Blanefield Printworks

Illustrated Essays

The Printworks (from John Guthrie Smith 1886. Photograph by John Coubrough)

Block printing is the printing of patterns on fabrics using a carved block, usually made from wood. It originated in India around the 5th century BC but did not arrive in Scotland until the late 17th century. It later developed into a technique using rollers or cylinders, opening the possibility of printing several colours simultaneously. Block printing came to the Blane Valley in 1790, when the stables at Ballewan House (then known as Ha’House) were used as a printworks. The workers were accommodated at Cantywheerie and Blairgar, beside what is now the pipeline track from Blanefield to Killearn.

In 1797 owner Walter Weir moved the works to a vacant inkle (thin tape) factory at Netherton. Printing was on both linen and cotton. On his retirement in 1809, the business passed to Messrs Aitken, McIndoe and Foyer. In 1815 an Englishman called Zachariah Hay joined the business as a colour maker and introduced the then fashionable “blue resist style”. (The resist paste is applied to the fabric and when dyed the colour penetrates only the area not covered by the paste.) However, the works failed and closed in 1821.

Example of Blue Resist Style adopted in Blanefield in 1815

Messrs Sharp and Buchanan bought the vacant works two years later and printing recommenced. The workforce swelled to 250. Sharp and Buchanan oversaw the introduction of cylinder printing and new chemicals as well as the use of a fabric called delaine – a wool cotton blend. Block printers everywhere feared the new technology would put them out of work. A period of unrest began and in some areas there were strikes, including Lennoxtown, where the militia was called out. In fact, in Netherton (which was increasingly known now as Blanefield), the workforce continued to grow until 1856 when around 500 men, women and children were employed.

Blanefield Printworks 1860 25-inch OS map

The works had been taken over in 1840 by Messrs McGregor, Pollock and Brown. Following Mr Brown’s death in a riding accident, Anthony Park Coubrough joined the business. He and his family became sole owners in 1851. Under their supervision the printworks expanded, and the Coubroughs became a very influential family in the parish, playing a role not only in its industrial life but in many other areas such as education and welfare as well as being benefactors.

Dreadful Explosion

Stirling Observer 15 September 1864 (1)
Stirling Observer 15 September 1864 (2)
Strathblane Observer 15 Sept 1864 (3)

The Blanefield printworks were not without incident, as the tragic events of 9 September 1864 illustrate. Under the headline “Dreadful Boiler Explosion and Loss of Life”, the Stirling Observer provided an account of one of the saddest days in the parish. Having explained that the boiler was located in the centre of the works, that most of the buildings were linked by connecting doors, and that the furnace door faced a dye house, it went on to report:

The accident occurred at half past 4 o’clock. … An ominous hissing noise was the first intimation of the catastrophe, followed immediately after by a loud report, which shook the works and spread alarm throughout the whole neighbourhood. Then followed the crash of falling masonry, while the vicinity of the boiler became enveloped in clouds of steam and inundated with streams of scalding water. … The boiler remained firmly seated in its bed of brickwork but the roof of the shed was destroyed and the brick wall which separated the back end of the boiler from the engine room was blown in.”  Stirling Observer, 15 September 1864

Fourteen people were injured: most of them were at work in the dyehouse when the explosion occurred. The manager and foreman sent a messenger for the works surgeon, Dr Brown Clark, and the injured people were taken to their homes in the village. The parish minister the Rev. Mr Pearson, and the Rev. Mr Gardner of the Free Church, went about consoling people as best they could. Of those who died, Andrew Renfrew, the engine man, an unmarried man of about 24, sustained a fractured skull, and was also severely scalded. He died about midday on Saturday. Charles Ramsay, a boy of about 16, was dreadfully scalded all over his body, and received a cut on the head. He expired about two o’clock on Saturday morning. John Tennant, a ‘delicate’ boy of 15, died an hour after the accident – the cause of death, it is supposed, being the shock which he received. Some narrow escapes were made by people in the vicinity at the time of the explosion.

The commentators of the day could not form an opinion on the cause of the explosion. The Stirling Observer noted that such an event had not happened for at least twenty years, and that from their enquiries the boiler appeared to be perfectly safe and there was no reason to fear such a catastrophe. [See the story below from the grandfather of Arthur Muir.]

