It is fitting that this month's object should be Kirkcaldy's coat of arms as wrought by A.H. McIntosh, the company name having been synonymous with the town for over a century. It also cannot be denied that McIntosh's international outlook - in terms both of marketing and design - helped promote Kirkcaldy's reputation along with the company's.
From small but ambitious beginnings, McIntosh's became a major local employer and a byword for consistent craftsmanship of high quality, whether producing luxury items or school furniture.
The demise of the firm was perhaps a sign of changing times but a McIntosh remains distinctive and much in-demand and the company name in the annals of furniture production in Scotland is assured.
The A. H. McIntosh Story
Ingrained in Kirkcaldy’s D.N.A.
Alexander Henry McIntosh and the company which he founded and which also bore his name was a permanent fixture in Kirkcaldy for well over 100 years. It provided employment for generations of local people and their skills which, together with the quality of materials used, made the firm’s name a byword for high grade furniture far beyond Kirkcaldy.
Alexander H. McIntosh was born in Dunfermline in 1835. His father William was in the furniture trade and therefore it was perhaps natural that the son should follow in his father’s occupation.
At the age of 19 Alexander came to live and work in Kirkcaldy with the cabinet making firm of Samuel Barnet and Son. This was the age before today’s sleek furniture was in vogue. Furniture then was heavier, more elaborate, and often featured embellishments such as inlays and carvings. Furniture was then both handmade and individual. The days of mass production were still some way in the future.
Alexander, as well as securing employment in the Lang Toon, also found a wife when he married Jane Wishart in Abbotshall Church in 1854. The couple lived in Links Street for many years and had seven children. The family consisted of 5 boys and 2 girls and they were all born in the years between 1855 and 1870. All bar the second son George reached adulthood.
Alexander continued to work with Samuel Barnet and Son until 1869 when he struck out on his own. He was determined to produce a quality product made by the best craftsmen and aimed at customers who had the funds to purchase his superior bespoke products.
So the relationship which had once been employer/employee now became one of business rivals. Kirkcaldy also had another well known cabinet maker in Matthew Spears and coincidently each of the three firms had their roots in the Links.
The early years were very successful and very soon the firm had premises in Rose Street, Charlotte Street and Whytescauseway. These were a mixture of workshops and retail with Rose Street being the furniture showroom. The Whytescauseway outlet appears to have concentrated on the sale of carpets. Even in these early days the company won awards at furniture exhibitions as far apart as Paris and Australia.
After 10 years steady progress McIntosh decided that it would make sense to have all the elements of his business housed under one roof. He made a decision to build a factory on an open site on Victoria Road. For readers too young to remember – the site eventually stretched eastwards from the now Victoria Hotel (originally the home of the McIntosh family) to Dunnikier Road. The railway line was its northern boundary, with Victoria Road itself being the southern limit. One of the major benefits was the railway having a siding which ran into the factory – allowing whole trees to be transported directly into the works. Almost unbelievably at one time it could take up to 25 years for wood to season. The firm’s proud boast was that, by using only the best seasoned material, their drawers never stuck nor did their wood warp. The new Victoria Road Cabinet Works was opened in 1880 and was their home for ninety years.
Many people considered that the move to Victoria Road was foolish as it was too far out of Kirkcaldy’s built up area! This statement gives an idea of how far and fast Kirkcaldy eventually expanded after the advent of the railway. When the new factory was opened the Victoria Viaduct was not even under construction and there were few houses on Victoria Road itself. It was at the time on the very outskirts of the burgh.
The firm continued to manufacture high quality and elaborate pieces throughout the years leading up to World War One. Although some machinery was introduced, hand manufacture and carving was very much at the forefront of the process.
During the conflict the company was involved in war work especially around the manufacture of aeroplane wings and other parts for planes – after all most of their construction was from wood not metal.
