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John Key
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Kirkcaldy's maritime history has seen much tidal erosion.

There are many stories to be told - perhaps even in this Project - of the town's harbours and sailors.

But this month we honour one man and his shipbuilding business.

John Key was a visionary industrialist and shipbuilder whose vessels, as well as his reputation, sailed the seven seas to distant climes in the second half of the 19th century.

Key's engines were constructed in Kirkcaldy and the ships were completed at the Abden yard before setting Forth from Kinghorn en route to fame and sometimes misfortune.

Marble Surface

John Key

Kirkcaldy Engineer and Ship Builder

This month sees another object which at the outset of the project was not scheduled for inclusion. Once again, it was unrelated research which led us to John Key and the two strands of his engineering business. Kirkcaldy, with its roots in the textile industry, had been a beneficiary of the industrial revolution where hand power was replaced by machinery. Most machinery was initially powered by wind or water but the invention of the rotating steam engine saw it become the major source of power for industrial purposes.

One of the major outcomes was the growth of engineering and engineers. John Key was such a man making his mark on Kirkcaldy between 1850 and his death in 1876. He was another huge figure who strode Kirkcaldy’s industrial stage and yet his name is barely remembered and certainly not commemorated.

John Key was born in rural Perthshire and on leaving school served his apprenticeship as a millwright. Key was ambitious and at an early age he saw that there were limits to what could be achieved in building corn mills!  He took the unusual step of undertaking a second apprenticeship, this time in engineering with the Dundee firm of J & C Carmichael. He could not have chosen better with this pioneering  innovative firm being involved in building early railway locomotives, the first engines for the Tay ferries, along with a range of agricultural and mill machinery.

Having completed his second apprenticeship, like so many before and after him, he set out for London. Here he found work with probably one of the best known marine engineers of the mid-1800s. John Penn had inherited his father’s agricultural engineering business but started to concentrate on his particular interest of marine engines for ships. He was successful in this and won major naval contracts and even provided replacement engines for the S.S. Great Britain.  John Key was again working at the cutting edge of technology with one of the leading engineering firms of the day. After his marriage he returned to Scotland and took up a post as engineer/manager of the Wemyss Collieries.

In 1850, feeling that he was now equipped with sufficient knowledge and experience to start his own business, he set up at the foot of Heggie’s Wynd. Starting out with only himself and one other man he began building steam engines. Soon he had taken on more employees and such was his success that by 1860 he was employing 150 men – his Whitebank Engine Works became one of the biggest engineering firms in the town. He had moved to a site just off Dunnikier Road close to the railway line which gave the benefit of a direct link to the harbour for ease of transporting his finished articles. He was building steam engines for both industry and shipping – with his products meeting an international demand – not just a local one.

In 1863 John Key decided that he should not limit himself to building ship’s engines but why not build the ships themselves? To this end, he eventually selected a site close to Kinghorn where a towering shipyard was built which brought employment to many and lifted Kinghorn from its doldrums. The site was close to the railway so the Kirkcaldy built engines could be transported by rail to the yard.

Almost from the first he secured a reputation as an innovative and reliable shipbuilder. Contracts came from all over the globe with passenger steamers, cargo vessels and paddle steamers, all being launched into the Forth from his yard. One of his most famous vessels was the ‘William Muir’ – a ferry which plied its trade from Granton to Burntisland. By the time it was withdrawn from service it is estimated to have made 80,000 crossings each way and travelled some 800,000 miles.

It is hard to imagine as you walk the peaceful coastal path that on the approach to Kinghorn there was once a hive of industry with the noise of iron and steel being hammered, plated and riveted, into majestic ocean-going ships. It is equally hard to believe that people walked for miles to view a launch and at one such event over 12,000 people were crowded together as the ‘Mentmore’ slipped into the river.

John Key died in 1876 but he left his mark as a man not afraid to take on a challenge and build two significant businesses which at one stage employed over 700 men. He had vision and imagination as not many would have chosen the site he selected for his shipbuilding yard.  Even today, standing on the site, it requires much imagination to accept a massive shipbuilding yard stood on this tranquil location.

The firm survived Key’s death with two of his sons continuing the successful business and it has to be said maintaining the firm’s reputation. Companies from all over the world, including the iconic ‘Peninsular and Orient, would not choose a small yard in Kinghorn if the build was not first class.

The business went into liquidation in 1879.   This can be safely attributed to a general dullness in trade and not the quality of the work as being the cause. The firm rose from the ashes and continued to build ships until again in 1884 another decline felt throughout the engineering sector saw the firm fold for the final time.

It was not the end of the story of Kinghorn Shipbuilding Yard – it was bought out of receivership and re-started before finally closing in 1921.

It is difficult to comprehend how a man who started from humble beginnings at Heggie’s Wynd, expanded his business into a major engineering works and for good measure conceived and constructed a profitable shipyard, can be all but forgotten in Kirkcaldy. It is a well-worn path for so many, unless you were Adam Smith.

Please read and the full story and the next time you are on the coastal path or Kinghorn beach – just look and imagine the imposing complex that once dwarfed the skyline.

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