by George Beattie
Around 1843, Messrs Ralph Walker and David Wilson opened a bleach works on the banks of the Lyne Burn at Touch. Within a decade of opening the field, Mr Walker and Mr Wilson dissolved the partnership. Mr Walker established the Elgin Bleachfield on the banks of the same stream at the south side of Dunfermline, leaving Mr Wilson to operate at Touch. The work of bleaching yarns is as old as the linen industry and, when Mr Wilson and Mr Walker dissolved their partnership in 1851, they were not slow in recognising that as long as Dunfermline was noted for table linen, so long would there be work for bleachers in the area. At Touch, Mr Wilson ultimately took one of his sons, John, into partnership with him, and for many years the latter was head of the concern.
In the 1871 census, John Wilson, then 48 years of age and residing at Comely Park, Dunfermline, is designated a Master Bleacher, employing some 42 females, 19 men and one boy. The record shows that John was married to Allison and that they had six daughters, aged between 4 and 15. The family also had two ‘general servants’ in residence. The Comely Park address, with14 rooms according to the census was, and still is, in a very desirable area of the town and probably indicates that the Touch business was doing very well.
In 1886, a lease of the works was acquired by Mr Robert Black, who a year previous had taken up the duties of manager. Mr Black, a native of Newburgh, had been trained in his profession at Cluniefield Bleach Works, Newburgh. When he entered Cluniefield he took up the humble duty of message boy, and so admirably did he adapt himself to the work of the various departments that, at an early age, he was raised to the responsible post of manager. In 1870, Mr Black was appointed manager of the once famous Haugh Bleachfield, on the River Leven, at Windygates, where he remained until he came to Touch.
In 1889, three years after Robert Black had taken a lease of Touch, the works came onto the market. He purchased the property, and from then on the record at Touch was one of uninterrupted progress. During his 30 plus years in charge of Touch, Robert Black gained the reputation of one of stern discipline in his application to his work and to his personal supervision to his business. This trait was seen as a reflection of the hard toil he had endured during his youth. Mr Black, during his time at Touch, practically lived at the works – first in a house on the north side of Halbeath Road (later occupied by his son, George), next at Gowanbrae, overlooking the works from the hill (Garvock Hill) on the south side, and lastly at Clarke Cottage, which he built at the west side of the works. Even when he was well into his 80s Mr Black was keeping a close and observant eye on all aspects of the works. Although taking no prominent part in public life, Robert was known as a keen radical and he was able to discuss privately, with great ability, the important political questions which cropped up from time to time. He was a member of the Church of Christ in Dunfermline, where he was a regular worshipper. It appears that, after selling the business to the Mr Black, the Wilson family moved to Edinburgh.
The above houses are all still in situ, the first is now the Inglis Veterinary Surgery. Gowanbrae is at the east end and south side of Garvockhill, whilst Clarke Cottage, is now Clarke Guest House on Halbeath Road.
In 1899, Mr Black had assumed as a partner his youngest son, Mr William Black, and the company name of Robert Black & Son was adopted. In 1886, when Robert Black started business on his own account, he confined himself to the trade which from the commencement had been associated with Touch, namely that of bleaching linen and cotton yarns sent in by manufacturers. He soon found, however, that some linen manufacturers, in place of dealing direct with spinners in unbleached yarns, preferred to buy the finished article from merchant bleachers. Mr Black adapted himself to this new end of the trade, and from the time he took his son into partnership the yarn merchant department developed to an enormous extent. Interestingly, when young William Black married in 1895, his occupation was given as yarn agent. William, during his many years as principal of the company, was a well known and highly respected personality in the textile industry of Fife. He had initially studied medicine at Edinburgh University but the lure of running the bleach works proved too much to resist and his return to Touch was probably a very wise decision as the business was probably at its peak during the 1920s.
