For this project, in 2014, some of the members of Fullarton Historical Society kindly gave interviews to record their memories of life at the harbour.
Their fascinating accounts are printed in full below - just select a title - transcriptions by Ian Dickson. Edited interviews are on video - links shown below - video recording and editing by James Alcock.
[John Kerr & Sons - est. 1925 - 26, Gottries Road - a family home and office from 1925 to 1990]
1925: The company ran bottles from Portland Glass (which belonged to I.C.I.) to Glasgow whisky bonds, delivering them by steam wagons. It also ran milk bottles to dairies in Irvine and beyond - also delivered by steam wagons, which meant that John Kerr & Sons (John, Archie, Jim and David) were always on the look-out for firewood and water. The company also did general haulage about Irvine.
WWII: Operations were restricted during the war because of licensing and travel was limited to 25 miles. A percentage of trucks was confiscated by the War Office - one driver recognised a John Kerr & Sons truck at Catterick Army Camp on route to France.
Post-war: In addition to "flat lorries", the firm acquired tippers which were needed to run sand from Ardeer dunes to Portland Glass for the manufacture of green bottles. Squads of men dug, with hand shovels, then later with mechanical shovels & diggers, the wind-blown sand from the dunes.
During food rationing, flour was brought from the Flour Mills in Glasgow to the Co-operative Bakery in West Road, across from Mure Church. Also groceries from Shieldhall in Glasgow were brought down to the shops in Irvine (on Montgomery St., Fullarton St., and Thornhouse Ave.)
1950s: Before the New Town came into being, there was the 'Tar Works' off Portland Road and Kerr's trucks were hired to take tanks of tar to wherever new roads were being made or existing ones repaired.
c. 1960: Tippers were used to haul white sand (which came from Lochaline, on Mull) from sand boats in Irvine harbour to Rockware Glass (as it was now called) to make clear bottles. Lime boats also came into Irvine Harbour and the lime was transported to Rockware Glass, lime being one of the constituents in glass making. Cement boats were also emptied and the cement went to Johnston & Paton and to Hendersons, both in Gottries Road. This was quite a risky job (though not appreciated at the time) as the stores were in confined spaces and the cement dust was inhaled by the drivers and storemen alike. The firm would hire extra drivers when boats arrived, so who did they use? - young policemen in their 'off-duty day' - though very much frowned on then! Wood boats also came into the harbour and the wood was transported to Irvine Sawmill. Sand was also hauled from the dunes at the firing range south of Irvine, across from Glasgow Gailes Golf Course (though not on the days when the army was practising firing!) - this sand was, in the early days, hauled by tippers to Irvine station for onward transport to glassworks in Shettleston and Alloa, and later transported the whole way by road in Kerr's tippers.
At that time, Kerrs bought brand new Albion tippers for the 'sand run' to the bottle works in Alloa. Just as the tippers were due to go and have the 'Kerr Livery' painted on, a blackbird chose the front grille of one to build her nest and lay her eggs. The brothers and nephews called an EGM and decided to leave that lorry till the eggs hatched - so much for business forward planning!
During all the years of the tenements in Gottries Road and John Street, the Kerr family never locked a door in any of their two garages or offices. They never had any break-ins or trouble. Sadly, new town development, with its inevitable upheavals, brought an end to this neighbourhood trust. Perhaps it helped that Mrs Dolly Kerr, wife of David, the fourth son, was the District Nurse for the area, and her door was always open.
1960s: All restrictions on licences were lifted and Kerr's could deliver bottles from Rockware all over Britain, eg Doncaster, Liverpool, London - anywhere. Kerr's also "flitted" Hyster from Glasgow to the old ROF (Royal Ordnance Factory) location during the New Town era, then delivered their goods to Grangemouth and Glasgow Docks. At this time, the oldest son John became Provost (1960-63) and played a large part in establishing Irvine as a 'New Town'.
1970s: Kerr's started delivering from local factories of the New Town, e.g. double glazing from Plyglass to N. Ireland, England and all over Scotland, and 'flanges' from Bonney Forge to docks in Scotland & England and all over England.
There were, at one time, five haulage contractors based in the area: Robert King, doing shipyard work, Hugh King, transporting sand, John Kerr & Sons, with railway work, Cochrane, doing long distance transport (it went into BRS, British Road Services), and Jack Campbell, doing general work.
