The Millers of Bridge Street

Printers, Booksellers, Bookbinders and Stationers, 1780-1883

by Dr Jean Barclay

The early 19th century saw a revolution in the art of printing as the wooden hand presses with moveable type that had been in use since Gutenberg and Caxton`s time in the 15th century gradually became mechanised. Then wooden presses were replaced by iron `screw` presses like the Stanhope press of 1800 which could print 480 pages an hour. By the mid-19th century hand presses were being replaced by steam-powered rotary presses allowing printing to be done on an industrial scale. Lithographic printing in which a flat stone or metal plate was used with grease applied to images to attract the ink while the rest was ink-repellent, enabled complex illustrations to be reproduced. These developments boosted the printing industry. At the end of the first 300 years of printing there were 39 printing towns in Scotland but in the 19th century another168 were added. Among a new generation of printers were the Millers of Haddington, Dunbar and Dunfermline and John Miller and his son, John, printers, booksellers, bookbinders and stationers, were a familiar presence in Dunfermline for nearly 60 years.

Print of John Miller, from a water colour by Henry Gilbert
John Miller, After a water colour by Henry Gilbert

John Miller senior was born in Dunbar in September 1780 to John Miller and Mary Deans, who only survived the birth by a few hours. His father died when he was nine and he was brought up by his half-brother George, a printer and bookseller in Dunbar and Haddington. At 14 he was apprenticed to George in the book and printing department and was then engaged as his journeyman. In 1804 he managed his brother`s concern in Haddington but he was keen to set up his own business. In September 1805, having looked at several places, he moved to Dunfermline, where there was no regular bookseller or printer and established himself up at the south-west corner of Abbey Park Place.  He also had a shop in the High Street at the junction with Collier Row and in 1807 he established a private circulating library there (1).

 In June 1808, with the gift of a large Dutch press from his brother, Miller began his printing business. Among his new employees was young Joseph Noel Paton, who would go on to become a notable designer of linen patterns and the father of a famous artistic family (2). John Miller`s first official contract came in February 1809 when for £3 16s he printed `for the city fathers Advertisements and a copy of Hutchison`s Justices of Peace`.  Among the first books he printed was the Dunfermline Psalmody by John Malcolm, baker (1809), and A Short Account of the Laws and Institutions of Moses (1810) by the Rev. Henry Fergus, minister of the Relief Church. In 1810 John Miller and Andrew Angus owned the two `public presses` in the town while David Paton and James Lothian owned `private presses` for their own use.

John Miller was a religious man. Having belonged to both the Seceders and the Established Church, he became an ardent Baptist, claiming that `infant sprinkling is one of the grossest corruptions ever introduced into Christianity`. This may have been a sacrifice business-wise, but he apparently `bore it willingly and won the respect of the whole community`. John`s faith led him to write and publish Religious Catechism with Forms of Prayer for the Use of Children in 1812 and two years later Sacred Poetry for Children on the Greatness and Goodness of God, as Manifest in the Works of Creation, Providence and Redemption (3).

These were good years for John Miller as he was always busy.  In 1813 he printed Proceedings of the Craw Court, an amusing polemic about the freedom of the press by Andrew Mercer, and in the same year The Good Old Way Defended, a defence of the Old Lichts Church by William Smith, teacher, Crossford.  Histories of the town were popular and in 1815 he printed and sold for 10s.6d A History of the Town and Parish of Dunfermline by the Rev. John Fernie.  In 1816 Miller printed and published An Introduction to the French Language for another teacher John Johnston. Loyal customers returned, the Rev. Fergus, for example, for the printing of some of his sermons and Andrew Mercer for his long poem Dunfermline Abbey with notes and illustrations. In 1819 Miller printed Walter Bell`s poems and The Dunfermline Songster, 21 popular songs for children by the Abbey precentor, James Rankine (4) 

Print of Helen Miller, after a watercolour by Henry Gilbert
Helen Miller, after a water colour by Henry Gilbert

 In June 1806, Miller had married Helen Laing of Salton, near Haddington and in 1820, seeking larger premises in a busier location, the family moved to a substantial tenement at 5-9 Bridge Street, directly west of the Townhouse, which is still there today.  The new premises housed the printing press in the basement, reached by a side stair from a close, the shop on the ground floor and living accommodation in the flat above. With little competition, John Miller continued to do well. He printed books, pamphlets, chapbooks, broadsides and periodicals. In 1826 and 1828 he published sets of 20 or so of the popular `cheap tracts` on a variety of subjects. He continued to have the support of his extended family and he and his brother George acted as agents for each others` sales and shared woodcuts and other items (5).

