Shopping For the Home in Victorian Dunfermline

by Sue Mowat

Before we get into the business of buying for the home we’d better look at what that ‘home’ was like in Victorian Dunfermline. As was the case until quite recently, very few people owned their own homes, the majority living in rented accommodation. A dwelling was usually described as a ‘house’, which in Scotland could mean anything from a ‘room and kitchen’ in a tenement to a mansion with several public rooms, bedrooms, servants’ rooms, garrets, kitchen, bathroom and other offices. The majority of ‘houses’, however, consisted of two, three or four rooms, which might comprise an apartment in a large building or be contained in a small cottage.

The very poor lived in just one room the usual rent being £1 10s to £2 a year, although some were available for as little as £1. Much of the single-room occupation was concentrated in the area of Pittencrieff, Woodhead, Golfdrum and William Streets. In Pittencrieff Street single rooms comprised 38% of the available housing, many of them occupied by single women or widows. Ground floors were occupied by weavers living in a ‘room and loom stance’. Paupers who were on the official ‘outdoor relief’ roll of the Parochial Board were often given just 9d a week to pay the rent of a cheap single room. Relief chits were handed over to landlords by their pauper tenants, a practice that was frowned on by the Board but which made sense to the landlords. (We now face a similar dilemma in administering Housing Benefit!) However, for the purposes of this article we probably need to think about the occupants of at least two or more rooms, who would have a reasonable purchasing power.  (See the Appendix for inventories of houses of various sizes.)

Houses were rented by the year, the usual ‘term day’ being Whitsunday, around the end of May. Advertisements for houses to let began to appear in the local press as early as March and continued throughout April and May, many giving some details of the accommodation on offer.


‘Flat’ means a storey, not an apartment. ‘Possessed by’ means tenanted by. ‘Closet’ can mean either a large cupboard, a small interior room or a bed in a wall recess.


For buying basics like tables, chairs, beds, chests of drawers etc there were several options, depending on whether you were buying new or second-hand. For a ready-made new or a custom-made article you would go to a cabinet maker like David Lessells in Chalmers Street.

The 1861 Dunfermline Census returns list four ‘master cabinet makers’ in the town –  Robert Buchanan in the Maygate, John Fergus in the High Street, Alexander Roy in James Street and Andrew Weir in Woodhead Street. Between them they employed 5 journeymen and nine apprentices.

David Lessells (advertisement above) set up his Furniture Warehouse in 1863 in Chalmers Street, opposite a church that was later demolished to give access to the car park behind the City Hotel. The warehouse was badly damaged by fire in 1869 and Lessells moved temporarily to premises in South Chapel Street (Randolph Street). The 1875 Valuation Roll finds him back in Chalmers Street but by 1881 he and his family had moved to Northampton.

Robert Buchanan, son of a cabinet maker of the same name, had opened ‘a New Cabinet & Upholstery Warehouse’ in the Maygate in 1854 and remained there until 1869 when he moved to East Port Street. His dwelling house was in Chapel Street, where he died in 1888. The mention of upholstery in his advertisement is a reminder that cabinet makers did not only work in wood; they also catered for the growing demand for comfortable chairs and sofas.

John Fergus had trained in Edinburgh and London and opened his first shop in Queen Anne Street ‘immediately opposite Ralph Erskine’s Monument’ in 1850, moving to the High Street ten years later and then to Chalmers Street. His advert in the 1865 Dunfermline Almanac featured the popular ‘pillar and claw’ table that is mentioned in several house inventories. His business prospered and by the time of his death in 1874 he owned a house and garden in Downieville Crescent with four tenants. He was buried in lair no 1231 in the Abbey Graveyard.

Alexander Roy, son of a linen manufacturer, set up in partnership with James Walker in James Street in 1836, the partnership being dissolved by mutual consent three years later. By the 1860s Roy had moved to Bridge Street where he and his son Alexander Jnr traded. By 1881 they were employing four men, five boys and three women, but they became bankrupt in 1886 and Alexander Snr died five years later at the age of 81.

Andrew Weir set up as cabinet-maker, upholsterer and undertaker in Woodhead Street in 1849 and by 1861 he was employing two apprentices. By 1865 he had bought his own ‘commodious premises’ in Woodhead Street and in January of that year advertised that  he had now opened them as a furniture showroom. The advertisement described Andrew as  ‘Cabinetmaker, Upholsterer, Picture Frame Maker, Joiner and Undertaker’ and promised that all orders would be executed by experienced workmen, probably the two men he was employing in 1871 along with three apprentices. Business was obviously booming and by 1877 Andrew had bought two properties in Pittencrieff St, adding another shortly after.

In public life, Andrew Weir had been one of the founder members of the Dunfermline Volunteers in 1859 and he also belonged to the Total Abstinence Society. In 1867 he was a member of the ratepayers’ committee that was formed to lobby the Town Council for an extension to the Burgh boundaries that would bring Pittencrieff Street, Woodhead Street, Golfdrum and Grieve Street under the umbrella of the Dunfermline Police Commissioners so that proper roads could be made in the area, water piped in and sanitation improved. Three years later Andrew was elected to the Council. In 1877, probably suffering the early symptoms of the ‘softening of the brain’ that was to end his life within two years, he resigned from the Council because of ill health and made his will, appointing his wife his sole executor and leaving all his properties to his only child, Janet, who had married a joiner, William Malcolm, in 1864. William took over the business after the death of his father in law and continued it until his retirement in 1904.


