A Tale of Two Ironmongers

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The stories of two Kirkcaldy ironmongers reveal much about the variety of enterprises that helped make a once-teeming town thoroughfare.

Wilson's Skate, a serendipitous discovery for us, was an invention lost to history.

Gone too are the halcyon days of Barnet & Morton.

But their name is etched in respectful memory and on the building that housed their store, as it stands still sentinel over our much-diminished High Street.

Part 1
00:00 / 05:05
Part 2
00:00 / 03:51

In depth written study

Audio

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A Tale of Two Ironmongers

The Traditional and the Inventive

At the outset of the series there was never an intention to feature this story – simply because, in part, its existence was unknown.  Often, when researching a completely different subject, chance directs the researcher in an unexpected and unknown direction.

This was the situation which led to this story of the Kirkcaldy ironmongery firm of  John H Wilson & Co . The story which emerged was so quirky and inventive that it simply demanded to be brought into the light!

It had also been an intention to feature the firm that probably was, for over a century, the best known and pre-eminent ironmongers in Kirkcaldy – Barnet and Morton Ltd.  Even although the firm are now only a memory, they have left an indelible mark on the town in the shape of their iconic premises on Kirkcaldy’s High Street. Their building, together with Whytehouse Mansions and the former McDonald’s premises, are in most people’s eyes, the outstanding architectural examples on the street.

The idea this month is to relate the history of the two firms  and, at the same time, compare their respective fortunes -  one firm traditional  -  the other most certainly inventive. By coincidence, both commenced trading in the middle decades of the 19th century – one lasting around half a century – the other sailing past its centenary.

In August 1893, on a warm Wednesday evening, a startling and revolutionary new mode of transport was unveiled in Kirkcaldy. This was the invention of John H Wilson & Co – a Kirkcaldy ironmongers and cycle retailer who were based at 9-13 High Street.

The firm had commenced trading in 1854 with David Wilson opening his ironmonger’s shop. He continued in business until retiring in 1881. The business then went to two of his grandsons – David and John H.  Despite this, the name was altered to George Wilson & Co. The suspicion is that George was their father and certainly David had a son named George – but efforts to trace him from the available records have met so far with spectacular failure.

The partnership was dissolved in 1888 when John alone took over and the name was then changed to John H. Wilson & and Co. Wilson had to have been a keen cyclist and he is credited with several inventions relating to cycle accessories.

However, it was his invention of the pneumatic skate which for a brief spell brought his name to the attention of the public and by association that of Kirkcaldy.

The invention of the pneumatic tyre by Dunlop had revolutionised both comfort and speed on the bicycle. Instead of hard unyielding rubber the air filled tyre made for an excellent  form of suspension and offered greater speed.

Wilson’s idea was to marry the roller skate to the pneumatic tyre and in this he was successful. The skate offered the prospect of personal transport over many types of terrain and at speed!

On that August evening a demonstration of the skate was given on the road from the Heather Lodge to Galston Quarry.   A great number of interested spectators saw   Robert Wilson put the skate through its paces which included hill climbing. Another demonstration was scheduled for the following week in the Beveridge Park.

Wilson patented his invention and had it manufactured in Birmingham.   The invention caught the public’s imagination and it became a very popular item as the 19th century drew to a close.

Did Wilson amass a fortune from his invention? – no, he did not!  The full narrative shows that he sold the patent and his interests to his manufacturer in 1894 and thus the inventor simply became a seller.

The business continued, but was now facing the twin threats of two cycle specialists operating from premises almost opposite him – Neilson Brothers being one, before turning their attention to the new fangled motor car.

Matters were made worse by the publicity stemming from a number of court appearances he, and the firm, were involved in.  Finally, he appeared in the Bankruptcy Court in 1903 which  signalled the end of the line for the firm.

The simple fact is that a Kirkcaldy man, although not inventing either the skate or the tyre, was the man who had the spark of genius to put the two together. He secured his moment of fame – but his decline makes for sad reading.

However, no one can take away from the fact that Kirkcaldy produced a man at the cutting edge of personal transport – but his legacy is now long forgotten.

John Barnet, a Kirkcaldy man, had served his time at the foundry of Alexander Russell and Sons whose premises straddled an area between the High Street and the Sands Road. After gaining experience in other towns and cities, he returned to Kirkcaldy and bought the business of his former employer. Part was to be paid up front, with the remainder being paid in instalments over three years. He would not be the owner until the last instalment had been paid.  Sadly, the ink was hardly dry on the contract, when Alexander Russell and Sons failed. Barnet was obliged to pay for the whole stock in full and that most assuredly set him back financially.

By sheer hard work and determination he started again – having been able to take on a partner – Gilbert Heron.  This steadied the ship, although the partnership only lasted two years. He returned to being a sole trader until in 1857 he assumed a new partner – his brother in law – James Morton. That saw the birth of Barnet and Morton.

The firm went from strength to strength and in time were able to purchase all the properties which should have been theirs in 1847. Although James Morton died in 1864 – John’s sons, Henry M. Barnet and Alexander Barnet, had joined their father in building and expanding the firm.

In 1895 they were able to move from their existing premises at 182 High Street into the splendid new building designed by Kirkcaldy architect Robert Little. Although extended, and expanded towards the Esplanade, it remained their home until they ceased to trade in the 1980s.

Henry died in 1914, with Alexander following in 1923. Henry, who had been a town councillor and provost, was a bachelor. Alexander had 6 children, with three being sons. Two – John and James were heavily involved as directors in the firm, but tragedy was not far away. The closing year of the war had seen Alexander Barnet, in the space of two months, learn that both James and Henry had been killed in action.

The remaining son, John, continued as managing director but he died aged only 46 in 1931, again he was a bachelor. Wider members of the family together with outside recruits continued to run the business until the advent of the new style superstores – B & Q etc., put paid to the firm.

The firm was a story of serious minded individuals, many deeply involved in municipal affairs and more especially with the religious life of the town. They overcame early hurdles to achieve steady growth and developed a business which had customers, both personal and commercial, throughout the country and beyond. To many generations they were one of the most quintessential firms in Kirkcaldy.

So ends our venture into recounting the tale of two businesses – one safe, steady and surefooted, which lasted for well over a century. The other had for most of its existence followed the same path until the advent of John H. Wilson whose inventive mind had propelled his invention to many parts of the globe..   Like so many, he did not taste the proceeds and slipped into oblivion via the Bankruptcy Court.

The full narrative contains more detail of the two firms which both in their own way made their mark.

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