 John Miller was of a scientific bent and became a founder member of the Mechanics Institute in 1825 and the short-lived Scientific Club a year later. In 1828 he introduced lithographic printing enabling more complex images to be reproduced. Some of his publications were of considerable length; The History of Dunfermline (1828) by Andrew Mercer, for example, was 330 pages long and A Description of about 300 Animals, printed and sold by Miller had 268 pages and 123 wood-engravings, many of them by W. Christie. In 1829 Miller compiled and published the Dunfermline Register, a useful epitome of local statistics, which would appear annually until 1866 and in 1844 another long-lasting publication was the 60-page The Stranger`s Companion amid the Antiquities of Dunfermline of 1844 which became the definitive guide to the town (6) 

John and Helen Miller had three children, a son Robert who died in infancy, a daughter Mary and a son John Laing.  From 1829 John Miller published almanacs and then The Gasometer, a monthly literary magazine, and The Monthly Scrap Book.  In 1835, he made his son, John Laing Miller a partner in the business and in the same year founded a paper which became the Dunfermline Monthly Advertiser. At first this was free and contained advertisements alone but it soon grew to a 4-page newssheet with advertisements, local and international news, poems and miscellaneous articles and cost a penny.  As the Advertiser alternated with the Dunfermline Journal founded by William Clark, the citizens had a newspaper every two weeks (7).

Copy of the top of the front page of "The Dunfermline Monthly Advertiser", January 1860.

 As the years went by, Miller faced greater competition as rivals like William Clark and W. Liddel gained printing contracts, other newssheets sprang up and new booksellers set up shop.  William Clark was chosen by Henry Syme to print his book of poems and by Ebenezer Henderson to publish his Royal Tombs of Dunfermline in his Journal and later as a small book (8). John Miller`s wife, Helen, died in 1851, and he followed in 1852, aged 72, leaving the business in the hands of his son.

 John Laing Miller was born in December 1811, the second son and third child of John Miller and Helen Laing.  He attended Dunfermline High School where he was often ranked `semper assiduous` on the rector`s roll of honour. On leaving school, he was trained in his father`s shop and became head of John Miller and Son when his father died. A staunch Baptist like his father, in 1841 John Laing Miller married Jane Moncrieff, elder daughter of the Reverend James Blair, minister of the Baptist Chapel, and his wife Martha Reid. The couple went on to have 12 children, of whom two died in infancy and five in adolescence or young adulthood.

Painting of John Laing Miller by an unknown artist
John Laing Miller, artist unknown

In 1841 the Scottish Baptists underwent a split about `exhortation`, the habit of calling out in services which could be self-indulgent and long-winded and the 30 or so members who were against it left their `nice little chapel in James Street` to set up as the English (or Second) Baptist Church in Inglis Street, later moving to the Maygate. The Millers were among the group who seceded and for 25 years John Laing Miller was their Secretary, Sabbath School Superintendent and leader of psalmody, the praise and singing at the services (9).