For second-hand furniture there were auctioneers and pawnbrokers. Auctions were a source of good furniture at reasonable prices, often the belongings of prosperous deceased citizens. Some were sales of bankrupt stock and a number were held for people who were selling up to leave the country, like the tailor William Wishart whose furnishings were sold in June 1859. William had started his business in 1847 in the Kirkgate, moving to an apartment on the first floor of number 3 Bruce Street in 1851. The advertisement for his auction mentions a parlour fender, three other fenders and a kitchen fender, so William’s apartment contained at least five rooms. The rent was £16 a year and the entrance was up a stair between Thomas Morrison’s shoe shop in Bruce Street and the house of provost Robert Robertson on the corner of Bridge Street.

William, his wife Margaret Mackay and their five children, emigrated to Auckland, New Zealand where tragedy awaited them. His only son, William Jnr, was apprenticed in a foundry but he died at work in 1860 at the age of 16, when he was crushed by a heavy timber baulk. His mother died a year later. William Snr, however, lived to a ripe old age, dying in 1888.


James Fox ran a rather substandard lodging house in Bruce Street and was also in the pawnbroking business but the premier pawnbroker in Dunfermline was James Mullan in Queen Anne Street, who sold new and second-hand furniture of all kinds, along with unredeemed pawns. He claimed to sell ‘every requisite for furnishing the Parlour, Kitchen or Bedroom’, and in an advert listed not only a variety of tables, sofas and bedsteads, but also sideboards, chiffoniers, wardrobes, chests of drawers, washstands, mirrors, engravings, grates, fenders, fire-irons, mangles and children’s cots. As well as selling for cash Mullan offered an exchange service.  Unredeemed pledges offered for auction in other Mullan adverts included bed and table linen, feather beds, blankets, rugs, clocks, telescopes, barometers, musical instruments, books, clothing, pieces of cloth, silver spoons, gold and silver watches, guns and pistols.

Dining Rooms

The centrepiece of this room was, of course, the table, in mahogany if at all possible. Anyone with any aspirations to upward mobility owned at least one piece of mahogany furniture if they could afford it or had inherited it (rosewood was even more desirable). Mahogany items would be on show in a public room, either the general living room of a ‘room and kitchen’ or a parlour or dining room. Mahogany in the bedrooms indicated a degree of affluence.

The dining table would stand on a crumb cloth, a piece of thick woollen or linen drugget that protected the precious carpet from table droppages. Crumb cloths were available either in plain colours or with a printed pattern. When it was not in use for dining, the table itself was protected by a table cover. Dining chairs were often described as ‘stuffed bottomed’, meaning that the seat was upholstered.

A hearthrug by the fireplace protected the precious carpet from sparks and from the ash dust that was raised when the fireplace was cleaned out, although Mrs Beeton recommended that during this operation the hearthrug should be removed and a cloth laid  which could be more easily shaken outside. The widest choice of floor coverings was offered by shops in Edinburgh, but Davie the draper in Bridge Street had a furnishing department selling carpeting, rugs and crumb cloths.

Sideboards were available but seem not to have been commonly used, tableware being stored in a cupboard or press. There were about half a dozen china merchants in Dunfermline at any one time, and most of them were well-established. Number 87 High Street, on the corner of Douglas Street was a china shop for nearly thirty years, beginning in 1847 with John McNair. In 1853 it was taken over by John Potter, who sold his business to John Habick three years later. In 1874 Habick moved to 18 High Street, where he remained until his retirement in 1885.

China and Cutlery

There were two china shops in Queen Anne Street. The owner of one of them, Mary Ann Dick, had been left a widow on the death of her husband Thomas, a yarn merchant, in 1857. Her father-in-law Thomas Dick snr, also a yarn merchant, was well-to-do and it was probably he who set her up in business in 1859. Her shop opened in December of that year and she sold ‘China, Crystal and Stoneware in Dinner, Tea and Bathroom sets from the best Staffordshire Potteries’. Mrs Dick’s business prospered but by 1881 she had retired and was living with her married daughter, wife of an accountant, George Kirk Scobie.

The other china merchant, Alexander Mossman, had started his working life as a shoemaker, but in the early 1840s switched to selling china. After several moves he ended up in Queen Anne Street, at the head of South Chapel Street (Randolph Street) in 1854, where he stayed until retiring in 1861. Mossman also sold Staffordshire pottery, along with Bohemian crystal and other stoneware and china. He had done very well in business, but his successor, Peter Marshall, was not so fortunate. Most of the Dunfermline china merchants also dealt in rags and rabbit skins and in January 1864 Marshall announced that he was giving up the china business to concentrate on trading in rags, for which he would give ‘the very Highest Price.’ However, even the sale of his stock in February could not save the business and in March his premises were advertised To Let.

In 1861 John Bradford, a Dundee china merchant or auctioneer (take your pick) hired a shop in Chalmers Street to dispose of his alleged stock on the pretext that he was giving up business. His advertisement gives a comprehensive list of the kind of goods sold in china shops at the time: rich dinner sets for 12-24 covers, china dessert sets, tea coffee and breakfast sets, an assortment of crystal, covered butter jars holding from 3lb to 50lb, mantlepiece and bedroom mirrors, toilet ware, mantlepiece jars and vases.

Alexander Gibson & Son in Guildhall Street advertised the prices of their stock (advert on the right). Gibson, and presumably other chinar merchants, sold cutlery but it was also available from ironmongers. James Bonnar at the Cross advertised in 1861 that he had just received a case of ‘very superior’ Sheffield cutlery with new ‘Patterns in Table and Dessert Knives and Forks’.

