Engineering - Melville Brodie - Fife
In the Parish of Kirkcaldy, a spirit of enterprise prevails… The progress and prosperity of flax-spinning called for engineers and machine-makers … a large and important branch of this trade has recently sprung up. There are in this parish three works, engaged chiefly in making steam engines, and flax-spinning machines, in executing mill-wright work and in founding iron and brass. In these three works 200 men, at an average wage of 15s. per week, are employed … extensive orders have been executed in them for Ireland, the continent of Europe, and the British colonies.
Reverend John Alexander, the Parish of Kirkcaldy Statistical Account of Scotland, 1834-45
Photo: Journeymen and apprentices, Fife, 1880s
Collection of Mrs June Shanks (née Brodie), Falkland, whose father was a boy apprentice.
Robert Burt Brodie was born in Dysart in 1869. At the age of twelve he began an apprenticeship in Kirkcaldy with Melville & Henderson, Engineers and Iron-Founders. In Robert’s day, twelve was the school-leaving age, until it was raised to 14 in 1918. He excelled in drawing and design and, as an engineer, invented improved machinery, such as linoleum-rollers and advanced, efficient ram pumps. He worked for Kirkcaldy linoleum manufacturers, Barry, Ostlere and Shepherd, then, in 1910, he was appointed co-director of Melville-Brodie Engineering Company. In 1921 he became sole owner of the firm, which, until 1961, made machinery for mills and factories, and trained apprentices to the very highest standard.
From the Drawing Board to the Finished Product
Photo: Robert Burt Brodie in the drawing office, c. 1910
Photo: Melville-Brodie engineers, makers and fitters of the machinery for Tayside Lino Factory, Newburgh, Fife, 1912 [J. Shanks]
Machines of Every Kind
John Greig, Kirkcaldy, 2014: “We made every kind o machine, for jute mills, silk mills, woollen mills, paper mills... every kind o engine… big machines, wee machines. Melville- Brodie engineers could turn a hand to anything – an engine block or a camera casing, cement mixers, dough mixers for catering on big ships, parts for the Forth Bridge – it didnae matter.”
Photo: Cement mixer, 1930s
Photo: An industrial pump, designed and made to order, 1930s [J. Shanks]
Machines were custom made and fitted in every plant
Photo: Mixers for raw materials in Linoleum or paper-making, 1930s
Photo: Linoleum Processing machine, 1930s [J. Shanks]
Transport for the Staff and Workers
Robert Burt Brodie, standing by his 1929 Buick, an American car, made in Detroit
Brodie bought it because it represented the best of Scottish engineering as the inventor, David Buick, was born Arbroath in 1854. At a young age, he emigrated to America with his parents and as he had a great interest in steam-powered cars he became an engineer. David Buick developed the design of the carburettor, patented his improvement, and founded the Buick Motor Company, which became world famous. Due to an unfortunate business deal, however, Buick himself died in relative poverty in 1929. Brodie bought it because it represented the best of Scottish engineering as the inventor, David Buick, was born Arbroath in 1854. At a young age, he emigrated to America with his parents and as he had a great interest in steam-powered cars he became an engineer. David Buick developed the design of the carburettor, patented his improvement, and founded the Buick Motor Company, which became world famous. Due to an unfortunate business deal, however, Buick himself died in relative poverty in 1929.
Photo: Cycling to work, Kirkcaldy, c. 1930
Photo: Melville-Brodie engineers on Gala Day (1930s) Mr Brodie even lent his car!
Dougie Reid, retired engineer, 2015:
“About the time he took over Melville-Brodie’s, Robert Burt Brodie was elected to the Kirkcaldy Community Council so he was very keen on supporting the local community. There was no such thing as National Health Service so hospital an hospices had to be kept up by local donations of money. So, Melville-Brodie’s played no small part in raisin money, an on Gala Days it was a chance for the entire workforce to get involved. You should have seen some of the lengths they went to, aw these engineers an apprentices”
John Greig, retired engineer, 2015:
“There was a big pageant that went through the town… it was great fun. The Fire Brigade would be takin part, with a fire-truck, an the fireman used to have the long poles, an on the end o the pole was like an enormous kirk-collection bag. An you didnae escape, even if you were up in a high window, say, lookin doon watchin it, a fireman could always reach you!”
In Our Day…
Retired engineer Bob Thompson, age 95:
“I started my apprenticeship in 1935… I worked as an engineer for 18 years, then I was teaching apprentices for Fifeshire Engineering Training Scheme…I must have trained a good thousand anyway …”
Willie Black, age 90:
I began my apprenticeship at Melville- Brodie’s during the war – they wouldnae take us fae a reserved occupation, so we were doing the tank turrets, machining the facing, doing a groove for the ball bearings so the turret swivels round. And we were making parts for aircraft carrier, drums, and arresting gear. We worked tae a thousandth o an inch and Bob Thomson was one o the journeyman – so we go back a long time…
Apprentice Engineers in the Fifties and Sixties
Photo: The Melville-Brodie boys, 1958. :Back row: Sandy Pennycuick, Sandy Picket, Dougie Reid. Front row: Eddie Murdoch (Sammy), Ronnie Fleming, Bill Simpson, John (Jock) MacMillan.
Dougie: “When we began, Willie Black was our journeyman – a great teacher. Talk about skill! If you’d seen Willie Black at the lathe, it was absolutely marvellous! An he was also good at putting his trade across … I learned an immense amount from him an men like him. It was a great experience … An that was Melville-Brodie’s training. You could go anywhere in the world with that kind of training. An we did.”
Photo: Left to right: Bill Simpson, Arch McGilvray, Dougie Reid, John Whiltehill, Don Barclay, Dave Nicol, Will Brown, Ernie Sharp, Derek White, Charles Brewster, 1960.
Every summer there was the annual ‘Works Outing’ when the firm hired buses to take the entire workforce and their families, usually to the west coast. One year it was Oban, and another it was Port Glasgow or Helensburgh with a trip ‘doon the watter’ on the paddle steamer, ‘PS Waverley’.
There was a moulder, an iron moulder…
Retired moulder and foundry worker, Ronnie Fleming, Cardenden, 2014:
“Moulders tools weren’t of use to anybody else, an they were often home-made, or maist o them. The main tool was the trouen – an the best o quality has a wee monk stamped on them. There was cleaners, long-bladed tools, maybe 9 inches long, an turned up at right angles an flattened – that would scoop bits o the sand out, for the moulds were aw sand. Then you had clubs – wi a cleaner blade an the foot mair substantial …Then you had to have sleekers, an swans necks an deuk’s nebs an fillets. They were made o brass, aw different sizes dependin on the curvature o the mould. An then flange sleekers to roond the edge, an you had a joint-sleeker. An then we had a tricky, that’s like a double-sided sleeker, an there was the wee tricky. That’s some o the tools o the trade…”
“I still use these tools in ma wee foondry – makin parts for a First World War aeroplane, or for my 1936 Rudge motorbike … You cannae get parts nowadays…”
Unveilling the Plaque Melville Brodie 14May 2014: Dougie Reid, Ronnie Fleming and John Greig