Well I came in 1965 with two kids under six and we tended to take them down to the swing park at the harbour – not right down at the harbour, but just beyond the sawmill [in the parking area for Puffers Café today] and then of course we went towards the seaside, and the actual fact that the Blue Billy was there and I realised it was man-made got me thinking about why it had to be there and then I realised that the industry that was round about had to get rid of their rubbish and that’s where they put it. I thought early in those days, it would be ideal for a lovely hotel – an ideal place – even when the Adelaide was going away there were cars going up there to park – a fantastic viewpoint. That’s getting away from the industrial side – it’s just what I thought myself at the time. I remember – I was in the building trade and we worked down that area in the Forge – it was a horrible place to work – we were used to working in the open air – in this horrid place the guys had noise, dirt everything, – you wonder why people did it – but of course they had to work.
There was no access that you get today to go up the Blue Billy – not such a thing – well, it was kind of dangerous in those days. Coming from the city and seeing the open spaces – it was an ideal site for a coastal village, rather town – just to get that atmosphere, right on the front – lovely sands – as nice sands as anywhere on the Ayrshire coast – and it had opportunities for improvement. I remember being quite interested in the historical bit about the lifeboats. My grandpa was a cox in the Girvan lifeboat and I got quite involved and I used to go to the lifeboat house. The lifeboat was all gone by the time we came to Irvine, obviously, but there was a tenuous connection. There will always be guys who do that kind of job.
We used to go to the back shore, as we called it, down by the ROF [Royal Ordnance Factory] – it was nearer Rubie Crescent where we lived – so we used to take the barrow – the ‘bogie’ – and the dog and all our stuff and go to the back shore. It was [later] when I was a teenager we went down to the harbour – with boyfriends – you went for a walk by the harbour – the Blue Billy was smelly, I remember that – I think there was like a haze or smoke coming off the Blue Billy. (We went up to the top – in the 1950s – it was still a working harbour – with the boats coming in – there were three big cranes – Mr McKinnon – Lachie was on the big crane.)
The Blue Billy to me was just a landmark – an eyesore really – sitting there on the shore – that was the first impression you got – this thing sitting there – I’ve no information about the chemical works or anything like that. Fifty years ago I came here. I worked down the shore at Gottries Road at John Kerr & Sons for about 12 years and I remember Brown’s Foundry and Laird Forge and I think it was Johnston & Patons that was there in Gottries Road – and Guazzelli’s chip shop and things like that, and Matthew Wright & Nephew, and you knew they were just always there – part of the scenery going up and down to work.
I went to shorthand & typing for six months in Kilmarnock and then I was in Laird’s in the block works from the time I left school at 15 and I was there for a few years. Laird’s closed [or laid off staff; still a thriving business c. 1950] and they suggested I try for the Ayrshire Dockyard and so I was lucky – I got in there as a typist. Then I changed to the Central Hospital and I was there until I got married at 24. We had concerts in the dockyard and I’ve got pictures of the entertaining – we must have been dressed up and must have done a concert with one of the workers (I’ve forgotten his name). I was born next to the Post Office – my dad was the dentist. He came down from Glasgow in ’26 and I was born in ’27. My mother would take us down to the shore. We used to get the bus at Green’s Picture House [on Bank St, where Pitchers is now] down to the shore – you didn’t walk to the shore! I didn’t walk to the shore till years later.
I was born in 1938 at …. and across from there was where the railway horses were put – they had stables. The railway used horses for delivering coal – the coal brought by trains was put onto carts and delivered round the town. When I was a wee girl at Loudoun-Montgomery School, I was aware of horse-drawn carts coming out of this area and my father had said “that is the coal that is delivered from coal mines further down the country, maybe from Cumnock and these areas, and brought to Irvine and delivered to the houses, in bags, by horse-drawn carts. Once I remember the children in the area were allowed to go round the back and see the horses and sit on the backs of the horses – so this was a big event – we were allowed to sit on a horse – it was the first time I’d ever sat on a horse and I don’t think I’ve sat on one since!
Now next door to where we lived there was the Sun Inn and that was very popular with the men who worked on the railway – I would see them going in there when they finished their work. When we went farther down, on the right hand side, there was the F&F fish & chip shop, and we always wondered what F&F meant, and we found out it wasn’t the name of the people but it meant ‘Fish & Fritters’ – whether or not that’s true I don’t know, but we were told that. Now when you turned the corner into Cochrane St there was a brass works – it was across the road from the police station in Cochrane St – they had cells where prisoners sometimes were kept if the main police station was overloaded. There was also a big yard at the back and that’s where the policemen did their drill, and that area was across the road from Montgomery School. On the corner across the road from the school there was a wee shop called Young’s and every day at playtime they came over and served home-made doughnuts that they had made on the premises and it was a big line-up of children to buy these doughnuts. I remember mother giving us a penny to get a doughnut for our playpiece.
