When I was finally able to access the 1921 census for Scotland for the first time last year, I was excited to see how much more information was given about the place of employment of each family member – not simply a job description, as had been the case before. Oh, if only such detailed notes had been included in previous decades! A quick phone call to my mother resulted in her filling in the gaps: as I reeled off the list of employers for whom my family had worked, she was unexpectedly reminded of the jobs her parents and their siblings had once had, and the stories they’d told her about their workplaces.
Not only was I able to ascertain that in 1921 my grandfather, Alexander McKay, was still working as a newly-qualified electrician for the firm in which he undertook his apprenticeship (Anderson and Munro), but my grandmother, at 15, was a year into her own apprenticeship as a dressmaker with John Allan Silk Mercers and Drapers on the South Bridge of Edinburgh’s old town, where she worked helping to create bespoke outfits for the wealthier women of Edinburgh. It was here the teenage Catherine Neilson learnt to do many of the intricate tasks (such as button covers and fastening loops in the pre zipper age) which stood her in good stead when it came to making her own clothes and those of my mother as a girl. This was a skill my mother picked up from my grandmother as a teenager herself, passing on some of what she’d learnt to me a couple of decades years later. Regrettably I never had the patience to take it further, growing up as I did in the new era of fast fashion and the burgeoning trend of visiting charity and vintage shops to search for retro outfits.
Catherine (right) and Christine Neilson in homemade dresses
My grandmother’s older sister Bessie was also working as an apprentice dressmaker for the St Cuthbert Co-operative Society. It was perhaps a less salubrious address, but it appeared that she’d had just as rigorous a training: it was Bessie who’d made my grandmother’s intricate silk wedding dress from one that was being made for a wealthy client at John Allan’s. The story goes that my grandmother simply described the dress her department was creating, while Bessie sketched out the details, later going on to create her own design and pattern based on what she and my grandmother had put together. I often wonder why they did not simply ‘borrow’ the pattern from my grandmother’s place of work, but no doubt there were strict rules governing such bespoke designs, and if discovered any such behaviour would have probably resulted in instant dismissal, a shameful occurrence in those more deferential days.
My Grandmother in her wedding dress, 1931 (sister Chrissie is bridesmaid)
N.B. Although it was Bessie who made the wedding dress, tradition dictated that the oldest unmarried sister had to be the bridesmaid. Bessie had married young so it was Chrissie who had the honour, while my grandfather’s best man was his younger brother John, who was a theology student at Glasgow University at the time.
At the same time as Bessie and my grandmother were learning dressmaking skills, their older sisters – Chrissie and Jean – were folding envelopes for George Waterston and Sons, Stationers, in the printing works at Logie Green Road in east-end Warriston. This was a job that was soon to be replaced by machines as the end of the twenties saw such companies struggling to stay competitive during the era of the Great Depression. In a similar vein, their older brother Adam, a young veteran of the Great War, was working as a Letterpress printer at McDougall Educational Company, based at Allander House on Leith Walk, Edinburgh, part of the once-extensive traditional printing and publishing industry in Edinburgh.
The head of the family, my great-grandfather Robert Neilson, then aged 48, was still continuing in his trade as a brass finisher, now described as a ‘Brass Turner and Fitter’ for R. Laidlaw and Sons, Brassfounders, at nearby Simon Square. Advertisements from the period show that they made a range of goods from gas meters to piping and there is an old photograph which is said to be of my great-grandfather at work in the company (although it is impossible to work out which man he is, given that they are all sporting thick moustaches while they work at their respective benches). My mother thinks he is the man at the front but is now not sure whether she just assumed this at the time and now believes it to be true. I do think he has a look of my great-grandfather, though.
R. Laidlaw and Sons, Edinburgh, early 20th century
Another photograph of my great-grandfather at work (thought to be second from left in the middle row) – but in what looks like a different company – is one in which the workers are sitting in a group in the style of a school photograph with a slate chalked up with the company name. Images such as these were relatively common at the time as, just as with school photos, the photographer could hope to sell several copies to each of the employees. The photographs would have been taken outdoors due to the issues of lighting, and is another reason why the indoor image (above) is so difficult to make out. Yet it somehow tells us a more interesting story about the type of work which was undertaken than the more formal seated picture does and has a rarity because of this.
Robert Neilson at work, Edinburgh, 1905
N.B. It is, however, curious to note that, unlike Glasgow, Edinburgh University did not have it’s own press until the 1940s. So this photograph presents something of a conundrum.
