Shipbuilding - Weatherhead & Sons, Cockenzie


Small scale shipbuilding, mainly of fishing boats, had long been carried out along the east coast of Scotland and in East Lothian as elsewhere. The small firm of William Weatherhead and Sons of Cockenzie had been established in 1880 and it had been designing and building yachts and fishing boats ever since. When the war began the Admiralty signed a contract with Sandy Weatherhead and his son Willie John to build Motor Launches at Cockenzie. This had two immediate effects: first the small workforce of a dozen had to be doubled by employing local joiners; second another shed had to be built alongside the original and the depth of the original lowered by hand to accommodate the much larger proportions of the Motor Launches.

An ML of the type built at Weatherhead & Sons

By the war’s conclusion the workforce had risen to over ninety including twelve women employed to paint the hulls and clean out the bilges. The hours were, initially at any rate, very long, as Britain struggled to rearm and after Dunkirk. Throughout the week workers and staff worked from 7.30am to 8.00pm and up to 5.00pm on Saturdays. Sundays were badly needed recovery time. Initially local joiners found the nautical terminology a bit challenging but all became familiar terms in time.


The MLs were made mainly of prefabricated parts sent up from Cobham in Surrey from the Fairmile Marine Company. Much of the marine plywood and other wooden parts had originally come from America via Lend Lease. Since the dimensions of the ML were considerably larger or longer than those of Weatherhead’s pre-war fishing craft and yachts, considerable effort had to go into deepening the ground under the existing shed and the construction of another shed beside the original. Both jobs were undertaken by the workforce.

Two views of a Weatherhead built Motor Launch on the slipway at Cockenzie preparatory to its launching

The first ML constructed at Weatherhead’s was ML168. It and all the others built there were fully commissioned in the small harbour, they took on crews which had come to Cockenzie often from much larger ships and finally they set off from Cockenzie on their operational career. According to evidence in James Hickie’s book, “All the world’s a stage”, the workforce got to hear about the exploits of a number of their craft when officers who’d met with action returned to talk to the workers and tell them as much as they could about their work. From men such as these Hickie and the men learnt that one of their MLs had been the first Allied ship into Antwerp and that another, ML 214, had been lost with all hands. 

A Cockenzie launched Motor Launch

A naval officer and Mr Weatherhead (on the right) watch the launch of an ML. Is this its future captain?

Weatherhead built and launched no less than eighteen Motor Launches during the war years. The firm, however, did not build MLs alone. Weatherhead also built Cabin Cruisers for the war Office, boats which were used to take soldiers to Britain’s off shore islands. Apparently these were named after characters in Dicken’s books, for example, Mr Bumble. As the tide of war flowed in the Allies’ favour it also turned to the construction of Landing Craft for the navy. Since these were partly constructed out of sheet steel new skills had to be learnt. Finally, Weatherhead built Motor Fishing Vessels, eight in number, used for whatever purpose was required.

Cockenzie in the late 1990s with Ian McMillan, a former manager at Weatherhead & Sons, on the left. The original slipway can just be seen behind.

An ML, quite possibly one built at Cockenzie, on sea trials in the Forth.

Aircraft Repairs - Cunliffe-Owen Ltd., Macmerry


Throughout the war years many tens of thousands of aircraft had to be built, reassembled after transportation, modified, updated or simply repaired. Many of these aircraft were recovered either by the RAF’s own Maintenance Command via a Salvage Party or by civilian workers under the direction of the Civilian Repair Organisation. Barry Abraham, who has written on the latter, believes some fifty such organisations existed throughout the UK and that some 80,000 aircraft were recovered and repaired thanks to their efforts.


The firm of Cunliffe-Owen Ltd.,was set up near Southampton airport prior to the war to build the OA-1, a version of the Burnelli Flying Wing. In 1939 it moved to a purpose-built factory adjacent to the southern boundary of Southampton/Eastleigh Airport and throughout the war it was responsible for the assembly, modification and repair of a variety of aircraft types including Hurricanes, Hudsons, Airacobras, Kittyhawks, Lancasters and Halifaxes. This was a large-scale operation and it was claimed some 6,000 aircraft were processed there throughout the war.


The danger of placing all the proverbial eggs in one basket soon became apparent when the  Eastleigh factory was attacked during an air raid and in line with other firms, Cunliffe-Owen set about establishing satellite repair facilities, for example, at Silloth near Carlisle, Thornaby, Edzell and at Wick. In pursuit of this process of dispersal, Cunliffe-Owen opened facilities built just beyond the eastern end of Macmerry aerodrome, as can be seen from the aerial photograph below.

Grumman Hellcats (on the left) and a Lockheed Hudson, two of the types repaired by

Cunliffe-Owen Ltd beside Macmerry airfield

The work at Cunliffe-Owen’s concentrated upon aircraft repair, initially of the Coastal Command aircraft, the Lockheed Hudson, later on other types as can be seen from the photograph showing workers beside a Grumman Hellcat below. The work was ideally suited to the employment of women and women were employed in considerable numbers at the facility. The workers lived in digs and suchlike all over the county and reached the facility thanks to special buses provided.

Cunliffe-Owen’s aircraft repair facility, just east of Macmerry airfield

Back row: left to right-Marion Hart; Mary Gray (Macmerry);  Mrs Gorman (Haddington); Ina Rae.

Front: left to right-Helen Smith; Jean Douglas; Mrs Tasker; Helen Darling; Margaret Hume and Bridget Torley (Tranent).