With his work force of five, John Laing Miller seems to have initially done well as head of the business. When his father-in-law died in 1859 Miller became the agent for his memoirs The Scottish Evangelist – the Life and Labours of the Reverend James Blair. Miller was fond of children and printed many books for them. Both he and his wife could string rhymes together and their publication for young people The Reciter`s Own included woodcuts accompanied by their jingles and coloured by their own children (10). The Bridge Street shop must have been something of an Aladdin`s cave as advertisements show that there were more than 100 novels and other books for sale, masses of stationery including `83 items for a shilling`, school prizes, Valentines, globes and maps, inks and writing materials, busts of eminent musicians, stereoscopic slides, and American washing machines and washing boards.  Then there were the musical instruments – flutes, drums, pianos, accordions, violins and harmoniums, which the firm also repaired. There was even a four-wheeled velocipede on one occasion to be sold in shares. For Handsel Monday in 1863 there were 135 items advertised – books, songs, maps, gadgets, etc.  Miller was also kept busy as the agent for insurance companies, private teachers of music and graphology and for the sales of property, taking in advertisements,lending books and `once-read` papers and magazines and in book and music-binding. There was often something of interest to be seen in Millers` window; in 1860 it was a large lithograph of `The City of Dunfermline` from a painting by Andrew Blair (11)

Photograph of the premises in Bridge Street, as they were in 1914
The shop and house in Bridge Street, photographed around 1914

Sadly, things gradually declined. Not only did John Laing Miller seem to have less of a business head than his father but, according to one commentator, he seemed nervous of taking on new commission in printing and advertising (12). In addition he may well have over-extended himself in his interests outside of work. Apart from his pre-occupations with his large family and the Baptist chapel, he played a leading role in several clubs and organisation, for example as Secretary of the Dunfermline Auxiliary of the Deaf and Dumb Institution in Edinburgh, where the town always maintained a few pupils.

Above all, perhaps, he was much in demand as an entertainer at soirees and other social occasions as he was such a gifted musician and scientist. On the music side it was often noted that he was a remarkable vocalist with a `high-set tenor voice` and `the notes in the upper register unusually clear and distinct and prolonged with a power seldom met with in the male voice`. He gave several demonstrations of the seraphim, a forerunner of the harmonium, a novelty at the time, which he introduced into worship at his chapel, `a matter then somewhat difficult to achieve on Scottish soil` and the year he joined his father in the firm he published the Melodian, a selection of Songs, Duetts and Glees, in two parts and the firm frequently sold new songs and music.. In 1837 he joined the Harmonists Society instituted by James Rankine, Master of Song later becoming its leader. He played a large role in the Psalmody Associations of Charlestown and Limekilns, where he had a holiday connection, as well as providing entertainment at their picnics and parties.  John`s musical talent was inherited by at least two of his children, Elizabeth who gave piano lessons at Bridge Street from the age of 17  and George who became a church organist in Liverpool and in the USA and who wrote a definitive history of the organ (13).

On the science side John Laing Miller`s gifts were apparent from an early age and at 15 he assisted Dr. Ebenezer Henderson with his lectures on electricity.  Like his father, he became an office bearer to the Mechnics Institute and often gave lectures to them. He enjoyed tinkering with machinery and experimented with bicycles.  He and his family were seen out on them before they became generally popular. Two examples demonstrate his scientific ability to entertain.  In January and December came the `soiree season` and in January 1860, at Provost Whitelaw`s annual soiree for his work force at the Dunfermline Foundry, Mr. Miller gave what he styled `A half hour with Mephistopheles, or a lecture on the Black Arts`. He described the four Black Arts as those of the collier, the iron-founder, the printer and the necromancer. As he had once been a `printer`s devil` he chose the third and related the story of Faust (a printer) and Mephistopheles (the devil). Choosing a small boy from the audience as Mephistopheles he carried out `incomprehensible feats in magic, natural and diabolical, accompanied by a humorous patter`. To much laughter `rings and shillings set out on their travels, burning candles were eaten up and water turned into ice in a moment and ladies` handkerchiefs revealed secrets which lips would never utter`.

In January 1863, again at the Foundry soiree, Mr. Miller demonstrated `some new and very striking experiments in electricity`. The machine was in `capital working order` enabling the boys to light the gas with their fingers, to fire the electric pistol and  get `good sport with a magic picture`. Then `cotton and spirits were set on fire, and with almost all the company joining hands the shock was given, which produced universal excitement`. Then came `dissolving views` of comic figures which produced `unbounded bursts of merriment`. One feels a bit sorry for Mr. Locke, the new Abbey precentor, who followed with `two sacred songs` (14).

