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Our history

Our family and business history

Our family business is currently in its 101st year of trading. To celebrate our 100th anniversary I decided to research our family history. During my research I uncovered that the occupation off all my ancestors, dating back to William Dickson, born 1761 were all fishermen, fish merchants or fish curers, meaning we can trace the family business back to over 250 years of working in the fishing industry. Also highlighted during this research is how much the whole community relied upon the fishing industry, it was their livelihood.

My late grandad, James Dickson Jnr (1933 – 2011) used to tell me stories of our great-great-grandad, who served in the Navy and how he started the family business after owning a trawler. I was also told he regularly preached and sang at the Cockenzie and Port Seton fishermen’s bethel. At that time local fishermen were extremely superstitious and religious due to the constant threat of danger as the men of the village ventured out to sea, in often inadequate boats.

Beginning the research proved difficult at first due to not knowing where to look, after trawling the internet I finally stumbled across The National Archives, Ancestry and FreeREG, which all turned out to be superb websites for all sort of records, including naval records dating back to 1918 and earlier. Most of these also turned out to be free and provided me with invaluable information to begin my search.

Upon finally finding my great-great-grandads Naval Records (see images below), I knew that expert help would be needed to decipher what was contained within the document to get further information. Luckily, after reaching out to friends I got a couple of offers from people who enjoyed carrying out genealogy and naval record research. Without their help I would not have been able to find out what I did about my family and the business history.

Read on further to find out about our family tree and history

The James Dickson & Son family history

  • William Dickson (circa 1680 – ?) and Euphan Cockburn
  • (son) William Dickson (1728 – ?) and Elizabeth Kelly (1700s)
  • (son) William Dickson (fisherman 1761 – 1828) and Janet Barclay (1763 – 1841)
  • (son) James Dickson (fisherman 1792 – 1851) and Isabella Seton (1773 – ?)
  • (son) William Dickson (fisherman 1816 – 1870) and Isabella Dickson (Barber) (1813 – 1902)
  • (son) John Dickson (fish merchant 1843 – 1931) and Elizabeth Dickson (1849 – 1912)
  • (son) James Dickson Snr (fish curer 1877 – 1952 and Agnes Donaldson (1878 – 1960)
  • – (son) John Dickson Snr (fish merchant 1904 – 1983) and Helen S Fairgrieve (1905 – 1985)
  • – (son) James Dickson Jnr (fish merchant and curer) (1933 – 2011) and Marion Dickson

James Dickson Snr (1877-1952)

James Dickson Snr
James Dickson Snr, fisherman and curer 1877-1952
Royal Naval Reserves, 1291 WSA, Chief Skipper and Commander Auxiliary Patrol

Our family business was started by my great-great-grandad, James King Dickson, or King Dick as he was referred to, who was born on 10th Nov 1877. He was awarded his Skippers ticket upon an examination passed at Leith on the 24th April 1911 and this was issued at the Port of Worrison’s Haven on the 27th June 1911.

He was called up or enlisted to serve in the Royal Naval Reserves on 29th March 1915 at Granton and a travel warrant was issued to allow him to get to his first place of deployment as a Temporary Chief Skipper at HMS Ganges, which was a shore base in Harwich, Essex, like Rosyth. It was a training establishment out of war time, but in war time, used as a live base. He was then promoted to Commander Auxiliary Patrol, HMS Ganges on 19th July 1917. He commanded several drifters / naval trawlers hired by The Admiralty, to be used as minesweepers during the war:

  • Between 5th April 1915 – 28th April 1915 he served on a heavy trawler, OLIVE LEAF, hired drifter, Adty No 2409. Built 1907, 82grt, Kirkcaldy-reg KY.220. Armament: 1-3pdr AA. In service 4.15-1919 as net vessel – used as minesweeper April 1915 to 1919, KY 220, it had an Ack gun.
  • WHITE OAK, hired drifter, Adty No 2101. Built 1913, 75grt, Fraserburgh-reg FR.558. Armament: 1-6pdr. In service 1.15-1919 as net vessel – like Olive Leaf, drifter from Fraserburgh, FR 558.
  • Between 29th April 1915 – 14th June 1915 he served on the VALIANT, hired yacht, Pendant No 038. Built 1893, 1855grt/2184TM. Armament: 4-12pdr. In service 18.11.14-6.2.19, renamed VALIANT II 2.15. May have served as wireless-equipped A/P Group Leader or in special yacht squadrons, at home or in Mediterranean. Sold as VALIANT II 1919.
  • PEKEN, hired trawler, Adty No 24. Built 1908, 228grt, Grimsby-reg GY.354. Armament: 1-6pdr AA. In service 8.14-1919 as minesweeper. Served in WW2.