The Parlour

The parlour was the showpiece of the house. If only one carpet could be afforded this is where it would be and the furniture would be of the best the household budget would allow. In the smaller houses, rooms were often multi-purpose and although the dining room always contained the necessary table and chairs, items such as the sofa might be fitted in to it as well, but the parlour was the more usual place to find the sofa, along with at least one easy chair. This room is where any one of a multiplicity of small tables were housed – breakfast table, tea table, card table, or just ‘small table’. Ladies’ work had to be catered for. In the humbler households there would be a sewing basket containing knitting, mending and general sewing items. More fortunate women had a work table incorporating drawers and perhaps a small cupboard to hold their equipment. There might also be a desk used by both lady and gentleman for keeping accounts and writing letters, and the parlour was the place to show off paintings, engravings and, from the 1860s onwards, photographs taken by one of several local photographers.

The focal point of the parlour was the fireplace, crowned by an overmantle mirror in a carved wooden or gilt frame and a mantlepiece supporting a clock, preferably an eight-day clock, flanked by a selection of ornaments. Inventories are not very helpful about exactly what ornaments people had on their mantlepieces; they were generally lumped together and valued at a few shillings. China merchants sold some and the advertisement for the household sale of the late Mrs Dewar, widow of a manufacturer, mentions wax flowers and fruits, shells and fancy ornaments.

The eight-day clock was a prized possession. Ordinary clocks had to be wound every day but eight-days only needed attending to once a week. Clockmakers did not advertise much but when Andrew Dowie set up a short-lived watch and clockmaking business in the New Row in 1864 he made sure everyone knew what was on offer:

Clocks of every description in Bronze, Marble, Wood, Art Properties &c can be had at the shop or supplied to order, from One to One Hundred Guineas.

Thomas Nicolson (advertisement on the right) had worked for the established watchmaker Alexander Hood and after Hood’s death in 1864 managed the shop for his late employer’s brother, John Hood. This arrangement seems not to have worked out and in 1866 Nicolson set up for himself at no 10 Bridge Street ‘Next Door to Mr IRELAND, Ironmonger’. He remained there until 1875, when the business was bought by Alexander Stewart, who had taken over from him as John Hood’s manager. Hood went on to found the firm of John Hood and Son which continued under that name until the 1940s.

The Bedroom

The most important item in a bedroom was, of course, the bed, but not everyone slept in a free-standing bedstead. Most of the smaller two or three-roomed houses featured bed recesses in the wall and even in larger establishments the kitchen often contained a recess for the servants. The main bed was usually either a four-poster with its set of curtains, a tent bed with curtains over the head or a French bed, which often had no curtains at all. However there were also portable and folding beds and when one furniture dealer auctioned off his stock it included a servant’s press bed, a hurley bed (low truckle bed on wheels), a camp bed and a child’s bed. Most beds were wooden and made by or bought from, a cabinet maker, but iron bed frames were also available – not so attractive but less likely to harbour bugs, and easier to clean if they did become infested. The ironmonger James Bonnar offered iron French, chair, cabinet and folding bedsteads.

Bedding comprised a wide variety of items, starting with the mattress. Spring mattresses were available by mid-century but they were expensive and most people would have used one of the traditional kinds, which were available with a variety of stuffings such as straw, cotton or woollen flock, combed wool and horsehair (in order of comfort). All stuffed mattresses eventually became uncomfortably lumpy and had to be opened up and the filling refreshed and at least one inmate in the Dunfermline poorhouse was employed as a ‘hair teaser’, combing out and cleaning compacted horsehair for re-use. The discomfort of an un-sprung mattress could be alleviated by placing a feather bed on top of it – if you could afford one. Second-hand mattresses were available in Dunfermline at auctions and from furniture dealers, but so far the only sellers of new ones that have come to light were in Edinburgh.

The furnishing department at Davie’s the draper in Bridge Street sold linen and cotton sheeting, both plain and twilled, as did Daniel Lamond in the High Street, although his was primarily a clothing store. Neither of them advertised pillows or bolsters, but they sold the closely woven, feather-proof ticking that could be used to make them. Bolster and pillow cases are not mentioned in their adverts either, so were presumably made at home. Both shops sold blankets, and one of Lamond’s adverts gave a useful list of the types available – English and Scotch for 7s a pair and upwards (Davie also sold ‘the new Scarlet English Blankets’), White, Scarlet and Blue Flannels in all widths and qualities, Plaidings of every kind from 10d  a yard. Davie sold quilts and bedspreads and the popular Marseilles or Marcella quilts, which were woven of thick white cotton in patterns that imitated intricate French quilting.

For clothes storage the bedroom usually contained a chest of drawers, mahogany if possible, but there is hardly any mention of wardrobes in mid-century inventories, although they were available to buy. Most lighter clothes, including the voluminous women’s dresses, were folded and kept in a drawer. Coats and other heavy garments were hung on hooks and early wardrobes were basically enclosed hook racks, clothes hangers such as we use in wardrobes nowadays not yet having been invented. Early hangers were made of stout wire and two dates are suggested for their invention, 1869 and 1903. The writer favours the later date, being the owner of a late 19th century Art Nouveau wardrobe that originally contained only hooks – a hanging rail had to be installed in it.

The dressing or ‘toilette’ table usually consisted simply of a small table (Mr Davie sold ‘toilette covers’) with a ‘dressing glass’ standing on it, and bedrooms in larger houses usually also had a washstand and its accompanying basin and jug. Chamber pots are never mentioned, although one or two auctioneers’ lists included a commode. There would be at least one chair in a bedroom and some people also kept books there.