Alexander H. McIntosh passed away at the age of 84 in 1919 and was replaced by his eldest son William as the head of the firm. Until 1971 it was members of the immediate or wider family who acted as the Chairman and Managing Director.
After the end of the war fashions in furniture changed, going from heavy elaborate pieces to more compact and space saving designs. This all reflected the fact that houses were now smaller and the huge labour intensive villas of the past were gradually being phased out. Another facet was added during the interwar years and this was contract work. The firm had been and were still involved in building furniture for hotels, hydros and spas, which required panelling and furnishings. To this was added outfitting ships and their work on the Queen Mary is an excellent example of this type of work.
The Second World War once again saw men enlisting and war work being carried out. After the war the company embarked on modern designs which showed both flair and imagination. McIntosh’s were lucky enough to employ three first class designers; Tom Robertson, Valentino Rossi and Andrew Bennett. As individuals, as well as collaborates, they won several awards which further advanced the profile of the Company.
The company started to discard both contract work and bedroom furniture – concentrating exclusively on dining room furniture. New designs shown at the major furniture exhibitions were a rich source of orders for the company.
In 1970, as there was nowhere left to expand in Victoria Road, the decision was made to build a one level factory at Mitchelson Industrial Estate. Victoria Road had been cumbersome being on three levels.
The order book was full and it appeared to be a good move but in some ways they were so successful that orders were taking considerable amounts of time between placement and final delivery. In essence, the company was unable to obtain sufficient skilled tradesmen to keep the order book ticking over within the desired timescale. Customers do not wish to know about the manufacturer’s problems – they simply want their furniture in a reasonable period of time.
The solution appeared to be to purchase the Ayrshire firm of Beithcraft in 1976. This firm had ended up in financial difficulties following a major fire and were seeking a buyer. The idea was to use Beithcraft as a manufacturing plant which would restore the completion of orders to a manageable level.
What however was not anticipated was the decline in demand caused by the recession of the early 1980s and the flooding of the country with imported furniture, especially of the flat pack variety. While there could be no comparison in quality there was a huge disparity in the cost. The demand for quality furniture fell away and soon Beithcraft proved to be surplus to needs.
A possibly ill thought out extension at Mitchelson, combined with the large sums spent on the initial move and the purchase of Beithcraft, had placed a financial strain on the firm especially in a falling market. Beithcraft eventually closed with the loss of 34 jobs.
The result was that the receivers were called in during November 1984 and the firm were only saved by Robert Maxwell’s Hollis-Pergarmon Group – although they were merged with another of his companies to form E.S.A. McIntosh.
Huge sums of money had to be borrowed to keep the company afloat and servicing this level of borrowing, against a market which was still depressed, proved impossible. In 1986 the E.S.A. factory in Stevenage was closed and 1988 saw further redundancies in Kirkcaldy.
Difficulties abounded which resulted in a management buyout that year. However, the die was cast for quality furniture being manufactured in this country. Despite two subsequent takeovers, firstly by Havelock Europa and then Havelock International, the company closed for the final time in 2016 with the loss of 300 jobs.
It is easy to look in hindsight and ponder whether some of the purchases and extensions were prudent and sensible. Would it have made any difference and, if so, would McIntosh still exist? The answer is probably not – it is a fact that McIntosh went the way of so many of the leading manufacturers such as G plan and Stag.
Quite simply their day was over – imports and cheap furniture had won the duel of quality against cost.
All we can console ourselves with is that this internationally known firm who produced generations of able craftsmen were irrevocably linked with Kirkcaldy. It is also an undeniable fact that their furniture is still in high demand and commands significant prices.
Like so many of Kirkcaldy’s powerhouse industrial firms – McIntosh is but a memory and the town is all the poorer for their loss.
"The McIntosh Story" by Ann Watters.
Staff of Stevenage Museum
Fife Cultural Trust for the coloured photographs
Former employees of A H McIntosh & Co Ltd who offered valuable assistance.