Fraser & Carmichael Ltd, Grain-Millers, Wholesale & Retail Grocers

Monastery Street, Maygate & Chalmers Street, Dunfermline

by George Beattie

Although the firm of Fraser & Carmichael was founded in Dunfermline in 1866, the family links to the Dunfermline business probably go back to back to 1817, when John Carmichael, a native of Comrie, Perthshire, opened a grocer and grain merchant’s shop in the town’s High Street. This shop is believed to have been at No 7 High Street, later occupied for many years by the London & Newcastle Tea Company. John occupied the High Street shop for a number of years before moving to 1–7 Maygate where the firm of Fraser and Carmichael will be best remembered. In tandem with the Maygate shop, and probably with the High Street shop, John Carmichael operated the Heugh Grain Mill in Monastery Street. This mill was originally operated by water power from the mill lade which originated at the Town Loch at Townhill.

In the 1851 census, John Carmichael, (44), a grocer, is residing at Gardener’s Land, Dunfermline, with his wife, Jane, (46), daughters, Anne (13), Janet (10), Catherine (8), and son, Archibald (7). In 1865 John Carmichael’s daughter, Catherine, married Alexander Fraser, a native of Limekilns. Alexander had served an apprenticeship as a grocer/wine merchant with the long-established Dunfermline firm of David Blelloch, whose premises were also
in Maygate. Shortly after completing his apprenticeship Alexander Fraser moved to Alloa where he became a partner in a grocery business there.

In 1866, John Carmichael decided to retire and his business was taken over by his son-in-law, Alexander Fraser and his son, Archibald Carmichael, forming the business of Fraser and Carmichael. Only a few months later, Archibald Carmichael decided to move to Australia and sold his share of the business to brother-in-law Alexander Fraser for the then princely sum of £68. 4. 7d.

Advert used by Fraser & Carmichael in 1959 to illustrate Alexander Fraser’s buy-out in 1866

Advert used by Fraser & Carmichael in 1959 to illustrate Alexander Fraser’s buy-out in 1866

Alexander, who is described as having been a very industrious young man of high business acumen, soon developed the business into one of the largest in the area, if not in Scotland. The Maygate shop of Fraser & Carmichael was added to over the years and was developed into a wholesale outlet with the retail side of the business trading under the name of Fraser & Co., with branches all over the central belt of Scotland, the north of England, and also a branch in London. It will be noted from the above letter heading from 1926 that the firm’s London office and stores were at 637 Old Kent Road.

Part of the Maygate development involved, in 1893, the acquisition of the Maygate Chapel which had been built by a small Wesleyan congregation formed in 1814. The chapel was subsequently occupied by other religious bodies and was a Baptist Church from 1850 to 1884. Alexander Fraser’s appetite for business development was such that he soon had the lease of a granary known as the Heugh Mill on the north side of Monastery Street. This mill had been built around 1785 and was driven by water until 1819 when it was converted to steam power.

This was to be followed over the years up to the turn of the century by the acquisition, in 1896, of Maclay’s Thistle Brewery in Alloa; the Edinburgh bottling firm of Charles Wooley & Son (who bottled Maclay’ beers and ales); Ross Brothers, whisky blenders in Leith; the City Hotel, Dunfermline, which was the oldest hotel in the town; and the Albert Hotel, in North Queensferry. The Fraser family also had a controlling interest in the Opera House in Reform Street, Dunfermline, which opened in 1903. Another arm of the firm was Fruit Dealers Ltd. with branch shops throughout Scotland serviced from the Maygate warehouse.

Fraser & Carmichael’s controlling interest in Maclay’s Brewery is worthy of note at this stage. The first meeting of the directors of the limited company which took over from the Maclay family was held in the offices of Fraser & Carmichael in the Maygate, Dunfermline, on 18th August, 1896. The directors at that time were Alexander Fraser, John Fraser, and Thomas Hill, a Dunfermline bank manager. The company secretary was John Wilson. From 1896 the brewery business expanded greatly, both property-wise and in production. However, in 1910, a disastrous fire occurred which destroyed the whole of the brewery down to ground level. Only the vaults and cellars remained. The business survived this near disastrous fire and rebuilding commenced on the site almost as soon as the rubble of the old building had cooled. It was reported that Daniel Fraser threw himself into the work of the rebuilding of the brewery and the restoration of its fortunes. He would be out of bed by four o’clock in the morning to catch the first train from Dunfermline to Alloa in order to be on site before the arrival of the earliest tradesmen.

