Wm. Cummings and Son and a lost industry of Leith Walk

We recently received a donation of some fascinating archive material relating to Wm Cummings & Son, who manufactured boxes on their premises at Murano Place.

This donation came to us from our friends at the Living Memory Association, and we were especially grateful because it adds to a collection of material on the firm which was already held by Edinburgh City Archives. The story is still, however, incomplete – and we’re hoping that’s where you come in!

More of that later. First, here’s a quick history of the company:

William Cummings founded his box making business in 1876. The enterprise had expanded by 1888 to premises covering an area of 80 feet by 80 feet and buildings four stories high. The ground floor was taken up with the sawmill machinery – numerous circular saws of all different types. Once cut to size, the prepared boards were taken to the second story by a steam-powered hoist where the boxes were formed using a box-nailing machine.

Sawmill department of Wm. Cummings & Son Ltd

Sawmill department of Wm. Cummings & Son Ltd, c1898

Also on the first floor was a machine invented by Mr Cummings for ‘dressing off’ the finished box. It was reported in the Timber Trades Journal of 1889 that Mr Cummings was ‘ever at work devising means for the saving of labour and producing work of greater efficiency, and thereby enabling his manufactures to be produced at a minimum of cost’.

On the 3rd floor the boxes for export were given their metal lining and the top floor was used as a store area for drying and seasoning the turned and finished goods. All the machines across the building were driven by a 40 horse power engine. The premises also included offices, stables and a work yard piled high with stocks of raw materials. The company benefitted from its close proximity to Leith Docks were supplies came and went.

Group portrait of female staff workers at Wm. Cummings & Son Ltd

Female workers at Wm. Cummings & Son Ltd. box makers, c1900

The 1891 census shows William living with his family at Rosslyn Street (now Crescent), a short walk from Leith Walk. He’s aged 40 and widowed, the head of a family of 3 sons and 4 daughters. His eldest son, Andrew is 16 and working as an apprentice clerk (presumably in the family business) and his youngest child is Minnie aged 2. The next year, William Cummings has died leaving his son, Andrew to look after the practicalities of running the business at only 17 years of age.

In 1900, Andrew Cummings formally took responsibility for the firm and changed the name to Wm. Cummings & Son Ltd. In 1907 there were 150 employees across the different departments of sawmill, home and export case, confectionery box, tin lining, fancy paper box, leatherboard box and turning department. Under the direction of Andrew Cummings the firm continued to apply mechanical innovations and labour saving devices to improve efficiency.

Wm. Cummings & Son delivery van, Palace of Holyrood

Wm. Cummings & Son Ltd delivery van at gates to Palace of Holyrood, 1949

The company was still in operation into the late 1960s but we’re not sure when the business folded. Maybe you can help us? Do you remember the factory on Murano Place or know someone who worked there? We’d love to hear from you if you can tell us more.

You can browse all the amazing pictures of this bygone era of working life on Capital Collections.

The Wm. Cummings & Son collection is now being kept securely altogether at Edinburgh City Archives.

4 thoughts on “Wm. Cummings and Son and a lost industry of Leith Walk

  1. This is a great (and in one aspect a little shocking) story, so I feel a bit mean pointing this out, but…

    “The enterprise had expanded by 1888 to premises covering an area of 80 square feet…”

    80 square feet equates to a space slightly less than 9ft x 9ft. The sawmill dept in the first photo alone is clearly bigger than that so there must be at least one zero missing from this measurement.

    Apologetically yours,
    A. Pedant

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    • Well spotted – and thanks for bringing this to our attention. This should of course have read 80 feet by 80 feet.

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  2. In 1901 census, my great grandmother’s occupation was “boxmaker”, and when she married in 1906 her occupation was given as “jewel box maker”. She lived in Arthur Street, not too far away from Murano Place. I wonder if she is one of the girls in the photo?

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  3. The picture 39156 is one with my grandmother in it. I have the same photo. She is second left, second back row. Her name was Mary Jackson and born in 1903 in Leith. this picture was when she was 15 so would be 1918. She was very proud of this picture and talked to me about it often when I was young.She had a special bow in the back of her hair.

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