James Lothian Mitchell - Part 2

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Part 2 - Battles with the Railway Company and the Sacking of the Headmaster

Burntisland was never a company town in the conventional sense, but for many years it was dominated by the North British Railway Company. The relationship between the Town Council (as the owner of the harbour and docks) and the Company (as the main operator) was crucial to Burntisland's economy.

Burntisland's West Dock (opened in 1876) had been enormously successful. In the early 1880s, it became clear to the more enlightened members of the Town Council that another dock was urgently required if Burntisland was to profit from the rapidly expanding output of the Fife coalfields. The co-operation of the Railway Company was essential for such a venture, but it was not forthcoming. The lack of action in Burntisland presented a golden opportunity for the Wemyss family to begin the development of new docks at Methil in 1883. The Methil venture flourished, and, before long, that town had overtaken Burntisland as Scotland's leading coal exporting port. The Railway Company was eventually persuaded that expansion at Burntisland was desirable, and the East Dock opened in 1901. But it was too late, and a golden opportunity had been missed.

To finance the West Dock and then the East Dock, the Town Council had borrowed huge sums from the Railway Company. Poor judgement and an inability to take a firm stance in dealings with them had left the Council in a seriously weakened position in what should have been a mutually beneficial partnership. This was the position when Mitchell was elected to the Town Council in November 1902. Presiding over the Council at this time was Provost John Connel, Managing Director of the Lochgelly Coal & Iron Company, who prided himself on his business acumen.

Mitchell's electoral success and subsequent influence gave the impression that, during the course of 1903, the Council was beginning to pull itself together, and take a stronger line with the Railway Company. A start was indeed made to changing the balance in the Council's favour. But this welcome trend ground to a dramatic halt at the last meeting of the Town Council prior to the November 1903 election. The meeting was held in private, and Provost Connel's final act before retiring was to use his casting vote in favour of accepting onerous loan repayment proposals from the Railway Company.

The relationship between the town and the Railway Company was the main issue in the Town Council election that year, and in particular the recent "surrender" as it was known in the streets and pubs. It was in this election that the divisions between the radicals, led by Mitchell, and the traditionalists, who were mobilised by Dean of Guild Archibald Stocks, began to surface. The candidates had no labels, and the electorate may not have realised it, but Burntisland was having its first taste of a form of local party politics. Indeed, ere long, Mitchell and his supporters would be referred to as "The Mitchellite party".

In the Town Council campaign, the men who had most to fear from Mitchell's exposure of the incompetence in dealings with the Railway Company were John Connel and Archibald Stocks. Connel had sealed the 'surrender' with his casting vote, and Stocks had proposed the agreement in the first place. The agreement had consigned the town to years of markedly increased interest payments - 1.6m a year in today's terms.

Connel was retiring from the Council, but the confrontations between Mitchell and Stocks (a former Railway Company employee in the Roundhouse, who had become a notable publican in the town) would increase in bitterness over the coming four years.

Stocks, in his younger days, had a reputation as the champion of the working man: a mantle which Mitchell was shortly to assume.

 
Archibald Stocks

Archibald Stocks

 
 

The railway station and the Forth Hotel

The Railway Station

Pictured above is the impressive Corinthian facade of the original 1847 railway station in Forth Place, as it is today. It was the hub of the North British Railway Company's passenger operations in Burntisland until the opening of the Forth Bridge in 1890. It was then replaced by the decidedly undistinguished railway station which the town still has. Other options to the east and west, including the Haugh, had been considered before the present site was chosen. "Bleak and primitive" one contemporary commentator called it. It still is, and its future is currently being debated. [It was subsequently decided that the station should remain where it is, and be upgraded in stages.] Access until 1905 was even more difficult than it is now. The perilous old staircase from the Scholars' Brae to the northbound platform can still be seen, although the tunnel connecting to the south has been filled in. The present day footbridge was a major concession by the Railway Company, as was the wooden ramp to Forth Place.

