Life in Fraserburgh – 1838 to 1844

Thomas Blake Glover left with his family for Grimsby when he was six years old, but his childhood in Fraserburgh played no small part in the way he chose to live his adult life.

The march of progress was everywhere – as a young man he embraced the full potential of developing technologies, and expansion of the Empire, grasping every opportunity that was offered to him.

The Coastguard and His Family

Thomas was born in Commerce Street in June 1838, the fifth son of Thomas Berry Glover.

Thomas senior, 32 at the time of young Thomas’s birth, was a city boy from Vauxhall in London, and had joined the newly formed Coastguard service at the age of 22, rapidly rising through the ranks.

The Coastguard service was formed principally not for public safety, but in order to combat smuggling, which was rife at the time. Merchants and well-to-do customers alike were keen to avoid paying excise duties on wine, spices and other commodities, to the considerable annoyance of the British Treasury. Thomas’ first posting away from London was to the tiny fishing village of Sandend in Banffshire – nearby Portsoy was notorious for its lawlessness where taxes were concerned. Working on his own must have been daunting – smuggling was lucrative and violence against excisemen, and perhaps the Coastguard too – was not uncommon.

Thomas and Mary Glover

While posted there, however, Thomas met Mary Findlay, who came from local farming stock. The pair married in July 1829 and, while staying at Sandend, Mary duly gave birth to three sons – Charles and James at her parents’ house in Fordyce and William at the Coastguard Station.

Thomas must have done well at his post because in 1836, he secured the position of Head Coastguard at Fraserburgh, which harbour was growing rapidly – a considerable step up. He was 30, and clearly a man of ambition – eight years later he would move on, first to Grimsby, then back to Collieston, finishing up as Coastguard at Aberdeen. He certainly passed this restless, ambitious nature on to his fifth son.

Thomas, though a Londoner, clearly liked the north east – and Mary must have been happier near her own people.  Mary’s next four babies – Henry, Thomas, Alexander and Martha – were all born in Commerce Street.

Henry died as an infant the year before Thomas was born, so when he arrived in June 1838, he may have been a special source of comfort to his parents. Alexander was born two years later, and finally Martha, their only daughter, two years after that in 1842.

The Glovers were well enough off to send Charles, William and James, by 1840 aged 11, 9 and 8 years old respectively, to Aberdeen Grammar School  – the best in the North East, but some 47 miles away by the turnpike road.

For all his time in Fraserburgh, Thomas would have been the eldest child at home and within a couple of years, his mother’s attention was diverted toward his younger siblings.

Fraserburgh in Flux

In the years between 1838 and 1844, Thomas’s 7th year, the Royal Burgh of Fraserburgh was becoming more prosperous, more sophisticated – and growing every day.

Having said that, the footprint of the town was much smaller than it is now. Commerce Street itself, only laid out 20 years before the Glovers arrived, marked almost the southern reach of the newly planned grid pattern, and the town only extended west as far as School Street. The lighthouse looked very much as it does now, but there were no buildings in Barrasgate Road.

By 1840, though, this small area had a population of just under 3,000 people, and must have been bustling with life, especially between February and July when the herring fleet and all its itinerant workers were in town, swelling the population still further.

Events to Remember

While Thomas Blake Glover, clearly an intelligent child with an enquiring mind was between the ages of four and six, and living just up the street from the Harbour, two very exciting things happened, only a few hundred yards from his home.

Ships above the Water

In 1842, Fraserburgh Harbour Commissioners installed Morton’s Patent Slip in the Harbour basin just round the corner from Commerce Street.  This was a steam-driven railway which hauled large boats right up out of the water so they could be repaired and maintained. This had never been possible before, and the sight of an entire ship rising steadily out of the harbour must have been a breathtaking sight. This was an expensive and controversial project for the Harbour Commissioners, but it paid off, and the harbour continued to grow and thrive, with more boats, trades and activity every year.

It seems likely that Thomas remembered the event vividly, because 27 years later and by then an industrialist himself, he installed an identical mechanised slip in the Harbour at Nagasaki  – to a most satisfactory display of amazement from the assembled locals.

Lighting up the Night

The other memorable development was the coming of the gasworks in 1841, powered by imported coal – again very close to Thomas’s home in Commerce Street – and for the first time, Shore Street, the Harbour and Broad Street were lit up at night.

This would have changed life in the town centre significantly – remember that in the depths of December, it gets dark by 3pm!

A wee boy in the Broch

According to the parish minister, writing in 1840, small children were put into female-run infant schools early, with the principle aim of keeping them out of harm’s way around the busy town and harbour. At around the age of five Thomas went to the new school in Saltoun Place – where he would start to to learn his catechism, Latin, Greek and mathematics – as well as poetry. His parents clearly expected him to get a full education, which he continued at Aberdeen Grammar School in the years that followed.

Fraserburgh became quite cosmopolitan, the rapid expansion of the herring industry bringing a workforce from everywhere from Wick to Yarmouth. Thomas, with his English father and Banffshire mother was used to hearing many different voices and accents  – and he later  developed a considerable talent for learning other languages.

Surrounded by Progress

The Broch saw much new building at this time and Thomas would have been surrounded by masons and joiners, all hard at work on elegant and fashionable houses, commercial premises and extension and upgrade of the harbour – including the construction of the long breakwater later known as Balaclava Quay.