Prestongrange: A Powerhouse of Industry Visitor Centre Exhibition
This detailed display explores the heavy industries of Prestongrange and highlights stories of key workers with photos of the locality now and at its industrial peak. Click on the links below to view the Prestongrange Museum visitor centre exhibition panels, text and images. Highlights from the Museum’s display of objects are published here. You could listen to the museum audio guide here.
Prestongrange: A power house of industry
Prestongrange is now a quiet and tranquil haven for wildlife, but for centuries it resonated with the sound of heavy industry. The site was ideally placed on a transport network including the nearby Edinburgh Road, and a large and bustling harbour that rivalled the port of Leith at its peak. Prestongrange benefited from a rich supply of natural resources including seawater, sand, clay, fireclay and most importantly coal. Entrepreneurs from the monks of Newbattle in the 1100s and 1200s to the Scottish Brick Company in the 1900s capitalised on these resources. Prestongrange coal became the driving force behind local booming industries including brick, tile and pottery manufacture, glass making, salt production, soap making, brewing and the production of chemicals.
The colliery supported a wide range of jobs from miners to managers including engineers, surveyors, safety officers and canteen staff. Roles were specialised and employees were required by law to undergo professional training to maintain complex systems on the surface and underground. Coal extraction has a long history at Prestongrange, both on the present museum site and in the larger, Prestongrange estate. It ended in 1962 and may have begun around the 1200s when the abbey of Newbattle was granted the rights to mine coal. Mining was sporadic pausing twice in the 1800s due to technical obstacles, including flooding and difficulties in accessing deeply buried coal reserves. A first deep shaft was sunk to 120m in 1829 to reach the Great Seam. A second shaft of 166m was sunk in 1874 and a third of 225m. Shafts were long vertical tunnels used to access underground workings. Mining was gruelling work with danger from roof falls, gas, coal dust and cramped conditions. The first mechanised coal cutter was used in the Jewel Seam at Prestongrange in the 1890s. Other seams continued to be mined by hand using picks, shovels, hammers, wedges and explosives.
Pumping, moving, working
Flooding of underground mine workings was the biggest obstacle to expansion at Prestongrange and was finally overcome in 1874 with the installation of a beam pumping engine. It could extract almost 3000 litres of water per minute, allowing previously inaccessible reserves to be mined. At closure the colliery extended almost two miles under the Firth of Forth. At closure the colliery surface buildings included the beam engine, electricity, powerhouse, winding engine, bathhouse and canteen [now visitor centre]. Other structures including the headframe and the Norton washer, used to clean and grade coal, were demolished. They had already been badly damaged by fire in January 1960. Looking out for each other at work drew families and neighbours together. Mine workers formed unions to demand better pay and conditions. In 1952 the workforce peaked at 700 and the new pithead baths were opened. Prestongrange Colliery was part of a transport network from at least the 1520s when the nearby harbour was enlarged. In 1947 there was an extensive rail network around it including a link to a large siding on the main line, a marshalling and shunting yard at the pit and a number of temporary lines to distribute waste on the pit bing or rubbish heap.
Opposite Prestongrange lies the remains of Morrison’s Haven harbour. It was once an extremely busy port transporting the goods produced from the thriving industrial town of Prestonpans and bringing in raw material. Permission to build a harbour, mill pond and water tidal mills at Prestongrange was granted in the 1500s to Alexander Acheson. Between 1624 and the 1740s it was leased to the Morrison family. Morrison’s Haven was used to import timber, rock salt, gravel, stone and clay and to export coal. Before the 1800s, glass and pottery were also being exported but later this changed to bricks and pipes. The harbour went into decline after the Second World War and was eventually filled in during the 1960s. A Tidal Mill at the harbour was probably used to grind corn but after two hundred years of this the mill was then used to grind flint. Local potters used flint powder to make cream coloured glazes. Although the landscape surrounding the harbour has changed a lot over the centuries much of the harbour still survives today and can be visited.