Until its recent demolition, the Forth Hotel stood on the site adjacent to the 1848 station. Also owned by the railway company and leased to a succession of colourful proprietors, it was Burntisland's finest for many years - until about 1917, when it was converted to railway offices. There was also, until fairly recently, a plaque on the wall in Forth Place, commemorating the inauguration of the world's first roll on/roll off ferry in 1850. Pictured below is the Forth Hotel, taken from a drawing of about 1900.

The Forth Hotel

Mitchell would have been satisfied with the 1903 election result, because the two men who were to become his staunchest allies were successful: they were William Erskine and John Patterson. Erskine owned jewellery shops in Burntisland and Methil (with interesting sidelines such as "adjuster of compasses in iron vessels"). Patterson had a joinery business, and was a leading figure in the Co-operative movement.

With the changes in the Town Council, future negotiations with the Railway Company were marked by a steely determination on the part of the Council.

Mitchell and his allies dominated the Town Council from November 1903 to the end of 1907. This superiority would have been even more marked had everyone had the vote, because Mitchell was a favourite with the working class, many of whom were not covered by the franchise.

There was, however, strong opposition to him in his role as the equivalent of a present day leader of administration. Some local businessmen and others with vested interests were terrified of his attempts to develop the public sector in the town; to limit the powers of big business (notably the North British Railway Company) through strong negotiation; to eradicate the practice of jobs for the boys; and to end secret ballot voting on the Town Council.

Robert Brown and the Assessorship

The firm of solicitors, Brown & Gilmour, has been a familiar landmark in Burntisland High Street for many years (although the personnel nowadays have no connection with the founders). Robert Brown and James Gilmour were part of the Burntisland establishment in the early 1900s, and had their fingers in many pies.

In March 1903, Robert Pittilo died. Among his many responsibilities, he was the Burgh Assessor, preparing the annual property valuation rolls on which the town's rates were levied.

There were three applicants for the vacant post, which was in the gift of the Town Council. Philip Sulley, the County Assessor who was based in Cupar, was one; and Robert Brown was another. James Mitchell argued for the appointment of Sulley, as a person independent of the town and not subject to influence. His arguments carried the day, and Sulley was appointed. Brown had been backed by Archibald Stocks, and these two men did not take kindly to the decision. The seeds of enmity which had already been sown were further nourished.

The Town Council election of 1905 showed that Mitchell and his allies were becoming increasingly popular and influential. Mitchell himself once again topped the poll by a large margin. There were five vacancies this time, and Stocks had to be content with fifth place.

The School Board

As 1906 dawned, there began one of the most extraordinary episodes in the town's chequered political history. The centre of attention moved from the Town Council to the School Board. The Board was another forum where the town's establishment was well represented. It was elected by the ratepayers, and it controlled the burgh school, within the guidelines set by the Scottish Education Department.

Stocks had been unable to stop Mitchell in Town Council elections, but there was an alternative avenue. Stocks had been a member of the School Board since 1901, and carried influence there. Mitchell, as headmaster, was an employee of the Board. In 1904 Stocks arranged for the introduction of a staff attendance book. The main purpose of this appears to have been to allow him to keep an hour by hour check on the headmaster's movements.

When James Gilmour (of Brown & Gilmour) resigned from the School Board in June 1905, the Board appointed Robert Brown (the other half of Brown & Gilmour) in his place. Brown had a grudge against the headmaster, whom he saw as the man who had prevented his being appointed Burgh Assessor.

The scene was set for a showdown.

James Mitchell and the Janitor Mitchell with the janitor, Mr Scott (circa 1900). The chair on which Mitchell is sitting was apparently part of the original furniture of the 1876 school. A relatively recent head teacher, Scott Christie, called it the head teachers' "Coronation Chair". It was in the school as late as the 1980s, when it disappeared.

The ultimatum and dismissal

Stocks pounced in February 1906. The occasion was a visit by the Schools Inspectors. The headmaster was absent with "a severe cold and asthma". Despite the fact that Mitchell's deputy explained this to the inspectors, and that doctor's certificates and letters were furnished, Mitchell was suspended at the beginning of March. The reason given was a breach of the attendance regulations.

