The History of Leith

November 15, 2006

The Dock Commission

ANY account bearing upon the history of the commerce and shipping of Leith should not fail to include reference to the body by which the affairs of the Port have been administered—and that with outstanding success—for close upon one hundred years. This, then, may be conveniently introduced at this point.
The Commissioners for the Harbour and Docks of Leith, the title by which they are officially designated, although more commonly styled the Leith Dock Commission, came into existence in 1826. For a very long time previous to that the City of Edinburgh had, by right of royal grants and otherwise, enjoyed the position of proprietor of the harbour, and latterly also of the two docks, the construction of which,was completed in 1817.
To meet the cost of these docks, Edinburgh had had to borrow large sums of money from time to time. Her administration of affairs was not successful; so both her own finances and those of the Port of Leith fell into a serious condition. The management of the harbour and docks was put into the hands of a new composite body of twenty-one Commissioners, on which, however, she continued for about a dozen years to enjoy a preponderating voice. These changes took effect in 1826 and the settlement then made continued in operation till 1838.
In the month of July of that year an Act of Parliament, commonly styled the “City Agreement Act,” terminated the control by the municipality of Edinburgh of the management of the docks and harbour of Leith. Certain financial burdens, it is true, were put upon the dock revenues; but these have been redeemed by payments from time to time out of accumulated surplus income, the last being discharged in 1896. By the Act of 1838 the composition of the Commission was entirely changed, and the number of its members reduced to eleven. Of these five were appointed by the Treasury, three by the Town Council of Edinburgh, and three by that of Leith. But to ensure that the affairs of the Commission would be free of the control of either of these councils, it was enacted that no member of either of them was eligible for election as a Commissioner. This prohibition has been removed of recent years, and councilors may now serve on the Dock Commission,
The affairs of the docks and harbour were conducted under the “City Agreement Act” up till 1876, when an Act known as the “Leith Harbour and Docks Act” came into operation. It may be said that this Act forms the basis upon which the existing superstructure of the dock undertaking is founded. Its provisions placed upon a much more popular footing the constituencies which sent representatives to the Commission, as well as the modes of elections; it brought into accord with modern conditions many of the working arrangements; and it revised and simplified the charges upon ships and goods for the accommodation provided and the services rendered. These various arrangements have since been modified in certain directions; and the passing of the “Edinburgh Extension Act” of 1920, by which Edinburgh and Leith were amalgamated in municipal affairs, had a certain bearing upon them. The Commission now consists of fifteen members. Six of these are elected by those who pay dock rates amounting to not less than £4 per annum; three members are chosen by the owners of ships registered at the Port of Leith upon which dues are paid; the Town Council of the now extended City of Edinburgh sends three; while the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, the Edin burgh Merchant Company, and the Leith Chamber of Commerce each returns one member. Under the administration of the body constituted by these successive Acts the Port has prospered and progressed greatly. The services of the gentlemen who have composed it—for up till now ladies, though eligible have not ventured to sit upon the Board, by many regarded as the local “Upper House “—have, of course, been given entirely without remuneration. Till recent years contests for the seats pertaining to the ratepayers were of frequent occurrence; but this state of matters may be said to be at an end for the present. While, therefore, it cannot be maintained that a burning desire to serve upon the Commission has been uniformly manifested, it has all along been possible to secure for this branch of public service a constant succession of the most capable and far-seeing men in the business communities of Edinburgh and Leith. It may be justly claimed that the undertaking known as the Harbour and Docks of Leith affords one of the most outstanding examples in this country of disinterested and successful management in the public interest of what in the broadest sense is a valuable national asset. The fact that it has been managed for decades by local individuals, free from bureaucratic interference or governmental control, has, without doubt, contributed to this in large measure.

From The Story of Leith by John Russell 1922

In December 1967, the Forth Harbour Reorganisation Scheme, constituting Forth Ports Authority (“Forth Ports”), became law by Act of Parliament. Forth Ports was a public trust port responsible for six ports grouped within the Firth of Forth namely – Leith (a trust administered port), Granton (a private company), Grangemouth, Methil and Burntisland (all controlled by British Transport Docks Board) and Kirkcaldy (owned by the Burgh of Kirkcaldy).

for further information on Forth Ports plc click here

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