Pay Your Coal Bill!

John Hay was a coal merchant and the tenant of Waterstone which, in the early 1840s, was a small holding with some farm buildings adjoining the house.

Waterstone Crook
Waterstone Crook

He also had a half share of the tenancy of South Dron farm (near Dairsie but in Leuchars parish); the other co-tenant was Mrs Catherine Meldrum. He was the only coal merchant mentioned in the 1841 census of the parish and must have had a sizeable business. This was, of course, in the pre-railway days so large quantities of coal would have been brought by ship to Woodhaven, Newport or Tayport harbours, while smaller quantities would have been brought over by ferry to Newport.

How much more can we tell about the business? Well, believe it or not, we know the names of many of his customers. We also know that much of his business was done on credit and when John died, on 8th September 1843,a his executors had to deal with it.

At the time of his death, the debts due to him for coal amounted to £518-10-2½. Over the next 7 months the executors managed to collect £312-16-9 of this. For those of you unable to cope with pre-decimal arithmetic, this left £205-13-5½ outstanding.

Of this, £45-16-9 was owed by 69 customers living in or around Ferryport (Tayport); £113-17-9 was owed by 65 customers in or around Balmerino; and the remaining £45-18-11½ was owed by 26 customers in or around Newport. Because these were debts owing to a deceased person, every one of them is listed in the inventory of his estate which is held by the National Records of Scotland.1

The Newport debtors were:

James Meffan12/8
William Meldrum12/6
Andrew Culdross12/6
John Duncan3/-
Robert Irvine4/-
William Martin smith£27-3-10½
Widow Melville19/2
Arthur Beard£2-0-2
Janet Christie11/10
Widow Morton14/-
Alexander Carmichael13/6
John Harris£1-2-4
George Murray10/11
William Rait18/7
David Gellie£1-15-0
David Brown11/10
Christian Paterson4/9
George McIntosh£1-8-3
Alexander Harris9/4
John Husband13/3
Isabella Lanceman1/2½
Robert Duncan9/3
James Brand9/4
David Lees9/4
John Bellie18/8
Andrew Kilgour£1-7-8

Just to point out again, these were not the customers who paid regularly, nor those who paid after being contacted by the executors, but those who still had not paid up 7 months after John Hay died.

The appraiser for the inventory reckoned that only £150 of the £205-13-5½ would be collectable, the rest having to be written off.

Some of the individuals are easily identified – Andrew Kilgour, Alexander Carmichael and Arthur Beard [Baird] all lived on West Road; Robert Irvine [Irving] and George Murray lived in Marytown; George McIntosh lived at Woodhaven; and the person owing the most was William Martin, the blacksmith at Tayfield.2 Some others will take a little research.

You never know where a resident’s name will crop up. Imagine being recorded for posterity because you didn’t pay your coal bill.


a. His gravestone at Forgan Churchyard gives 8 September 1844 – don’t believe everything you read on gravestones!


  1. Inventory, trust deed and settlement, John Hay 1844, Cupar Sheriff Court, SC20/50/14. Original at ScotlandsPeople
  2. Census 1841 Forgan parish, Fife
  • Photo: Waterstone Crook, Google Streetview 2023, 56.431959,-2.952032

An Edwardian Grocer’s

The shop at the foot of the High Street (no. 16) has always been a grocer’s. At present it is a Spar store, prior to that it was A & S Brown’s, Sinclair’s and Johnston’s Stores. But it started its days as Thomas Roger’s high class grocery.

Thomas started in the grocery trade as an assistant in Dundee before coming to Newport in about 1873 and opening his own shop at 40 High Street (currently NewPaws on Tay). In 1890 he feued the vacant plot of ground at the foot of the street and by 1892 the shop on the ground floor and 2 flats above had been built.1

Thomas was not the only grocer in the town – his opposition included J Anderson, P D Wighton, and Andrew Malcolm / Charles Barrie. Each one tried to keep one step ahead of the rivals.

