Founded nearly 200 years ago in Edinburgh, George Brown & Sons is a family-owned and run engineering business. As a family company, we have been able to access details and pictures from across the years, a history that helps tell the story of how we developed our business in the Leith area of Edinburgh.

How it all began… as a Smiths shop, opposite Leith library on the corner of Great Junction St and Ferry Road.

Our history: 1828-1890

The firm evolved from a blacksmith’s business in premises on Ferry Road, opposite the public library. The work consisted of overhauling sailing ship running and cargo handling gear, as well as dockside cargo and handling equipment.

This is a transcript of the above document, which was part of the specification of the original premises;

‘Specification of joiner work required & establishment for a a smiths shop & house for William Brown. Iron beams to be all the length of the house, house with a post below each 9 or 10 foot in height each of the beams to be 10in by 6in pine wood & white used between 18in support. The whole length of the house within is 28 feet by 21 feet & the roof to be Scots fir & this & the couple lugs to be 18in supported at 6in deep & 2in thick, for the sum this is all required in the estimate. Fourth July 1835.’ 

Key to photos

Original specification for the building of the Smiths shop and house, dated 1835

Our history: 1891-1913

An engineering side developed from this and when GR Brown joined the firm in about 1912, a new drawing office patterns shop and non-ferrous foundry produced materials for the pumps and industrial equipment he designed.

Key to photos

1. Works outing 1901 – the ‘Mascot’ banner was noting George Brown & Sons manufacturing the Mascot bicycle, the first mass manufacturer of bicycles in Scotland.

2. The Blacksmiths squad, circa 1900

Our history: 1914-1938

There was further development during the 1914-1918 war and up until 1924. The next 10 years, however, were grim. Survival was a success story.

A boatbuilder had been employed from 1930 and small craft were built at Ballantyne Road. There is a picture of a pilot boat being launched by crane at 5/6 Shore about 1937. The last boat built was a small tender for the Northern Lighthouse Board’s most northerly lighthouse at Muckle Flugga in Shetland.

Key to photos

1. Picture of the non ferrous foundry in the Tower Street workshop that we still occupy today.

2. The same workshop now.

3. The launching of a pilot boat on the Shore, 8 May 1938. The top floor of the workshops were removed after a fire in 1943 and rebuilt in 1945 to the current arrangements.

Our history: 1939-1945

 At the start of the 1939-45 war steelmakers were employed to make boilers, and a joinery section was started. The steelmakers were based at the Shore, and the joiners at Broadwynd. Further ground was purchased for the erection of a sawmill and joinery workshop. These new trades, allied to the originals, meant that ship overhauls became possible, and this meant increased turnover during the War period.

The 1939/45 War provided many opportunities, and all departments were fully employed. One patrol vessel was refitted after hitting a mine near the May island. It sailed on completion, hit another mine, and was towed back to Leith for more major repair. This was the initial impact of the German campaign of dropping magnetic mines from the air. As a result of this the George Brown & Sons gained much business degaussing ships by installing electric cable around the vessel to counteract the magnetic field.

Key to photos

Typical ship repair work being carried out in the Imperial drydock. This was the Scotia that was later outfitted for the Icelandic cold war in 1972. 

Our history: 1946-1960

Post-war work commenced with the largest contract yet carried out, the conversion of two navy frigates into trawlers for Faroese owners. The final costs were huge, but we heard later that the owners recouped them after three fishing trips.

The Korean War created work, as ex-liberty ships arrived in Leith to discharge scrap steel for the steel mills in the West. The navy also commenced refitting vessels which had been laid up after the war. The slipway at Ballantyne Road was lengthened and strengthened to accommodate two wooden built torpedo boats that required extensive repairs.

Key to photos

Prior to the closure of the lower swing bridge, vessels were brought to the workshops for repair as seen in this picture of the Minna, a Fisheries Patrol Vessel.

Our history: 1961-1985

The nature and scale of the work changed, and reluctance to reduce the workforce created financial problems. The death of GR Brown in 1962 brought this to a head. The business was consolidated at 5/6 Shore, and Broad Wynd was sold. A difficult period ensued, until the discovery of North Sea oil and the establishment of Santa Fe in Leith. Barges and service vehicles arrived and work ensued. This was about 1970. Although the initial highs declined, there was a steady flow, which, with our existing ship and land business, kept us going until 1985 when GC Brown took over as MD on the retiral of WL Brown. 

Key to photos

The arrival of North Sea work saw the arrival of barges and vessels requiring repairs and modifications that continues to the current day.

Our history: 1986-present

The introduction of new machinery to all departments led to a wider spread of work at competitive prices. Ships continued to provide us with business, although the volume of traffic through Leith was much reduced and the dry dock facilities were closed, except for the imperial dry dock which was leased to an Aberdeen firm. However, having seen off all our competitors, we have benefited from a flow of marine and land work to give us increased turnover up to end 2011.

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