The Millport Spinning Mill

by Sue Mowat

When a twelfth century Abbot of Dunfermline Abbey built his burgh of Dunfermline he included in his plans at least two water mills, powered by an elaborate system of leads (water channels). One of the Abbey’s mill sites was on the slope between the Abbey precinct and the Tower Burn, but the mill we are concerned with was situated at the top of what was then called Collier Row (now Bruce Street). At some point one of the town’s ports (gates) was built next to this mill, after which it was known as either the Collier Row or the Millport Mill.

Map of the Mill Dam

This section from a plan of Dunfermline made in 1771 shows the mill with its mill Dam (pond) and lead. (A Tesco store now occupies the site of the Dam.). We pick up the story in 1824, when the grain-grinding mill was replaced by a new building with a totally different purpose. Among the papers of the Hunt family of Pittencrieff held in the Dunfermline Local Studies Library (Reference EB1/3) is a small packet of letters, invoices and other items that document the transformation of the mill.

In March 1824 James Hunt of Pittencrieff, who owned all the Dunfermline mills, the Dam and the leads, leased the Millport Mill for 21 years to a Bridge Street baker, John Malcolm, who was planning a career move. Under the terms of the lease Malcolm would demolish the old barley mill and build a yarn spinning mill on the site, mill-spinning being an important industry in Dunfermline at the time. The new mill would be partly powered by a water wheel, but the lease included permission for a pipe of not more than three inches in diameter, to be led from the lead, to supply water to a steam engine. The old mill that was demolished was almost certainly not the original one built for the Abbot seven centuries before, which would have been so often repaired and altered over the years that little if any of the original fabric would have been left.

John Malcolm was working in partnership with his brother-in-law John Wilson, a linen manufacturer, and the mill they had built was described in 1833, when the Dunfermline spinning mills were investigated by the Royal Commission on the Employment of Children.

Medical Report on the Wet and Dry Flax Spinning-factory (chiefly wet) of Messrs Wilson and Malcolm, Millport mill, worked by steam and water power.

The factory is situated at Millport, in the north part of the town; the neighbourhood is open and free. The building is three stories high. The height of the working-rooms is from ten to twelve feet; and their average temperature 72o of Fahrenheit. They are ventilated by means of sash windows and apertures in the roof. The drainage is covered and sufficient, and the cleanliness of the factory respectable. The general atmosphere of the rooms is much less disagreeable than at the other wet mill….The building is also well constructed.

(Wet spinning produced finer thread than dry spinning but working conditions could be very disagreeable. At the Millport Mill everything possible was done to protect the workers from spray, but the description of the other Dunfermline wet mill, belonging to a Mr Kirkland, was horrific.)

The mill had been built by Robert Bonnar, one of the Bonnar dynasty of Dunfermline builders, who at that time was aged about 30. As the years passed his business expanded and by 1851 he was employing 20 men and was an influential personage in the town. Bonnar’s invoice for the main mill building seems to have been lost but the one for the final stage of the work, June 1824 to January 1825, finds his men cleaning and repairing the mill lead, laying pavements, putting up a stair to Mr Malcolm’s office and building the boundary dykes. These dykes took two masons and two labourers seven days to complete, the builders being paid 1/3d a day and the labourers 10½d (although labourers on other jobs earned a bit more than that). The mason who repaired the lead was paid 3/4d for five hours work.

The other invoice in the bundle was from the wright Robert Hay, who installed the ‘trows’. The Millport Mill was powered by an overshot wheel, where the water flowed over the top of the wheel rather than underneath it. This was necessary because the Dam was at a higher level than the mill itself, but it may also have been originally arranged deliberately because an overshot wheel is more efficient than the more usual undershot arrangement. The water from the Dam flowed to the wheel through strong wooden troughs – the ‘trows’ – and Robert Hay made new ones  at a total cost of £24 9s. They were substantial items and it took 12 pints of tar and 8 pounds of pitch to waterproof the timber, the application of the pitch taking up two whole days. Work on a stone pillar built by Robert Bonnar to support the trows began with the digging out of six cartloads of clay for the foundation. The pillar itself took two men two days to build, using eight carts of rubble stones for the core, which was faced with rough ashlar stone and the whole held together with seven shillings-worth of lime mortar. Bonnar also employed two men to dress and lay 35 feet of flagstones to bridge the trows where they crossed the ground between the Dam and head of Collier Row.

Robert Hay was an experienced wright who lived in Buchanan Street. In the early 1830s he began undertaking building work and is described as a builder on his death certificate (1856). His son, Robert jnr, trained as an architect in Edinburgh and two of the buildings he designed are still standing in Dunfermline – the North Free Church in Bruce Street (formerly McKissock’s carpet warehouse, now Nando’s restaurant) and the Wilson Institute in the New Row. 

By 1833 forty-three girls and seven men were being employed at the Millport Mill. Although the hours were long Messrs Malcolm and Wilson seem to have been enlightened employers by the standards of their time. Work began at 5.30 am with a half-hour break for breakfast at 9.00 am (the workers preferred to take only 15 minutes and finish 15 minutes earlier at the end of the day). There was another half hour for lunch at 1.00 pm and work finished at 7.30 pm, or 4.30 on Saturdays. There were at least five paid one-day holidays in the year and workers were paid in full during days that were lost by machinery breakdown and they were not required to make up the time later. The firm paid for the medical treatment of any worker injured in an accident and full pay was given during their time off work.