At first the brickworks were run by local families. By the 1870s it had merged with the Colliery. It developed from a small company supplying the Prestongrange Estate to a major heavy ceramics plant with a large workforce. After the pit closed in 1962, the Scottish Brick Corporation operated the brickworks until it closed in 1975. The Summerlee Iron Company built the Hoffman kiln in 1937. It increased production making the brickworks the biggest industry on the Prestongrange site between 1947 and 1961. The brickworkers had a dangerous job. Smoke from the round down draft kilns contained toxic dust. Workers were constantly at risk of lung disease and heavy metal poisoning. When the Hoffman kiln opened there were new dangers – the hot bricks had to be removed by hand. The Hoffman kiln ‘burnt team’ protected their hands from hot bricks using grips cut from the soles of old leather boots. Kilns are giant ovens used for baking bricks and ceramics. Up to 20 round down draft kilns once stood at the heart of the Prestongrange site. The Hoffman kiln allowed the site to produce bricks by a continuous process, it replaced an earlier continuous kiln on the same site. The harbour made it easy to export goods. From the 1700s until 1975 Prestongrange produced bricks, tiles and salt glazed pipes which were sold across the world. This was made possible by both technical innovations and locally available raw materials. Coal from Prestongrange was used to fire the bricks, tiles and pipes in kilns made from local bricks. Salt produced locally was used to glaze pipes.
From the 1700s to the early 1900s Prestongrange and Prestonpans were at the centre of a booming pottery industry. All the raw materials required were available locally, including Prestongrange coal and good quality clay. The Prestongrange Estate leased land at Morrison’s Haven to several potteries from the late 1600s to the late 1800s. In the 1700s most pottery techniques were specialised. Skilled craftsmen came from outside Scotland to manage and train local workers. Anthony Hilcoat, originally from Newcastle, had previously worked at West Pans potteries. In the 1750s he established a workshop at Morrison’s Haven which like other local potteries flourished, exporting products across Europe. The potteries were based near the harbour and Edinburgh Road which made trading easy. Up until the early 1920s, most potters worked a 60-hour, 6-day week. Potters were independent, proud, thrifty, and well respected in the local community. In 1766, the ‘Prestonpans Potters Box’ Society was founded. Members contributed money each week and the Society supported them during retirement, sickness and bereavement. The Society survived until 1843. In 1772 George Gordon took over the pottery from Hilcoat. The family leased the premises until the 1830s. Like many local potteries Gordon’s was a family business. It was run by George, his three sons and his brother Robert. Skilled potters often worked at more than one pottery, taking their designs and techniques with them. Gordon’s pottery produced a wide variety of good quality domestic earthenware.
Between 2004 and 2008 the Prestongrange Community Archaeology Project investigated the remains of an underground air flue believed to date to the 17th century. The flue consisted of a narrow stone-built passage, with a vaulted roof still surviving over half its length. The floor of the structure was paved with stone flagstones and areas of brickwork. Unfortunately there was no trace of the associated furnace and very little survives of the fragile glass that was produced. Excavating the glassworks air flue. Note the air raid shelter at the rear. Sand, ash and cullet (broken glass) were melted together in a large clay pot in a coal fired furnace. It was heated to 1000 – 1200°C by fierce draughts channelled through large underground air flues. A Second World War air-raid shelter was later built on the site. The shelter used part of the vaulted air flue itself. Modern steps lead down into the flue and the glassworks ceiling has been reinforced with iron bars. Glassmaking began in Scotland in 1610 and shortly after that at Prestongrange. The first owner was James Ord who employed Italian glassmakers. Skilled Venetians made fine crystal and cheaper drinking glasses. Much of the fine glassware was sent to London. William Morrison of Prestongrange took over the glassworks in 1698 and contracted a family of skilled glassmakers from Newcastle. They made mostly bottles (for wine and ale), tumblers, medicine bottles (vials) and glass for mirrors and windows.