddon

Although miners were exempt from active service in the second world war, many were still in the armed forces. Some had joined up to get away from the laborious work in the Fleets pit. The manager, whose name was Davie Livingstone, went berserk because the cream of the pit was deserting him. After the war some did return, hoping that a new government would rationalise the industry and bring some respite to the beleaguered miners. After nationalisation things didn’t change overnight, coal in some parts of the pit still being wrought by what we called hand drawing. This was done by a team of two men – one howker ‘howked’ the coal while the other man, usually much younger, did the drawing. His job was to bring an empty tub or hutch from a lye about 50 to 100 yards from the coal face, push it to the coal face, fill it and return it to whence it came. These tubs, when full level, weighed 13 hundredweight; if they were built up by large pieces of coal they could weigh 14 hundredweight or more. Back breaking work. Sometimes he had to fill as many as 25 to 30 per shift. It was an improvement when they introduced the conveyor belt system, and much safer too – no more dangerous roads to shove tubs along.

Ventilation was a problem in the Fleets, because we were a naked light pit, whereas the neighbouring pit Prestonlinks was gassy; therefore, good ventilation was necessary. Poor ventilation caused what the miners called black damp. I can remember one day when I worked with my father on the back shift. As we were waiting to go down the pit, one miner, who worked in the same section as dad and I stepped off the cage and collapsed, I think his blood was full of black damp. I may be wrong, I just had that feeling.

Eventually things took a change for the better. A new manager came to the pit, by the name of Sandy Ferguson, a good lad. His first words were: ‘I’ll make the Fleets miner live years longer than they have ever before.’ He was true to his word, he made air-courses in the pit, where you could work upright, and feel good clean air along the roads. The man was a godsend.

Miners had a great sense of humour. One story goes like this. A father and son in Macmerry worked together. The son awoke one dark morning thinking he had overslept, rushed through to his parents’ bedroom, shouting “Faither, faither, oou slep in an’ the clock stopped”. His father said “look oot an’ see where the min (moon) is”. The lad came back and said “Faither, the min’s a pick-shaft length abin the Butterdean wood. His father said “gaun back tae yer bed son, its only hauf paust three.”

Nationalisation was indeed a boon to the Fleets miner. Gone were the days when an oversman or fireman had the power to dismiss a man for the slightest misdemeanour, often a man with quite a large family. They showed no remorse whatever. Men were happier at work and coal was being produced abundantly, good quality coal. Although the seams weren’t too thick the highest seam was about 30 inches to 34 inches. There were no 6 foot plus seams at all but the lowest as low as 19 inches maybe 20-22 – too low for comfort.

Every pit had incidents of very serious, and worst still, fatal injuries. I can remember one Friday just after the pits were taken over in 1947. I was in a section in No 1 pit (there were two at the Fleets). Every Friday three men were given permission to come down the pit early back shift so that the old man of the team could finish early, and go to the local and have a drink with his mates. The three men went to the road they were to blast (or brush). They bored five or six holes, packed them with gelignite, stemmed it, lit the fuse and went to the safe part of the section. Unfortunately the shot misfired. There should be a time lapse of about 45 minutes to an hour, but the older man was too impatient, he couldn’t wait that long; in they went to bore fresh holes alongside the others. All the while however, the fuse, (which had a slow burning thread) kept burning till it reached the detonator. The inevitable happened: the older man was killed outright, his son was very seriously injured, and a third man was blinded.

The Fleets pit was reckoned to be one of the wettest pits in Scotland, if not in Britain. Pithead baths were non-existent in the British coalfields, so this gives you an idea how serious the water situation was, when the owners decided to build baths for these men who worked in the extremely wet conditions. The baths were built beneath the pithead.

There were no lockers for the miners’ clothes, just hooks on the end of a long rope which went upwards to the roof. They took off their pit clothes from the hook and hung their “shifting clothes” on the same hook, pulled the rope upwards and the hot air – hopefully dried the wet ones.

