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The Steam Whistle

The Steam Whistle Dispute
00:00 / 07:24


 In the grand scheme of the Industrial Revolution, the Hendry's horn dispute of 1893 may sound like a somewhat trivial local difficulty.

But in keeping with the 50 Objects project, this quirky story has evocative echoes of a bygone era. It also has timeless features - class struggle, popular protest, bungling bureaucrats, environmental activism and allegations of special pleading.

It says much about the town in its manufacturing heyday, when the streets teemed with Lowryesque figures summoned by steam whistle to and from the factory gates. It also recalls the same people's potential for civic uproar when they were roused.

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The Steam Whistle Dispute

This month brings another example of a hitherto long forgotten incident uncovered during research for an earlier object. This dispute crashed into public prominence in May of 1893 and by the middle of July was over and done with. A fascinating story with a mixture of everything it just had to be told.

Steam whistles were used in factories and mines mostly to signify the start and end of the working day. They were also routinely fitted to steam powered locomotives and ships normally as warning signals. Without question they would be much more prevalent in industrial areas and Kirkcaldy with its huge manufacturing base had a great number which certainly must have created significant noise pollution. Of course creating noise was their natural purpose as many working families would not have access to alarm clocks or perhaps any type of clock in the late 1800s. Being late for a shift at a factory, even by 5 minutes, could lead to a penalty being applied to the wage packet.

The noise produced by the horns was eventually controlled by the passing of the Police Act of 1892. The Act came into force on the 15th May 1893 and from that point onwards factories wishing to use steam whistles had to have the sanction of the local Police Commissioners. Prior to the passing of the Act, Kirkcaldy had seen complaints about the noise levels, but it was  Mrs Stocks, a brewer's widow, from Invertiel Bank, who put her head above the parapet and made the first official complaint to the Council. Her ire and annoyance was aimed at  a new horn fitted to the spinning mills of J.&W. Hendry at the West Bridge. Although Invertiel Bank had a substantial garden to its front it was still directly opposite Hendry's Mill.

In Kirkcaldy, a total of 17 applications were made to operate steam whistles and 16 were sanctioned – but not that of J. & W. Hendry. The decision on the individual horns had been passed to a council  sub-committee, but with powers. This meant that they did not have to report back to the full Council  for rubber stamping but rather they could make their own decisions.

The reports and the stance taken suggest that the Provost of the time, John Tait, had perhaps nailed his colours to Mrs Stock's mast. John Tait was no weak man, in fact quite the opposite, rising from humble beginnings to being a major figure in both business and civic matters.

Mrs Stocks however had a formidable array of connections in the wider family and her own daughters had married well – one had in fact married Michael Beveridge of the park fame. She certainly appears to have clout but did she use it – she seems a formidable woman in her own right.

The news that the horn had been silenced was met with anger in the Links/Bridgetown area. It led to a snowball effect which gathered pace from the starting point of an indignation meeting at which one  newspaper report suggested there were  thousands of attendees. The meeting determined to get up and present a petition to the Town Council seeking restoration of the whistle.
The dispute quickly took on the mantle of a class issue. It was seen as the suppression of a necessary aid to the working classes  by well to do individuals who did not have to rise at 6.00am to attend their daily toil. The area was very much working class and the whistle was seen as a vital tool in the daily life of the community.

Matters got completely out of hand after the indignation meeting when a large group gathered in front of Inverteil Bank eventually breaking into the garden and carrying out significant damage to trees, shrubs and the building itself. This led to an appearance of a number of the perpetrators in court. Certainly, it must have been a terrifying experience for 74 years old Mrs Stocks and her daughter who were  besieged in their own home.

The wider Press seized on the story and accentuated the  possible class division. Letters galore and even poems were published in the Fife Free Press and to be fair the letters were balanced and viewed from every angle. Even Mrs Stocks penned her version pointing out that she had suffered the horn for 10 months before taking the only remedy available to her.

It was clear that something had to be done as annoyance was still simmering and the petition had gathered 1000 signatures. A full Council meeting was held on the 10th July with a large and noisy public presence. It soon became clear that it was felt that the sub-committee had overstepped the mark – they really should have tried to tone down the noise rather than immediately silence the horn altogether. The fact is, however, that they were given the powers and  only acted accordingly – even if probably/possibly unwisely.  There really was no valid reason to single out Hendry's horn alone – it should have been all or none. Some horns in the burgh could  apparently be heard in Cardenden and Auchtertool!

Not unexpectedly, the decision was overturned, the horn was restored and peace reigned again in the Links. The story is one that looks at the individuals who were the main players – Mrs Stocks, Provost Tait and Mr W.J. Hendry. It is a fascinating examination  in establishing why this dispute arose. Questions are asked in an attempt to ascertain – if things were done in deference to Mrs Stocks or was she simply a lady of formidable temperament? Why did the Provost take the stance that he did – it became untenable and he looked a bruised and battered figure on the 10th July. Mr Hendry appeared to say nothing at all, although soon after the end of the First World War the factory fell silent and into disrepair.

The fact is the dispute created indignation, annoyance and exasperation, in the Linktown area. It led directly to an invasion of a garden and a policeman losing his post. It led to court appearances and fines. It led to turmoil in the Council Chambers and eventually a U turn followed by compensation being paid. It is just possible that it was even partly responsible for John Tait losing the Provost's Chair the following November – quite a drama in two short months!

The full story can be reached by pressing the icon below. It provides a fuller picture augmented by visuals and allows the reader to make up their minds who , if anybody,was at fault.


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