In most homes the bedroom was also the bathroom, although separate bathrooms were included in the more modern large villas, like the ones in Comely Park Place and Park Avenue, that were developed in the 1850s. In 1867 David Blelloch advertised an upper apartment of five rooms in the Maygate which boasted a bathroom. However, most people bathed in the bedroom in a free-standing metal bath of some kind. Bonnar the ironmonger advertised ready-made sponging baths from 12s, foot baths from 3/6d, hip baths from 13s, sitz and children’s baths. Craigie and Reid, plumbers, advertised shower baths and pumps and in 1866 Mullan the pawnbroker offered a shower bath with force-pump and curtain’

The Kitchen

If inventories are any guide, kitchen furniture tended to be basic and minimal. Even in quite large houses it seems to have consisted of a table, a few chairs and possibly a dresser. Free-standing cupboards are seldom mentioned, so food and utensils were presumably stored in built-in cupboards. In one wealthy household the kitchen servant or servants slept in a curtained recess bed on a chaff-filled mattress with a feather bolster, the bedclothes comprising one sheet, two pairs of blankets and a quilt.

Cooking equipment, being of small value, was usually not mentioned or was lumped together and given a single valuation, although the inventory of the manufacturer Andrew Peebles (see Appendix) gives a bit more information – pots, pans, goblets and kettles worth £2, nine tin covers worth 5s, kitchen crockery worth £1, tubs and buckets worth 12s. Candlesticks were often kept in the kitchen and there must also have been cooking knives and spoons but they are never mentioned.

Not many inventories mention a kitchen range that would have included an oven, just an open fire grate with a fender and fire irons, so presumably not much baking was done at home. As well as grates and ranges James Bonnar’s ironmongery at the Cross, an Aladdin’s Cave of metal items for the home, stocked “The Celebrated Cooking Stove ‘Uncle Sam’ and other American Cooking and Heating Stoves”. The American stove seems to have been a forerunner of the Aga, with an enclosed fire box heating a cooking plate on the top surface, at least one oven and a boiler. Bonnar also stocked the more familiar kitchen ranges, comprising an open fire with a hob, side oven and boiler, priced from £1 upwards.


The basic processes in any system of laundry comprise agitation of the clothes in hot soapy water, rinsing them to remove the soap, removal of excess water, drying and ironing. All these tasks can be carried out manually but by the mid-nineteenth century there were a number of aids available to alleviate at least some of the drudgery, although not everyone could afford them or had space for them in their house. At rock-bottom level, water would be heated in a pan on the fire and transferred to a sink or bowl in which the clothes were rubbed and scrubbed by hand. More fortunate housewives would own a built-in cast iron boiler situated either in the kitchen or in a separate wash-house, that was heated by a fire at its base and in which cotton and linen articles were boiled in soapy water to clean and whiten them. Once the water in the boiler had cooled somewhat it would be used to wash woollens and more delicate articles.

Laundry soap came in blocks that had to be grated or shaved into particles that would dissolve easily and much soap was made in Dunfermline by the Laurie family in their works at the north-west corner of Abbey Park Place and St Margaret’s Street. The soap work was probably established at around the turn of the century and it features on Wood’s plan of Dunfermline published in 1823. Ebenezer Henderson’s Annals of Dunfermline records that in 1827 ‘the hard soap works of Messrs Laurie manufactured 216,282 lb of soap’. The soap-works were still in operation in 1862, when the Police Commission dealt with complaints about the smoke from its chimney, but it had gone out of business by the time the 1865 Valuation Roll was compiled.

Soap powders and flakes were available by the 1840s but a couple of decades later even better washing aids were being advertised in the Dunfermline Saturday Press. Its September 1860 and many subsequent issues carried an advert headed SOAP POWDER SUPERSEDED! A GREAT AMERICAN DISCOVERY FOR WASHING WITHOUT RUBBING. This miraculous substance was Canadian Washing Powder, which ‘subjugates Dirt by the dominion of Science and makes Soap Suds do treble duty’, although how this effect was achieved was not explained. In Dunfermline it could be bought from James Smith in Chalmers Street and Robert McConachie in Schoolend Street. Four years later another ‘New and Invaluable Discovery’ appeared on the scene – HUDSON’S CONCENTRATED EXTRACT OF SOAP, sold by four Dunfermline grocers and the Co-op at 1d a packet. It was said to soften the water, save labour, prevent hands cracking and to be so harmless that Ladies used it for washing their lace and muslins.

Once the clothes had been rinsed in a bucket or tub the excess water had to be removed from them and for many women this meant laborious wringing by hand, but the invaluable James Bonnar stocked THE PATENT CLOTHES WRINGER ‘capable of wringing either a blanket or finest muslin’. This device was what came to be known as the Patent Mangle – the familiar upright frame containing two rollers turned by a handle. It had been invented in the 1820s as a less space-consuming improvement on the eighteenth century box mangle which consisted of a rectangular wooden box filled with stones that was moved over a set of horizontal rollers under which the wet item was placed. James Bonnar sold both kinds. Owners of mangles could make a little money by allowing mangle-less women to use them for a small fee.