Photo of James How Shepherd – 6/8/1880 – 15/1/63

James How Shepherd – 6/8/1880 – 15/1/63

After that massive effort the brewery business seemed to languish for a time until dynamism was restored, through the imaginative directorship of James How Shepherd, which not only produced greater output but ensured that the Thistle Brewery remained independent from the big brewing cartels and in the vanguard of brewing progress. In 1963 Maclay’s became the first brewery north of the Tyne to install oil-fired coppers. Other improvements followed concerning barrel washing equipment and a semi-automatic bottle filling line which meant that the bottles were untouched by human hand. The firm also began exporting their products overseas, building up a large trade with India and Malta, and indeed became one of the largest producers of export beers to India, the discriminating pallet of the Scottish soldier doubtless played a large part in the achieving of this distinction. By the time of Fraser & Carmichael’s centenary in 1966, the Maclay division of the company owned some 26 public houses throughout Scotland.

Around the turn of the century the company’s Heugh Mill closed and was demolished. At that time Fraser & Carmichael bought the factory in Chalmers Street, formerly used by Alexander Reid’s Globe Bottling Company and converted it into a grain mill appropriately named the Globe Mill. Interestingly the Globe Bottling Company, in addition to being manufacturers of aerated waters, had bottled Maclays Oatmeal Stout in earlier years.

Margaret Arnott m/s Harley, interviewed in 2014, recalled starting work in the office at the Globe Mill, on leaving school, in 1942. Margaret met her future husband, David Arnott, there where he was employed as an oatmeal miller. David’s father, Adam Arnott was then in charge of the mill, having taken over from Jack Inglis just prior to the war. Others employed at the mill were Arthur Forbes, the lentil miller, and Jock Buchanan and Jock Black, both labourers. Adam Arnott had been a wrestler in his younger days and was a wrestling referee at the 1948 London Olympics. Margaret recalled that lentils were imported from India and Syria for processing at the Globe Mill. David West’s motor lorries would pick up the cargo at Glasgow Docks and deliver it to Dunfermline, where the drivers of these large vehicles had a difficult time reversing them through the narrow Chalmers Street entrance into the mill.

In addition the Globe Mill also housed what was known as ‘the tattie pit’. This was a building that was used primarily for the storage of a vast quantity of potatoes. It would be filled during the potato harvesting time at the back end of the year and its contents would, over the ensuing year, be distributed to Fraser shops for public sale. Margaret recalled that Willie Gillanders drove the lorry that delivered the potatoes. She also spoke of other Fraser & Carmichael drivers such as David Brown, George Scott, John Barclay, Jim Penman and Willie Hynd, along with mechanics Alex Black and Abbie Clark.

Margaret’s father-in-law, John Arnott, had lost an arm in October, 1911, whilst employed at the mill. The injury meant he could no longer work at the mill. This was the days before compensation and, as a goodwill gesture, Fraser & Carmichael offered him the chance to run one of their public houses. Having no experience in this field, John felt obliged to turn it down. He did however take on the role of one of the company travellers and for a number of years successfully carried out this task. He must have been successful as, although he was unable to drive due to the loss of an arm, he was supplied with a driver for the company motor car.

As if to prove that Fraser & Carmichael was a family firm, Margaret’s father, John Harley, also worked there and was sent to Stirling to open a branch of Fruit Dealers Ltd. (a subsidiary of Fraser & Carmichael) in that town, hence the reason Margaret was born there. Margaret was of the opinion that Fraser & Carmichael closed the Globe Mill around 1963.

However, going back a wee bit, before the arrival of the twentieth century, Alexander Fraser had been joined in the business by his sons, John and Daniel, born in 1869 and 1874 respectively. John would remain single. In 1904, Daniel married Beatrice Mitchell, the daughter of Michael Mitchell of Backmarch Farm, Inverkeithing. This union produced one daughter.

This was also a time of expansion for Fraser & Carmichael with the old shop at the west end of Maygate being demolished and a much larger three storey building being erected on the corner of Maygate and Kirkgate. The new building, seen below, encompassed the company headquarters, shop outlet, warehouse, and wine and spirit cellar.

Photographs of the original Maygate premises c.1906 and new premises, built c.1910 but photographed c. 1960

Original Maygate premises c.1906 and new premises, right, built c.1910 but photographed c. 1960

Alexander Fraser died in 1918, aged 77 years, having had ‘hands on’ control of Fraser & Carmichael for most of his working life. The role played by Alexander’s wife Catherine, the daughter of John Carmichael, should not however, be overlooked. Catherine apparently had a first-class business brain and from her childhood had assisted her father in the business. A member of a milling family on her mother’s side, she was particularly interested in the milling operations of Fraser & Carmichael, and she was of great help to sons John and Daniel when they took charge. For some time prior to their doing so she virtually ran the business when her husband developed a weak heart which compelled his temporary withdrawal from the business from time to time.

