Authors: Robert Jeffrey
The author would like to thank the following for their help with this book: The staff of the National Archives in Edinburgh and the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, Ronnie Brownie, Jessica Bird, Stuart Campbell, Willie “Sonny” Leitch, Dr Grant Jeffrey, Dr Stuart Jeffrey, Walter Norval, Mandy Rhodes,
magazine, Tom Fox, Ruth Wishart, James Crosbie, Albert Whyte, Mike Hebden, Derek McGill, Mary Stewart, Graeme Smith, Kirsty Gibbins and many prison officers who served in Peterhead, as well as sundry prisoners who did time “up north.”
To a miserable wretch of a prisoner in the new Peterhead Prison, just opened in 1888, there was one maritime connection that few would have realised. Remarkably, the reason why the lawbreakers – a few hundred in the early days – were incarcerated in this particular area in the North-East of Scotland, on the edge of the turbulent waters of the North Sea, surrounded by howling winds, slanting snow and sleet and mighty breakers, had much to do with the habits of the whale. The giant cetaceans were breeding and feeding in the icy waters around Greenland, and in the later part of the nineteenth century the hard-as-nails east coast fishermen from both north and south of the Scottish border took to the seas to chase and catch these gentle giants of the deep and take meat and oil from them south. Particularly to Peterhead and Hull, where men grew rich on the, at that time, seemingly endless supply of mammals to be harvested for that now largely forgotten but once valuable commodity – whale oil. The oil was valuable for the production of candle wax, soap and margarine, and whalebone too had its uses in spectacle frames and corsets, amongst other items.
Like “big oil,” which was to come to the North-East of Scotland around a hundred years later, whaling was a highly profitable enterprise. In the same way as today a spell “on the rigs” attracts adventurers, a voyage on a whaler was something of a rite of passage for young men making their way in the world. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was one of those who succumbed to the lure of the north when studying medicine in Edinburgh. In the late 1880s he joined the crew of a three-master called
as ship’s surgeon, and headed north. In his diaries on the voyage he noted his surprise at how close to the doorstep of Peterhead lay the dangers and wealth of the Greenland seas. A mere four days north of Shetland and you were amid the ice floes and in the home waters of the giant whales. Scottish whalers also took the rather longer voyage south to Antarctica in search of whale oil.
The trade of fishing and whaling was a dangerous one, not just in the northern oceans but in the North Sea itself. Many whalers lost their lives in such wild waters. And shipping disasters in the Aberdeenshire area were not confined to whale hunters – there were many other sea tragedies involving fishing vessels and ships trading around Britain and the continent, as well as smaller coasters running up and down to the east coast, who fell victim to the spectacular but dangerous rocks and hidden reefs in the area – especially in the violent storms and troublesome North Sea
that could cut visibility to a matter of yards and bedevilled navigators before the days of radar and global positioning satellites. The problem was big enough to involve both the government of the time and any lay person with an interest in safety at sea. Apart from the whalers, the cargo ships and the fishing fleets, the Admiralty also had a vested interest in the well-being of their warships going about the business of Britannia ruling the waves.
The danger to life is well illustrated by the fact that in 1890 Peterhead’s fishing fleet numbered almost 600 vessels. At first the main catch was herring but as the stocks of this popular and tasty fish declined, the switch was made to other white fish. In 1887 around 120,000 tons of fish were landed at Peterhead, by then the biggest fish market in Europe. It was a massive industry with, before and after the First World War, several fish trains leaving the area daily, taking supplies to the prosperous and densely populated areas in London and the south east of England, where citizens with money to spare and living far from the sea had developed a taste for fresh seafood.
On the safety at sea issue the main problem was that in an onshore gale there were few safe harbours for the large ships of the time – sail as well as steam – to run to for shelter. But gradually in high places in the government and in commerce, a solution came to mind: build what was known as a Harbour of Refuge. Not a commercial collection of piers and wharves, but an area where the violent force of the ocean winds and seas were tamed by huge encircling breakwaters, a place where civilian ships, fishing boats and whalers and even the Royal Navy’s warships could run to for shelter in the wildest of weather and lie in peace and safety till the storms abated. It was clear that at the time there was no such place on the east coast, so an ambitious, indeed daring, plan to build what was in effect a giant lagoon at Peterhead, popularly known as the “Blue Toon” – a nickname that sprang from the colour of the local fishermen’s thick woollen socks – took firm hold on the public imagination as well as that of seafarers.
