Accidental Discoveries

Byres Road in Kilwinning probably got its name from bere, a form of rough barley grown in the past. In the 19th century the small community of the Byres at the western end of Kilwinning town centre became a weaving village with long low cottages along its length.

Byres Road 1855

In the Imperial Gazetteer of Scotland of 1854, the Rev. John Marius Wilson noted this about
Kilwinning: “The male inhabitants are employed chiefly in weaving and mining and the females in sewing. In the various departments of silk, wool and cotton, the town had, in 1828, 370 looms, and in 1838, 350. In the latter year, 60 of the looms were harness and 290 plain. The number of looms is now smaller and they are employed principally in the weaving of silk.

It was one of these surviving weavers’ cottages that in July 2015 was struck by a bus and extensively damaged. Luckily no-one was injured but there was an unexpected outcome.

The property, now making up 44-48 Byres Road, is a funeral director’s business and they contacted the Kilwinning Heritage history group about some fascinating discoveries made by the contractors who had been called in to repair the old building. The cottage walls are built of rough boulders and the roof at one time may have been of turf or thatch.

A Cooking Range Re-discovered

When the internal walls were stripped back, a staircase was revealed, leading to attic rooms that had been long forgotten. A kitchen range and some domestic items that had once been well used by generations of families, were found, and an iron fender with a brass insert inscribed “No Place Like Home”.

Census records reveal an influx of Irish immigrants and changes in employment in the late 19th century. Each cottage consisted of one or perhaps two rooms, and housed large families living in overcrowded conditions. In the 1851 census, the cottages in “Byres Street” housed three families: a railway labourer and his wife, a sewer of muslin; a shoemaker and his 2 sisters, white seam sewers, and an Irish shoemaker, his wife and baby son as well as a 13 year-old servant.

But the 1891 census reveals a huge change in employment and in population growth. Unbelievably, the record shows a total of 5 families consisting of 26 people living in 44-48 Byres Road. In number 44, two families lived: a widow and her 6 children from Ireland, and a railway labourer and his wife from Ireland and their 4 children born in Kilwinning. At number 46 lived two families: a widowed ex-miner from Fife and his 4 children as well as a retired stone mason, his wife, grown-up son and daughter and 2 grandsons. At number 48 lived a 50 year old woman agricultural worker and her daughter from Ireland.

Various objects from the early 20th century were discovered which had been hidden or lost inside walls and under floorboards. Some papers including a pay slip dated August 1916 showed the take-home pay of an ironworker as £2 17s 6d including a war bonus. There were some bottles, one labelled “Bass Pale Ale” by Robert Smith, 108 Main Street, and a moulded clear glass bottle embossed with “DR ADOLF HOMMEL’S HAEMATOGEN”. This was a concoction made from ox blood and alcohol, begun in Switzerland in 1903 (?) and allegedly beneficial for anaemia.

Some ‘Medicinal’ Bottles

A fascinating find was a school jotter filled with beautifully written recipes, all marked in blue pencil by a teacher and dated August – October 1912. On the cover was the name Maggie McDonald, Fergushill, Kilwinning, which seemed to match the inside handwriting, but the name had been scored out and replaced with the name Elizabeth Whiteside. Census records show that Maggie was born in Kilwinning in 1899, but lived with an aunt and uncle in Fergushill. Hugh Whiteside, a railway worker originally from Ireland, and his wife Margaret and their family were recorded in the 1891 census as living at No.44. Elizabeth was their eighth child, born in 1900.

Recipe for Irish Stew and Stewed Apples

Some domestic items included tubs of Keatings Powder for eliminating household pests and a tube which had contained Carbide of Calcium, commonly used in coal miners’ lamps. Interestingly, this metal container demonstrates the shortage of raw materials during World War 1, as the interior reveals that the metal had been re-used from a previous container of garden chemicals.

A poignant find was a child’s leather boot, well worn and with metal studs on the sole. This appeared to have been deliberately hidden under floorboards at the door, suggesting perhaps a good luck charm.

It certainly was bad luck for the building’s owners when it was struck by a bus, but the discoveries made by the builders proved to be a fascinating insight into the lives of people who lived there more than 100 years earlier. The items that were discovered told a story of hardship and physical labour but also of family life during a period of world conflict.

These artefacts are now on display in the Abbey Tower Heritage Centre. The cottage itself has been sympathetically restored and is still in use as a funeral parlour and offices.

This blog post was kindly provided by Christine Watson from Kilwinning Heritage. Check out their website to plan your visit to the Heritage Centre at Kilwinning Abbey Tower. Or why not give them a follow on their Facebook page?