The Falls of Dunbar (1692–1796)

After retiring as Bailie of Melrose in the service of the earls of Haddington, Robert Fall settled in his family’s ancestral home of Dunbar about the year 1692. He quickly gained influence in the town. Immediately elected to the town council and the magistracy, he became the burgh’s representative to the Convention of Royal Burghs and Commissioner (MP) to the Scottish Parliament for most of the 1690s and through to 1702.

His four sons, meanwhile, were carving out mercantile careers and also made Dunbar their power base.  William, Robert, Charles and James all prospered, generally acting as a formal co-partnership (a form of limited liability company). They invested in ships and began extensive trading, concentrating on the fisheries of the North Sea where they soon assumed a dominant position. Their ventures were not, however, limited to fish as their ships and captains can be traced on Mediterranean, Baltic and transatlantic trips. The brothers were successful, which spilt over generally into the prosperity of Dunbar. Ancillary businesses flourished: some were initiatives of the brothers and their business partners, others piggy-backed on the family’s success. The brothers were the moving force in the reform and regeneration of Dunbar’s Sailors’ Society, in establishing ropeworks, canvas weaving and sailmaking, shipbuilding, fish curing and more.

They all carved out local political careers. William was a bailie alongside his father by 1707 and his brothers held council seats as well. In 1728 the office of provost was re-established in Dunbar; in 1730 William Fall became provost and the family held the position until 1789 (continuously except for two years when an ally ‘kept the chair warm’ until an heir was of age). The youngest brother, Captain James Fall was shoehorned into Parliament at Westminster 1734–41 (and would have served longer had his brothers managed to manipulate his election in a more subtle manner – you can hear a satirical rhyme from the time, about corruption in the election of Captain James Fall here). James’ captaincy itself resulted from the commissioning of the family’s flagship Happy Janet as a privateer on the Spanish Main; during the Jacobite rebellion of the 1740s the Happy Janet (the same vessel or another of the same name) was leased to the Royal Navy. The brothers each purchased property and built homes within Dunbar – the family portfolio eventually being an appreciable proportion of the whole town and vicinity.

By the middle of the eighteenth century the business was in the hands of three cousins of the next generation – Charles and Robert Fall and Robert Melville. Their ambition reached a peak with the  establishment of the East-Lothian and Merse Whale-Fishing Company in 1752. That venture had a fleet of five vessels employing over 200 whalers on the Greenland fisheries (and benefiting from a substantial Government bounty). Side ventures (coal, salt, milling, Baltic timber, salmon fisheries) continued to interest the cousins but the changing nature of business and commerce in the latter half of the 18th century began to erode their profitability. The partners remained based at Dunbar despite the west coast soaring above the east in trade. Even when the commercial banking and insurance industries began to take a more professional approach towards lending, the Falls were able to continue as before: Robert had married an heiress of the Coutts banking family.

All good things come to an end. Deaths left Robert as the sole representative of the family still in business and when banking prudence overcame family ties he was forced to liquidate many of his ventures. In 1788 the earl of Lauderdale bought many of the Dunbar assets – but not all; Robert retired and died in 1796. However, before then activity went on under his wife’s name and land reclamation schemes, a spinning school and a textile factory at Belhaven continued until her death in the early part of the nineteenth century.

The resources of the Archives at the John Gray Centre can be used to piece together some of the activities of the Fall dynasty, especially their role in Dunbar town council and the Sailors’ Society.

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