One vital laundry process which has now virtually disappeared was starching – used on table linen and on clothing such as shirts and girls’ white cotton pinafores. Starch came in a powder form and its use was complex and laborious (one reason why linen tablecloths and napkins fell out of favour when servants became scarce in the first half of the 20th century). The starch powder was carefully mixed with boiling water to make a gel that was then diluted with cold water to a consistency to suit the article to be starched. Table napkins and detachable shirt collars required the strongest mixture, table cloths a weaker dilution and shirts and pinafores the weakest of all. The washed item was immersed in the starch solution, wrung out and left to dry. Once dry it was sprinkled with water to thoroughly dampen it and then finally ironed. Semi-transparent fabrics like muslin and lace were ‘clear starched’, a skilled process that ridded them of starch residue that would clog the holes between the threads. A thick starch solution was used (thickest for lace and less so for muslin) and after immersion the article was squeezed to remove as much starch as possible. It was then clapped between the hands to remove any clogging and ironed while it was still damp.

If you believed its aggressive advertising, the best product was GLENFIELD PATENT STARCH, made by Robert Wotherspoon and Co. of Glasgow and used in the Royal Laundry. Commoners could buy it at their local grocer’s shop for ½d, ¾d, 2d, 4d or 8d a packet. Lawrence Hall claimed that his brand of Patent Starch, stocked by James Bruce of Queen Anne Street in ¼lb, ½lb, 1lb and 4lb packets, was ‘Unrivalled for Strength, Purity and Colour’ but if adverts are any guide to popularity it was Glenfield that reigned supreme in Dunfermline.

If possible the washing would be dried outside, usually spread on the ground on bushes or hung on a line but, as we all know our climate, is often unsuitable for open-air drying and some kitchen inventories mention a ‘clothes screen’, which seem to have been a clothes horse or airer, on which washing was hung to dry by the fire. After drying came the ironing, with cast iron ‘smoothing irons’ that were heated by the fire. These came in pairs so that one iron would be heating while its twin was being used, positions being reversed when the active iron became too cool to be effective.

Washing Machines

In October 1861 the Dunfermline Press advertised an auction of furniture belonging to Charles Warner*, a damask weaver who owned his own house and loom shop in Golfdrum Street and a small tenement in Grieve Street, which included a loom shop that he let out to a laundress. It was probably in this loom shop that Mr Warner kept the American Floating Ball Washing Machine that was included among his goods for sale. A similar machine had been part of the stock of William Ross, a furniture dealer who sold up in the same year. (*It was Charles Warner’s widow who advertised her public mangle in 1863)

The washing machine had been invented in 1853 by Charles Hollingsworth, an American farmer, allegedly because he wanted to be able to smoke his pipe, rock the baby’s cradle with his foot and do the washing simultaneously. The European patent was bought by Mr B Moore, who introduced the machine into Britain in the mid-1850s. It consisted of a rectangular trough containing about 200 elm balls of about the size of an orange. The trough was filled with soapy water and the clothes (it could wash up to 12 shirts at a time) were enclosed in a frame attached to a lever that was similar to a pump handle. When the lever was moved up and down the friction of the wooden balls on the clothes removed the dirt within a few minutes, the action being so gentle that even fine fabrics could be washed. A machine for domestic use cost £3 and larger commercial ones were available for use in laundries, public institutions, hotels and the like, these being worked by turning a handle. The cost would have put this useful contrivance beyond the pockets of all but the wealthy but perhaps some of the mill owners and other prosperous Dunfermline manufacturers took pity on their maid servants and bought one.

By the 1880s a number of washing machines were available. For a clearance sale James Bonnar (of course) advertised a Good Washing Machine reduced from 35s to £1, an Empire Washing Machine reduced from 30s to 21s and three Peoples’ Washing Machines reduced from 18/6d to 12/6d.


Photo of a Small register Grate

A Small Register Grate

Although American closed heating stoves ‘for parlours, lobbies, offices, shops, harness rooms etc’ were available in Dunfermline by the mid-19th century, the heart of the home was the open fireplace, and for everything to do with this ‘heart’ the person to go to was, inevitably, James Bonnar. He specialised in Register grates, in which the fire basket was partially enclosed by an angular metal backing that reflected more heat into the room than the old system of inserting the fire basket into a brick or stone built cavity. Bonnar stocked 40 different styles of register grates for parlours, drawing rooms, dining rooms and bedrooms, starting at a price of 10/6d, and he supplied ash pans to fit in the same style as the grate. He also provided a choice of 80 different fenders, although some of those would for use with kitchen ranges. Of course every fireplace needed a set of fire irons – poker, tongs, shovel and hearth brush, and James Bonnar stocked 70 different kinds.

If your chimney smoked, James Bonnar had the remedy in the form of Steads Improved Patent Chimney Tops; ‘they cause an upward current, eventually prevent downward draught and do not admit rain or the smoke of other flues. They have no moveable parts to get out of order or create a noise. Are thoroughly cleaned by the sweeper’s machine and give a neat finish to the chimney shaft’. There was a choice of two chimney sweeps in 1860s Dunfermline; the Irishman Robert Dawson, who had moved to Dunfermline from Glasgow, and lived in Bruce Street and his son, also named Robert, who lived in the Maygate. Robert Dawson snr and jnr and their wives were all rough characters who were not unfamiliar with the Police Court, but presumably the Roberts swept chimneys satisfactorily.

In the more modest homes coal for the fire was probably kept in a bucket, but the genteel could choose between a coal vase, which was a decorative improvement on the plain bucket, or a coal box that was enclosed by a sloping drop-down front panel and usually incorporated a bracket to hold the coal shovel. If the fire was difficult to light the grocers John Lee and George Lauder each supplied Templeman’s Patent Firelighters, made by the Dunfermline man James Templeman at his factory in Glasgow. Also available from grocers were Bryant and May’s Special Safety Matches which ‘ Light Only On the Box’.