Being an Edwardian high class grocer to fit in with Newport’s prestige meant sourcing the best supplies from around the country. Usually you have to rely on adverts in the local papers or promotional material to get a flavour of the trade.

This advert is from a 1908 directory for Newport.2

Notice – no fewer than 6 standard blends of tea, as well as a special China tea.

However, a deep clean by the Browns in the 1990s uncovered a bundle of old papers from Thomas’s time in the shop. They consisted of a group of 120 suppliers’ invoices to Thomas Roger for part of 1902-3 and another bundle, still tied with its original string, of an almost complete collection of 470 invoices for the second half of 1905. (It is possible that an unknown small number of invoices from this bundle beginning with ‘A’ had disintegrated over the years.)

The invoices have all been photographed and made available here. (Because of the small size of the photos on this blog, you are better to follow the links to the main site to see the invoices clearly.)

When looking through them, I was struck by the number of individual firms that are being dealt with. There  were certainly wholesale grocery suppliers (e.g. Carswell, Laskie, etc), but a large number of household names were supplying goods individually. There are invoices from Cadbury’s, McVitie & Price, Nestles, Reckitt and Sharwood, and more. At the other end of the scale, Mr Maxwell in Dundee is supplying scones (and only scones) every week.

Coffee and tea came from Edinburgh, methylated spirits from Liverpool, eggs from Kirriemuir and Dundalk in Ireland (they must have been some eggs!), bacon – as advertised – from Ayrshire, Belfast and Wiltshire, suet from Manchester, and so on. There were also the empties to deal with – biscuit boxes to be returned and bottles to go back. Shipping and carriage charges had to be dealt with, both on the supplied goods (frequently ‘carriage free’) and on the empties. Pears soap from London was sent by steamer to Dundee. The bacon from Belfast was insured for its journey. There are bills from B L Nairn, Dundee, for shipping charges, and from the Caledonian Railway for carriage.

There were local suppliers of seasonal produce. St Fort Gardens provided fruit & vegetables, even grapes. Redcurrants came from Charles Moon in Tayport. Mr Fearn at Forgan Smithy shod the horse every few months, and Mr Rhind at Woodhaven Farm supplied potatoes.

The big disappointment with so many of these invoices is that they are itemised as ‘To Goods’ or ‘To account rendered’ when you really want to know what was being supplied. Just what were T & S Plum in Copenhagen supplying direct?

The shop provided a delivery service whereby customers could leave a note for an order, it would be made up in the shop and delivered by horse and van later. Of course, sometimes Roger’s were asked for an item which was out of stock. To avoid disappointment, the missing item was ‘borrowed’ from one of the opposition shops and was repaid later. All of this unknown to the customer. As an example, there is an invoice from James Anderson in Robertson Place showing that Roger’s was supplied with a packet of Force.3 The give-away is that the invoice isn’t priced and the goods were returned as soon as Roger’s had them in stock again.4

Thomas Roger was a member of Newport Town Council from 1892-95 and 1896-1905, serving as Provost 1902 – 1905.5

There are a few household bills included – for example Thomas’s annual subscription to the Newport Bowling Club, some chemist’s bills, and for coal. Some are addressed to him at his home ‘Snowdon Bank’, and some are even addressed to Provost Roger.

These may be just crumbling pieces of paper but they can still be explored and provide a glimpse that we would not otherwise have into the world of commerce on Newport’s Edwardian High Street.

You never know what will turn up next.

Notes & Sources

  1. Architects: Durward Brown & A J Gordon, London – the Newport connection is that Durward Brown was the second son of James Brown, the builder.
  2. The Tayside Annual and Directory for Newport, Wormit and Tayport, McFarlane (ed.), published Dec 1907,  held by Dundee Central Library
  3. Force was a ready-cooked cereal (there is an advert in the Liverpool Evening Express, 12 Aug 1903).
  4. When I did this for Beatt & Tait’s in the 1960s, I took items with the same retail price to barter with Johnston’s Stores for the missing goods and no record was needed. I am sure that one tin of Ovaltine went up and down the High Street many times!
  5. Photo: Provost Roger, from Newport History Group