Seven people were killed – Andrew Renfrew (24), Charles Ramsay (16), John Tennant (15), Patrick Dunnion (12), Rosa Sanderson (50s), Malcolm Wallace (20) and Samuel Paterson (60). Four more – three men and one woman – were seriously injured, and three men slightly injured.

Despite the loss of life and general air of shock that must have descended on the factory, the Observer noted that “as the machinery has only been slightly damaged, no stoppage of the works will be occasioned”. It must have been with grieving hearts that the workers returned, as well as questioning how this dreadful accident had come about.

By the mid-1860s a measure of automation led to a reduction in staff, though the works was now producing nearly half a million pieces of cloth per year. The start of the 1870s witnessed the Blanefield printworks entering a new era. The construction of the Blane Valley Railway in 1867 meant that coal and goods no longer had to be carted five miles from Lennoxtown or twelve miles from Glasgow. A siding was constructed directly into the works from the adjacent Blanefield Station.

Blanefield Station with Blanefield Printworks in the background

A Day in the Life of the Blanefield printworks

We are lucky to have a record of what life was like for the workers in the printworks about that time because of evidence given to a government inquiry by Anthony Sykes Coubrough, son of Anthony Park Coubrough. He told the inquiry that the printworks had both machine and block printing and employed between 250 and 300 people depending on business.

In common with other factories, the working day was nominally 6am to 6pm, with two hours for meals. But in practice, hours could be erratic for people working in the dyehouse, bleaching and can drying departments, or finishing warehouse. The dyehouse hours were dictated by the dye. They usually started at around 5.40am and finished any time between 4pm and 11pm depending on the number of rounds made. This included the washing, which followed the dyeing and could take from forty-five minutes to an hour. A fourteen-hour day was considered standard in the dyehouse.

Block printers usually stopped at 6 pm but if trade was brisk would work on to 10pm. They were quite autonomous and decided themselves whether and when they would stop for meals. They were assisted by teerers, who applied colour to the pad on which the printer’s block was pressed. The men paid for their own teerers, but female block printers – called grounders – had teerers who were paid for by the factory owner. The grounders tended not to work beyond 7.30pm. [“Teerer” is from the Scots verb “tear” meaning to spread or plaster. This is the work that was often carried out by children.]

There was also the bleaching department, the can drying department – the cloth was dried both after bleaching and after dyeing – and the finishing warehouse. Women and girls were usually employed in these departments and overtime could be a regular feature, with the finishing warehouse regularly working to 8pm or 10pm.

Anthony Sykes Coubrough inside Blanefield Printworks
Workers and Supervisors at Blanefield Printworks

Part of the reason for Lord Tremenheere’s inquiry was to regulate the working hours of printfield workers. Mr Coubrough told the Committee that he had no objection to a 6am to 6pm limit on working hours provided it was imposed on all in the trade. However, he did raise objections to the prospect of having to send children to school more than twice a week for four hours at a time, because the block printers had to stop work when the child workers were not there to assist! The printworks employed about 50 children, though Mr Coubrough commented that it was difficult to persuade people to send their children into the works as the majority were well enough off not to have to.

The Great Fire

As well as explosions, fire was a constant hazard. A catastrophic fire on 28 May 1875 destroyed the works and put an estimated 300 people out of work. The Stirling Observer of 5 June that year provided a detailed report on “The Great Fire at Strathblane”.

The report told how “on Friday night the Blanefield Printing Works were entirely consumed by fire”, which broke out in the finishing warehouse. The combustible nature of the factory contents meant the flames spread with great speed and thwarted all efforts to quell the fire. Such was the intensity of the fire that as a precautionary measure the occupants of the adjoining houses were evacuated with their household effects to the nearby fields. The fire engine kept at the works managed to preserve some of the outer buildings, and water was got from the Loch Katrine fire plugs, but even this was not enough to conquer the flames. A mounted messenger was despatched to Glasgow for assistance from the Fire Brigade but “the officer on duty rightly judged that before they could arrive with a pair of engines the fire would have spent itself”.

The next day the smouldering ruins of the factory became a tourist attraction as people travelled from Glasgow and beyond to gaze at the twisted smouldering ruins.

Pollution Case

Damage to property was estimated at £40-60,000. The printworks were rebuilt, though the re-opening was delayed by a pollution case raised against the printworks by the local MP and landed proprietor Sir William Edmonstone and Blackburn’s Trustees, who argued that not enough care was being taken to prevent contamination and noxious materials being discharged into the Blane. Water is an integral part of the process used in a printworks and a copious supply of water is essential. To ensure a steady supply, dams had been built up on the moor and were operated by sluice men. The Coubroughs regarded themselves as responsible owners because during the last 20 years from l855 to 1875 every effort had been made to purify the stream by erecting filters and settling ponds. The Coubroughs considered that they had a prescriptive right to discharge their refuse into the Blane for trade purposes.