These baths were built as far back as 1926. It wasn’t until 1937 that more modern baths – for every miner not just for wet men – were built. About nine or ten men always seemed to be destined to work in these terrible conditions. The only concessions they were given was extra money – called water money – and to be let up the pit 20 minutes before the rest of the men. Once or twice these men had to make a hurried exit when the pumps stopped or broke down and the water rose rapidly. These men must have suffered from arthritis or rheumatism, poor souls.

I think the government made a mistake in not getting rid of the old coal-owners at nationalisation, instead of giving them coal-board jobs. One such person, who owned a colliery in Ormiston, was given the job of area manager, controlling all pits in East Lothian. His word was law, and couldn’t be questioned. He was German, named Breznal. Sometime during the year 1958 he dropped a bombshell: he decided, for no reason whatever, to close the Fleets. We were producing good quality coal with other face lines in the offing. So after 100 plus years the only pit in Tranent came to an end in 1959.

The announcement that Fleets would close came at the end of 1958, at which time it was hoped that the 400 men could be absorbed in the neighbouring collieries. This was followed by a further blow within a year – the proposed closure of Meadowmill Pit (opened only six years previously) on the grounds of economy, with the loss of a further 210 jobs.

The Haddingtonshire Courier 1959 annual retrospective reports

…that the proposed transfer of the workforce would be discussed by the NCB and NUM early the following year. An assurance on the future of the coal mining industry in the Lothians was given by the Area General Manager of the Coal Board – G.R. Buchanan – at a press conference. He did not anticipate any further contraction of the industry, and the Board planned to recruit no fewer than 400 boys in 1960. On the impending closure of Meadowmill Colliery he said that all the men would be re-employed by September and added that there would be no unemployment in the closing stages.

Meadowmill was closed in June 1960 and finally abandoned in December 1962, a date which marks the end of underground mining in the parish. The area around Meadowmill had been typically industrial for many years after the war. There had been a coal-washing depot, for sorting the stone and soil from the coal before loading on trains bound for elsewhere. The coal was brought down the railway from the pits south of Tranent (such as Fleets). The rail line was lifted in mid 1960s, but the route can still be seen in the footpath beside Coalgate Avenue, Northfield East, and the Annfield houses – the route ran past the cemetery’s east side, hence the angle of that wall.

There was a coal pit at Meadowmill called Bankton, which was worked in the inter-war years. The new mine, known as Meadowmill, lay about where the western side of the playing fields are. The site was derelict for almost 20 years until the development of the Meadowmill sports complex c1980.

The waste from the industrial operations was piled into two large, tall bings – called redd bings, redd in this case meaning waste, not the colour; the bings were grey. They were landscaped as part of the sports centre development, and made into one flat-topped pyramid called ‘Prestonpans Viewpoint’. It is now grass-covered, but the original idea was to have different colour sides – white clover, red clover and yellow bird’s foot trefoil (Tindall, 1998 p210). It is perhaps two thirds the size of the former redd bings. It was planned to have an artificial ski slope on one side of this viewpoint, but it was too small to be of any great value.

The closure of Limeylands (1954), the Fleets and Meadowmill concurrently with other small local drift mines in the Tranent area and elsewhere was accompanied by the centralisation of work in the mining industry at large deep mines with 1?2 mile shafts. The men locally nearly all transferred to two of those ‘superpits’ at Monktonhall and Bilston Glen in Midlothian and were bussed to those locations for three shifts a day. The disastrous year and a half strike of 1984?85 ended in total defeat for the miners and the closure of Monktonhall and Bilston Glen (see From March to March: the Miners’ Strike 1984-85 by Rab Amos, county volume).

An attempt was later made to reopen Monktonhall in a workforce/management buy-out venture. A number of local men re-invested their redundancy payouts in a brave venture (mostly younger men with still 20-30 years of working life left; older miners closer to retirement age were largely resigned to taking unofficial ‘early’ retirement). The attempt failed and the pit closed, this time permanently.

