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Editor at Large

Unemployment between the wars


In this issue I am continuing on the Leith Lives project. An initiative from the late 1980s which consisted of a series of pamphlets telling the oral histories of Leithers through a wide-ranging look back through the various aspects of Leith Life. This time we look at Unemployment- Making Ends Meet.

Once again, I’d like to thank Arthur Mathieson of South Leith Parish Church (and garden) for the generous loan of his archive.

After the First World War they brung 2 million men home right away. Within months, there were 2 million unemployed. They had years of depression, naebody could get a job, the war was finished: They werenae building. They werenae making guns. They werenae needing ammunition…War’s got advantages, tae. It causes work. Adam Davidson

In about 1926… we discovered a shanty town…this chap invited us to tea, it was raining, inside it was all fishboxes. They were banked six high with soil and sand round the outside and railway tarpaulin over. They had fishbox beds and fishbox fires built in. It was amazing. And rent free. There was always food coming from Granton, they’d get herring or whatever. Christopher Beskow

Many people in. the street were idle, so they helped each other… a big marrow bone went o’er 16 tenants, we all borrowed it to make soup. If anyone died on the street Catholic or Protestant, a collection was taken to cover the funeral. Lawrence and Elizabeth

The church was the welfare centre in those days, they were full! I f you didn’t belong to one you weren’t getting the handouts people needed such as second hand clothes or small benefits.
John Crichton

When I was unemployed I had to sign on the broo 5 days a week: every mornin’ at 9 o’clock and back at 2 o’clock. Aye, ye signed on again if ye were idle. During the winter it was terrible, the polismen on the door wouldnae let ye in “you’re no geyin in here till it’s yir turn.’’ So wee Jimmy SmIth the unemployed lawyer said, “ Right, no men in, no polis in either!” So the polis had to come and stand outside an’ a’. And that cured that. We got in after that! Adam Davidson

My mum got a parcel, tea, sugar, biscuits, that sort of thing – and a small chicken, quite a luxury. She gave it to the widow and her three kids upstairs who lived on a meagre 12 shillings and sixpence from the Social Security. The man from the social visited and asked what was in the parcel. She was so delighted she told him. So he counted everything it had cost and took it off her money! Nancy Welsh

When I was in the Army I got 14 shillings a week and I sent 10 to my mum in an ordinary envelope so the Parish wouldnae take it off her. When I came home they said I was a very poor son because I never left her an allotment. I didn’t leave her an allotment, if I’d told them about the money, they would have taken it off her. John Watt

Well, the only way you could make money was you did wee jobs for people that could afford it. To make ends meet my mother and the lady next door used to go out and wash the dead… And lay them out in their houses. John Preston

My dad was out of work, it was a hard life, we used to go to the Salvation Army every morning before school for porridge wi’ skimmed milk.
Helen Nickerson

You went to see your granny after Sunday School in your uniform and when you came home you weren’t allowed to change, you wore it all day, if you were really poor that went into the pawn on the Monday and you got it out again on the Friday. There was a person called McGourty who had what was called a three day pawn, if you didn’t take it out it was hers. Kate McGourty’s a famous name in Leith. Mr R. McKenna ■

Info: The Leith History Project was funded by the Manpower Services Commission in the late 1980s

Kate McGourty’s Pawn Shop Leith


During the depression you had to find other work but some men never worked again till the Second World War. George Bird


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