Dunfermline Foundry Company, 1816 to 1892

by George Beattie

The Dunfermline Foundry Company had its origins in the Maygate, Dunfermline, when, in 1815, Robert Campbell commenced ironfounding on a small scale in the smithy premises of Tam Thomson.1  “Viagraphy Dunfermlynensis” speaks of Fishmarket Close (later known as Music Hall Lane) which ran from Abbot Street up to High Street and states:- “At the corner angle of the east side of this close with Abbot Street there is a house once used as a smithy and, according to a letter written about 30 years ago, ‘This smeddie is notibil as being the first place whair in 1816 a foundrie on a sma skale was begun be Mr Cambil and as the first of the kind ever attempit in Dunfermline.’ Abbot Street, of course, is a continuation of Maygate and both above entries appear to be referring to the same enterprise.

Henderson further reports2 that in 1816:- ‘Mr Campbell abandoned his founding premises in the Maygate, and commenced “the Dunfermline Foundry”, in Clayacres, on a large scale.  Fifteen hands were employed’.  Clayacres was the name given to the area surrounding the street now known as Foundry Street (almost certainly named after the Dunfermline Foundry).  The exact location of the foundry is shown on the O.S. map of 1854.

Ordnance Survey Map of 1854 showing location of the Foundry in Dunfermline

Ordnance Survey Map of 1854

Mr Campbell appears to have traded successfully until 1842 when the business ran into financial difficulties, resulting in Campbell being declared bankrupt, with creditors meetings being held in the Spire Inn on 21st January and 11th February, 1842 3 and an examination in the Sheriff Court Room, Dunfermline on 2nd March, 1842.  It is unclear what the outcome of these meetings was, and it may be that Mr Campbell managed to struggle on for a few years until October, 1847, when the Foundry was advertised for sale, ‘together with the whole stock of patterns and tools presently in use in them’ 4. Dunfermline Foundry, and its equipment, was almost certainly bought at that time by John Whitelaw, a native of Pollockshaws, Glasgow, who had owned Charlestown Foundry, prior to coming to Dunfermline.

Under Whitelaw’s leadership the foundry appears to have achieved rapid success, with the 1851 census showing him residing at Drysdale’s Land, Chalmers Street, Dunfermline, with his wife, family of four daughters and three sons, and three servants. John Whitelaw’s occupation is given as an Iron and Brass Foundry Master, employing 140 men. Twenty years later, at the time of the 1871 census, John Whitelaw, then 62 years of age and employing 55 men, is residing with his wife Jane (59) and son Robert (20), an engineer, at Abbey Park Place, Dunfermline.  Also in residence there were Christine Duthie, (30), a cook, Lilias Drysdale, (21) a domestic servant, and Alex Hamilton, (40) a gardener.

Photo of John Whitelaw, 18080-01875

John Whitelaw, 1808 – 1875

Whitelaw’s work was obviously held in high regard as the foundry produced all the cast iron columns and girders used in the building of the Victoria Tower at the Palace of Westminster in London.  These castings were described as being of ‘a very large kind and required to be of the best finish’.  It is presumed that these items would be conveyed by road or rail to Charlestown Harbour from where they would be shipped down the east coast of Scotland and England to the Thames, in London.  It says much for the quality of the Dunfermline Foundry product, that Mr Whitelaw won this prestigious contract in the face of what would almost certainly be strong competition.

Around this time (1850) the firm was also awarded the contract for supplying to the Viceroy of Egypt a number of large (perhaps the largest ever made) pump castings to be used in pumping the waters of the Nile to irrigate the valley above and beyond the rise of that famous river.  Again, this type of contract would probably have to won in the face of world-wide competition.

On the domestic scene, it is known that the Dunfermline Foundry produced the castings for the frames of many of the hundreds of jacquard weaving looms used in the damask linen factories which opened up in Dunfermline during the middle to late 1800s.  One such loom, with the firm’s name thereon, is on permanent display in the National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh.

Chalmers ‘Historical and Statistical Account of Dunfermline’, states under the heading ‘Iron Foundries’, ‘Those which are at present in operation are Mr J. Whitelaw’s and Messrs Gibson’s on the north side of the town, and one at the Iron  Mill near Charlestown, leased by Messrs J. & A. Morton.  Mr Whitelaw’s, commonly named the Dunfermline Foundry, is the largest.  Almost every kind and description of iron work can be executed at this foundry. There are from sixty to seventy work-people constantly employed. The wages of the different classes vary:-

 Moulders …………….   24s. to 30s. per week
Engineers ……………   20s. to 24s.  ”   “
Pattern-makers………  20s. to 22s.  ”   “
Smiths………………….   20s. to 24s.  ”   “
Labourers (unskilled).. 14s. to 15s. per week

