Cellardyke Boatbuilders

Alexander Thomson

Alexander (Lummie) Thomson
Cellardyke Church

Alexander was born approximately 1849 His father was Adam Thomson (born Abernethy) a labourer and carter. His mother was Sarah Ritchie ( born Fife). In the 1851 census the family lived in East Green, Anstruther. In the 1851 and 1861 census the family declared all their children were born in Abermethy, but by 1871 they declare all 5 of their children were born in Anstruther Easter

28th June 1872 – Cellardyke – Alexander Thomson, boatbuilder, marries Elizabeth Davidson second daughter of SkipperJames Wilson – Fife Herald

We have no records currently where he served his time as a boat builder.

1876 – Thomson bids for a piece of land on what is now the middle pier in Anstruther for a boat building yard, but loses out to William Jarvis who was already operating a successful yard at Anstruther Harbour ( this may have been a first attempt for the 27 year old to set up business on his own )

In 1881 it is reported in the East of Fife Record that Alex Thomson ( approx 32 years old) is foreman to John Alexander Millar ( who was by this time operating his business at the Esplande West Anstruther) and he submits a model along with his employer for exhibit at the Norwich Fisheries Exhibition

Mr Alex. Thomson, foreman to Mr Millar, is also to exhibit the model of one of the ordinary large fishing boats in use in this quarter, which is said to be an excellent specimen of practical boatbuilding and neat workmanship. East of Fife Record, 8th April 1881

4th May 1881 – Fatal Occurrence- On Friday Afternoon a fine boy, in his fourth year, James, son of Mr Alexander Rob, carpenter, was drowned at West Anstruther wharf. The alarm was raised by a little urchin – ‘there’s a deid bairn soomin in the sea’  Next instant the foreman in Councillor Millar’s boatbuilding yard, Mr Alexander Thomson, had sprung to the rescue, but the poor little sufferer seemed to have been in the water for a length of time, as every sign of animation was gone. The poor mother was anxiously waiting on the threshold, when his little brother rushed in with the terrible news, which so overwhelmed the unhappy parent that she fell into a faint from which she only recovered after a long and intensely painful interval. The little victim is the grandchild of the late Mr James Spence, Baker and the liveliest sympathy is felt for the afflicted family in this their un looked for bereavement. – Dundee Courier and Argus


Alex Thomson once again exhibits at the Fisheries Exhibition, this time held in Edinburgh

Mr Millar, Anstruther, who has built a large number of the finest boats used by skippers both in the district and in the North of Scotland, exhibits his model of an improved fishing boat with the ordinary lug sail, which he considers the handiest and safest for the North Sea fishing. The model, which reflects great credit on Mr Millar’s skill, is also fitted up with high bulwarks. Mr Alexander Thomson, Cellardyke, has a model framed and planked, intended to be rigged with the lug sail, which he believes to be preferable to the smack rig for the different kinds of fishing pursued on the north-east coast. – East of Fife Record 28th April

1891 – J A Millar has once again given up his buisness due to financial problems and Alex Thomson decides to set up business alone. Alex Thomson rents the yard at the East End of Cellardyke where his former emloyer J A Miller had worked prior to 1876.

Looking at the ownership of many of his first yawls built, it seem that Alex retained a part share until the skipper/owners could raise enough money to pay that share off. This was a risky financial business as his former employer went out of business twice, possibly due to this type of arrangement, however Thomson, unlike Millar, was building yawls and not large first class vessels with a large staff to pay.

1896 – Alex Thomson rents part of the Anstruther harbourhead yard known as St Ayles (now the site of the Scottish Fisheries Museum) from boat manager and fish salesman Thomas Cunningham, also on setting up on the site is Balfour of Ovenstone’s engineering shop. This gives him more opportunity to take on repair work as the fishing fleet are mainly based in Anstruther.

In the same year the Newhaven Pilot boat, Scotia, went ashore near Crail, it was later seen drifting by the May Island. After a difficult tow into Anstruther, by Skipper James Pratt ( the rope broke three times) Alex Thomson wins the contract to repair the much damaged stern.

Thomson’s House was rebuilt and is now part of the Scottish Fisheries Museum

1901 – Alex Thomson is reported in living at Harbourhead, Anstruther. He and his wife throw a party there for his mother and father in law’s Golden Wedding – “Song and Music filled up the evening”

1902 – It’s reported that Thomson’s yawl he build for James Peebles of Crail was his 26th yawl since he commenced buisness – Most of these were built for Crail – Peter Smith son of Poetry Peter said his father owned two but Peter Jnr did not like them

1903 – It is reported that 9 new vessels were built in Anstruther by Messrs Miller and Thomson – I can trace 5 large fifies built by Millers, Thomson may have launched upto 4 yawls that year.

