DCSIMG

Lost Edinburgh: birthplace of the Welly boot

Picture: TSPL

Picture: TSPL

  • by David McLean
 

A GOOD pair of boots were worth their weight in gold during WWI. The best were made in Fountainbridge.

Amid the increasing number of modern retail units and apartment blocks slowly eating up gap sites in Fountainbridge for the past decade, stands the last remnants of one of Scotland’s most important industrial landmarks. Don’t be fooled by the state of its decayed brick exterior, for this was the site of the North British Rubber Company’s Castle Mills works, an employer of several thousand at its peak and the birth place of the world-famous Wellington boot as we know it.

Origins

The origins of the North British Rubber Co stretch back to January 1856 when innovative American businessmen and boot-makers Henry Lee Norris and Spencer Thomas Parmelee acquired a large plot of land close to the Union Canal at Fountainbridge which had previously been home to the Castle Silk Mill. Fellow American, Charles Goodyear, had discovered the vulcanisation process in 1839, which transformed naturally-occurring sticky rubber into a durable material with seemingly limitless potential uses. The shrewd Henry Lee Norris was keen to capitalise on this potential and within just six months the new business, dubbed Norris & Co had begun manufacturing a variety of rubber products, including machinery belts and footwear. The name of the business changed to the North British Rubber Co the following year. In the beginning the workforce numbered just four, but by 1875 more than 600 men and women were earning their crust at Castle Mills.

Pioneers

The Company were trailblazers from day one. In 1858 co-founder Spencer Thomas Parmelee took out a patent for one of the first conveyor belts, while in 1890 the landmark invention of the detachable pneumatic tyre was credited to new owner William K. Bartlett. A few years later Bartlett’s patent would be sold to the Dunlop tyre company for a whopping $973k – an estimated $400m today.

At the turn of the century Castle Mills was the largest industrial unit in Edinburgh. It occupied 2,000 square metres of Fountainbridge and produced a diverse range of goods from golf balls, hot water bottles and combs to hoses, rubber sheeting and equipment for heavy industry. At its peak the mill employed up to 8,000 people.

WWI and the welly boot

Cases of trench foot during the First World War would have been a lot more common if not for the efforts of the workforce at Castle Mills. Employees at the North British Rubber Company worked day and night to produce an incredible 1,185,036 pairs of boots for the British Army. The rubber Wellington boot easily kept the rain and mud at bay and was the envy of the enemy.

In World War Two, Castle Mills was again requested to produce vast quantities of boots as well as gas masks, tyres for army vehicles and barrage balloon fabric. By peace time the Welly boot had entered public consciousness to such an extent that it was fast becoming an essential piece of civilian footwear.

In the 1950s the company helped to speed up the demise of Edinburgh’s tramways by throwing its weight behind the production of tyres for the increasingly popular motor bus. Castle Mills was also responsible for the creation of Britain’s first traffic cones in 1958.

Workers conditions

Castle Mills paid a decent wage for its most skilled employees but working at a rubber mill could be both unpleasant and risky. First there was the stench. The average worker would go about their daily lives reeking to high heavens of rubber, sulphur and soapstone – a pungent talcum powder-like substance which hung heavy in the air and coated the lungs. Accidents were commonplace too and it was not unheard of for workers to lose a finger or two from operating the mill’s notoriously fiddly and dangerous range of machinery. Fires were a constant risk too with a particularly bad occurrence taking place at the eastern part of the mill in January 1962.

Closure

The mill operated until 1966 when the North British Rubbery Company was bought by Uniroyal and relocated to Newbridge. The 19th century mill buildings were mostly demolished in 1973 to make way for McEwan’s new £13m Fountain Brewery and today only a small part of the expansive mill complex survives.

The surviving Castle Mills building dates from 1894 and has been on the Buildings at Risk register since 2010. In April of this year it was announced that local firm Edinburgh Printmakers had received a grant of £5m from the Heritage Lottery Fund to go towards saving the structure and transform it into an arts hub. Further funding will be necessary to complete the project but a hugely important piece of the capital’s industrial past looks to be safe for the forseeable future. Edinburgh Printmakers aim to launch the new centre in 2017 in line with their 50th anniversary.

Hunter Boot Ltd

Despite closure of all rubber production in Edinburgh, the North British Rubber Company still has a presence in the city. Its fashionable Hunter Boot range which rose to prominence during the 20th century. and was endorsed by the likes of Princess Diana, has since become its own separate company. Today, Edinburgh-based Hunter Boot Ltd is a globally recognised brand and its products are worn by ‘royalty, festival-goers, working farmers and landed gentry alike’.

There’s a lot more to the history of Fountainbridge than famous ex-milkmen, canals and heavy ales.

 

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