The town was initially shocked. Then, as both sides mobilised support, it became bitterly divided. Angry letters were exchanged. Rowdy public meetings took place in the Music Hall.

At the end of April, the School Board's true motives became clear. The Board, meeting in private under their new Chairman, Robert Brown, approved the following resolution proposed by Stocks:

"That the Board, being of the opinion that the headmaster's connection with the Town Council and other public bodies, and his active interference in the recent School Board and other elections are prejudicial to the best interests of the school, resolve that Mr James Mitchell be instructed to resume his duties as headmaster under the Board on the following conditions:
That he cease to hold all public positions held by him in the Burgh of Burntisland, and
That he agrees to take no part in municipal or School Board elections in the future."

Mitchell refused. In his reply to the Board he asserted "his inherent rights as a citizen to take part in public affairs". He pointed out that the previous headmaster, David Low, had been a Town Councillor. He gave a detailed rebuttal of the allegations against him, and demonstrated statistically that the performance of Burntisland School was better than those elsewhere. He was on record as being opposed to teachers' taking any part in School Board elections. He appealed for justice - to no avail.

Despite last minute mediation efforts, with Mitchell being encouraged by friends to try to reach a compromise, he was peremptorily dismissed on the 25th of June, 1906.

Teachers had no job security in 1906. This was partly rectified two years later, with the passing of the Education (Scotland) Act of 1908. The Act gave dismissed teachers the right of appeal to the Scottish Education Department.

In fact, Stocks and Brown gained no advantage from the dismissal in the short term, because Mitchell continued to be the most influential citizen in the burgh. But they would in due course achieve success of a kind.

Andrew Young

The pioneering photographer and distinguished artist, Andrew Young, was a member of the School Board at the time of Mitchell's dismissal. He supported the headmaster's stance.

Students of local history and politics are particularly indebted to Young for his painting of the Magistrates' Seat in the Parish Church, currently on view in the Burgh Chambers. It features some of the town's personalities in 1904: prominent are Councillors Stocks, Wallace, Ferguson, Dallas and Patterson. The drawing of Archibald Stocks (shown above) is by Dee McGee, and is based on the portrayal in Young's painting.

[Please click here for more information on Andrew Young, and to see the painting.]

 
Problems on the Links

Just like today, the local folk in the early 1900s held strong views on the state of the Links and on the entertainments which were provided there. In those days they had a choice of 12 Town Councillors to lobby, and they took full advantage.

Many of today's arguments were deployed, but in the context of a much larger tourist trade. The funfair was bigger, and there were plenty of outdoor theatrical events - not only on the Links, but also on the beach and at the west end of the High Street. The Town Council had to deal as even-handedly as it could with the applications for entertainment licences.

Burntisland, like other towns, had a strong temperance movement in those days. Led by Robert Pittilo (an ironmonger, and sometime Town Councillor and Chairman of the School Board) it struggled without much success to influence the Licensing Court of the day. Here is one of their supporters voicing concern about the alleged abuse of the laws on Sunday drinking:

"In Burntisland on a Sunday you cannot walk the length of the Crescent [Craigholm Crescent, now the part of Kinghorn Road with the Inchview Hotel] without encountering a quantity of drunks, some half on and others being fou. I counted eight one day within 300 yards. Why not have these riff-raffs laid by the heels out of sight of the children, and only liberated when they have stated where they obtained the drink? Are there any teetotallers on the Town Council? Only a few days ago, during a weekday, two drunk men and two drunk women in possession of a knife-grinding machine disported themselves in full view of the population for over five hours. When I first saw them the wheel had become detached from their machine, and their united and unavailing efforts to readjust it appeared, from the intense interest of their numerous audience, to be even more diverting than the Passion Play, with the advantage of being gratis, and a real tragedy. Two hours after, the men were lying mortal on the pavement, and the women surrounded by hundreds of children. Both parties were engaged in throwing stones and divots at one another, and there was a well-balanced interchange of advanced language. All afternoon the men slept off their debauch on the Links, and as darkness descended there they still were ."

Please click here to continue to part 3 of 4.

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