By the 1850s the business was failing and the Advertiser, which had not moved with the times,was overtaken by the Dunfermline Press, founded in 1859 with a modern steam press and up-to-date material. Judging by some years earlier, Miller may not have been selling suitable items in his shop as a well-known chapman `Hawkie` wandering the streets of Dunfermline seeking new `ballads and histories` called at Millers but found only religious tracts. These were a `bad fit` but being drunk he took four dozen of them and by trickery managed to sell them in the street (15). In 1863 Miller and Son was declared bankrupt and an employee, Andrew Ker, took over the bookbinding plant, periodicals and newspapers while John Stewart succeeded to the printing business. (16) In 1866, after 60 years in Dunfermline, the Miller family moved to Liverpool where the oldest son, John Moncrieff, had already settled in the stationery business. They were much mourned by their friends at the Baptist Chapel and by other groups in which they had played such a large part.

John Laing Miller`s latter years were not easy.  One unfortunate event affected his good name. On moving to Liverpool in 1866 he had become manager of Ibbotson`s wholesale stationery business and was left in charge when the proprietor went on buying trips. In 1869, due apparently to the actions of a dishonest employee, money went missing and John was sued to recover `damages for alleged mismanagement`.  This cost him dear in reputation and money and he decided to retire. Then in 1871 his wife, Jane, died and from 1873 to 1880 he lost four of his children, James Blair, Jane Moncrieff Blair (or Caulton), Louisa and Helen, all young (17). In 1881, aged 69, John and his youngest daughter, Amelia, 17, a schoolteacher, were living with his daughter Martha Reid, 23, and her husband Frederick Crosby, a baker, in Liverpool. He died there in January 1883 aged 71 and is buried with several of his family in Anfield Cemetery. It was a long way from Dunfermline and the respect and affection built up by Millers and their business over so many years.


1. The Dunfermline section in W. J. Couper, The Millers of Haddington, Dunbar and Dunfermline, London, 1914. A. Campbell, `Fife Traders`, Vol. 2, pp.113-4

2. Couper, op. cit. The Miller and Paton families became firm friends. Amelia Paton sketched Mrs. Jane Moncrieff Miller and the Millers named their youngest daughter Amelia.  It is possible that Noel Paton (later Sir Noel) also worked for the Millers at one stage.

3. Couper, op. cit. E. Henderson, Annals of Dunfermline, 1878, pp. 565, 569, 574, 580.

4. Couper, op. cit.  Henderson, op cit.p. 583.

5. The Miller children were: John Moncrieff, Elizabeth Reid, James Blair, Robert Finlay, William Moncrieff, George Laing, Jane Moncrieff Blair, Louisa M.B, Martha, Helen Laing, Amelia Mary, and Charles Garniss.

6. Henderson, op. cit, p. 652.

7. Henderson, op. cit, p. pp. 636, 652.  Dunfermline Saturday Press, Jan. 27 1883.

8. Henderson, op. cit, p. 674.

9. The Scottish Evangelist – the Life and Labours of the Rev. James Blair, London, 1860.

10. `John Laing Miller` in Couper, op. cit.

ii. Advertisements in the Dunfermline Monthly Advertiser.

11. D. Thomson, `Anent Dunfermline`, Vol. 2, item 27. `He was frightened by anyone who advertised in his paper or gave him printing to job up`.

12. Dunfermline Saturday Press, Jan. 27 1883.  George Laing Miller, The Recent Revolution in Organ Building, 1913.

14. Dunfermline Monthly Advertiser, January 1860 and January 1863.

15. John Strathesk, ed, Hawkie: the Story of a Gangrel, Glasgow, 1888. In the street `Hawkie` (William Cameron) told a more entertaining story than those in the tracts and on being challenged out refused to refund the ½d paid and was jailed for the weekend for his pains. His autobiography was edited many years after his death.

16. `Fife Traders`, op. cit.          

17. Details on the Miller family grave in Anfield Cemetery, Liverpool.

Picture Credits

The Advertiser heading courtesy of George Robertson.

The others came from The Millers of Haddington, Dunbar and Dunfermline, W. J. Couper, London, 1914, seen at the Dunfermline Library and Galleries.