Mackie’s “When we were Boys” recalls The Dunfermline Foundry as: ‘A big and prosperous concern, giving employment to a large number of skilled artisans.   The foundry was situated on the north side of the town, near to Grantsbank Toll bar, and many times and oft the boys and girls who paused on their way from school or going into the town when ‘running the errands’ to get a peep at the works, saw the proprietor passing into or out of the little office at the entrance.   Some of us knew him long before he was Provost, and also knew and loved Mr George Grieve, who was employed in the office, and Mr Alexander Jackson, who was foreman of the works – the last named subsequently started a Foundry, the Phoenix, I think it was called – on his own account.   Some of the boys also knew bigger boys who were apprentices, and envied them being put to something better than handloom weaving. There was keen competition in those days for work at the Dunfermline Foundry. The men earned good wages and relations between the employer and the employed were of the best. The foundry ‘soirees’ were always the happiest of gatherings.’

It would appear that at least two of Mr Whitelaw’s foremen went on the open foundries on their own account.  Alexander Jackson opened the Phoenix Foundry in Phoenix Lane and William McLeod, who founded firstly, Whitemyre Foundry at Milesmark, then Blackburn Foundry at Parkneuk.

Alan Brotchie’s “Early Railways of West Fife” makes the following references to Dunfermline Foundry:-
1)…in 1863 supplied Lord Elgin with three coal drops (for use in loading ships from rail waggons) at the re-developed Charlestown Harbour; 2)…c.1845 supplied Fordell Colliery with cast iron waggon wheels; 3) …1874/90 carried out repairs on locomotives at Fordell Colliery.
He also indicates, on page 87, that John Whitelaw was a director of The West of Fife Mineral Railway Company.

In addition to running a very successful business Mr Whitelaw found the time to become heavily involved in municipal matters in Dunfermline, culminating in him serving as Provost of the town for seven and a half years from 1860. The professionalism with which he carried out this role is exemplified in his obituary in the Dunfermline Press which follows this article.

Tragedy struck the business in 1870, when John Whitelaw’s son, James, who was obviously being groomed to take over from his father, died at the age of 27 years. John Whitelaw died in April, 1875, at the age of 66 years, after suffering poor health for some three years.  His latter years were spent in Cupar at the residence of his son, Dr. William Whitelaw. The Dunfermline Foundry appears to have ceased operating in 1892, and, on Thursday, 29th September, that year, a sale was held at the premises, on behalf of the Trustee and their Creditors, of the plant, machinery, tools and stores of the Dunfermline Foundry Company.


Front Page of Sale Catalogue

Front Page of Sale Catalogue 7

However, the following advert appeared in the Dunfermline Journal of 31st Mar. 1894 6

 Foundry or Public Works to Let –

To let for such period as may be agreed to.

The Dunfermline Foundry, situated at Grantsbank, Dunfermline.  The premises occupy a most desirable position and extend to about 1 1/4 Acres.   Ironfounders or Engineers with enterprise and requisite capital would find this an excellent opening.   The machinery and plant may be had at valuation.   If the premises are not let as a whole, offers will be entertained for leases of portions of the premises.   For further particulars apply to Messrs Ross & Connell, Solicitors, Dunfermline.  Thomson adds in ink that the whole place was sold off on 3rd May, 1894.

A notice in the Dunfermline Press of 9th June, 1894 invites;

 Estimates wanted for removing the whole of the rubbish in the Dunfermline Foundry, filling up pits throughout the premises and restoring the surface generally.  Jas. Currie MacBeth, Solicitors.

It appears that the purchaser in 1894 was William Robertson, of Messrs Hay and Robertson, Linen Manufacturers, who owned the adjacent St Margaret’s Works. He appears initially to have split the old foundry buildings into units and leased these to various different tradesmen. On 4th June, 1898, a serious fire broke out in one of these units overnight, spreading to the whole complex and destroying same. The vacant site was used, in 1900, by Hay & Robertson to build the new warehouse and office extension to their St. Margaret’s Works. This fine building, erected by Dunfermline Builder, James Stewart, with much ornate stonework, is still in place today on the north side of Foundry Street. Apart from the street name, no other trace exists of the fact that Dunfermline Foundry once stood there.


John Whitelaw’s Obituary.

The following obituary appeared in the Dunfermline Press of 24th April, 1875.