Blanefield Printworks: Some of the Foremen and Outside Staff

Designs

The Blanefield Printworks did not merely print cotton material. They also registered their own designs, dozens of which were registered with the government’s Board of Trade. In 2023 Strathblane Heritage chose one of these (3149) as the basis for the society’s new logo.

Some of the designs registered by the Blanefield Printing Company, including 3149, chosen for the Strathblane Heritage logo in 2023

The Printworks Close

In 1897 the printworks was put on short time as a result of famine in India and unrest in the Levant and South America. By 1898 rumours were circulating about the future of the works, which had been purchased by a syndicate of calico printers. They were shutting down the more unprofitable works in an attempt to resuscitate the industry. After a great deal of suspense, the syndicate decided to close the Blanefield works and to remove the machinery. With all the uncertainty, a large number of workers had already left the parish to look for work elsewhere, and many had gone to printworks in the Vale of Leven.

Printworks around the time it closed in 1898

The cotton trade had largely left Scotland and was by this time concentrated around Manchester. Consequently, calico printers in Scotland had to take the carriage of material into account, and Blanefield was more out of the way than most places. And there were no local coal mines. The calico printing trade also suffered from overcapacity.

Closure of the Printworks, Stirling Observer 19 November 1898

The sale of the printworks was recorded in the Register of Sasines on 18 November 1898, thus ending over a hundred years of industry in the parish. The following day the Stirling Observer carried a strikingly nostalgic and sentimental tribute to the printworks and its workforce:

Last Friday calico printing came to an end in Strathblane, and with it closed not the least interesting chapter in the history of the parish. Already a large number of the workers have secured employment in other places; but they have left the place with sore hearts, they were born and reared in the parish, and their kindred sleep in the churchyard, and by many sacred ties and associations they are bound to the place, and to leave it is to them like going into exile.”

The piece finishes: “…some people considered the industry a blot on the district. Poor, blind souls; it was really the throbbing of the great life of the nation felt in the remote parish. The people were interesting, industrious, and loveable, and combined the charm of country people with skilled labour, for most of them were part of the parish, and were descendants of the agricultural population. It is uncertain whether another industry will take the place of the old, but to many the Strathblane of the future can never be so interesting and attractive as the Strathblane of the past.”

An immediate effect of the closure was that the population of the parish fell dramatically, from 1,671 in 1891 to 880 in 1901, with a sizeable number of homes becoming vacant.

In February 1910, the demolition of the works was completed by the taking down of the ‘great chimney stalk’, so long a landmark in the Blane Valley. (See John K Campbell’s account of his childhood in which he recalls that children at the local school played truant in order to witness this.) By this time all the boilers and machinery had been removed, and either sold or broken up. Since the closure, the large number of buildings had gradually fallen into disrepair and for the last fifteen months workmen had been busy pulling them down, and selling the bricks, slates and wood.

Demolition of the “Great Chimney Stalk”

The Milngavie & Bearsden Herald of 25 February 1910, under the headline “The End of an Auld Sang” concluded: “This closes the chapter of manufacturing in the valley of the Blane, which reverts to the rural simplicity of 120 years ago. A curious feature is that though there is now no mechanical employment in the district, all the numerous cottages and houses, formerly occupied by the workpeople, are now taken up by Glasgow artisans etc, whose families benefit, especially in the summer months by the fresh air and freedom of this lovely part of the country.” Indeed, a room and kitchen could be rented for as little as 2s6d a week. (See The Strathblane Notebooks by Alexander Urquhart.)

The Coubroughs

The Coubrough family lived in a number of houses throughout the parish. Their main residence was Blanefield House, which stood where the Netherblane flats stand now, immediately beside the printworks. Another member of the family lived at Parklea (or Gateside as it was also called). Parklea is now better known (rather confusingly) as Blanefield House Nursing Home.

