The History of Leith

August 28, 2004

The Shore

When a person in the present day walks along the quay or Shore of Leith, he cannot but be struck with the absence of vessels. If half a dozen or so are lying along the quayside from the top of Coalhill to the lower drawbridge it is an exception to the ordinary state of matters.

Such was not the case long age. It may be interesting at the present day to note some particulars of Leith of lets say 1826. For a long period of years before 1826 the shore of Leith as the principal quay for the loading and discharging vessels, especially coasters. The new dock as it was then called was only finished in 1806. The Coalhill as its name imparts was the quay where coal cargoes were discharged. Between the upper drawbridge and the lower one the Newcastle and Hull traders, the three London companies and the Inverness had their Berths. The Glasgow and Greenock tug boats lay on the north side. The Lerwick trader the Fidelity a stout trig full rigged schooner (Captain Aim) used to lie on the North side of the Coalhill next to Innes shipbuilding yard. A busy place the Shore of Leith was in those days on the arrival and departure of the London and other smacks. The London and Leith Old Shipping Company which was originally a Berwick one was transferred to Leith in the beginning of the 19th century. Long ago the goods from London to Leith were carted from Berwick by wagons with three or four horses in a string or transhipped from Berwick to Leith in small craft which must have made the charges on them for freight and carriage very costly and the long transit very inconvenient to merchants. Persons going to London by sea in those days had to go to Berwick and take shipping there in the Berwick smacks. The Berwick shipmasters and their descendents long continue to navigate the vessels of the Old Shipping Company. The Berwick names of Nesbitt, Crabb, Johnston. Charters, Crow etc were long known in leith. The smacks were stout built ships of 140-1`80 tons register able to stand very heavy seas. They had a tall thick mast with a heavy running out bowsprit and a very large mainsail. They made quick passages with a fair wind but were sometimes two-three weeks on the passage when contrary winds blew. Six to nine of them have been known to have come into harbour on the change of wind in one tide. During the war times they went armed and carried six 18 pounder carronades and two 4 pound guns.

It is recorded that the Old Shipping Company’s smack the Queen Charlotte (Captain Nesbitt) was once attacked by a French Privateer of 14 guns betwixt Cromar and Spurn. Captain Nesbitt and his crew aided by his passengers stood bravely and manfully to their guns and gave the Frenchmen such a warm reception that he was obliged to sheer off. Captain Nesbitt and one of the crew was wounded. The old Shipping along with the under writers and owners of the goods on board presented Captain Nesbitt with one hundred guineas with allowances for the crew proportionally liberal for their gallant conduct. A particular account of the privateer’s attack is given in the Edinburgh Weekly Journal of 25th July 1804. Captain David Qourlay long Captain of the Lady Forbes one of William Sibbald and Co’s fleet of West Indiamen which sailed from Leith was for a period of years manager of the Old Shipping Company. He was stout fine looking man sharp and active and kept the smacks in the best of order and sailing trim. On sailing days Tuesdays and Fridays he was all activity getting the ships under way. Old people in Leith will still recollect him. Large quantities of Whisky from Lochrin and other distilleries as well as lots of Edinburgh and Leith Ales were always shipped. All the London smacks had good accommodation for passengers a considerable number of whom went each trip.

The seventh Earl of Wemysis for many years went in June with his carriages and servants and returned home by the Old Shipping Company named one of their ships after him. Some passengers did not care for the quick passage. A story is told of a half pay paymaster hailing from the East country who went to London now and then. He was never sea sick and used to tell the captain not to hurry on his account for he had plenty of time and enjoyed a good living and had provisions on board which the company provided.

In those days convicts were shipped to London by the smacks for the hulks and penal settlements. It was a sorrowful sight to see twenty to thirty of them both men and women put on board chained and manacled together. They were brought down from Edinburgh in hackney coaches who came down the Kirkgate and the Tolbooth Wynd. The Old Shipping Company in 1828 had seven smacks which were named the Duke of Buccleuch, Earl of Wemyss, Sir William Wallace, Walter Scott, Ocean, Lord Wellington and lord Melville. They had a broad streak of White paint on their sides and were called the “White siders” The berth and offices of those vessels were exactly at the foot of Queen Street.

The London and Edinburgh Shipping Company smacks lay immediately below the Old Shipping Company’s Robert Bruce was the Manager. They had in 1828 also seven vessels-the Royal Sovereign, Earl of Hopetoun, Robert Bruce, Favourite, Superb, Trusty and Pilot. They had red sides and were called “Red Siders”. The London, Leith Edinburgh and Glasgow Shipping Company had their berth above the lower drawbridge formerly it was on the north side below the upper bridge. They had nine vessels-The Abercromby, Edinburgh Castle, Venus, Matchless, Czar, Perth. Eagle, Hawk and Buccleuch. They had green and were called “Green Siders”. The Czar (Captain Smith) was lost on the Deacliff rocks east of Berwick in a stormy night in February 1831.when mot of the crew and passengers drowned. Messrs Ogilvie and Crichton were managers. The Glasgow and Greenock tug boats of sixty to seventy tons which went through the Union Canal also belonged to them. Thomas Menzies and respectable and decent man was long head clerk to them from 1835 to 1840 the Old Leith and London Smack companies had to encounter a strong opposition in their trade from the brewers of Edinburgh, distillers and gunpowder manufactures. The smack companies were not disposed to bring their empty casks back from London or to carry gunpowder and explosives as they were under contract to the government to carry convicts and they advertised to carry passengers. This caused problems for the Brewers, distillers and gunpowder manufactures were thus put to a lot of inconvenience.

Under the management of the late Mr James Wishart of the Timber Bush a fleet of six quick sailing and well equipped brigs and schooners was put on and continued trading from Leith to London and back until 1840 when steam put forth its powerful arms and knocked all sailing vessels out of trade. During the existence of this opposition fleet no casualty happened to ship or crews.

Mr James Wishart an old respectable Leith Merchant was chief owner and manager of the Newcastle Traders, Mr A.B.Mabon was manager of the Hull vessels. Steamers to London began to sail before 1829 and in a few years the old renowned Leith and London Smacks felt the change of times. The three companies had to be given up and there sailing vessels were sold off. The L.L.E. and Glasgow Company carried on for some time with steamers and smacks. The present well conducted and appointed steam ships which sail from the Victoria Dock are it is believed the property and successors of the Old London and Edinburgh Smack Companies.

Taken from “Reminiscences of the Port and Town of Leith” by John Martine 1888.

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