Workers lucky to survive great fire at the flour mill

Tattie howkers in Loanhead
Tattie howkers in Loanhead

On Sunday October 2, there was another big fire in Dalkeith when Douglas’s flour mill at Bridgend was burned down, with damages estimated at £40,000 (£800,000 today).

The fire began just before 6pm and within an hour the millrooms and storerooms were destroyed, with only the shell left standing.

The fire had started in an electric motor and the two men working in the building, Joseph Low of Bonnyrigg and George Temple of St Andrew’s Street, tried to put it out before calling the fire brigade. The owner said afterwards that they were lucky to escape with their lives. They had been working on the ground floor and if they had been on one of the upper floors they would never have got out.

The mill supplied flour to local bakeries and produced pre-packed flour for sale in the shops, and 600 tons of flour were destroyed in the blaze.

Forty firemen fought the fire and New Edinburgh Road was closed so that they could run their hoses from hydrants in the High Street.

There had been a flour mill on the site since the 17th Century (and possibly earlier). The Douglas family took over in 1827 and rebuilt the mill around 1831. The building was partially rebuilt after another fire in 1838. John Douglas, the owner, said there was no question of the business closing and the mill was again rebuilt.

There’s a nice wee additional story to this. The foreman, Mr Manuel, who lived in one of the mill cottages a few yards from the mill, had taken his wife to Fife for the day.

Friends forced their way into the Manuels’ cottage and took out as many of their valuables as they could before the police stopped them when it became too dangerous. The Manuels spent the night with relatives and moved back in the following day, complete with valuables!

Early on the Monday morning after the fire, an ambulance was taking Mrs Amos of Woodburn Drive to the maternity department of the Eastern General at Seafield. However, it was obvious they weren’t going to make it, so the driver, Douglas Knowles, stopped at the King’s Gates and called for assistance. Two police constables arrived and helped deliver a baby girl. The hospital later reported that “everything was in order”.

Early on the previous morning, policemen on patrol (maybe the same ones?) saw three men hiding behind a dyke at Wester Cowden Farm. When they approached, the men ran off, leaving behind four small bags of potatoes valued at 17/- (about £16 now).

The police gave chase and caught one of the men in Woodburn, but the others were never caught. The prosecutor said that the culprit was a miner from Easthouses, with a family of four and a wage of £19, and with a wage like that there was no need to steal potatoes. He was fined £2 and given time to pay.

Incidentally, there was an ad in the Advertiser at the end of August about Midlothian schoolchildren who wanted to go potato lifting (or tattie howking to give it its correct name).

Children over 13 could get exemption from school for up to 15 days in October to go to collect the tatties, providing their parents applied in writing to the headmaster, along with a letter from a farmer wishing to employ them.

If they didn’t know any farmers, contact could be made through the Labour Exchange. The October week’s holiday is a relic of that custom and is still called the “Tattie Week” in some areas.

In the same week as the tattie theft, another miner from Easthouses was up in the Sheriff Court. He was caught breaking into Easthouses Miners’ Club and was taken away in the police van. At the station, a three-ounce stick of gelignite and a detonator were found in the van. When his house was searched, another three sticks of gelignite were found. He told the police he kept it at home for lighting the fire. As for the one in the police van, he said he had picked that one up after seeing one of his children playing with it!

Sheriff Maclean remarked that that seemed like a dangerous way to light a fire and sent him to jail for 60 days.

The number two hit in the charts in September was A Mess of Blues by the one and only Elvis.

Who took the number one spot in October?