Blanefield House
Anthony S Coubrough 1901 Census when Blanefield House had 25 rooms
Wood Place, West Row, Blanefield Terrace, New City Row and Sunnyside (nearest) were all erected for the printworkers

In common with the majority of factory owners, the Coubroughs were seen as both good and bad. It is hard not to view their employment practices through a modern lens. While Blanefield House boasted 25 rooms, as well as tennis courts, landscaped gardens, an ornamental lake and several servants, many of the Coubroughs’ workforce were living six or more to a room, without running water or inside toilets and working up to 14 hours a day.

Anthony Sykes Coubrough

The 1845 Calico Print Works Act had only banned the employment of children under age eight. In the 1860s Anthony Sykes Coubrough cheerfully told a government inquiry that he employed 50 children (about 10% of his workforce). Moreover, he objected to the idea of them attending school for longer than eight hours a week, complaining that blockwork printing had to be halted while the children were there. (Soon afterwards the Education (Scotland) Act 1872 made elementary education for all children between the ages of 5 and 13 mandatory in Scotland.)

Tales have been passed down through families that illustrate the hold that owners could have over their workers. A story survives, passed down by the late Arthur Muir’s grandfather, John, regarding the dreadful boiler explosion of 1864. The story has it that the boiler was leaking and that, rather than have it repaired, it was decided to feed in a mixture of sawdust and water to seal the holes. This remedy worked but it also had the effect of sealing the safety valve, hence the explosion. There were also rumours that the great fire may have been started to obtain the insurance money. (Both these stories remain unsubstantiated.)

The printworks had its own store, and employees were expected to shop there for their groceries and so on. Reportedly, a man was posted at the gatehouse to see if any employee went into the privately-owned shop at Lorne Terrace, opposite the printworks in Station Road. Anyone caught was fined. If times were hard at the works, the employees would be paid in goods from the printworks store, thus tying them further to the factory.

Workers were expected to be punctual. Anyone late for work three times in a row had to put a farthing into a tin that had been placed round the neck of a wee blind white Scottie dog. The money was given to those on the Poor Roll.

Though the Coubroughs were insistent that filter ponds considerably reduced the pollution of the Blane Water, a century after the printworks closed it became clear that the site, which had since been developed for housing, remained heavily polluted. A long-running campaign by the affected residents eventually resulted in an agreement between the Scottish and UK Government to underwrite the cost of reparations.

There is no doubt that the Coubroughs regarded themselves as good employers and in some ways they were by the standards of the time. Once a year the printworks staff were treated to an excursion, subsidised by the management. In 1889, for example, 400 left Blanefield Station at 6.10am, arriving in Edinburgh at 8am. Many went on to view the Forth Bridge, which had been opened in 1883. They arrived home at 10pm.

Printworks Employees Annual Trip c1890
Annual Excursion of Blanefield Printworks Employees, Callander Advertiser 17 August 1889

The family was very involved in the parish council, the school board and the distribution of parochial relief to the poor, and even after the closure of the factory they continued to play an active role in the life of the parish. In 1880 they gifted the first Bowling Club which was situated on the ground attached to the printworks on a triangle of ground between Station Road on the north, the railway line on the south and the Blane Burn on the east.

Blanefield Bowling Club 1883

They also donated the Pavilion, a community hall (later known as the Co-operative Hall and now demolished) behind the building currently occupied by Roots hairdressers and Chillies take-away.

The Coubroughs were very active in their support of youth movements such as the Scouts, and would host scout rallies in the grounds of Blanefield House. During the First World War they played a part in giving hospitality to invalid soldiers and promoting the war effort.

 After the closure of the factory, the Coubroughs remained in the village and continued to be active on the school board and in other social activities. Mary (one of AS Coubrough’s six daughters) married the Rev. Theodor Johnson, minister of the Free Church in Blanefield. The couple lived for a time at Blanefield House with John Coubrough (AS Coubrough’s brother). Known after his war service as Colonel John Coubrough, or as ‘Penny Jock’ Coubrough because of his involvement in the War Savings Movement, John died in November 1921. Anthony Sykes Coubrough died in Blanefield in 1924. Apart from Mrs Johnson, the only remaining family member was A S Coubrough’s son, Anthony Cathcart Coubrough, who appears to have left the village in the 1930s.

John Coubrough: “Penny Jock”
(Photo courtesy of Angus Graham)

For a family who made such a contribution to the life of the parish, surprisingly there is now no trace of them beyond their impressive family monument in Strathblane churchyard. (See Monumental Inscriptions No 356)

Coubrough Monument in Strathblane Churchyard

©Strathblane Heritge 2023

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