The early research showed that to build such a place you needed a ready access to stone for the giant blocks required to hold back the waves. And, above all, in the days before mechanical devices were in ready supply, you needed massive amounts of manual labour both to quarry the stone and to build the sea walls – and that was costly even back then. However, of all the east coast alternatives, the boffins of the day decided that Peterhead was the best spot for the Harbour of Refuge. There was plenty of stone around, but the locals in the thriving whaling and fishing town surrounded by prosperous farming lands were making good livings and were unlikely to want to become harbour builders. But there was another way: convict labour. It had been used with great success for harbours in England. The main problem, however, was that there was no prison anywhere near the proposed Aberdeenshire site.
The answer was, as they say nowadays, a no-brainer. Simply build a new prison. This would also serve another purpose. At this time many Scottish convicts, particularly those who had committed really serious crimes, were sent south of the border to serve their time, such was the lack of prisons in Scotland. So a new Scottish prison was an attractive prospect to the authorities on several grounds. As far back as 1881 a Committee on the Employment of Convicts reported “that the most likely prospect for benefitting the shipping and fishery interest of the country at large, and at the same time profitably employing convicts, is the construction of a Harbour of Refuge at Peterhead in Aberdeenshire.”
However, the years before the opening of the prison were fraught with many problems, including finance, and it was to be a further seven years before the first Glasgow convicts were to arrive north to spend their days and nights in a massive granite fortress that was to become, in time, the most infamous jail in the land.
The Peterhead Harbour of Refuge Act had gone through the Commons in 1886 and put the Admiralty in charge of the huge construction job of creating the massive breakwaters needed for the desired safe haven for shipping. The site was on a promontory near Salthouse Head at the southern end of Peterhead Bay, some thirty-four miles north of Aberdeen.
The Prison Commissioners had their own problems building and opening the new prison that was to be the home for the convict labour that was to build the harbour. Some thousands of pounds to pay for the early part of the building project had been released by the government at the time of the passing of the Act, and on 11 March 1886 the release of the cash was publicly announced. But a mere two days later there was some embarrassment for the Commissioners, who had to write to the Under Secretary of State to say that the Paymaster General “has not sufficient money on the vote for Prisons, Scotland, to carry out the transfer and have been requested by him [the Paymaster General] to arrange for the payment through their account with the Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer.” The usual civil service bean counters shuffling papers and creating problems! Nothing new there then. But the money was found soon enough.
There was another significant development in the run up to the opening in August 1888. The government deemed that the new prison would be a “general” prison rather than an “ordinary” prison. This may seem like semantics, but it did have one effect that impinged on the treatment of prisoners. The Prison Commissioners were moved to point out that “section 14 of the Prisons Act provides for the appointment of visiting committees to Ordinary Prisons and that as a General Prison it will not be competent to appoint a visiting committee to Peterhead but that powers of visitation are vested in Sheriffs and Justices under section 16 of the Prison Act and that special visitors may be appointed as in the case of English convict prisons.” Any cruelty or wrongdoing in the way prisoners were held was therefore going to be much harder to control. The place that was to become Scotland’s toughest prison was, it seemed, starting the way it was to go on.
This reference to the English penal system is another example of the way prisons in Scotland were run in the nineteenth century – the authorities were obsessed with what happened south of the border and seemed desperate to integrate their thinking with that of the English. The edict on visiting might seem on the face of it a small point, but visiting committees have been an enormous force for good, right to the present day. In the mind of any governor, any prison officer and any prisoner with a grievance, the thought of douce, well-meaning citizens turning up regularly, to visit and to inspect prison practices and the well-being of the incarcerated, concentrates the mind in a positive way. It was also an early example of trying to integrate prisons and their local communities, a concept that is now growing in popularity.
Apart from the prison plans, the Harbour of Refuge Act dealt in some detail with the task faced by both engineers and the convicts in its construction, starting with: “A breakwater pier is to be constructed at or near the reclaimed land at Keith Inch Island.” It was thence to proceed in a south-westerly direction for a distance of thousands of feet. A retaining “wall or quay” was also to be built “starting from the north-west side of the previously mentioned breakwater starting eighty yards or so from the first breakwater.” This was to head for about “one hundred and seventeen yards to the north-west corner of the reclaimed land.” Another breakwater pier was to be built “about seventeen yards, or thereabouts, eastward of the property at Salthouse Head known as St Catherine’s.”
You can almost hear the scratch of pen on parchment in this description of the work involved in creating the Harbour of Refuge. But there was no underestimating the difficulty and complexity of this engineering project designed to save the lives of those who plied the seas in search of whale, white fish or to engage in trade. The hapless early inhabitants of Peterhead Prison itself had years of hard labour vividly sketched out for them by the Parliamentary scribes.