Opencast at Blindwells

The introduction of the major opencast operation at Blindwells in 1976 was far from popular, presaging the fury that accompanied the spate of new opencast applications in the late 1990s. ‘One day’ said community councillor James Ross, as reported in the East Lothian Courier of December 31, 1976, ‘people of Tranent will wake up to the fact that they had a monster on their doorstep’. Concerns included the fact that work would take place round the clock and that dust levels would be high; on the latter the National Coal Board sought to give reassurance, which was received sceptically. In the event, dust proved to be not so great a problem, but protests began in earnest when explosives began to be used to shift rocks, as this caused ground vibrations which were felt in the town. The NCB tried to minimise the use of explosives but they were still used a few times per week. Predictions of the time-scale for the project – put at eight to ten years from 1978 – were not accurate; the final closure took place in 2000.

Blindwells opencast mine

Blindwells opencast mining operation, 1979

As the Blindwells coal had a high calorific value, it had to be blended with deep pit coal; hence it was transported from Blindwells (initially by road, and then by rail), through to Bilston Glen Colliery and Monktonhall Colliery, blended, and then taken back to be used at Cockenzie Power Station. Unsurprising then, that it was said that the coal could have been imported more cheaply from Australia. However, the opencast was a positive addition to the Tranent employment base, as one of the key terms for it getting the go ahead was that it employed local workers, and only a few managers were brought in from elsewhere. However, it was largely operated not by the National Union of Mineworkers and the mining industry, but by members of the Transport & General Workers Union – the construction industry – and there was at times a degree of dispute between the two unions. Some of the workforce did come from outwith the area and lived in ‘digs’. David Sydeserff has met former workers as far away as Kirkcudbright and Glasgow, who made special mention of how important the work (and the income) was to them at the time.

The National Coal Board, later Scottish Coal, was in charge of the project. The work was contracted to Fairclough-Parkinson, which was soon after bought out by AMEC – part of the same group as Balfour Beatty. The working week was 5½ days, Monday to Saturday noon, with operations starting at 7am. For a few years at peak production the larger machines worked all through the night – the noise was minimal, however, they being at the bottom of the big hole! The deepest point of the site was perhaps some 200 feet below sea level. There was a geological anomaly on the site that geologists from the university came out to study – an enormous ‘lump’ of coal, formed by deposits being laid down in a very large hole – at least 150 feet deep.

Other industries

Tranent has seen other industrial and commercial operations over the years. For example, boot & shoe manufacture, building, quarrying of stone sand and gravel, distilling, motor engineering, saw milling, and structural steelworks are cited in an undated East Lothian Official Guide from the 1960s.

Dan McLean, now living in New Zealand, describes one such enterprise – known locally as the sweetie factory:

In 1949 on returning to Scotland from New Brunswick, Canada, John McLean bought a small, local confectionery company in Edinburgh, thereby gaining an allocation of sugar (which was still rationed) and a licence to manufacture sweets. He set up a small business, McLeans Quality Sweets, employing his wife and 16 year old son Daniel. The firm manufactured in a small building behind the Bridgend Cafe in Tranent using mainly hand-powered machines and coke-fired stoves.

As business expanded more sugar was needed. It came from ice cream manufacturers who had a surplus from their sugar allocations owing to the turndown of sales in the winter months. Their surplus allocation could be exchanged for manufactured confectionery. The firm moved to a former slaughterhouse in Well Wynd.

In 1953 the government decided to reduce all firms’ allocation by a percentage and to redistribute the pooled amount to new entrants to the industry. Daniel McLean applied for a new entry allocation and set up another business, also in Well Wynd. As a new entrant he was able to manufacture higher-priced goods, not restricted by a wartime licence. This enterprise was called the Academy Confectionery Company, employed one other member of staff and continued in business until the removal of all rationing restrictions. The firms were then amalgamated and shortly after a partnership created comprising J.S. McLean (senior partner), Ross Wright a confectionery wholesaler, and Daniel McLean (junior partner). The partnership opened up the distribution of products through a large wholesale group – Harper and Sons, Edinburgh and Ian Harper and Company, Glasgow.