On 1st July 1917 he moved location from HMS Ganges to HMS Pekin Naval base in Grimsby. This confirms where his minesweepers operated from. On 1st Sept 1917 he was at Harwich and assigned to LA PARISIENNE, it was a Lowestoft registered steam drifter (LT.213) of 85 grt built in 1913. The vessel was hired as a net vessel by the Admiralty in August 1915 and remained in service until 1919, running under Admiralty pennant 1835. It was armed with a single 6 pdr AA weapon. During his time on the Parisienne there was an injury report on his service record, which states that in 1918 he crushed his third finger on his right hand, while attempting to bring a small boat aboard.

Between 5th July 1919 – 10th Jan 1920 he was based at HMS Pekin from where he was demobilised. The war ended in Nov 1918 but mine clearances would carry on for some time and he was released from Naval duties in Jan 1920.

He received a total of £85 in Naval prize money, paid between Jan 1921 and Nov 1923, which today would be worth approx. £4400, which would have been called a Bounty. This could possibly have been paid because of his injury but could also have been to reward sailors for capturing enemy ships. The Admiralty would calculate the value of the captured ship and pay that amount to the crew of the successful ship. How much you received depended on your rank.

In 1921 he purchased a steel standard trawler named the Undertow LH297, possibly by using his bounty money. The pictures below show the boat when it was owned by – Wm. Moncrieff, Cellardyke 1924 (R/N Spes Melior) KY19 & Skipper Joe ‘Buck’ Buchan, 1948, Peterhead PD397.

Aboard his trawler the Undertow, fishing the Forth Sea from Port Seton harbour he would begin his journey as a fisherman, fish merchant and curer.

Below shows some pictures of how Port Seton harbour looked during its early years with women mending the nets and preparing the fish for selling.

John Dickson Snr (1904-1983)

John Dickson Snr

His son John Dickson Snr (my great-grandad) would work for him from the harbour, smoking and curing fish. It seems he preferred to work onshore as he suffered from sea sickness (I must have inherited this from him!). After selling the trawler they would start the family fish processing business together from their new factory premises at West Harbour Road, Cockenzie.

He would go on to run the business with distinction, filleting and working the fish, working long hours. Every day he went to work dressed immaculately wearing a pressed shirt and tie under his boiler suit and his shoes would be polished until they shone. He was known to be very strict, but fair with his workers and made sure the filleters worked very very hard, working long hours to have the fish ready for transporting to the fish market at Newhaven.

John Dickson Snr & James Dickson Jnr hanging finnan haddock to dry
John Dickson Snr & James Dickson Jnr and fellow workers working the finnan haddock

The fish business employed all local workers, including the late celebrated artist John Bellany. He worked there during his summer holidays from the Edinburgh art college, which helped inspire a lot of his earlier paintings. The numerous workers helped to fillet fresh fish caught at sea, most of them singing hymns while they worked giving a very different atmosphere to today. The factory would be a hive of activity over the years, moving from a wholesale business, smoking stones of smoked fish, to supplying our loyal customers all over East Lothian.

James Dickson Jnr (1933-2011)

James Dickson Jr

His son James Dickson Jnr (my grandad) would also join the family business and would inherit his hard work ethic from his dad. He was very strict and worked longer hours than anyone else, starting at 2am and finishing at 5pm everyday.

My grandad was the total opposite to my great-grandad. He very often went to work wearing his pyjamas under his boiler suit! His great hobby in life, when he had any free time, which was limited again due to the long hours he worked, was fly fishing for trout and was a long-term member of the Heriot Angling Club.

James Dickson Jnr at our shop window
James Dickson Jnr, at our Cockenzie shop, in the old smoke-house smoking salmon and haddock

There were a few bumps in the road and was supposedly sacked on a couple of occasions. My grandad shared these stories with me during our fly fishing trips, along with many others which are stuff of folklore. One particular story always comes to mind, he once said that during the dockers strikes at Newhaven fish market, the dockers were stopping the fishmongers and merchants from entering. I was told that he shouted to them that no one was stopping him and to get out of the way or he was coming through, whether the gates were open or not. The stories goes that he was true to his word and drove his lorry straight through the gates, crashing them open and all the other fishmonger and merchant lorries followed him through. This typified my grandad and his character, the family business was everything to him and would do anything to make sure it continued to trade,

James would follow in his father and grandfather’s’ footsteps, running the family business along with his dedicated and hard working wife, Marion. Over those early years she would turn her hand to anything by learning to fin, skin and fillet fish, help with dying the fish for smoking and hanging them out to dry. She eventually moved on to the book keeping for the rest of her career, before teaching her daughter Pamela. This has now been passed on to the present 4th generation of the family, John, Neil and Pamela, and now Pamela’s son Ramsay is part of the team, the 5th generation.

Every successive generation of our family has worked very hard to help build a family business which has a reputation for quality and first class customer service, which we are renowned for, and is still going strong today.

By Innes Zenati