Our obituary today contains the name of John Whitelaw, ex-Provost of Dunfermline, who died at Weston House, Cupar, on the morning of Monday last, in the 66th year of his age.  This intelligence will be received with profound regret by the many to whom Mr Whitelaw was known, either in a public or private capacity, for he was privileged to enjoy universal esteem.  Gifted with a singularly suasive and kindly manner, he readily succeeded in winning numerous friends, while his sagacity, energy and practical knowledge pointed him out as one as one who was fitted, in a pre-eminent degree to act the part of public ruler.  It was at therefore that his career as leader of civic affairs in Dunfermline, as an employer, and as a citizen, was marked with such great success.  Few men indeed have been able to retain municipal honours as long as Mr Whitelaw did.  So thoroughly were his merits appreciated, and so great was the confidence placed in him, that all classes were alike unwilling to lose his services.  He was one whom the people of Dunfermline were delighted to keep in power.  It was apparent from the outset that he had the prosperity of the town at heart, and that he was in every respect “the right man in the right place”.  Coming to Dunfermline well-nigh thirty years ago, almost an entire stranger, he speedily succeeded in attracting attention.  The effects of the admirable early training, which he had experienced was manifested in many ways, notably in all matters of business.  His tact and punctuality of habit were specially noticeable, but not more so than the spirit of enterprise by which he was guided in establishing the extensive business which he afterwards carried on with so much energy.  To every good cause he willingly lent his aid, but especially to all that related to the weal of the working man.  He soon became a popular favourite, and his election as a member of the Town Council followed as a matter of course.  The ratepayers fixed upon him as a fitting representative of their views, and they seldom had occasion to regret having done so.  He applied himself to the important duties before him with an amount of zeal which he never allowed to lag throughout the long period of his connection with the Council.  His civic career thus begun (in1849) was signalled by a series of honours, all of which befitted him well.  He found that the financial affairs of the city were by no means prosperous and he made it a particular object to forward, to the best of his ability, all efforts made to remedy this deficiency; the result was most satisfactory.  The Council quickly saw the stamp of the man they had in Mr Whitelaw; and in 1857 they appointed him a member of the magistracy, an office which was calculated to draw forth the exercise of his manifold qualities of heart and head, more particularly his discretionary powers.  But when a fitting opportunity came, the Corporation did not fail to embrace it, to put Mr Whitelaw into the chief place of power, viz, the Provost-ship, to which he was elected in November, 1860, to the manifest satisfaction of the community.  For seven and a half years he occupied the chief civic chair, and it was of the highest importance to the town that he did so.  He proved fully equal to the rather trying duties which were incumbent upon him.  Heedless of the numerous difficulties he had to contend with, he set about the devising of certain measures which he found to be of the greatest benefit.  Chief among these were the transfer of the Water Company’s works to the Corporation, the extension of the burgh boundaries, the carrying out of a complete system of sewerage for the town (in combination with re-paving), the procurement of the Public Park – one of the best boons Dunfermline possesses – the introduction of the General Police Improvement Act, and the abolition of the police assessment.  Such improvements could not fail to be duly appreciated, and the warmth of felling with which the name of Mr Whitelaw has been spoken of in connection with them is simply what might have been expected.  But while Mr Whitelaw was distinguishing himself as a municipal governor, he was none the less active in other departments of public service.  So early as June 1844, he was elected a member of the Parochial Board, and for many years he acted as chairman of the managing and general committees with characteristic discrimination – his advice in cases of difficulty being of great value.  He also held the offices of interim Sheriff-Substitute and Justice of the Peace for the Western District of the County; and for three years he was Dean of the Incorporation of Guildry.  He resigned the Provost-ship in June, 1868, and on the 8th December of the same year he was presented with a public testimonial – the spontaneous outcome of the goodwill of the inhabitants – consisting of a drawing-room timepiece, an epergne, and silver plate to the value of £230.  The presentation was most fittingly made – in the presence of a large and influential gathering in the Music Hall – by ex-Provost Birrell.  In October 1872, Mr Whitelaw retired from public life in consequence of failing health.  In may 1873, he removed to Cupar, where he resided at Weston House, with his oldest surviving son, Dr Whitelaw, and where he was frequently visited by old friends.  In politics he was a staunch Liberal and took an active part in all the elections for the Stirling District of Burghs since he came to Dunfermline.  In religion he was a Voluntary – though liberal to a degree – and he was for many years a most devoted office-bearer in Gillespie U.P. Church.  His funeral took place yesterday, and his remains, as will be seen elsewhere, were followed to their last resting place by a large concourse of friends and fellow-citizens.                                           



1      Henderson’s ‘Annals of Dunfermline’, page 586.

2      Ibid, page 590.

3      Fife Herald 20th January, 1842.

4      Dunfermline Journal, October, 1847.

5      Chalmers ‘Historical and Statistical Account of Dunfermline’, Part 2, 1859.

6      Thomson’s Anent Dunf. Vol. 8 No. 175.

7      Catalogue held in Dunfermline Carnegie Library.