The increase in sales led to a move to another factory in Abbeyhill, Edinburgh, and substantial numbers of new employees in addition to the original staff from Tranent. Eventually, after an unsuccessful attempt by Ian Harper to buy the major control of the firm, the company expanded further, buying vans and employing sales representatives and van drivers. The total staff now numbered 26. During this time the firm expanded its lettered-rock manufacture and also produced some chocolate-dipped lines and high quality hand-made confections. Any given season saw the production of over 50 separate items including its backbone – hard-boiled sweets. Weekly production was ten tons and distribution covered Glasgow, the Lothians and Borders. Lines included summer and winter boiled sweets, toffees, macaroon bars, lettered rock and cough candy.

In the early part of 1960s the government offered special incentives to all manufacturers to open up and expand their businesses in depressed areas, including West Lothian. The areas tended to be in places where older industries were closing down. In response to the possibility that such help could become available in East Lothian, McLean’s Quality Sweets moved to land purchased by J.S. McLean at Annfield near Tranent. This land contained several buildings and had been an RAF petrol bowser station. After considerable work on the buildings and the construction of two houses converted from the office block, the factory moved from Abbeyhill. Many of the city staff travelled to the new factory and the former Tranent staff returned to their district. However, despite many efforts to obtain government help none was granted and manufacture continued under the old system. Shortly after this the government imposed a new tax on all confectionery and allied trades including ice cream, biscuit, and lemonade makers to offset an alarming rise in tooth decay blamed by so-called experts on these commodities. This tax of 15% crippled many firms, many of which closed down, faced with escalating bank rates and the monthly collection of taxes by HM Customs.

In 1962 McLean’s Quality Sweets went into voluntary liquidation and sold off all assets including vans and machinery. It should be noted that some government help materialised to set up an industrial complex a few miles away at Macmerry but this was too late to save a once thriving business. The land owned by J.S. McLean was later used for battery hen egg production for a few years before being sold to Nick Chick, an American broilerchick company.

Other employment

Despite the presence of such enterprises, the perception that Tranent was fundamentally a commuting town was already gaining ground in the late 1950s. Of course, the miners bussed from the Fleets to other pits were themselves commuters. By the early 1970s two thirds of the town’s workforce were employed outside the burgh, travelling to Edinburgh and Musselburgh, but also to Haddington and Macmerry Industrial Estate. Nisbet notes in 1972 that the town was displaying ‘dormitory town’ characteristics. Among the household heads in the burgh in the mid 1970s, 8.4% were employed in managerial capacities, 60.1% in skilled or supervisory, and 30% in semi-skilled or unskilled (West Sector, 1978). In the Tranent district 159 people were employed in manufacturing, 378 in primary sector (eg mining, farming), 237 in construction and 1591 in services. In 1978, 514 individuals were unemployed.

In 2000 the pattern is similar, though there are two large local employers – PPL Therapeutics and Inveresk Research. PPL Therapeutics operates at two East Lothian sites – St Clements Well farm and East Mains Ormiston, employing around 85 people; the company manufactures human proteins in the milk of transgenic animals for animal healthcare applications. One such protein is Alpha-1-antitrypsin, which is currently in clinical trials for the treatment of hereditary emphysema and cystic fibrosis.

Inveresk Research is a privately owned company employing over 700 staff globally, most of them in Tranent. It is the third largest employer in the county. It occupies the site of the former Fleets Pit bath-house at Elphinstone, and is an international Contract Research Organisation providing research services to the pharmaceutical, agrochemical, veterinary and biopharmaceutical industries. The company keeps a low profile because of its involvement in animal experimentation, subject of a hostile lobby in the 1990s (East Lothian Council web site; (see also Inveresk – Mussselburgh).