1910Alexander Thomson, carpenter, said he was employed by the Insurance Company to survey the Celerity. He estimated cost of repairs to her at £14 15s. There was one broken timber previous to the collision. It was as common as peas for a boat to be at sea with a broken timber. East of Fife Record 8th September

1911 For some time back, the boatbuilding trade has been in a very stagnant condition, and so far there is not any demand for drifters and large boats. Mr Miller’s workmen have been engaged recently in building yawls and bauldies for the inshore fishings, and on Wednesday a bauldie was launched by Mr Miller for a Pittenweem fisherman. Mr Alexander Thomson has also got an order for a bauldie, 25 feet in length, for one of the local fishermen, and has secured the contract for considerable alterations and repairs in the steam drifter Rothesay Bay, recently purchased by several Cellardyke fishermen from Aberdeen Owners. – East of Fife Record 19th January

June 1911 – Thomas Thomson, son of Alex, marries Sophia Spinks Bowman daughter of Pittenweem fish salesman

1914In the shipbuilding shed of Mr Alexander Thomson, Harbourhead, there has just been completed a motor yawl which has been bought by Mr G. Liston, Newhaven. The yawl is 24 feet in length, and 8 ft. 2 ins. beam. A Scripp motor engine, 7-9 h.p., has been fitted by Mr Pollock, Glasgow. This is the first engine of this make to be fitted in a yawl built in this district. The engine, which is started on petrol, runs on paraffin, and promises to give every satisfaction, having been tested since it was fitted. The boat will be named the Henrietta, LH. 20, and it is expected to have her launched and a trial trip run to-day (Thursday). East of Fife Record 22nd October.

1915 -Alexander Thomson dies in January age 66

28th January – The Late Mr Alexander Thomson.—On Monday evening, the death suddenly occurred of Mr Alexander Thomson, boat builder. The deceased had been in indifferent health for some time, but nothng serious was suspected. A native of the town, Mr Thomson for many years carried on a business as boat builder, and his yawls were purchased in many different fishing communities, where he was known for the excellence of his workmanship. The deceased, who was in his 66th year, is survived by a widow and four sons. – East of Fife Record

Kilrenny Church yard

In 1936 Alex Thomson’s widow was invited to look at his old yard when construction of the Royal Sovereign started with the East Fife Boat Building Co – More than half a century has elapsed since the last boat left the auld yaird, The Builder Mr Thomson has long since passed away, but his widow a hale and hearty old lady over eighty still survives. Recently she visited the new boat and at the same time renewed acquaintance with the workshop and yard so long associated with her husband. – Dundee Evening Telegraph

Addendum – Two Tragedies

1924 -26th September,

Death by drowning was the fate of James Thomson, who was found lying in Anstruther inner Harbour.T homson who was the second son of the late Mr Alexander Thomson boatbuilder and Mrs Thomson, Shorehead Anstruther was a draper to trade, having served his apprenticeship with the late John Marr, Draper Anstruther. He was employed for many years in Edinburgh but had been out of work for over a year. It appears that deceased was last seen about nine O clock on Saturday evening when he mingled with the crowd at his brother’s shop awaiting the arrival of the Sporting Post. There after it is thought that he went for his favourite walk down the West Pier. The night was exceptionally dark and stormy and with so many drifters at present lying in the harbour, numerous ropes are attached to the mooring rings, and it is probable that Thomson tripped and fell over. The tide being on the ebb, he would be stunned by the fall of about 18 feet, but it is conjectured that he had partially recovered as there were signs to get out of the mud. At the supposed time of the accident the piers were deserted and even if he had cried for help the roar of the gale would have prevented him being heard by anyone on the main street. The discovery of the body was made by John Muir, fisherman Cellardyke. Mr Muir, on going to look at the stern of the steam drifter Pilot Star, which has recently been added to the local fleet, saw the body and immediately informed Police Sergeant McLaren, who, with assistance, removed the corpse to the mortuary. The tragic occurrence cast a gloom over the community, where the deceased, who was about forty-six years of age, was so well known. His mother, with who he resided, is in Edinburgh on a visit to her eldest and youngest son. Dundee Evening Telegraph

