Sights, Sounds and Smells of Leith 1940s/50s

A Reflection on the industrial smells that saturated the air all around and the sounds that echoed throughout the streets of the city in days gone by in comparison to those you hear and smell today, is remarkable.

     Leith historically, was always a heavily industrialized area and you would wake up to the subtle early morning chinking sounds of the milk boys glass bottles knocking against one another whilst delivering your daily pinta, or the clip clop of the Clydesdale horse hauling the coal mans coal delivery. Then the first real major sound of the day was that of the city waking up to a cacophony of noises created by the assortment of sirens, whistles and horns emitting from factories all over Leith announcing the starting time of the day for employees, which was repeated twice (start and Finish) of lunch time and the final one announcing the end of the working day. At one time these unfriendly work summonsing instruments, played a welcoming sound and that was at midnight on New Years Eve, announcing the New Year, every one of them sounded off at the same time, including those of the ships in the docks and church bells.

     Ballantyne Road Leith where I lived as a boy was surrounded by industry. At the bottom of the street you had noise pollution from the high pitched sound of the sawmills saw cutting through timber, the banging of tools emitting from the cooperage and Browns the yacht repair ship yard, pungent smells of vinegar and other things from Sinclair’s chemical works, the assortment of odours coming from Harkness and Beaumont the manufacturing chemists. You could even detect the fragrant smell of chocolate from Duncan’s confectionary all the way from Beaverhall Road and the intoxicating strong tinge of alcohol wafting from the whisky bond of VAT 69 in West Bowling Green St. The Bond Casting works in Bonnington Road made their contribution to the constant clanging and banging all around you. There was no escape, however it was part of life then and you didn’t seem to notice it much.


  Bangor Rd had its contribution to street sounds. Mary the Newhaven Fishwife could been seen here most days having trundled her wee cart of fish in all weathers, all the way from Newhaven, then shouting about her wares at the top of her voice and her counterpart going around the streets shouting buckies and mussels for sale.

     The news vendor selling his news papers at Leith Central railway station doorway, foot of Leith Walk.. Shouting “Disptcha News, git yir Dispatcha News here” meaning Despatch and Evening News. Then there was the shouting of excited children who’d spotted a bride going into a church with the kids shouting “poor oot, poor oot”, an encouragement for the groom and best man to traditionally throw pennies amongst them.

     Unlike to day’s housebound and computer addicted kids, the streets then were always crowded and vibrant with sounds of children at play, participating in football, cricket, peevers, skipping ropes, marbles, peeries, hide and seek, or emulating and re enacting the actions of some hero from a movie they’d just seen.

    At 10.00 amon Sundays you heard the peel of church bells coming from all directions summonsing the faithful to prayer or the Salvation Armys silver band from  their headquarters at Bangor Rd, marching to play outside Woolies at the foot of Leith walk or on occasion in the square at Ballantyne Rd.

   There was Sunday morning entertainment in back greens, from the street entertainer some singing quite beautifully for a few coppers to be thrown to them, I wonder what Simon Cowell’s comments would have been. You also heard the blast from the rag and bone mans trumpet announcing his arrival and exchanging a wee coloured balloon or a Goldfish for your mum’s old woolens.

   North Junction St and other major roads was busy with heavy lorries and horse drawn traffic catering for Todds flour mill that was once in that area, but burned down in a great fire. An assortment of heavy Vehicles toing and frowing from the docks. Not to forget the clunking and clanging of the ever frequent tramcars on this busy thoroughfare. Almost forgot, the horse drawn cleansing lorries.

   Behind the State cinema was Millers the industrial Joinery business with its contribution to noise. A walk down Mill Lane towards Sheriff Brae passing on the way Leith Hospital and its pungent antiseptic smells (A fact our present NHS should note) As you arrived at the Shore and Commercial Street, you became aware of the familiar smells from the abundance of whisky bonds in this area and not far from here in Elbe St the mouth watering smells of fresh baking from Crawford’s biscuit factory, the pleasant smell of tar from cobbled streets being repaired added to that, with the breath arresting acrid smell from burning of coke from the workmen’s brazier at the road side.