Cunliffe-Owen workers pose beside or on a Grumman Hellcat at Macmerry and beside an unidentified aircraft below

Back row:

Helen Smith (Longniddry), Marion Hart (Gullane)

Front:

Margaret Hume (Longniddry), unknown, Ina Rae (Tranent)

A mixed group of Cunliffe-Owen workers who were living at Gladsmuir Hall. The middle row contains Esme Thompson from Musselburgh and Jean Watt from Tranent.

Several of the ladies shown in the wartime photos above returned to Macmerry to be interviewed on site on a misty morning in March 1997.

Bruntons (Musselburgh) Ltd - Wireworks


Founded in 1876 Bruntons wireworks was a long established firm in Musselburgh by the time war broke out in September, 1939. The firm specialised in the production of high quality wire or steel cables of all dimensions and was a significant employer in the town. By 1939 it already had a long history of producing wire cables for all sorts of purposes though mainly for use in aircraft. Bruntons wires were used from the earliest days of powered flight almost to the present day. It was Bruntons wires which held Alcock and Brown’s Vimy bomber together when it and they flew the Atlantic in 1919 and landed ignominiously nose first in an Irish bog and if you are ever able to visit London’s Science Museum you can still see this particular aircraft.  The R100 airship had sixty-three miles of Bruntons wires and seventeen miles of its ropes within its gargantuan structure and Bruntons had supplied the huge steel hawsers for the Queen Mary in 1935. If you happened to be a Tiger Moth owner (as the RAF certainly was) it was to Bruntons that you turned for your bracing wires and aileron control wires. The range of products was very wide.

Bruntons (Musselburgh) Ltd. Wire Mills, after the war

The war years


Bruntons wire products were in very high demand during the war years and, fortunately, the firm’s management had been sufficiently far-sighted to have prepared the way for increased and increasingly diverse production prior to 1939. The new machines and production facilities , e.g. a new ropery, new Standing and Closing machines, a new Cold Rolled Strip Department and even new offices had all been put in place before the war.


The demands for increased production resulted in the employment of more women and an increased number of unskilled men. This did lead to some pay disputes and Union involvement but such disputes were settled as quickly as possible. The basic matters of the provision of blackout curtains and the construction of air raid shelters were first on the list as was the fitting of a steam siren onto the firm’s boilers. On the first occasion that this should have been activated a rather deaf employee ensured it wasn’t!


Efforts to establish a Shadow factory elsewhere in Scotland to produce Aero engine Valve Spring wire came to naught and the Spring wires were produced at Musselburgh instead. The list of products was long. Bruntons manufactured aircraft wires, bomb slings, aero cable fittings, whip aerials, ropes for all purposes including the steel cables for barrage balloons and anti-submarine nets and the fine wires for the PIAT anti-tank gun.


The workforce provided the men needed to form a Home Guard unit and the workers in the canteen could listen to the likes of Noel Coward and a variety of ENSA performers.                                                                                            [I’m grateful to Alastair Adam whose book ‘Bruntons 1876-1962’ formed the basis of this section on Bruntons]

Musselburgh Home Guard on parade including many Bruntons men. The officer in front may be Captain Corbett.

A group of men of the 7th Battalion (Musselburgh) Home Guard (c1941) in the garden of a house in New Street, the upper window of which was used as an observation post giving a view of the Forth. Lanyon (Lanny) Nicholson is second from the left. He worked in the Mall Park section of Bruntons. Can you identify the others?

It wasn’t all work and no play at Cunliffe-Owen’s. This cartoon was drawn by a member of the firm’s drawing office, a Rob Illiard or Hilliard.

Eye Witness - Donald Manson


Donald lived all his days in Musselburgh and started work at Bruntons in 1934. He worked there for fifty-one years and started in their Sea Mill factory. This was transferred to Mall Park (near the present Tesco supermarket) although locals often still referred to it as the Sea Mill. Donald was in the Territorial Army at Prestonpans where the TA had its Drill Hall. The latter is now the Prestonpans Labour Club. Donald joined the Royal Artillery and served in France. He retreated from Rennes, avoided Dunkirk and got home from St. Malo via a fishing boat carrying a load of flowers! Because he was a tool-maker to trade and this was a reserved occupation he went back to work at Bruntons. Donald joined Bruntons Home Guard unit and, because he had been in the army, he was made a Sergeant. He remembers one incident when  all the platoon was put onto a boat at Morrison’s Haven and then proceeded to ‘attack’ Musselburgh. Donald described how Bruntons had six mills, each manufacturing its own specialist product: wire; rope, nets, etc., from steel bought  in from outside steel mills. The firm made wire as thin as 1/1,000 of an inch and much of the firm’s wires went into aircraft.


Bruntons worked twenty-four hours a day and had its own canteen for dances and shows. Some of the shows were brought down from places like the Theatre Royal in Edinburgh (long since burnt down). The canteen was run by Mrs Salvesen of the famous shipping company. Donald remembers two incidents from the was: the first occurred when Handley Page bombers got lost and landed on the beach near Musselburgh, worked out where they were and then took off again. He also remembered when, on January 1st, 1941, a train, travelling up from the south, was misdirected by points which hadn’t been changed and ploughed on into the buffers at Musselburgh killing a Miss or Mrs Krause, a Belgian refugee from World War One.

Workers at Cunliffe Owen in front of a Fairey Swordfish. William Smith of Elphinstone is third from the right back row.   [R.K Smith]