Prestonpans – the cleanest town in East Lothian

Whisky, rum, silk, tea … and soap!

These were the commodities that the excisemen of Prestonpans had to watch for. The first four are fair game and well known as smuggled goods. But soap? It’s a long story.

Back before the Union of Parliaments (in 1707), England taxed soap. It was also a commodity under patent so could only be made with appropriate permission and fees paid to the patentee. It was thus seen as a commodity of the rich (who could afford to pay a few pennies more) and limiting its production by taxation left more tallow (an essential ingredient) for the candlemakers – and their product, much in demand, was kept cheaper to all. So everyone was happy and many were grubby.

Prestonpans Soap WorksAfter the Union of Parliaments, there were moves to equalise taxation north and south of the border. The way it worked in practice was that where Scotland taxed a commodity and England didn’t, that tax was repealed but generally when the reverse held the English system prevailed. So Scotland got a whole lot of new taxes – and nearly walked away from the Union in consequence. However, with a bit of give and take, the waters were smoothed over and the new regime was implemented.

Public Notice, Courier, 30 Jan 1874Even under the tax, soap was increasing market share and as Scotland’s trade grew the raw materials became cheaper and more available. Most of Scotland’s soap was made in the west (around Glasgow and Lanarkshire), but Dunbar, Prestonpans, and Leith all had their soapboilers. The feedstock was local tallow, imported oils, and whale oil from the Dunbar and Leith whale fishers. Dunbar got its alkali (another essential ingredient) from traditional means (woodash or kelp: the placename Ashfield marks the site of the works). The Pans and Leith got theirs in addition from the local chemical industries. In the late 1830s, James Mellis and Company  took over the works of Thomas Paterson, which had been formed shortly after the stirring times of the ‘45; together, the works lasted for over two hundred years. It began to wind up at the end of 1954 and closed the following year.  It occupied premises fronting the main street of Prestonpans and was extended and improved several times, although in 1866 James Mellis appealed an increased valuation on the basis that

the premises in question was a very old place, and a great portion of it of little or no use (and) much of the machinery was worth nothing more than old iron.

Mr Andrew Anderson in the worksBut perhaps he protested too much: the equipment did not need to be complex and for much of the factory’s lifespan that the facilities were extremely basic there is little doubt. Photographs demonstrate that amply. However, it produced a wide range of products: most was industrial soaps for the dyeing, woollen and laundry industries but the output included both hard and soft soap for domestic use. By the nature of the product few samples (if any) remain today but Mellis’ trademark, brands and slogans – purity, value, efficiency – are remembered still.

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