James Philp, ship-carpenter in Leith

Mary Bell Philip, my g-g-grandmother, married William Blain in Greenock in 1860. She was born in Leith, her parents being John Philip and Catharine Renton who had married there in  1832. There is information about Mary and her parents and grandparents on my earlier webpages, at http://www.wyrdswell.co.uk/ancestors/Additional/Philip.html#James%20Philp

This page and others linked from it picks up the mystery discussed in that earlier page. Who was James Philp?

Some of my earlier thinking is outlined in the previous page llinked above. James Philp could have been born in or near Leith, but the only likely candidate has been ruled out by the joint sustained ‘detective work’ of my cousin Veronica and myself. This work resulted eventually in the Will of ‘this’ James’s only daughter Mary, in London, revealing that her father had become a surgical instrument maker there.

The most likely candidate became the James Philp born in Dairsie, Fife, in 1775. Since the earlier time of writing much has come to light, including the movement of other Fife Philps to Leith around the end of the 18th century, and a DNA link which seems to point back to the family of the mother of the James from Dairsie. However, there is no document which states definitively that James Philp, ship carpenter in Leith who died in 1836 aged 61, husband of Mary Bell and father of John Philip, ship carpenter in Leith and Greenock, was unquestionably the child of Janet Kermoch and Robert Philp born in Dairsie in 1775.

It seems unlikely the such proof can ever be found, alas. 

So here: what is known about James Philp, and on the next page, the story of Robert Philp and Janet Kermoch. (Philp and Philip, Phillip, Philips etc. are of course all the same name, with the basic Scottish pronunciation of ‘Fillup’, with or without an ’s’ added.)

James Philip, journeyman ship-carpenter in Leith

A key trade in the family of James Philip was carpentry. Two of his sons, James, the eldest (b. 1800) and John (b. 1813) followed James as ship-carpenters. But the trade of ship-building was changing in its organisation, from the small yards with apprentices working for a master, or joint ventures of several masters with their apprentices and journeymen, working to a commission, to the larger industrial yards, as ships grew in size. In is likely that James would have served an apprenticeship with one master - possibly even with Alexander Bell, master shipwright in Queensferry, several times Deacon of the shipwrights’ craft there, and father of Mary whom James married in 1799. Yet, he remained a journeyman, working for yards in the Port of Leith.

The turn of the 19th century was a time of industrial change with resulting unrest. Not only in shipbuilding but in other trades there was the continuing movement to an industrial rather than a craft mode of production and, through the later 18th century the concomitant growth of workers’ organisations, Friendly Societies, nascent Trade Unions. 1799 saw the first Anti-Combination Act, prohibiting the ‘combining’ of workers - journeymen - to require better wages and better conditions. The second Act, 1800, somewhat more even-handedly prevented employers from also ‘combining’ against their workers, though with much lesser penalties. Fear of the ‘combination’ of working people would be due in part to the fear of ‘Jacobinism’ resulting from the events of the French Revolution.

 That these acts technically did not apply in Scots Law - there was no clause stating that they did so - did not stop their being called upon by employers and even upheld by judges. Though not always!

Which brings us to 1802, when James Philip, with many others, enters history.

The journeyman ship carpenters of Leith were dealling with a situation where their wages, which had risen slightly, were now being reduced. They made a petition, the ship-yard owners made a counter-petition, the case went to first the ‘inferior’ court and then to the Court of Session. The legal documents, available from National Records of Scotland, amount to several hundred pages. They include:

  • CS271/63293 - William Elder and others, (Journeymen Shipwrights in Leight) v Menzies & Goalen and others, Shipbuilders, Leith, 1802 (124 pages)
  • CS271/56084 - Menzies & Goalen and others, (Master Shipbuilders of Leith) v William Elder, and others (Journeymen Shipwrights in Leith), 1803 191 pages
  • RH9/17/231 - Extract decreet of the Justice of Peace Court of the county of Edinburgh on petition by William Elder, Andrew Smith, James Philips and others, journeymen shipwrights in Leith, against Menzies and Goalen, Strachan and Gavin, and Alexander Hill, shipbuilders there, for increase in wages, 15 Mar 1803 125 pages

I saw several of these documents, and made notes. Here is a little part of one:

Notes and partial transcription of document CS271/63293 from NRS

The Petition of William Elder, Andrew Smith, James Phillips, and others Journeymen Ship wrights in Leith in the services of Messrs Menzies and Goalen, Strachan and Gavin, Alexander Hill and Adam Piper, all Shipbuilders, and Boatbuilders in Leith.

The first few pages show, after comments about nature of shipbuilding, its difficulty and dangers and that most shipwrights have families to support, something of the history of this dispute, including the recent history of wages and the first request for not having wages cut. This first request went to ‘the Inferior Court’ and this current petition is now to the Court of Session.

From p.7-8 of the document -  “The petitioners have mentioned to your lordships that by the nature of their work they are exposed to sickness and various accidents, their employment also is not favourable to long life, yet no fund had hitherto been contrived, which might afford relief to the sick or disabled workman, or the smallest aid to widows and orphans, even in the most deplorable circumstances of events. The petitioners when the hopes arose of better days had formed an infant society with some such views, but every prospect of this nature was fatally blasted by a late resolution of the master shipwrights in Leith, to reduce the wages to the old standard…"

The Petitioners cite a recent work on the Agriculture of Midlothian, by Mr George Robertson, farmer at Granton, seemingly produced for government agricultural board purposes. There follow many details about prices, and lots of history about the price of labour falling and rising historically. “…the price of meal has not hitherto regulated even the wages of hired servants, and day labourers engaged in the works of agriculture…

The Shipbuilders in Leith argued this point before the Justices in a manner that will not be thought very gracious or very convincing…”

The petitioners point out that their wages are lesser than those in London or some other shipbuilding areas, that the excuse given for lowering wages (that the price of meal had fallen somewhat) did not apply to all costs, and that "It is now admitted both in this country and in England, that a combination of Masters is equally illegal and equally punishable with a combination of journeymen…"

Even this set of papers goes on for many pages. And there are others. But the outcome seems to have been that - the Journeymen won!


Further information on James Philip/Philp and his parentage is in the next page - to be uploaded soon.

© Jenny Blain 2017, updated 2019    email me