At the time of Fraser & Carmichael’s centenary celebrations in 1966, two of their longest serving employees, Robert P. Gardiner, by then a director of the firm, and Edward Forbes, the warehouse manager, were interviewed by the Dunfermline Press about their early days with the company. Mr Gardiner recalled that most men employed in the warehouse at Maygate had to be powerfully built as, on a daily basis they had to lift two hundredweight sacks of sugar and grain, stacking them three sacks high. Mr Gardiner stated that the biggest change in his time in the grocery trade had been the change over from the selling of goods in bulk to selling them in packages. Also in his young days a grocer was a man of varied skills and of keen discernment. He had to know about the goods he sold, had to hand-cut bacon, ham and cheese, measure liquids from casks, and weigh sugar and cereals which he took with scoops from large containers. He had to be able to tell at a glance unlabelled substances which looked very much alike. During the mining boom in Fife prior to the First World War, Fraser & Carmichael did a “big trade” in patent tallow (paraffin wax) and cup tallow (made from animal fats). These were the fuels for the miner’s lamps. At one time the Maygate warehouse was selling around one ton of this product each week, one of their main customers being Kelty Co-operative Society, the majority of whose members were miners. The Kelty Co-op ordered half a ton at a time. Fraser & Carmichael also catered for the miners in other ways, carrying large stocks of tea flasks, piece boxes, pick shafts and other mining equipment.

Mr Forbes recalled that when he began as a message boy in the firm’s Bridge Street shop, working each night after school and on Saturdays, his wage was 3s 6d per week, although he did not finish on a Saturday until after 10 at night. On leaving school and becoming a full-time message boy at the age of 14 his wage rose to 8s a week. In those days a qualified grocer had a wage of 25s a week, with top men making 28s. At that time a splendid array of horses drew the firm’s carts and vans. Horses were slow-moving, and a delivery to Lochore or across the Queensferry passage by ferryboat could take a whole day. Willie Gillanders was the last of the firm’s horse-drivers. When Willie retired, just before the Second World War, his horse was also retired, back to the farm on which it was born. A chain-driven Albion with solid rubber tyres was the first of the firm’s fleet of motor delivery vehicles. It was bought shortly before the First World War, and did a tremendous job of transporting stores from the Maygate warehouse to the dozens of canteens and Service messes around Dunfermline. Almost immediately after the outbreak of war in 1914, four battalions of the Highland Light Infantry and a battalion of the Field Brigade Artillery were billeted in the neighbourhood. With their customary display of foresight, Fraser & Carmichael had their granary filled to capacity with oats, and their warehouse with tinned meats. The Army horses made short work of the oats and the soldiers the tinned meats.

Another of Edward Forbes’ recollections of his days as a message boy was his Saturday evening task in the Bridge Street shop of filling gills of whisky for the toper’s ‘morning’ on the Sabbath. In the wine shop at the warehouse no fewer than half a dozen warehousemen would be engaged in the same task. In these days a gill of whisky cost 6d and the men of the town had a great thirst. Quart sized bottles of beer were sold in those days for 2d and the washing of beer bottles on a Saturday morning and the filling of them later, kept eight warehousemen busy. For many years Fraser & Carmichael bottled Bass, Worthington, and other beers.

John and Daniel Fraser continued the development of Fraser & Carmichael and its associated companies over the ensuing years. John appears to have been the quieter of the two brothers, whilst Daniel, who was the public relations arm of the firm, also took a great interest in local politics, becoming a member of the Town Council in 1920, and going on to become Provost of Dunfermline four years later, a role in which he was highly regarded.

John Fraser however, was by no means a backroom boy in the firm, as he regularly travelled to London and other large centres in England in connection with the marketing of goods, especially whisky. He also travelled from time to time to America and Canada, particularly with regard to the marketing of lentils, the firm’s Globe Mill in Chalmers Street, being one of the few to process this commodity.

In 1915 another individual who would play a prominent role in the Fraser & Carmichael empire arrived on the scene when James How Shepherd married Mona Fraser, the sister of John and Daniel Fraser. James Shepherd, a Dundonian by birth, had arrived in Dunfermline in 1909, having been appointed general manager of the newly formed Dunfermline Tramway Company. He remained with the tramway company until ‘retiring’ in 1935, following which he became a director of Fraser & Carmichael. An engineer by profession, James Shepherd had been manager of a power station in Rothsay at the tender age of 21. He thereafter managed the Dundee & Broughty Ferry Tramway Company for three years prior to taking up a similar appointment at Dunfermline. In 1930 Mr Shepherd was appointed President of the Scottish Tramways and Transport Association. Mr Shepherd, in his new role with the Fraser & Carmichael Group, served for 25 years as managing director of the company’s brewery concern of MaClay & Company, during which time he is said to have built up this section of the business considerably.