    Entering the docks you were witness to a real hub of industry and met by the full orchestra of sound, the complete symphony of Leith. Hundreds of Dockers shouting instructions as they loaded and unloaded ships, rows of creaking old cranes reminiscent of their similar phonetically sounding namesake in ornithology, with big beaks, feeding off the ships moored along side. The amalgam of sounds from welders, the hammering of steel against steel by riveters binding metal plates together, all coming from Henry Robb’s and Menzie’s ship yards. To the far eastern side of the docks, was the sulphur processing plant with its acrid breath arresting smell and the huge yellow plume emitting from the factory chimney. The odour of red lead paint being applied to the hull of ships hung in the air. The tooting noise coming from little tugs boats as they nuzzled against big ships like little cygnets prodding their mother. 

    Back up from the Shore and into Tollbooth Wynd and linking up with the old Kirkgate, this was the shopping hub of Leith up to the 1950s. Here you had an abundance of pubs and every conceivable shop you could wish for, assorted butchers some specializing in offal, pork, poultry and regular, stores selling, furniture, made to measure suits, groceries, china, pots and pans, fish, drysalters, bakers, a chip shop, theatre (the Gaiety) you name it you could buy it here, no need to go up town.

  Tolbooth Wynd even had its own department store, Jeffrey’s, selling everything including electrical goods, wirelesses, vacuums etc. The noise here especially on a Saturday was deafening. At Laurie St, (behind old Leith Woolworth) a large van used to park here and a loud barker standing on its tailgate would shout out his wares of china and plaster of Paris Wall plaques. Even the one off wee blacksmiths round the corner from Trinity house made his contribution to the noise.

  The pleasant smell of coffee beans and other fresh produce that emitted from the independent grocery stores, before the days of supermarkets and pre-packed goods. Gone also are the long queues of babbling people waiting in line to see the current movie at the vast assortment of cinemas available then, and each one being entertained by street singers, begging for a few coppers as opposed the unfortunate individuals of today that sell the Big Issue.


Great Junction street was the same but bigger, once again you got the waft of alcohol from Crabbie,s distillers, plus this was another hub of shopping in the form of Leith Co-operative Society, its HQ with assorted shops in Bangor Rd and the very large department store building with its imposing clock tower sited on the corner of Taylor Gardens. Add to this, the sound of steam engines coming into the small train station at Junction Bridge. All contributing to the buzz and sounds of Leith.

    Easter Road was another centre of activity with its concentration of shops, where in halcyon days you frequently heard the roar from football fans at the Hibernian stadium. On reaching the top of this road you knew for certain you were near Abbeyhill, the smell from a good number of independent breweries here was always hanging in the air, to me it always smelt like a strong Oxo drink or Marmite.

    Even the Water of Leith before its mouth was blocked off at the docks and  was tidal right up to Bowling Green St had its own distinct ozone smell when the tide was out. Even the strong smell of hops from the beer as you passed a public house was enough to knock you off your feet, but that was when people drank REAL ALE and made from real hops and yeast, not the forced, tampered product we drink to day.

    The overwhelming smells of fish, the smoking of herring from Kelly’s fish processing plant and the sea that announced you had just entered Newhaven, which at one time had a very busy fish market with many inshore fishing boats tied up at its harbour, a wonderful place for kids to catch crab and sprats. Newhaven was a very special place, quite insular in its own way, so much so that as a kid from Leith, when entering the village at the end of old Lindsay Rd, you almost felt obliged to tiptoe the rest of the journey until you got to the harbour in case local might stop you and ask, “What are you doing here”?

   The docks and industrial streets of Leith now lie silent, replaced by the Scottish Office building, luxury flats, wine bars and a large shopping mall. The rows of big dock crains now stand along side the quay sides like petrified dinosaurs. Leith’s industrial orchestra has been silenced and played its last symphony.

    Leith was ALIVE then.  Sadly the only smells and sounds of today are from the noisy and intrusive public use of mobile phones, an over abundance of cars and other vehicles belching out petrol fumes and the roar of their engines, plus noise from the never ending road works on all sides of the city, in preparation for a new tram system that may never get off the ground and certainly will not supply the service it did some 50 odd years ago.

With all the changes that have taken place in that time, some good, many not so, Leith’s motto seems very apt “PERSEVERE” this can still be seen on some old cast iron street lamp posts to this day

                                                                                                                                                        Frank Ferri, Sept. 2012