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The Millers of Haddington, Dunbar and Dunfermline
Chapter VII. Business Life - Dunbar Lifeboat

DURING the next eight years Miller’s business life flowed on with the changes that are inseparable from work of the kind. He found considerable difficulty in adequately supervising the Haddington branch, and it occasionally caused him so much trouble and anxiety that he was more than once tempted to relinquish it altogether. When he removed his home back to Dunbar he had put his son James in charge of the press he left behind, and had given him his wife’s brother as an assistant and as a companion to him in the house. A female relative was at the same time set over the grocery department. James’s uncle, however, proved untrustworthy, and had to be dismissed. Even James himself became refractory, and deserted his work for several months in the winter of 1807. It was all very disheartening, but Miller never lost hope, and did his best to keep the establishment going. He had his reward, for in the end he overcame all his difficulties.

The temporary defection of his son touched Miller deeply ; but though the incident had its bitter side, he yet found that it had a gracious aspect also. The printing business in Haddington had continued to grow in importance, and Miller speedily discovered that the experience his son had gained in the Edinburgh offices while he was away was invaluable to him. In the autumn of 1808 he issued a new library catalogue, and according to that curious habit he had of sometimes admitting the public into his confidence, he refers to the attempt to oust him from Dunbar, and then speaks of his son’s return to his service. It had set him free, he declared, to attend to the Dunbar branch more vigorously than ever. “The public already know,” he said, “that he is now again able to devote the most of his time and attention to his concerns here. Indeed, since the return of his son from Edinburgh, where he had been for a short time for improvement in the printing line, the business at Haddington had been conducted in a way highly satisfactory, and in such a manner as to occasion little trouble from that quarter.”

As a matter of fact, James had sown his wild oats for the time being, and though he was occasionally restless, he never again deserted his father. In his hands the printing-press continued to provide a handsome income. In the year 1810 it earned nearly £300 by jobbing, and Miller was able to say that the work obtained in Haddington alone supplied what “might have been considered a little fortune in itself.”

After occupying the premises in which he had started business in Dunbar for nearly twenty years, Miller removed to others on the opposite side of the High Street, and almost next door to the inn which in those days was the centre of the life of the town. The lease of seventeen years was to run from Whit-Sunday 1811, but by arrangement he was able to occupy the building more than six months in advance. The year 1810 Miller described as “big with important events” for him, and not least among these was this change of address. For the sake of convenience he had long wished to have his dwelling-house attached to his shop, but in a small town like Dunbar, where suitable accommodation was restricted, this was not always possible. Miller, however, had now attained his wish, and he “was housed and shopped under one roof.” A year or two later he was able to arrange with a neighbour for the use of a small garden plot behind. He thus for the first time acquired an open space for his own private recreation, apparently a small matter, but one that gave its tenant unbounded satisfaction.

To make the shop fit his requirements extensive alterations were carried out at Miller’s expense. The whole front was renovated, and given the appearance it carries to-day. Here he was destined to spend the remainder of his business career. A tenant was not found for the place he had left, and he was accordingly allowed to utilize it for bookbinding and for evening auctions during the following winter. Miller was greatly pleased with this arrangement, for it prevented a rival taking possession of it till he was fairly established in his new premises.

In 1810 local magnates founded the ill-fated East Lothian Bank, with the head office in Dunbar, and pressure was brought to bear on Miller to make him transfer his custom to it. He had hitherto dealt with the British Linen Company’s Bank, and his sense of justice and gratitude was outraged by the suggestion. Refusal meant a probable loss of trade, for those interested in the new venture were powerful enough to injure him in his business ; but he steadily refused to forsake those who had treated him well. In the end he compromised so far as to send a part of his custom the way of the new bank. His action in this matter is not of great importance, but the story of his resistance is the occasion of an interesting fact coming to light. “My credit,” he says, “was such that I was looked up to as a safe depository for many of those small sums which might now with little trouble, although I cannot say with more safety at the time, have been lodged with some of the banking companies in the place.” Perhaps no better testimony could have been given to his personal character and to his financial reputation than that he should have been thus entrusted with the small savings of the poorer classes.

