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

A Cow Called ‘Pretty Foot’

Once in a while a document comes to light which really opens a window on life in rural Fife long ago. One such can be found in the Commissariot of St Andrews records held in Edinburgh and availble for purchase at ScotlandsPeople (Wills and Testaments, CC20/6/40, James Fermer or Farmer 1763).

James Fermer (James Farmer) died, without leaving a will, in early July 1763. His complete testament does not survive; we only have the warrant containing the inventory which lists and values his moveable possessions at the time of his death. Genealogically speaking, the document tells us very little: we have name, address and occupation – James Farmer, vintner at St Davids; and we know that his wife, Agnes Reid, survived him; but we don’t even have an exact date of death, we only know that an edict was issued by the Commissary Court on 13 July 1763.
However, the list of his possession runs to three pages and provides an absolutely fascinating record of the contents of his house at the time of his death. The full transcript is here.

James was described as a vintner at St Davids but perhaps innkeeper is a better description since, as well as the bottles, jugs & drainer used by the vintner, there is also all the other equipment needed in the running of an inn – 7 tables, 39 chairs, 12 beds, blankets, plates (wooden, stone & china), delft ware, crystal glass ware, cups, saucers & glasses. But there is evidence of him wearing even more hats: various parts of the mill – so he was the miller too; farm equipment (carts, hand tools, harrow, plough) & crops (oats, barley, wheat, grass & the contents of the kale yard) – so he was a small farmer; there was equipment for cheese making and three spinning wheels – 2 for wool, 1 for flax; the numerous harnesses, bridles, saddles, etc show how large a part the horses played in his business; and he owned a one-eighth share of the St David boat.

The inn was a large building – at least 7 rooms and possibly 8 over 2 storeys as well as cellar, coal house & kale yard. There must have been stabling for the horses & cattle although this isn’t specifically mentioned.

The livestock were important to the family. Agnes, his widow, took the valuer round the property and began with what may well have been their favourite possession: “first – a cow called Pretty Foot”, then two heifers, Nancy & Janet, then four horses – more valuable than the cattle but not named.

The inventory raises as many questions as it gives insights.

  • Why go to the expense of drawing up the inventory? James’ possessions were worth £79-6-2 (£79.31) but the legal fees were £30-15-4 (£30.77). The answer may have something to do with the eighth share of the boat.
  • The St David boat – small ferry or something larger? Its total value was £32. Who were the other shareholders?
  • Of all the legal documents created, only the inventory survives – there is no list of debts owed or debts due.
  • There are 78 birch cabers – poles, beams or parts of a kiln? They may even be part of a cargo.
  • James left no will. Who will benefit from all of this?

‘But what has all this got to do with Newport?’ I hear you ask. Well, in the inventory St Davids is described as being at ‘Dundee Water Side within the parish of Forgan alias St Phillans’. In fact, St David’s was at that time the name of the inn which was the predecessor of the Newport Hotel and it was situated in present-day terms on the site of Trinity Church at the foot of the High Street. And if proof is needed, at the Records of Scotland in Edinburgh, plan RHP30440 shows the building on the site described as ‘the old public house of St Davids’.

Very little is written about Newport before the new ferry pier was built in 1822. This one document shows that there was quite a lot going on.