The coal itself was, of course, available in abundance in Dunfermline, chiefly from the Lassodie, Elgin and Wellwood coal works leased by Thomas Spowart of Broomhead. Lassodie coal was sold at the railway station in North Inglis Street, the best splint household coal costing 8/4d a ton; second quality ‘five feet coal’ 6/8d a ton and Nutt coal for stoves 5s. Cartage was an extra 9d per ton. Elgin and Wellwood coal also came in different qualities and could be ordered through the confectioner Isabella Shaw. The office of the West of Fife Coal Company, lessees of Muircockhall coal works, was in Guildhall Street.


Poorer households would have used candles (see the article on Shopping for Food) but those who could afford one would buy an oil lamp, which gave a much brighter light. James Bonnar sold the Newest Designs and Latest Improvements in paraffin lamps starting at a price of 1s. The Finest Paraffin Oil cost 3s a gallon and there were also American oil and Very Fine White Oil, which was almost free from smell. He also stocked the ‘Patent Hydro-Carbon Lamp requiring no chimney’ and the New Safety Stable Lamp.

Most desirable of all, of course, was lighting by the gas that was supplied by the Dunfermline Gas Light Company from its works situated between Priory Lane and Rolland Street. The Company had been founded in 1826 and late in 1828 work began on building a gas works and laying pipes in the streets. All the work was completed by 26 October 1829 and on the evening of 28 October the gas was ‘let on’, a large crowd of both town and country folk having gathered to witness the illumination of shops, factories and other public buildings. For most of the 19th century gas was used only for lighting in Dunfermline; gas fires and cookers were still in the future, although by 1884 Mr Ireland the ironmonger was advertising gas, coal and paraffin stoves for heating.

Advertisements for houses to let were always careful to mention if gas was laid on, but initially this would be in the limited area of the town where pipes had been laid. The network expanded over the years as demand increased and more streets were built, the expansion causing some friction with the Commissioners of Police who, among many other things, were responsible for the upkeep of road surfaces. The Commissioners considered that the Gas Company did not reinstate the road to a satisfactory standard when it filled in its pipe trenches. Some things never change!

The Dunfermline Register for 1830 stated that gas to shops, dwellings and factories was metered at a charge of 12s per 1000 cubic feet if the usage amounted to less than £10 a year. By 1859 the charge for domestic gas had dropped to 5/2½d. The installation of domestic gas lights was carried out by plumbers, whose advertisements in the Dunfermline Almanac were illustrated by drawings of elaborate ceiling-mounted gasoliers. Most homes, however, would be lighted by more modest wall brackets.




After a death, the executors of the deceased would sometimes register an inventory of his or her moveable goods (ie everything that was not buildings or land) in an official court, which in the case of Fife was Cupar Sheriff Court. Inventories always included a valuation figure for household goods and occasionally there was also a detailed list of the contents of each room in the house. These lists give a good idea of the kind of furnishings to be found in Victorian homes but there are a few things to take into account when using them.

  • They only include items that were worth more than a few pence, so many articles will be left out, especially in lists of kitchen equipment, because they were not of significant value.
  • Other items are sometimes not listed although they must have been in the house. For instance if there was a bed there must have been bed linen.
  • The prices given in inventories are those of second-hand items. As the deceased person was usually fairly old, so were their possessions and the prices will reflect that.
  • Inventories are usually those of fairly wealthy people living in large houses. Lists for more normal houses comprising few rooms are rare.

The first three inventories below are all of a ‘room and kitchen’ house and they illustrate the varying degrees of comfort that could be achieved in such circumstances.

 Room and Kitchen

The inventory of James Taylor, grocer in the Kirkgate, who died in September 1853 at the age of 72 and was buried in the northern graveyard of the Abbey church. In spite of the modest nature of his household goods his moveable estate was valued at £133 and he owned substantial property. He lived in one of his two contiguous houses at the foot of the Kirkgate, opposite the churchyard, and he also owned a house and land on the north side of the turnpike road from Dunfermline to Carnock and another on the main street of North Queensferry. His son, Alexander P Taylor became a very successful photographer in Dunfermline, specialising in local subjects, especially the Abbey church.

Sofa                                                                £1 10s
Carpet                                                                 10s
8 mahogany stuffed-bottomed chairs       £3
Table                                                                £1
Bedstead                                                         10/6d
Old feather bed & pillow                          £1 10s
Curtain & blankets                                       15s
Old chest of drawers                                    10s
8-day clock                                                 £1
Table linen                                                   18/6d
Clothes                                                        £2
Dresser                                                             5s
Bed                                                                    3s
4 hardwood chairs                                          6s
Crockery                                                        10s
Kitchen utensils, pots & pans                    15/6d

The inventory of William Marshall, Albany Street, who died of a stroke in February 1858 aged 68. The 1841 Census describes him as an agricultural labourer but by 1851 he was a brewer (in the Maygate) and this is the occupation given on his death certificate.

William left his house to his son John and his will reveals that as well as the ground floor rooms it contained attic rooms, two of which he left to his daughter Grace, together with part of the garden and access to the well. At the time his inventory was taken the attic rooms must have either been empty or have contained furniture that did not belong to William; Grace may already have been living in them with her own furniture. The 1861 Census lists just John and his sister Grace in the Albany Street house, Grace being described as a housekeeper. John Marshall carried on the brewing business in the Maygate until 1864 when he switched to the grocery trade. In 1865 the Dunfermline Saturday Press carried his advertisement for a room, kitchen and garden in the Albany Street house, together with a byre for three cows, milk house ‘and other conveniences.’