A description of Laidlaw and Sons in 1888 reads with characteristic high Victorian hyperbole as follows: The firm have executed contracts for complete gas and waterworks, piers, bridges, &c., in all parts of the world, and have invariably afforded unlimited satisfaction by the results they have achieved. Messrs. Laidlaw, at their Edinburgh works, manufacture wet and dry gas meters of the most improved construction, also station meters up to the largest dimensions made, governors, pressure indicators, photometers, and gauges of all kinds ; water meters, light, medium, or heavy gas and water fittings, and brasswork of every description, inclusive of gasaliers, brackets, pendants, pillars, hall and lobby lamps, paraffin lamps, and complete fittings for the lighting of railway carriages by gas, &c., &c. In each of these highly important lines a uniformly high standard of excellence is scrupulously maintained, and nothing leaves the works of this house that is not fully competent to uphold its well-known reputation. The trade of Messrs. R. Laidlaw & Son has a wide range, having its connections among gas and water companies and municipal corporations, as well as the general trades in all quarters of the globe. The administration of this house has from the very first been characterised by a more than ordinary degree of vigorous and progressive enterprise, and this commendable managerial policy is consistently pursued by the present partners.
However much of a slog it is to get through that description, it reminds us of a time when British manufacturing was riding high and when Edinburgh was a city that supported a wide range of industries. A book entitled Industrial Edinburgh, published by a local association to promote trades in the capital in the census year of 1921, is rather optimistic when it states: Little wonder that with all its great attractions and advantages Edinburgh has become an important industrial centre, which, although not yet of first magnitude, is of considerable importance, and in the not far distant future will develop into one of the most important in the United Kingdom. A list of the burgeoning industries from a century ago reads like a roll call of some of the most environmentally unsustainable practices, including developing new coalfields, and expanding the production of fertilisers and industrial chemicals.
I have not been able to discover how long Laidlaw and Sons survived the technological changes of the 20th century, but their focus on supplying meters &C. for the gas industry does beg the question: what did the company do when electricity began to take over as the dominant source of energy? It must have been strange for my great-grandfather to have his new son-in-law electrify the family’s Edinburgh tenement flat in the early 1930s – perhaps a similar situation today would be a younger relative setting up the internet or a smart gadget in an elderly person’s household.
My grandfather (far left) working on electrifying tenements c1940
And so it seems that the pattern of our working is constantly in flux. New technologies replace old, and skills become outdated, often leading to mature workers being superannuated. Younger managers come along, keen to reinvent the wheel with their new management jargon, while experienced employees may struggle to stay relevant, despite having amassed a lifetime of skills that cannot easily be replicated through reading books and manuals or attending courses.
My mother was once an excellent touch typist with a fast speed and an ability to take down notes in shorthand equally quickly. She has a number of certificates to prove it, and growing up I was always finding bizarre notes in the house written in a strange set of characters. There were shopping lists, phone messages, even the John Craven’s Newsround headlines were jotted down in this impenetrable code when it was my turn to start the school morning by telling the rest of class the main news events from the previous evening.
My mother at work in The Ministry of Aviation, Edinburgh c1959
I do remember that when dictaphones and word processors came along in the eighties, most of my mother’s secretarial skills eventually became redundant. How superior I felt at times when explaining to her that she did not have to double-space between sentences or indent every paragraph when typing on a computer. Yet I am now at that same ‘dangerous age’ and often struggling to see the usefulness of integrating new technology into my teaching when I have been able to teach effectively for years without it. And just as my mother had to witness that mysterious language she learned become obsolete, the advent of mass produced clothing meant experienced dressmakers like my grandmother and her sister had few outlets for their skills beyond the domestic sphere.
Printers and Brass Finishers, Dressmakers and Envelope Folders they are all gone under the hill as T.S. Eliot ominously said in East Coker (along with the The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters, The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers, Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees, Industrial lords and petty contractors) . As we will too, with our petty work squabbles and Zoom meetings and PowerPoint presentations. It is a salutary reminder that we’re all just bit players in the theatre of work who have only a short time to tread the boards before a disembodied voice shouts from the wings: Exit! Stage Left! Now!
Yet perhaps we could view this as a wake-up call, reminding us that we are so much more than just the sum of our paid employment. The legacy that most of us leave behind is rarely one associated with our roles at work.
The Incidental Genealogist, February 2023
Thanks for sharing this part of your family history. Your reflections are quite sobering and give food for thoughts 🙂 Have a lovely week
Thanks for your positive comment. The world of work has certainly changed in the last 100 years and will keep on changing. It’s quite a thought to think that the skills that are prized today may not be needed in the future and so we have to be defined by so much more than just our jobs. (Unless you are Sir David Attenborough, of course, although even he admits his earlier work would not be acceptable today)!
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A brilliant piece, thankyou. A large part of our identity comes from employment and our particular skills, so if your skills, such as touch typing, are no longer required this has serious consequences. Recognising the ingenious inventions and abilities of our ancestors is all part of learning about who they were and appreciating them. Researching the occupations of your ancestors puts them into the context of their time. Thank you.
Thanks, Marion. I would agree with your statement. I hadn’t realised I’d feel like that until I started writing the post. It’s amazing how the creative process allows you to think about things in different ways.