1939 – 21st January – Old woman found dead in Blazing House at Anstruther

Early last Sunday Morning, St Andrews Fire Brigade were summoned to an outbreak of fire in a house on East Shore, Anstruther. Their services, however were not required as the Anstruther Brigade soon had the outbreak under control. The fire, however, was the means of causing the death of an elderly woman, Mrs Elizabeth Thomson, who was found dead in the blazing house. She had evidently died from shock. On his rounds about one 0’ clock in the morning, Police sergeant Balfour saw sparks flying from the roof of Mrs Thomson’s house. He aroused a neighbour, Mr F Gourlay, Sun tavern, and summoned the fire brigade. On effecting an entry into the house, the sergeant found Mrs Thomson apparently unconscious. Dr J J Wilson was called, but found she was dead. Mrs Thomson was 85 years of age, and was predeceased by her husband, Mr Alexander Thomson, boatbuilder, some years ago. The kitchen and part of the roof was extensively damaged. – St Andrews Citizen

You can see the small courtyard behind a lamp post on the right hand side of this photo of The Scottish Fisheries Museum site – this, and the flat roofed building is where the burnt out shell of Thomson’s house was until rebuilt in the 1990s.

Boats known to have been built by Alexander Thomson

  • LIZZIE – KY147, built 1890, 16ft 1st reg owned by himself, possibly built on spec, change owner 1893
  • GOOD SAMARITAN – KY 203 , built 1891, 22ft x 8ft x 3ft 7 3tons, John Watson Skipper owned by boatbuilder
  • LIZZIE – KY210, built 1891, 17ft x 6ft 5 x2ft 9 , 1.5 tons, James Wilson, Cellardyke, skipper, owner Boatbuilder
  • DIONE – KY242, built 1891, 18ft 2 x6ft 8 x 2ft 9, 1.5 tons , George Brown skipper, owned by boat builder on launch, chanmge of hands 8/6/91 and cancelled in 1899
  • SYDNEY HILL – KY445, built 1893, 18ft x 6ft 7/10thsx 2ft 4/5, 1.5 tons, Robert Meldrum, Crail. Skipper, owned by boatbuilder, change owner 1893, possibly re registerd KY 471 in 1893, two almost identical registration pages, later David Husband, Kingsbarns
  • LIZZIE – KY498, built 1894, 18ft x 6ft 5, x 2ft 5 , 1.3 tons, James Wilson (Doig) , Skipper, Cellardyke, owned by boat builder, 1894, sold to D Gay (Butters) Pittenweem, sold to North Berwick 1910
  • GAZELLE – KY532, built poss 1892, 19ft x 6ft 5, x2ft 5, 1.38tons. Launched for Alexander Watson, Cellardyke, cancelled 1897 sold to Leith
  • ACTIVE – KY552, no build date, 18ft x 6ft x 3ft , 1.45 tons, Launched for Alex Thomson , Elie, master and owner, change ownership 1920
  • TWO FRIENDS – KY619,, First reg 11/3/1898, 18ft x 7ft x 2ft 6, 1.47 tons, Owned John Tobit Crail
  • THISTLE – KY622, first reg 11/4/1898, 19ft 3x 6ft 8 x2ft 5, 1.45 tons, Owned and skippered by John Thomson(Thomson) Buckhaven
  • VIGILANT – KY636, first reg 27/10/1898, 22ft x8ft 1 x 3ft, 2.4 tons. Owned and skippered by John and Robert Murray Crail
  • FLOWER OF THE FOREST – KY108, first registered 26/1/1900, 20ft x7ft 5 x3ft, 2 tons , Owned and Skippered by David Murray Crail
  • BROTHERS – KY329,First Registered 19/11/1901, 22ft x 8ft 7x 3ft 7, 3 tons , Skippered by James Dewar, Crail, owned by Joseph Ross, Banker, Market Gate Crail and James Dewar.
  • BE IN TIME – KY83, First registered 13/07/1904, 20ft 8 x7ft 8 x2ft 3, 1.83 Tons, Owned and skippered by Jam,es Bowman (Spinks) 22 Midshore Pittenweem, sold to Crail 20/11/1912
  • MARY FRANCES – KY78, Possibly built 1901, 22ft 2x8ft 5, x3ft 5, 2.97 Tons, registered 16/9/1910 to David Gay, 10 Oliphant Crsec, Kirkcaldy
  • Unknown name, Built 1902, Yawl, Built for James Peebles, Crail
  • Henrietta– LH20, Built 1914, Motor Yawl , 24ft x 8ft 2, with a 7/9hp Scripp motor