5 kitchen chairs                  3/6d
Kitchen table                      5s
Kitchen dresser                  2/6d
Kitchen bedding                12s
Cupboard                           1/6d
Candlesticks                       1/3d
Knives, forks, spoons         2/6d
Old kitchen grate               2/6d
Hardwood table            2/6d
Chest of drawers           12/6d
Dressing glass                2/6d
8-day clock                    £1 10s
Grate                             1/6d
Clothes etc                    £2
(No bedstead so the bed would have been in a wall recess)

Inventory of John Young, grocer in Reid Street, who died of a bowel complaint in November 1852 at the age of 54. He and his wife Ann Paterson lived in two rooms over the shop and its back room. Their two sons were young adults who had left home, one of them, Robert Young, being a medical student in Edinburgh. There was also an inventory of the contents of John Young’s shop, which was included in the article on ‘Shopping for Food in Victorian Dunfermline’. Bedclothes are listed for each room but no bedsteads, so the beds were probably in wall recesses. The kitchen list is particularly detailed.

Small fir table                                    6s
An old easy chair                               3s
Two hardwood chairs                        2s
A stool                                               6s
Old basin stand, basin & ewer          1/6d
Watering pan                                     1s
Brass jelly pan                                   2s
Two bread baskets                             9d
Heater                                                6d
Toaster                                               9d
Two smoothing irons                         1s
A lot of mantlepiece ornaments        1s
Five tin covers                                   5s
A lot of crockery                               7/6d
Old looking glass                               1s
Tea kettle                                           1/3d
Grate, fender and fire irons               5s
Cheese toaster                                   6d
Frying pan                                         9d
Goblet                                                1/2d
Coffee pot                                         6d
Tin teapot                                          6d
Feather bed and bed clothes             £1 15s
Pair of bellows                                   1s
Pitcher and two tin tankards             1
Clothes screen                                   6d
Clothes basket                                   6d
Room off Kitchen
Mahogany chest of drawers                     17/6d
Looking glass with mahogany frame       8/6d
Sofa                                                          £3
Easy chair                                                 £1 5        s
3 mahogany stuffed-bottom chairs          £1 1s
Mahogany table and cover                       £1
Grate, fender & fire irons                         £1 5s
American clock                                         8/6d
Weather glass                                           10s
Picture and frame                                     2/6d
Two waiters                                              6d
Lot of mantlepiece ornaments                  2/6d
Carpet and hearth rug                               17/6d
Feather bed with mattress & clothes        £1 17/6d
Clothes chest                                            7/6dBody Clothes and Watch
A suit of black clothes                            £2
A suit of common clothes                       £1
Four linen shirts                                      15s
Six common shirts                                  9s
Watch and appendages                           £5



Three rooms & kitchen

Th inventory of Robert Taylor baker in Bruce Street, who died in 1843 aged 38 of fever (probably typhus) and was buried in the northern graveyard of the Abbey church. The inventory of his moveable goods totalled £434 9/6d, including debts of £99 2/11d owing to him by 44 individuals, but ‘which debts being almost entirely desperate and irrecoverable, can only be valued at fifteen pounds sterling.’ Robert’s widow, Catherine Turnbull, pregnant with her last child Robert, carried on the bakery to support herself and her three daughters, then aged 8, 3 and 1 year. After nine years she sold the business to John Morrison.

Front parlour
Mahogany chest of drawers            £3 10s
4 mahogany chairs                           £1 4s
A breakfast table and covers           £1 10s
Small carpet and rug                        5s
Grate, fender, fire irons                   £1
3 prints                                             3s
Small writing desk                           3/6d
Dressing glass                                  5s
Window curtain and blind               2s
4 volumes of books                          4s
Ink stand                                          1/6d
Chimney ornaments                         1s
Tea tray                                            1/6d
Broken china tea set and
some small articles of crockery        7/6d
Mahogany table                               2/6d
4 cans                                               4s
Leafed hard wood table                  3s
4-poster bed, curtains & bedding    £3
Small grate                                       2/6d
Back bedroom
3 hardwood chairs                           3s
Small hardwood table                      1/6d
Small grate & fire irons                    2/6d
Fire chest                                         2/6d
Chaff bed (mattress), bolster,
blankets sheets and covering           13/6d
(Bedding for a wall bed)
Deceased’s wearing apparel            £3
Watch                                              £2 10s
Kitchen grate                                   3s
2 chairs                                             2s
Dresser                                             3s
Pots, pans & other tin articles          10s
Four rooms, Kitchen, Bed closet, Lobby, Garret, Wash house, Stable

The inventory of William Morris, a lapper and callenderer (finisher and packer of linen), who lived in Rose Street with his elder brother, two teenaged children and a housekeeper. He died in 1841 aged 38 of stomach ulcers and fever and was buried in lair number 476 in the southern graveyard of the Abbey church. This inventory is particularly detailed, even including the goldfish bowl in the dining room.

