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Some Characters and Shopkeepers of Portobello

By Robert Marshall

(This article is taken from the transcript of a talk given by M r Marshall to the Portobello Probus Club in the late 1980s and originally appeared in Past Times Issue No.1, Winter 1991, published by Portobello History Society. Portobello High Street has undergone massive changes since Mr Marshall gave his talk but we have not altered what he said as his words are now an historic record in their own right. We suggest that, where possible, people use the article to retrace Robert Marshall’s footsteps and log the changes for themselves.)

With the passing of time Portobello has changed. In 1900 the population was approximately 9,600. Today it is much more, by many thousands. To me, one of the changes has been the lack of characters such as I knew in those far-off days – Poker Dick; Coffin Bobby; Daddy Good; Granny Shepherd and many others. So gentlemen lets wander through Portobello from east to west, starting at the corner of Pittville Street and see how many shops and characters I can remember. I hasten to add however that I make no apology for omissions or mistakes.

The first shop was a chemist (and still is) owned by Mr Fraser. In those days it was a chemist and not a drug store. When I used to go into this shop as a boy for my pennyworth of arrowroot or liquorice I was fascinated with the array of bottles on the shelves at the back of the counter. They were brown with gold band lettering in, I presume, Latin- but Greek to me! Little did I think then that fifty years later I would buy 2 dozen of them as antiques and sell them to a friend, but I did. I just wonder what you would keep to-day that would be considered antiques 50 years on; but that could be an idea for a future programme.

The start point at the top of Pittville Street

Mr Fraser lived at 3 Abercorn Terrace and at that time I lived at 312 High Street opposite. Every Sunday Mr Fraser and his wife went for a walk and he would come out first and leave his wife to shut the door and gate, and by that time he was about 15 yards along the road and when they came back he was still 15 yards in front of her. I never saw them walk together/ I am sure if he was alive to-day Women’s Lib would have a name for him!!!

I can’t remember the next shop (Miss Duncan?) but the shop, now a hairdresser, was a fruit shop belonging to D.L. Brown. This was a busy shop where you could get a pennyworth of carrots and turnip. The Good Old Days??

The next shop, now a Chinese restaurant, was divided into two shops – Leslie, the Jeweller, and Pullars of Perth (Campbell P&P?) An interesting thing about this shop is that at one time it was one shop and belonged to J. Tait, the butcher. Before 1900 Mr. Tait had two shops, further along in Portobello, but we will forget that for the moment. He moved again, along to the present butcher’s – strange to say, another Tait. I don’t know if J. Tait when he moved there made a house into a shop, but it certainly was a house before it was a shop. Even when I took over this shop in 1933 the kitchen range was still in the back shop.

I must tell you of an item slip I found in the office of that shop. It belonged to J. Tait, dated1900, and the first item was – leg of lamb – 1/6d; steak 9d and another two items, I can’t recall what they were, but the total was 4/7d, but at the bottom of the slip in beautiful handwriting “With grateful thanks, paid 1904” so they had slow payers in those days too!!

So back to Leslie’s, Jewellers. I can’t remember what the next small shop was  (Gibson, Milliners?) but the next one, now Moulds, the grocers, belonged to “Juicy” Robinson, J.P. and was the shop for all the youngsters to hang about. “Juicy” was very good to the kids of that area and on school holidays we were allowed into the cellars below to wash bottles and stick on labels, as beer and stout were bottled there. I can even remember the colour of the labels – one red, the other green; of course we always got something for helping, but there were times when he got fed up with us all and he would chase us down the lane to play football (he could always whistle for anyone to go a message.) Playing football was alright until one the Police closed all exists from the lane and caught the lot. They were taken to court and fined 5/- - that must have been about 1917 and at today’s prices you could knock down a person with a car and get fined less.

There is an interesting part about the top of that Lane – the two houses at the back of the grocers were enclosed by a gate at the top and before you entered the lane proper. At one time this must have been private property and was called Kirks Place and you will see the name on the wall of the grocers. The gate at the top was very high, made of iron, and when someone closed it. It was impossible for us to open or even climb over. “Juicy” had only one son and he was killed in the 1914-18 War. “Juicy” was never the same man again and one morning he was found dead in the shop. We kids lost a father-figure that day.

At the foot of the lane, where the Baths Laundry is, used to be Jimmy Banks’ stables and when the horses brought Jimmy back at teatime we got the pleasure of driving the horse and cart down the lane, but considering the horse had brought Jimmy back from Leith or Musselburgh it did not need much driving from us!

