Transporting Esparto Grass
from Granton Harbour
Transporting Esparto Grass - 1940s/50s
Reproduced with acknowledgement to Bryan Gourlay, Biggar, Lanarkshire
whose father transported esparto grass in the 1940s/50s
Transporting Esparto Grass from Granton
Thank you to Bryan Gourlay
for the comments below about his dad's work in the haulage business around
enjoyed reading George Renton’s recollections, a few months ago, about
going on his
travels in his dad’s lorry. I was lucky to have similar
unforgettable experiences with my dad from the age of four."
St Leonard's Coal Yard
father used to have a coal business, based at St Leonards’ sidings before
the war, which came to an abrupt end when the government confiscated his
coal lorry for the war effort."
the war, my father went into the haulage business. As lorries were hard to
come by in the late 1940s, my dad bought a succession of legendary
second-hand vehicles which have long passed into lorry folklore.
start with, they were mostly 6-tons (old money, not tonnes), a Bedford, a
Morris Commercial, a Dodge and a Thorneycroft – now there’s a wonderful
name – which was his first diesel.
while, my dad even had a left-hand drive, four wheel drive, wartime
American GMC. This had an over-extended platform at the back – so much so,
that if it was loaded too heavily towards the back, the front wheels would
start coming off the ground.
the years, he graduated up the scale and was one of the first in Edinburgh
to make a move to artics. For the lorry lovers, his first artic was
a Dodge, with a Perkins P21 diesel engine, Eaton two-speed axle and a
Scammel trailer and coupling – as seen in the picture."
would transport many things – such as building materials for Wimpey,
barley from farms to McEwans’ and Younger's breweries, fertilisers to
farms from BOCM at Leith, and scaffolding for Scaffolding Great Britain. "
most memorable, however, was running Esparto grass from the west pier at
Granton up to the paper mills in Balerno and Currie (mostly Galloways I
think), and Cowan’s paper mill at Auchendinny, near Glencorse. The
Auchendinny building is still there, on the left, just after the narrow
bridge (with traffic lights) at the foot of the brae in the village,
heading south west for Howgate.
Esparto grass boat was in at Granton, my dad would be first in the queue
every morning – about 5.30 am for an 8.00 am start. That way, he would get
three loads in a day rather than two. The Esparto grass came from Egypt
and North Africa, and was used by the paper mills to make high-quality
book paper – which Edinburgh was renowned for."
Loading the Grass
lorries would draw up alongside the ship and the bales of grass would be
lifted out of the hold by crane and swung over the lorry – where two or
three dockers and my dad would heave the heavy bales across the lorry by
sinking evil-looking dockers’ hooks (a bit like Captain Hook’s) deep into
the grass, stacking them three high across and along the length of the
platform. No fork lift trucks, pallets or tail-lifts in these days - just
remember my dad coming home with a couple of elastoplasts on his hand one
day. A docker had accidentally put a docker’s hook right through his hand
– so he put a couple of plasters on, and got on with things. Nowadays,
this would probably have involved paramedics, or at least a visit to A&E,
an in-depth health and safety investigation – and a protracted period off
work – followed by an industrial injuries claim. Say no more.
grass also posed other dangers. It contained a variety of nasty
creepie-crawlies all the way from North Africa with sharp teeth. And, if
you were cut by the grass, you generally finished up with a poisoned
finger or hand.
Roping the Grass
the lorry was loaded, the load had to be roped down securely, particularly
as the route to Balerno or Auchendinny was right through the centre of
Edinburgh dodging people, cars buses and trams.
were wound up in a particular fashion so, when they were thrown up and
over the load, they uncoiled as they went over, before falling on the
other side. They were tied to hooks that ran along the length of the lorry
just under the edge of the platform.
was a particular type of looped knot used so the ropes could be pulled
tight before being tied off on the hooks. This was the driver’s job.
times I’ve seen my dad swinging on the ropes like a monkey, to pull them
down tight with his full body-weight – all too often taking the skin off
his hands when the ropes were wet. Esparto grass was heavy stuff - the
lorry is well down on its springs in the picture.
"Weather had little effect on loading or off-loading the lorry.
All-weather clothing hadn’t been invented in the 40s and 50s. My dad had a
donkey jacket for waiting in the cab in the freezing cold mornings, which
he took off when he started working as it was too restrictive, relying on
a couple of jumpers to keep him warm. When it rained, he just carried on
regardless with the job often resembling a drowned rat, as did everyone
"Driving a lorry was also a bit different 50 years ago, unlike the hotels
on wheels and all the mod-cons that drivers have to make the job much
was no power-steering, no synchromesh, maybe vacuum brakes, often no
heaters, certainly no air conditioning, other than opening the windscreen,
no screen washers etc.
changing was a hard-won skill. It involved double de-clutching and
changing gear with the stick, and often changing the axle ratio at the
same time (with a separate control cable) - which not every driver could
master. Carried out well, this made a huge difference.
a long climb, and many gear-changes to keep the momentum going, all the
way from sea level at Granton to Balerno and Auchendinny - the latter
involving the small matter of Liberton Brae - the lorry going so slowly,
it was sometimes overtaken by a tram.
Steering at slow speeds, or manoeuvering into tight spaces, involved more
brute strength to turn the steering wheel. And, some of the spaces lorries
had to be driven or reversed into at the paper mills were very tight, as
these factories were originally designed for a horse and cart."
the lorry was off loaded at the paper mill, it was hot foot back
to Granton for the next load. Keeping best friends with Granton’s dockers,
and the off-loaders at the paper mill, made a big difference to the turn
round time – and my dad getting in three loads per day."
picture of my dad’s 1950s’ Dodge could have been taken at one of the paper
mills, where the lorries were queuing to be off loaded, although the rail
tracks suggest it might be Granton's west pier.
Walter Lyle Hume e-mailed to say:
photograph of the artic-lorry was not Granton Harbour, more in keeping
with the Paper Mill at Inverkeithing."
Lyle Hume, Isle of Wight, England: July 22, 2006
at the lorry after many years, I notice there is a slot for a starting
handle - although I'm not sure what type of super-human effort it would
have taken to turn the engine with this - more brute strength I suppose .
Bryan Gourlay, Biggar, Lanarkshire, Scotland: July 21, 2006
Thank you to Rachel Edmans
Grass to Kinleith Mill?
think the lorry in this photograph may have been travelling to Kinleith
Mill, Currie, as they processed Esparto Grass, according to this page from
in Modern Times'
Rachel Edmans: October 11, 2014