And when you went farther down it was the Hosiery Manufacturing Company, just next door to where Victoria Football Park is now and that was owned by the Caddises. I left school at 14 after doing a course in shorthand typing, book-keeping, commercial English, and commercial arithmetic and two men came to the school to find two office-girls – that was the week before the school holidays and Nana Caldwell (Nana Craig now) and I were given jobs as trainee shorthand-typists and clerkesses, so we left the school on the Friday and we started work on the Monday. On the Saturday, I remember my father took me to buy me a new bike because an insurance policy had matured and this bike was to take me from Fullarton St where I lived at that time down to Boyle St, which was called Cochrane St for a time, but is now back to Boyle St..
Then when we came back out of Cochrane St and walked down towards the harbour again you came to Matthew Wright & Nephew, the sawmill, and diagonally across from that was Laird’s Foundry which we spoke about earlier. And as you walked down there you came to Gottries Rd and that was Brown’s Foundry; my uncle worked in Brown’s Foundry and he worked late two nights a week – a Tuesday and a Thursday – and I always took down his piece and he gave me sixpence every Tuesday and every Thursday and – my! – I thought I was well off with sixpence (now worth 2½p) – that was a lot of money in those days. Walking down from there, on this side, the water side, there was a huge swing park and then further down was where we played, and in those days – just the same as today – people dumped things – and if there was a mattress or something that had been dumped down by the side of the river, mainly the boys but sometimes the girls would jump off onto this mattress and bounce up – that’s what we did of an afternoon when we played there during the school holidays.
And I remember when I was at school the school holidays were always sunny. I was the oldest at that time of four children, and ended up being the oldest of six children, and mother would give us sandwiches and bottles of water – not any of your lemonade rubbish in those days – bottles of water, and she said “There you are – go down there with the weans and don’t come back till tea-time. In those days you wouldn’t be worried that you’d be bothered with paedophiles or anything like that. It was just how we lived. I remember father always telling us not to go into the sea on the right-hand side because there were quicksands there because he said he knew a wee boy that was caught in the sands one time. So that was just where the Pilot House is – just beyond that is where the quicksands were – so father said. I remember the Blue Billy, but, being a girl, I never ventured up the Blue Billy – just wasn’t me to climb. Then of course, there was the bottle work – it was there but I wasn’t aware of it till later on. Round the corner in Gottries Rd were lots wee shops and things.
During the summer it was very busy with people coming
to Irvine for the sea. One time I remember – a thing that sticks in
the mind – I was playing in the back yard one day and my father came
to us/me “Come and see this – there’s an elephant in the street”. I
said “An elephant?” “Yes, the circus is coming through town”. And so
it did at that time to encourage you to go to the circus, they used
to have the animals in horse & carts and parade them through the
town – there was an elephant walking in the street, then there was a
tiger, I remember, in one of the big cages.
I almost forgot to mention John K Campbell and McAlpine’s who were responsible for shipping out to the islands – they brought in the wood for Matthew Wright & Nephew and then took the coal out to the islands. They were next door to each other [nos. 126 & 128] just beyond the Ship Inn where the art studios are today. The Customs office was further down [no. 132].
I was born and brought up in Dreghorn, but my maternal grandparents lived in Waterside, so we were in Irvine every weekend and often walked down the harbour. My first memory is of the big ships along the side of the wharf and the cranes and the dredger – which just fascinated me. You’ve got the River Garnock and you’ve got the River Irvine going into the bay, you’ve got the Annick Water joining that further up in the Tarryholme area, and these were both tidal rivers susceptible to silting, so the harbour had to be dredged to allow the ships in to unload or load. Also, the bar mouth had to be kept clear and often ships had to anchor in the bay and watch the Pilot House apparatus – the balls that went up and down and you could tell how high the tide was, but they also kept a dredged channel right up the middle to the dockyard.
The first dredger that I learned about was called the ‘Slaney’ which was built in 1896 – it was a sandhopper dredger – it was purchased by Ayrshire Dockyard around 1914 and it was wrecked on the North Shore in the early 1930s. The second dredger was the ‘Irvine’ – it was a bucket dredger, purchased by Irvine Harbour Company in 1911 and withdrawn from service in 1969. Having checked the dates, it would appear that the two worked in conjunction with each other – one was owned by the dockyard, and one by the harbour company. I remember the ‘Irvine’ – it was very noisy. From 1943 to 1962 the ‘Irvine’ was captained by Captain Metcalfe and we are still in touch with his son Colin Metcalfe in Australia.
My grandfather also worked on one of the dredgers. I have some photographs. That is Captain Metcalfe and his crew and that would be the ‘Irvine’. That is a photo with my grandfather, but I don’t know which of the two he was on. That’s the ‘Irvine’. The spoil from the dredgers was dumped in the Clyde and the basking sharks used to wait for the stuff being dumped.