On the Prom lived a man we called Buffalo Bill; he dressed like him – skin jacket with frills, large Stetson and fancy boots. He worked with Buffalo Bill when he toured this country. The visitors to the Prom used to stop him and talk and there was no doubt he was interesting because he travelled a bit.

In front of the Baths in the summertime a Mr Stewart, who came from the West, had children’s meetings, and there was always plenty of kids there. He would have races on the sand etc. and at the end of the summer we would have a fancy dress parade through the streets – I would think very tame stuff for the kids of today.

Near the Balmoral Hotel there was a sand castle made by one of many of our beachcombers, a fellow named Brown. I don’t remember him but I do remember the fellow named McCleesh, who had only one leg and I am sure many of you will remember him. Every morning he would walk the beach and pick up material for this castle and any money he could find, there was always some. In those days there were many visitors and there was always something to be found. While I am on the Prom let me mention some of the characters one would meet, usually around the foot of Bath Street – of course there were two Pubs there!

The most well-known was of course Beef Marshall. He was the local boat hirer, also the beach Safety man. Many ‘Sand-Robins’ helped him, as most of them were unemployed. For the cost of fourpence or sixpence you could hire the boat, and as you can imagine many got into difficulties and someone had to go and rescue them. He had a boatyard at the foot of Pipe Street, but the boats were put on the beach at the beginning of summer and lay there till the season finished. Spider Hunter was a chair attendant, but I think that was only when the pubs were shut.

Now let’s go back to the High Street where I left off, to the present James Scott’s shop. The first part of this shop was a fruiterer, another Brown; the centre part, now the entrance to Scott’s was Williamson, fishmonger, and the end part of the shop was a house with a small garden, such as the entrance to Scott’s funeral parlour.

The next shop, the butcher’s, which  J. Tait had until 1907, was then taken over by a young man called Ebenezer Forbes. Tait had moved again but this time to Mulberry Place. Forbes was known as Ebby Forbes and he had a very good business. His wife used to come up to the shop in a pony and trap. She was a very handsome woman, tall, and as one would expect from a woman of farming stock, could manage animals. Ebby always came to the shop with a bowler hat on and worked all day with it on. He did very well in that shop until about 1926-30 when things were very difficult in the country, as many of you will remember, but like many men before him he made it too quickly and it went quicker. He had taken to keeping a lot of greyhounds for racing but was not very successful and when I worked for him he seemed to have all the scroungers of Portobello coming into the shop. He was an easy touch and his own worst enemy. I liked working for him although at times he annoyed me as he would be in the back shop “entertaining” his fair weather friends and I could not get the work done as that is the place where the work really takes place in the butcher’s shop.

The next shop was a newsagents taken over by Fitzsimons from Mingay about 1915-16 and as one of a long line of paper boys I remember two things about that shop. The first was the early rising and then getting the barrow and going to Portobello Station to collect the papers. Not many of you will know what it was like in those days to climb to the station but I always thought it was like pulling a barrow up Arthur’s Seat, and even when you got to the steps up to the station it was like climbing Waverley Steps. The papers were usually lying on the platform in big bundles too heavy for us to carry so they were slid down the steps. The other thing I remember was a customer they had – Mrs. Baxter, 3 Eastfield. She got a Daily Mail every morning. Now some of you may think that from Fitzsimons to Eastfield is not very far, but at 10 years old or so it seemed miles away.

The newsagent shop with people outside at the top of Bellfield Street

The shop at the other side of Melville Street was a grocers – P.B. Smith, and that family of Smiths all had the initial ‘B’ in the middle of their name and I remember that J.B. Smith was a reporter with the local papers. Of course there was a lot of ‘B’ Smiths in Portobello at that time!!!

P B Smith is painted above the door.

The next small shop was McVey, the Clockmaker, and he did make clocks as I found out when I took over Forbes’ shop. There was one there and much to one of my daughter’s disappointment I threw it out. I never knew she had wanted it and today it would be worth £200 at least.

Sconie” Watt had the shop, now Berry’s. It was a victual dealers much the same as the one in Bread Street, Edinburgh, but he was known more for his girdle scones he made. They were large, triangle shape and were really delicious. “Sconie” used to work in his shirt sleeves rolled up and always  a spotless white apron on. He had a military type of appearance and rather strict attitude to us kids, but it was no wonder as when we passed we used to dare each other to scout “Sconie Watt”.

The double window shop next door was one of Forsyth the baker’s shops.