The girls who worked at the mill were very young, most of them starting at about the age of eleven, because the considerable dexterity needed to work the machines was more easily acquired at a young age. The inspector for the 1833 enquiry described what was involved in the work.

I observed two girls for some time in Mr Malcolm’s mill, (aged) about thirteen each, in the same pass or space between two frames; one attended to sixty wet spindles or the spinning of sixty threads of yarn of five ounces to the hank, the other to fifty spindles. The first had 11d the other 10d a day….It is quite impossible to give an adequate notion of the quickness and dexterity with which these girls joined their broken ends of threads; shifted the pirns; screwed and unscrewed the flies etc. To supply the place of such artists by new adult hands would be utterly impractible, and difficult in the extreme to find a relay of hands equally expert, under present circumstances. There is no sameness of attitude – no standing still; every muscle is in action and that in quick succession.

Malcolm and Wilson’s lease ended in 1845 and in accordance with its terms all their machinery was removed from the building. By this time mill-spinning was in decline in Dunfermline so there was no attempt to extend the lease. The buildings, comprising the mill and the steam engine house and stalk (chimney) were valued by two local builders at £345, which James Hunt paid to John Wilson, who had taken over the lease from John Malcolm. John Wilson died in the following year and John Malcolm in 1852 at the age of 74 at his home in the Maygate which was later named Abbot House. In his private life he was a ‘vocalist’ and in 1809 had published a volume called The Dunfermline Psalmody. His grave in the northern graveyard of Dunfermline Abbey is marked by a flat stone that records not only his death but also those of his wife Catherine Wilson and their seven children, most of whom survived to adulthood.

Drawing of the Mill Port, by D Thomson
A Drawing of the Mill Port (from D Thomson)

The next tenant of the Millport Mill was John Darling an erratic damask manufacturer, one of a few in the town who lurched from financial crisis to financial crisis but still managed to carry on in business. The1854 Ordnance Survey Name Book for Dunfermline gives a short description of the Mill Port Factory during John Darling’s tenancy, ‘A good stone building where damask is woven. The mill lead passes under it but its power is not used’. After a succession of business crises from which Darling was rescued by his family and friends, in 1860 he was declared bankrupt, being finally discharged from bankruptcy in 1868.

Amazingly, in spite of being an undischarged bankrupt John Darling carried on in business. The Valuation Rolls reveal that in 1865, although he was no longer leased the Millport Mill, he owned The Glen Factory and other property in Bruce Street, a factory and lapping house in Knabbie Street and a loom shop in Golfdrum Street. John Darling died in 1880 and the inventory of his estate reveals something of his unreliability in financial matters – he owed more than £150 to twenty local tradesmen. The debts included substantial amounts owed to licenced grocers who sold wines and spirits, which suggests a possible cause of his business woes!

So what had happened to the Millport Mill after John Darling’s tenancy? A Dunfermline Press article about Dunfermline in 1860 mentions that it had been a flax-spinning mill at one time but that currently only the ground floor was occupied, by Mr Milne (landlord of the New Inn, now the City Hotel) as a coach shed. The 1865 Valuation Roll records that the upper floors were still empty.

In May 1871 the Sanitary Committee of the Dunfermline Police Commissioners, one of whose duties was the licencing of common lodging houses, reported that James Fox (a Bruce Street pawnbroker) had fitted up the first floor of the old Millport Mill as a lodging houseand had applied to have it licenced, but the committee had found it had insufficient provision for the segregation of the sexes and agreed to licence it only for male lodgers. Fox called his premises ‘The New Model Lodging House’ and it continued to cause problems for the Sanitary Committee for the next fourteen years.

In 1882 the Committee found that the walls and ceilings of kitchen and staircase in the ‘New Model’ were dirty and dilapidated and one of the partitions for the segregation of the sexes in the large dormitory was just a canvas screen which reached neither floor nor ceiling by about 18 inches respectively. Fox was ordered to clean and repair the kitchen and staircase and put in a wooden screen. (It seems he had either ignored the prohibition on mixed-sex occupation or had come to some kind of agreement with the Sanitary Committee..)

In 1884 the Committee found that satisfactory segregation of the sexes in the ‘New Model’ lodging house would require an almost entire reconstruction of the internal fittings at considerable expense. James Fox stated that the lease would expire in less than a year and he did not intend to renew it, so as the house was much improved in comfort and cleanliness, Fox was allowed his registration ticket. In 1885 the lease was taken up by another lodging house keeper, John Black, whose widow was the tenant in 1895.

In 1900 Dunfermline Town Council built a genuine ‘Model Lodging House’ in the space between the heads of Bruce Street and North Chapel Street and the old spinning mill building was finally demolished. The new Lodging House building was run by the YMCA from 1942 to 1958 as a hostel for servicemen, after which it was converted for shops and small businesses. Today it is empty, except for a Chinese takeaway, a tattoo parlour and some other small shops on the ground floor.