For some time Miller was worried by two law pleas, which were begun about 1810, and in both of which he was the defender. One had to do with an account for £35, which Miller said he had paid, and which the pursuer affirmed he had not. His experiences in the various courts made him add his voice to the many who have vituperated the law and its delays. “Little as I had been accustomed to think of the law,” he said, “the decisions in this case gave me a still more disgusting idea of it.” So great was his sense of injustice that he made up his mind to “publish the whole proceedings and bring the matter before the public.” His opponents heard of his purpose, and wrote that “If you take any improper freedom with us in your intended publication we shall not fail to follow out such a measure in law as the case may require.” The threat was enough, and Miller refrained.

Miller had never been quite satisfied with the premises he had taken in Haddington from the Town Council. Three years after he entered them he had to carry on a “disagreeable correspondence” with the magistrates because the shops “had never been brought to a finished state.” The effect of his remonstrance is not stated, but he determined to end his occupancy with the termination of the lease at Whit-Sunday 1812. The town clerk did make an effort to retain Miller as a tenant, but the latter had come to the conclusion that it would be to his advantage to rent other premises. A suitable place was secured on lease in the High Street, and the Millers, father and son, continued to occupy the shop till the business was finally lost in 1833.

Another circumstance must have influenced Miller in determining on a change of situation: it would coincide with a fundamental change in the manner the Haddington business was henceforth to be conducted. The apprenticeship of his son James ended in April 1811, and after a year, part of which was spent in London, the latter was ready to enter into partnership with his father. As far back as February 16, 1806, James had been given a general charge of the Haddington press, but the responsibility could have been only nominal 011 account of his youth. He was now arrived at man’s estate and able to enter into a business-like agreement with his father. This was effected in the spring of 1812, and at WhitSunday the firm became “George Miller & Son.” The partnership extended to the printing establishment only and was continued till 1819.

It was while he was in the midst of these business and domestic perplexities that the opportunity occurred which enabled Miller to carry out his long-cherished plan for saving life at sea. “The rock-girt coast of Dunbar has been the theatre of many shipwrecks, and the sands of Tyne the grave of many a gallant vessel,” but although he had made a previous attempt to mitigate the disasters that took place, nothing had been done. A storm of exceptional severity broke out at the beginning of October 1808, and a wreck was driven ashore at Thorntonloch, a few miles from Dunbar, the crew perishing under peculiarly distressing circumstances.'

Miller took advantage of the horror the tragedy created to renew his efforts. Through his exertions a movement to provide the coast with a lifeboat was initiated. He communicated with Henry Greathead, the inventor of a special form of lifeboat, to ascertain the probable cost, and associated with himself William Brown, a bank agent, and David Laing, a shipbuilder, as a local committee. With their sanction he prepared and sent out a printed appeal for subscriptions. “ The want of a lifeboat,” the document began, “has confessedly been often severely felt on this coast, and while such a want remains unsupplied it may still be the fate of many of the inhabitants of Dunbar and neighbourhood to witness ‘ the pelting of the pitiless storm ’ on the stranded vessel till some of the exhausted crew, like the poor boy at Thorntonloch, are got on shore only to exchange a watery grave for a land one—-just to look gratefully in the face of their deliverers and then expire.”

The result was altogether satisfactory. In the appeal Miller had said that he did not consider the apparent remissness in providing a boat was due “ to any callous indifference or want of fellow-feeling in the inhabitants of the county to which he belongs,” but simply to the lack of opportunity. The statement was amply justified by the response made to the circular. Not to encroach on what might be done at North Berwick, which stood equally in need of a life-saving equipment, the appeal was largely limited to the south-eastern portion of the county, and within a year a sum of nearly £400 was raised. Besides subscribing in money, Miller provided, free of charge, such printing as the scheme required.

A fully equipped boat was procured from Greathead, and a directorate composed of local gentlemen, at the head of whom stood the Earl of Haddington, was appointed. On the anniversary of the first meeting of the provisional committee the boat was declared ready for use, and on the following day it was called out to the assistance of H.M. sloop Cygnet, which was in distress off the coast of Dunbar.

For a number of years good service was rendered by the lifeboat to the many ships that came to grief along the inhospitable shore. The last occasion on which it put to sea occurred at the close of 1816. When next it was needed it had fallen into decay and could not be used. The poor remains were brought to the hammer and disposed of by public group in October 1829. By that time an improved build of boat had been devised, and the Royal Lifeboat Institution had been called into existence. Private effort was therefore less necessary, but Miller’s work as a pioneer in this field of public service should not be forgotten.

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