In contrast to most coastal communities, Johnshaven was as
much a manufacturing village as it was a fishing one. In 1793, for example,
more weavers were recorded in the village than fishermen, sailcloth was
produced from the end of the18th century and in the 19th century spinning and
weaving took place on a fairly large scale at the Boase factory at the west
None of those, however, involved the trappings of a modern factory such as power - driven machinery and the rigours and discipline of an organised workforce, long since common place throughout British industry. Those came to Johnshaven with the owner of the Mill on the New Road, Edwin Gilchrist Gibb.
He was taken to court by Lord Provost Mearns of Aberdeen in 1896 and ordered to pay £25.18s.10p for goods supplied to the SS Romulus at different dates between 1878 and 1893. It is at this time that Edwin Gilchrist Gibb’s connection with Johnshaven seriously begins. He had been the owner of Brae House since 1894 when the Montrose Review reported in October 1896 that Messrs Alfred Gibb and Brothers, Bervie, had feued a piece of ground at the east end of Johnshaven from Mr Scott of Brotherton to erect a flax mill.
The building operations were to be under the personal supervision of Mr Edwin G. Gibb, a partner in the firm. The report went on to express the view that since handloom weaving, once so important, had virtually disappeared, the new mill would be a great boon to the economy of Johnshaven.
When the mill opened in April 1898 the Stonehaven Journal was equally optimistic, describing the “imposing building” as a great acquisition and hoping that Mr Gibb who “is of enterprising spirit” would be successful with his new venture. Sadly, such optimism proved to be unfounded and Mr Gibb’s time as the owner of the mill proved to be not a particularly rewarding one. The enterprise did begin promisingly, however, with a work force approaching 100 and an extension was built in 1908 but then, as industrial unrest spread throughout Britain, it reached Johnshaven and in January 1913 the mill workers went on strike for higher wages. They refused to accept a limited offer from Mr Gibb in February, stones were thrown at him outside the Village Hall and he had to be escorted home.
At the same time he was involved in an unsavoury incident at the harbour when, in a legal wrangle over who would be responsible for any damage done to the surface of the slip, the lifeboat was laid across the slip to prevent his boat, the “Glad Tidings,” being hauled up to have a new engine installed. A threat to close the mill and move the family’s business to a new and more modern factory being built in Stonehaven did little to enhance Mr Gibb’s popularity and the flames of discontent were fuelled even higher when, with the wages’ dispute still not settled, he left for New York.
Roadside services plans for Hillside Leaving “the scene of the action” to cross the Atlantic at such a crucial time might suggest that Mr Gibb’s attention was not wholly focussed on his Johnshaven business. He and his brother, Alfred, were the tenants of the salmon bothy and the ground for drying nets at the west end of the village in 1906 and at one time there was a salmon processing “shed” attached to the east gable of the Mill where, although the strike officially ended in March 1913, discontent rumbled on with stoppages and lock outs until the end of the Great War.
All this while, Edwin Gibb was living with his wife, Jane, five sons and two daughters at Brae House, having also bought Rangoon Cottage in 1914, and in his earlier and later calmer years in the village played an active role in the community as a captain in the local Artillery Volunteers in 1907 and after the First World War he was chairman of the War Memorial Committee.
Brae House was sold to Alexander McGregor, a farmer, in 1921 and Mr Gibb built The Bungalow (only recently demolished) in the grounds of the Mill on the Backie in 1922, By that time he had moved to the Barns of Craig, a farm which he owned near Montrose, and where he died on January 1, 1923, aged 69. In his will he left the Stonehaven mill to his son, Edwin, The Bungalow to his son James, Rangoon Cottage to his daughter, Norah Mitchell, and the Johnshaven mill equally to three of his sons - James, Patrick and David.
Patrick continued to operate the Mill in association with the textile firm of McDonald and Sons, Dundee, until it was bought by another Dundee firm, St Roques Bleachfield Company Ltd in 1927 and the Gibb family connection with Johnshaven ended.
Edwin Gilchrist Gibb’s stay in Johnshaven was relatively short, fewer than 30 years, but it was dramatic, nevertheless. Although his interests appear always to have been divided between textiles and fishing it was the former which made the real impact. By introducing steam-powered machinery to replace a traditional hand operated production process and creating jobs during an economic downturn he transformed Johnshaven into an industrial village.
That it did not last may have been down to bad luck as much as bad judgement. The Johnshaven mill was the last of the spinning mills to be built along the coast at a time when the textile industry in Britain was already coming under pressure from foreign producers and so it was fighting the odds from the start. Edwin Gilchrist Gibb’s mill remains empty now, but is still an imposing reminder of Johnshaven’s brief encounter with the industrial revolution.
Acknowledgement: Bervie Parish Church Heritage Society: The Flax Spinning Industry of Inverbervie District, 1787 -1992