Friday, 23 June 2017

Combs and Crombie coats - two success stories from Aberdeen's industrial past

Tourism and energy are the mainstays of North-East Scotland's business life; fishing and farming remain important industries. There have been many others. Established in 1136 at the Dee's mouth, Aberdeen harbour is the longest existing business in Britain. The Shore Porters Society was set up in 1498, six years after Columbus discovered America. Our quarries earned export income and provided the stone for Granite City's monuments, bridges and buildings. Closed since 1971, Rubislaw Quarry was once the largest man-made hole in Europe. Marischal College is the world's second largest granite building after Madrid's El Escorial Palace.

Ship-building and textiles were prominent industries - I can recall the sound of hooters and the sight of workers as they poured from Hall Russell’s York Place shipyard, and Richards linen and jute manufactory at the Broadford Works on Maberley Street, once the city's largest single employer. Both are now closed.

This short article concentrates on the Comb Works and the manufacture of Crombie coats, two stories from Aberdeen's industrial past. I've lumped them together not only because it makes for a good alliterative title, but also because the conflation reveals some similarities with the history and success of both industries.

The production of combs in Aberdeen was introduced in 1788, the year of Byron's birth. John Stewart scaled up Aberdeen Comb Works on Hutcheon Street from 1830, growing the business through the use of new steam-powered machinery. By 1851 the works was the largest comb factory in the UK, possibly in the world. For a tortoise shell effect, some combs had to be hand-made. 730,000 ox horns, four million hooves, sea-tortoise shell, wood, whalebone and ivory were imported through Aberdeen docks.

As the Comb Works flourished, the seeds were being sown for high-quality woollen production beside Aberdeen's other river, the Don. Weaver John Crombie had taken over Cothal Mills at Fintray in 1805, the year of the Battle of Trafalgar. A waterfall saved him the expense of steam-driven machinery: the locals donated piss and blood which made a good scouring mixture for the material.

In 1859 J & J Crombie moved to Grandholm Mill, where the waterwheel was the largest in the world. Over the years the firm produced uniforms and coats. An early example of cool branding, spies, tsars and mods adopted the Crombie coat.

Devotees of note include Sir Thomas Glover, Cary Grant, the Beatles, Mikhail Gorbachev, John F Kennedy and Doctor Who. 

The founding family sold its interest in the company in 1928. Grandholm Mill closed in 1990. The building is now in business and residential use, and houses a fusion restaurant, the Spice Mill.

Reader Sue Edwards recalls a visit to Grandholm Mill in the 1970's. She was given two bottles of spinning oil for her handspinning; she suspects that it was whale oil.

Related/of interest.

Street names in Aberdeen reflect past trading - commodities, artisans and countries.  Candlemakers' Lane, Wrights' and Coopers' Place, Cotton Street, Flourmill Lane, Virginia Street, Baltic Place, Jamaica Street and Patagonia Court spring to mind.
 “Up Fittie, down with the Hun” - xenophobia and trade. Post-war trawling and granite. This article by Textor guesting on lenathehyena's blog describes fishing riots in Aberdeen and workers' unrest within the granite industry during the 1920s.
Darg and drams is the culmination of Kate Steenhauer's artistic explorations at the shipyards, heliport and hangars of Aberdeen, the Oil Capital of Europe, where workers grump and joke in muted tones at 'red-eye time'.
In the barns where whisky casks are made; a trade associated with traditional skills and craftsmanship. At Knockando Woolmill where woollen textiles are created on Victorian machinery. In Thainstone Mart, where the ringmaster auctions livestock by circling them before a captive audience. In the pubs where music carries the locals into the early hours after a long week of grafting.

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