Agriculture & Horticulture

In 1945, 17 farms were listed, under eleven owners. Ten were owned by the three main land owners in the parish, East Lothian Co-operative Society Ltd (East Windygoul, Kingslaw, Meetinghouse [part of], Muirpark and West Windygoul), Edinburgh Collieries Co Ltd, which owned Buxley and South Elphinstone and J.S. & J. Fullarton who owned Bankton, Portobello Mains and Tranent Mains. The remaining farms (and owners) were: part of Caponhall (Watt), Carlaverock (Eccles), Elphinstone Tower (Beveridge), Myles (Young), North Elphinstone (Harvey), Riggonhead (Lowe) and St Clement’s Wells (reps of the late A. Braes) (Haddingtonshire Courier Yearbook, 1945).

Bankton Farm in 1991

Bankton Farm, pictured 1991

The Co-op was the dominant presence, operating from the recently purchased Adniston in the neighbouring parish of Gladsmuir. It also operated a market garden at Bankpark and farmed in total an area of 700 acres (Hedberg, 1945).

David Sydeserff recalls

Farming in the mid 1960s employed much casual labour, especially at harvest, but by the middle of the next decade, machinery had mostly taken its place. My father worked as a tractorman on the co-op farm of Kingslaw, but I never had much direct experience of working on the farms, only occasionally going to help out my father. I do recall a lot of labour force on the farm during 1960s harvest. Full-time employees all had tied cottages at Kingslaw, East & West Windygoul and Adniston farms. There were, I think, about eight to ten full-time employees with tied cottages; the farm manager (Bob Chalmers) lived at West Windygoul and his sons, three or four of them, all also worked and lived on the farm.

In the 1970s, as machinery became more efficient, and the cost of living and wages rose, people who left or retired were not replaced – I can’t recall anyone being made redundant. As the workforce fell, their cottages were sold off. When Chalmers retired, his sons left as well, and the new manager, Bill Leckie, had a new house built for him at Adniston. When he moved in, West Windygoul was sold off. Bill Leckie himself retired in 2001.

The Co-op’s Tranent farms – Kingslaw, Muirpark, East and West Windygoul – predated the acquisition of Adniston, but were smaller in size and acted as depots for livestock and machines. The harvest operations in the mid 1960s to 1970s involved two combines, four tractors to take the grain back to the farm, a baler (the old ‘square’ bales, which were actually rectangular) and sometimes a couple of tractors to load the bales on the trailers. The bales were then stacked at Adniston (where there was the ready labour, perhaps a half dozen folk employed). From the mid 1970s onward, one big and more efficient combine sufficed, assisted by a couple of tractors (with big trailers) and a baler (now putting the straw into the round bales).

Every year, without fail, bales would be deliberately set on fire somewhere around Tranent, though the Coalgate-Northfield fields were the most regular – Coalgate being part of Tranent Mains. Latterly, the fields themselves would be set aflame. They still are. Youths were then, as now, the culprits.

Oil seed rape began to be grown from, I believe, the late 1980s.

Kingslaw Farm had pens for cattle and sheds for tractors and other equipment in the 1960s. It was sold to David Forsyth (now residing I think at Liberty Hall, Gladsmuir) and perhaps also his brother. Forsyth ran a plumbing business out of the farm, as well as a horse-riding centre for a few years – I recall the Civic Week gymkhana being held in the field between Kingslaw and the then A1 for a few years in the 70s. Forsyth went on to set up a haulage firm on the farm which merged with Forth Skips, a skip hire firm, which was there for much of the 1980s and early 90s. Now it is a base for Muirpark Transport, a haulage firm, and Gordon & Brian Tait’s garage (car workshop). There were – and are – five cottages on the farm, I believe four of which were built in the early 1950s.