Tugs – the ‘George Brown’ was a paddle tug, built in 1887 and bought by Irvine Harbour Trust to replace the ‘Scottish Maid’ that had been purchased in 1857 by Irvine Town Council. The ‘George Brown’ was named after the Provost who is remembered for attempting to ban alcohol at the Moor at Marymass. That tug was scrapped in January 1957 and broken up in Troon. Tug two was the ‘Garnock’, built in 1956 for the Harbour Trust.
In 1949 the coaster the SS Christina Dawn from Gloucester, bound for Port Talbot with a crew of nine and it ran aground on the rocks on the north side, the Ardeer side, of the river. It had a cargo of carbide and the salt water got into the cargo and made it become a gas – a highly inflammable gas – and the drums exploded. No-one was injured. [http://www.ladyisle.com/tp%2053.htm]
I remember the cranes. There were two steam-operated cranes along the wharf and they were capable of lifting the railway wagons loaded with coal and tipping them directly into the hold of the ships. The railway ran right down the wharf and the siding at right angles to it and they had a steam-operated pulley and rope system that dragged the wagons across the road and into the cradle of the crane and then they went into the ship. The railway ran the full length of the wharf and crossed Harbour Street near the Ship Inn. The boiler house and the crane were at opposite sides of the railway line on the wharf – the boiler house controlled the pulley and the crane supplied its own steam.
The railway was only single track – quite close to the capstans – that we used to jump – capstans where they would anchor a boat with a big rope. There used to be Maggie Lamb’s wee shop [confectioner, no. 141] down there – which was very busy – next to the Cross Keys. There was a sailing every day to Ireland, though I don’t remember that. It was a Mr Mackay from Irvine who used to be the captain of one of the dynamite ships. The Carters were always busy, with their Clydesdale horses – there was a lot of coal transported from the harbour up to the merchants in the town to their yards, like Tremble and Gorman, they had their own yards – they bagged the coal in their yards. Clydesdales would be used till perhaps the late ‘40s – ’49 or ’50.
We were only down there in the summer time – it was a good walk from the High Street where we stayed. In the winter – why would you want to go down there – if you weren’t going in to swim? Boys used to jump into the harbour and swim there. The harbour in this day and age is tidier and smarter that what it was in those days – the likes of Gottries Road and John Street and these places were all dilapidated and you had all the workshops like the Tar Works and others all round about that area. It wasn’t an attractive area. Irvine is not a tourist harbour – there will never be a marina there. It was a working harbour. It was only soft sand – the dunes – when I was a kid.
Well, I moved into Gottries Road in 1960 and in those days the tenements were still there right down to the bottom of Gottries Road, which became Peter Street the further you went down, turning right up into John Street. I used to love walking down with the pram and looking in the tenements. Quite often the windows were up high and there were quite a lot of sights that, you know, were not just salubrious – but there definitely was a community there. My husband’s aunt was the district nurse and whenever anyone needed a doctor or a nurse in these tenements they just came to the garage, to the office, to ask for Dolly Kerr. And I think it was because of that that the community spirit was shown in that area, because my father-in-law and his brothers never ever locked a door in their garages or in their office – never – they knew fine that no-one in Gottries Road or John Street was going to interfere with anything there, but sadly when Irvine New Town came into being, they were burgled and burgled at regular intervals, to the point that my husband even stopped telling the police when the office was burgled. So that was sad that that sort of community spirit disappeared.
There were always big boats – because they brought the wood and everything else that Irvine needed to transport – there was the Lady Anstruther, the Lady Roslin, the Lady McGowan and the Lady Dorothy. I think the Lady Anstruther came from down south, or maybe Norway, because it used to bring in a lot of wood. I mind the big grey boats, in the early ‘50s – I was only a wean, but my dad worked wi’ them – he used to work with the tug, the ‘George Brown’. My earliest memory was sleeping in the ‘George Brown’ with my brother and the boat was going up and down like a yo-yo, believe you me – because my dad took us onto it just to let us stay the night – I think my mum was in hospital at the time, so we were there and we weren’t getting into any bother. I mind the water hitting the side of the boat something chronic. Oh aye, I was glad to get off it onto dry land.
The organiser of the interview session, on 17 February
2014, at Fullarton Historical Society, Ian J Dickson, a Past President
(1996) of Irvine Burns Club, ended the session with a vote of thanks
both to the video professional James Alcock and to the Society, saying
that the contributions made had fully met the outcomes the project team
had hoped for, and that each of the various speakers, from the Society’s
own ranks, had brought something new to the session. As well as the
video pieces, the text would be added to the resources on the harbourside
website and would contribute, later in the year, to whatever was published
in booklet form.