Grate, fender, fire irons                             £1 15s
Breakfast table & cover                            £1 5s
Small round tea table                                15s
4 stuffed bottomed chairs                         £2 4s
Carpet, crumb cloth, rug                           £1 26d
Figure                                                        12/6d
Small mirror                                               10s
Tea tray & waiters                                     5s
Small table                                                 5/6d
Window curtain                                        8/6d
Dining Room
Hair covered sofa                                      £4 10s
6 stuff bottom chairs                                 £3 6s
Dining table & cover                                 £2 15s
Small table                                                 10s
Mantlepiece clock                                     £1 10s
Sideboard                                                  £4
Grate, fender, fire irons                             £2 10s
Carpet, crumb cloth, rug                           £1 s0s
Window curtains                                       £1 15s
14 small pictures                                        £2
Footstool                                                   1/6d
Portable writing desk                                7/6d
Barometer                                                  15s
An easy chair                                             12/6d
Fish globe & ornaments                            7/6d
West Bedroom
Mahogany four-poster bed with
worsted curtains feather bed & bedding  £6 10s
Toilette table & small dressing glass         17/6d
Double wash hand basin stand & utensils      £1 7/6d
Chest of drawers and cabinet                   £2 2/6d
3 chairs                                                      6s
Hardwood clothes screen                          1s
Stucco figure                                             1s
Grate, fender, fire irons                             7/6d
Carpet                                                        7/6d
East Bedroom
Mahogany four-poster bed, worsted
curtains, bed & bedding                            £7
Small toilette table & dressing glass         9s
Single wash hand basin stand & utensils  5s
2 chairs                                                      5s
Grate, fender, fire irons                             5/6d
Small carpet                                               6s
Small Bed Closet
Small folding bedstead, bed & bedding   £1 15s
Carpet                                                        3/6d
Wash hand stand & utensils                      5s
Small chest of drawers with press on top 12/6d
Small table & glass                                    6/6d
Chair                                                          2/6d
8-day clock                                                [ ]
Window blinds, rollers etc                        [ ]
Kitchen etc
Dresser                                                      15s
Grate, oven & fire irons                            £1 2/6d
Crockery, pots, pans & other utensils       £1 10s
Servant’s bedding                                     15s
Bed & table linen                                      £5
Crockery, china & crystal                          £2 2s
Spoons, forks & knives                             £2 10s
Small portable bed & bedding                  18s
2 clothes mangles, one portable                £3
Wash house utensils                                  1/3d
Pony                                                          £4
Cow                                                           £4 10s
Stable utensils                                           6s
Garden chairs & utensils                           1/3d
Total £92 14/6d


Stuffed -bottom chair – a dining chair with an upholstered seat
Worsted – a closely woven strong fabric of fine wool.
Portable writing desk – a small wooden box with a sloping writing panel inside the lid and a lift-out tray with fitted compartments for pens and pencils, ink containers with screw-on lids and other writing equipment. The writing paper was kept in the body of the box under the tray.

Nine Rooms, Kitchen and Lobby

The inventory of Andrew Peebles, merchant and manufacturer, who died at Glasgow in 1830 aged 53, leaving a widow and seven children aged between 3 and 15 years. He was buried in lair number 515 in the southern graveyard of the Abbey church. His house on the southeast corner of Guildhall Street and Canmore Street was described in March 1860 in an article in the Dunfermline Saturday Press:

The large house now occupied by the National Bank was built by Dr Davidson afterwards Professor of Natural History in the University of Aberdeen, subsequently purchased by Andrew Peebles from whose family it was bought by the now defunct Western Bank, from the liquidators of which disastrous wreck it has been acquired by the National.

The site is now occupied by the Fabric restaurant.

Dining Room

Fourteen old mahogany chairs and two elbow chairs. A set of old mahogany dining tables. A pillar and claw table. A sideboard and knife case. A small breakfast table. A lady’s work table. Carpet and rug. Grate, fender and fire irons. A fire screen. A portable desk. Three old trays. An old barometer. Crockery and glasses.

Drawing Room

Carpet and rug. Grate, fender and fire irons. Two card tables. Ten painted chairs. Two sofas.
Two fire screens. Two window curtains. A tray and vase. China and glasses.

Bedroom off the Drawing Room
An old four-poster bed and bedding. A chest of drawers. A night stool (commode). An old carpet and rug.
Grate, fender and fire irons. A small dressing glass.

Second Bedroom
A tent bed, curtains and bedding. A chest of drawers. An old carpet and rug. Grate, fender and fire irons.
An old dressing table and basin stand. Four bedroom chairs. A dressing glass
Third Bedroom
A tent bed, curtains and bedding. A chest of drawers. A basin stand and dressing table.
A small dressing glass. An old carpet and rug. Grate, fender and fire irons. Three old bedroom chairs.
A night stool.

Closet off the Third Bedroom
A tent bed and bedding.

Small Middle Room
A small sofa. A small common chest of drawers. A small painted table. Two old painted chairs.
A small round table.

Store Room
An old napery press. Old boxes and barrels. 20 pairs of sheets. 24 pieces of table linen.
24 bolster and pillow slips. 6 pairs of blankets

Four nursery beds and bedding. A painted chest of drawers. Two old fir tables. Two old chairs and a stool.
Grate, fender and fire irons. A cloth screen.

An 8-day clock with fir case. A fir lobby table. Two painted lobby chairs.


An old kitchen dresser. Pots, pans, goblets and kettles. Nine tin covers. Kitchen crockery.
Three pairs of old candlesticks. Tubs and buckets. Kitchen grate and fire irons. Two old kitchen chairs.
Two cloth screens. Dining room stoneware. Twelve old silver tablespoons. Twelve old desert spoons.
Two dozen old knives and forks. Eighteen old teaspoons.

Total value £162 16/6d

Sources of Information

  • The British Newspaper Archive Advertisements and articles in Dunfermline newspapers
  • Scotland’s People website, Wills and inventories. Valuation Rolls
  • Ancestry Census records
  • Online information about unfamiliar 19th century household items
  • The writer’s own notes on individuals living in 19th century Dunfermline