Muirpark Farm functioned in an identical way to Kingslaw. The cottage there was always, so far as I recall, privately owned – perhaps from about 1959/60 as my mum lived there with her parents from the mid 1950s till her marriage in 1959. The farm was used to stack bales of straw from the harvest and this stack was deliberately set alight in the mid to late 1960s and the whole farm was destroyed. It was never rebuilt and is now used as a steading for horses – a Tranent man (Hood) owns the horses, I don’t know if he also owns the steading. Muirpark was used by the co-op for sheep and had sheep pens and a sheep dip. After that business ended, the pens and dip fell into disuse and are no longer visible.

Carlaverock Farm, south of Tranent, is owned by the Eccles family and has been since the war. He used to own a Cessna light aircraft in the early 1970s, which he quite frequently flew over the town and lands east of the town; I gather that there were occasional complaints about this.

The encroaching urban sprawl and industrial activity have seen a number of local farms disappear. May Henderson remembers Blindwells in the mid-1940s when it was still lit by ‘lovely paraffin lamps’ soon to be replaced with Calor gas. The farm was sold to Dougie Telford in 1954 for use as a breeding farm for mink – thus its name ‘The Mink Farm’. Dougie Telford now lives at New Winton. Riggonhead farm was likewise removed during the opencast excavations – it was used as base for the contractors during the first stages. Portobello farm is a third victim. It lay between the foot of the Heugh and Meadowmill, where the A1 bypass road now is. David Sydeserff can only remember it from the early 1980s as a derelict steading of barns and sheds, with no house or cottage.

New houses at West Windygoul

New houses at West Windygoul, Tranent, 1975, previously farmland

West Windygoul Gardens

West Windygoul Gardens, 1994, another example of agricultural land swallowed up by housing

Meetinghouse was an early victim of housing expansion. East Windygoul was demolished in the early 1970s to make way for the Carlaverock housing scheme. The only remains of the farm is the row of three cottages and the grieve’s house. Wester Windygoul was converted into a ‘country pub’ by the name of ‘Farriers’ in the late 1980s, which namedwas changed to ‘Windygoul’ a few years later. However, trade as a country pub appeared to be poor because it was demolished in November 1999 and private housing put up on the site. As regards the name of ‘Farriers’, no blacksmithing was done here, at least since the 1960. There are cottages still standing. Tranent Mains, owned by J.S .Fullarton & Son, is still operational, but the new housing developments are encroaching. The farm has a ‘big house’, moderate sized steadings and four to five cottages – David Sydeserff cannot recall there ever having been livestock, only crops of barley and wheat. Myles is now farmed by the Harvey family. St Clements Well, by Wallyford, whose lands include Fa’side Hill, is pasture for sheep and owned by PPL.

There are four farms around Elphinstone, three of which were previously on the estate of Major Callender of Prestonhall, who owned much of the land round the village. In 1954 he sold the farms to the tenants; North Elphinstone to William Harvey, South Elphinstone to A. Prentice (later owned by Mr Peace) and Buxley to J.B. Moffat. Buxley, on the road to Ormiston, was a working farm until the 1980s, when it was converted to private housing – a typical project of those times, turning barns and sheds into homes: it can best be described now as a hamlet. The other local farm is Elphinstone Tower farm.

The common sight of local women being picked up in a farm landrover and returned each day at the same time in Elphinstone Main Street from a stint at the ‘tattie?howking’ ended some two decades ago (though there was still a demand across the parish for casual field labour in 2000). The tied farm cottages at North and South Elphinstone were sold off to private buyers who have no connection with farming. All the farms around Elphinstone are now arable; crops are mainly cereal or root crops but exotic imports such as the bright yellow oil?seed rape have been known as a result of EC/EU subsidy policies. North Elphinstone did have a herd of dairy cattle, indeed it was regular sight to see the herd walking along the main B6414 road every day at milking time. Dairy farming however has ceased, in common with national trends.

The Co-op made an unintentionally symbolic gesture when it put Adniston up for sale at the end of the millennium. It was the last of the Co-op farms, and the end of an era – an era of mining and mutuality that had lasted well over a century. Tranent Miners’ Welfare closed in 1994 and the building was converted to flats. The next century is likely to see a much different character to Tranent.