Following a brief period as a member of Dunfermline Town Council, during which time he was appointed a Justice of the Peace, William was appointed a life member of the Carnegie Dunfermline and Hero Fund Trusts in 1920, and he was subsequently a member of the Executive Committee of the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust. In both the Dunfermline and the United Kingdom Trusts his chief interest lay in music, and he held office as convener of the Music Committee of both bodies. His period of convener-ship of the Dunfermline Trust, which began in 1925, coincided with great developments in the sphere of music in Dunfermline. It was largely because of his interest in the subject that the Trustees revised their whole policy of music. The developments which took place included the acquisition of the mansion-house of Benachie and its conversion into the Music Institute, and the erection, on an adjoining site, of the Carnegie Hall, one of the most lavishly equipped buildings of its kind in Scotland. He also took a great interest in the building of the Music Pavilion and Bandstand in Pittencrieff Park, and for many years was a regular figure at the band performances there. In 1939 Mr Black was a member of the Music Policy Inquiry Committee of the Carnegie U.K. Trust which produced the epoch-making report from which the whole subsequent music policy of the Trust has been developed.
The yearly growing trade connections were reflected in the changes made at the works. During the early 1900s numerous extensions were made to the works, which, by 1914, comprised two bleaching houses, five drying stoves (steam), six store rooms, four drying sheds, and two finishing houses. Some years previous several small engines had given way to one large powerful engine, and electric light had been installed in every corner of the works. Maintaining the family connections, Robert Black’s brother, William, was for many years employed as boiler fireman at the works.
Early in its existence Touch Bleachwork was dependent entirely on the Lyne Burn for its water supply. The Lyne began as far-east as Fordell, and its chief sources of water supply were the Burnside Pit at Crossgates, and the Queen Pit at Halbeath. About the year 1880 the pumping engines at both pits were stopped, and the supply of water in the Lyne Burn became so much reduced in the summer months that the proprietors of works along the banks of the stream found themselves compelled to seek augmented supplies. In addition to having the advantage of the Dunfermline water, which had to be paid for, Messrs Black & Son, drew some 80,000 to 90,000 gallons of pure water a year from Artesian wells sunk on the premises. When Touch Bleachfield was in full operation it employed close on 70 workers and it handled 1.5 million pounds of linen and about the same quantity of cotton each year.
Angus William Black, elder son of Angus Ruthven Black, and great-grandson of Robert Black, was interviewed in 2010 and recalled his childhood years at Touch Bleach Works. He was of the opinion that the company ceased trading in 1938/39, when it was incorporated into the Bleachers Association, Ltd. of Manchester. Angus recalled that, as a child, he often accompanied the lorry driver, Jimmy Bernard, when he delivered bleached linen to the factories of Messrs Hay & Robertson and Erskine Beveridge, in Dunfermline; Lockhart, Kirkcaldy, and to two other factories at Strathmiglo and Freuchie. Angus was of the opinion that some 45 to 50 girls, mainly from the villages of Halbeath and Crossgates, worked at Touch just prior to its closure. He ‘wistfully’ noted that it was a wonderful place for a young lad to be brought up. He also recalled that the firm employed a joiner, Bob Clark; an engineer, Jimmy Wilson; a boilerman, and a full-time clerk, Miss Effie Wilson. The Touch lorry driver, Jimmy Bernard, lived in the cottage on Halbeath Road, just to the west of the entrance to the bleach works. Angus went on to study medicine at Edinburgh University and to serve as a physician in the Royal Air Force for 34 years. As a scrum half he was a regular in the Scottish International Rugby team from 1946 until into the 1950s and was a member of the British Lions team which toured Australia and New Zealand in 1950. A long-standing employee at Touch was Robert Davidson, a nephew of Robert Black, who served his apprentice-ship there and went to manage the works for many years. At the time of his death, in 1954, he was resident at 110 Halbeath Road, Dunfermline.
John Gallacher, whose father took over an area of ground to the south of the Bleach Work buildings, for use as a market garden in 1948, is of the opinion that the bleaching business had closed a few years before that. Most of the buildings were then let out to the following businesses: Bernard (Mills); Robertson (Joiner); Drive-on-Air (Tyre Depot); Galloway (Builder), Gallacher (Nurseryman) and Crawford (Fruit Merchant). Most of the bleach-field site at Touch is now taken up by the Kwik-Fit garage premises, although a few of the old buildings still remain and are occupied by several small businesses.
A lengthy tribute to William Black’s contribution to the above-mentioned Carnegie Trusts is contained in the Dunfermline Press of 27th July, 1946 – copy in Local History Section of Dunfermline Carnegie Library.
The part played by William is well documented in the booklet “50 Years of Carnegie Hall” by Arthur Allan, a copy of which is to be found in the above-mentioned library.