In 1937, Daniel Fraser died in an Edinburgh nursing home two days after under going surgery for cancer. In 1938, following Daniel’s death, the firm of Fraser & Carmichael was formed into a public liability company. The directors were John Fraser; William H. Craig (also a director of Fife Coal Company, who, in 1927, had married Beatrice Fraser, daughter of Daniel Alexander Fraser); James How Shepherd; David Johnstone and Mr J. D. Anderson. John Fraser had survived his brother by some 20 years when he died in an Edinburgh Nursing Home in 1957.

Mary MacIntosh, nee Anthony, interviewed in 2012, stated that, on leaving school aged 14, in 1937, she spent a year at Wilson’s Secretarial College, then started work in the office of Fraser & Carmichael where she remained until 1947. Mary said that she recalled John Fraser as ‘the big boss’ and that he always wore spats. She also remembered J. Fraser Shepherd, the son of James How Shepherd, coming in whilst he was still at school, and working in the various departments in order to learn how the place operated. She also recalled that Tom Mitchell and another man named Mitchell looked after the Fruit Dealers Ltd., a wholesale branch of the firm with shops throughout Scotland. Mr Horne was in charge of the warehouse, whilst Mr Valentine looked after the ‘cellar’ from where all wines and spirits were dispensed. Occasionally a broken bottle in the cellar would result in the office staff being invited down there for a glass of sherry. Ned Forbes looked after the vans and lorries. Andrew Brown, Walter Drummond and Miss Bonnar were the firm’s commercial travellers at that time. During the Second World War, Mary recalled that all staff took turns on fire watch. This meant them doing their normal shift from 8 am to 6 pm, then remaining on the premises during the night on fire watch, before resuming their normal shift the next day. The Fraser & Co shops in Dunfermline at that time included two in Pilmuir Street (one of which operated under the name of Fortune), one in Bridge Street, which was managed by Willie Lessels from Torryburn, and one each in Canmore Street (manager George Proudfoot), Brucefield, Rosyth and Inverkeithing. During the war, the City Hotel was managed by a Miss McKee, with Jimmy More taking over this responsibility on his return from war service. Mary said that all the bosses were known as Mr ‘this’ or Mr ‘that’ and that first names were never used.

By that time another member of the family had taken over the reins of the company in the form of Mr J. Fraser Shepherd (known as Fraser) . Fraser had served in the R.A.F. during the latter years of the Second World War, returning to the family firm at the end of hostilities. In November, 1949, he was made a director of the company and exactly five years later, following the retirement on ill-health of John Fraser, he succeeded to the post of Chairman and Managing Director of Fraser & Carmichael. Some time later, following the retirement of his father, James How Shepherd, Fraser also took over the reins at Maclay’s Brewery. He also sat on the boards of Fraser & Carmichael’s associated companies. Fraser did not have the easiest of passages when, following the death of John Fraser in 1957, substantial death duties were demanded by the authorities. There were rumours that the firm would close down completely. In fact several of the branch shops had to be sold as did one of the principle subsidiaries, Ross Brothers, but the company pulled through the crisis and continued to trade effectively until the sudden death of J. Fraser Shepherd in March, 1970, at the young age of 45 years.

Only nine months after the death of its chairman, in January, 1971, the firm of Fraser & Carmichael ceased trading. An article in the Dunfermline Press of 15th January, 1971, stated that a spokesman for the firm indicated that Fraser & Carmichael’s wholesale arm would cease trading at the end of February. Some 47 employees had received a letter advising them of the impending closure and talks would be taking place regarding redundancy payments. The spokesman said that the announcement had come at this time because part of the business – the confection and tobacco side – had been sold to Robert Sinclair of Newcastle and Perth. He went on to confirm that the City Hotel, owned by Fraser & Carmichael, and their shops at Brucefield, Dunfermline, and at Dollar and Alloa, would not be affected. The firm had recently sold their shop at Hawick, and the shops at Selkirk and Tranent were then up for sale.
The Maygate premises, from where Fraser & Carmichael had developed over the years to become one of the largest wholesale grocery concerns in Scotland were demolished in March/April, 1973. The site was grassed over and not built on because of its close proximity to Dunfermline Abbey. The only remnant left of Fraser & Carmichael is the stone pediment, bearing the letter ‘F’ (see photo below) which remains adjacent to the Abbey wall on the Maygate site, and probably featured above the main door of the former Fraser & Carmichael headquarters.

Photo of the stone pedement

Stone pediment – all that remains of Messrs Fraser & Carmichael’s time in Dunfermline