Miss Fairley was the next one, now Dental Laboratory, and it sold tobacco, snuff and china. This shop, as far as message boys went, was a closed shop for the Marshall Clan as the job was handed down from my oldest brother until it came to me. We had to be in the shop by 4 o’clock and stay there till 6 o’clock to deliver any china that had been bought, but as far as I was concerned, sitting there waiting on orders, was the enjoyment of the smell of tobacco and snuff.

The corner shop of Bellfield Lane was McArthurs, Painters; then Wishart and Ogg, and then Wisharts only till they moved too.

The Painter and Decorator at Bellfield Lane

As it is getting near the time for me to “Shut up” I would like to just cross the street and tell you of the area now housing Department of Health and Social Security. As the east corner of that building was an old Tin Kirk which belonged to St. James’ before they went to Rosefield; then a 3-storey tenement, then the Old Smiddy. Mr. Henderson owned the Smiddy and the Tin Kirk, which he used as a motor engineering business. There was a tenement between the two. If you went through the passage into the back green (as we used to call them in the old days) there was a cottage at the foot of the gardens and that is where on of Portobello’s lesser known citizens was born in 1907 – ME. In time Mr. Henderson bought the ground behind the tenement, including the cottage and built his garage round the building to meet up with the smiddy part of his business. When Mr. Henderson altered his premises about 1930+ he put a new front on the smiddy side of his property and in the corner of his name board in small letters “Pik a Plea” – the name of the old cottage.

One of the tenants of 275 was Jimmy Martin, a tram conductor and a well- known cheery character. There was never any “Monday Morning Blues” when Jimmy was your conductor – always a joke or a story. I read a story some weeks ago that reminded me of Jimmy – “This conductor was collecting fares ---“ – just the kind of remark he would make. He was also an amateur entertainer at local shows. I can only remember seeing him once on stage. He would come on in short trousers, pullover and school cap and in his hand a piece of string at the end of which a small barrow would appear – usually a cigar box with four wheels – and he would sing “Oh the Bonny Wee Barrow’s Mine”. He was one of the cheerier characters among the many in those days.

Now if we cross the street again and proceed from Bellfield Lane west I must draw your attention to the type of buildings all along the High Street. Your will notice that they are either 3 storey or 4 storey buildings and it seems that no provision was made for shops and that in most cases shops were developed from the ground floor flat dwellings and that in turn changed the numbers, so that I someone in 1900 had a shop 170 High Street it was nowhere near where 170 is today.

The house (268 High Street) at the top of Bellfield Lane stands out from the rest of the street, so I have this impression the house was built before the others. In 1900 the tenant was Shaw and Co., cutlers (Hogg and Marshall’s office);in 1905 the tenant was Riddle, slaters.

284 High Street was Shaw & Co., milliners. In 1915 it belonged to Hall who sold sweets. 282 High Street in 1900 was the Telephone Exchange. 280 High Street was O’Keefe’s Cycle Shop with a large display of cycles on the pavement. At that time you could get a cycle for £3.

Mathieson the bootmaker was the next shop, then Beith the milliners. I can’t remember much about these two shops, but the next one was Wilson, grocers. It was at that time one of the cheap shops and very busy.

268 was a fancy goods shop and 266 was a stationers called Black. 268 High Street became Proctor Fruiterers and I am sure most of you will remember him. McNeil, grocer, took over in 1905 the shop 262 then held by Brown the shoe shop. 260 was Hume, plumber, a well-known Portobello family.

Brown and Grieve, house-agents, were in 258 High Street – a firm held in high esteem and more or less run by their clerk Simon Faed – a well-known and respected man in Portobello. He was I understand connected with the Royal Oak Society. Copeland the Baker was another well-known shop.

Neilson, grocers, was next. I have no memory of them. In later years I remember Tyndal McCleland that I always considered the cleanest and smartest shop in Portobello and strange to say that was the death of it – it was too clean.

Ferguson and Purves, the Tailors, was next and I remember them well. Earlier in their business life they had the shop now J. Allan at the top of Regent Street. It was a shop of class, or should I say that it catered for clientele above the average.

Ferguson and Purves is the shop with the awning.

244 High Street was another shop of Neilson, grocers, then that was taken over by the Danish Butter Co.

The corner shop, now a sports shop, belonged to Daddy Good, Ironmongers. He had just about everything in that shop and as long as you were not in a hurry he would find what you wanted. In these days your mother always sent you to Daddy Goods as if he was the only Ironmonger in Portobello.

Going over to the other side of the street continuing from the Smiddy, the next place was Brown and Grieve’s Woodyard; then the Public Weighing Machine; then another block of houses with 7 tenants; then there were four wooden shops; Shepherd the Plumber from 257-259.


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