The thread about Tod’s Mill, the biggest and most modern in Scotland, which survived Leith’s largest ever fire (and explosions) to bring vast wealth to its charitable owners

This thread was originally written and published in March 2023.

On January 16th 1874 a calamitous fire engulfed the largest and most modern flour mill in Scotland, almost completely destroying it. £168,000 worth of damage was caused, split roughly equally between the loss of the mill itself and its stocks of grain and flour; around £24.3 million in 2023. This mill was Tod’s Mill – or to give it it’s formal name, the Leith Flour Mills – and its proprietors were A. & R. Tod.

1940s business letterhead for A. & R. Tod Ltd, Leith Flour Mills, Leith. Via Mills Archive
1940s business letterhead for A. & R. Tod Ltd, Leith Flour Mills, Leith. Via Mills Archive

A. & R. Tod were the brothers Alexander (1811-1888) and Robert (1826-1897) Tod, the sons of Marion Gray and James Tod. James was the village baker of Ormiston in East Lothian and his position required him to deal in grain, as at this time most bakers bought their own grain and took it to their local mill for processing into flour. James left bakery behind to pursue business as a grain merchant, in which he prospered.

The family were thus able to ensure each of their eleven children received a good start in life; their sons were all well educated and found good positions as apprentices. Alexander – and later his younger brother Robert – were apprenticed to bakers in Edinburgh, after which they followed their father and went into partnership as grain merchants. The census of 1851 records them as living in a fashionable Edinburgh townhouse at 14 Leopold Place with their parents; Alexander and his father being Master corn merchants and young Robert a Journeyman. Having established themselves in that trade, in the mid 1850s they took the lease on the water-powered Stockbridge Flour Mill on Baker’s Place. The business grew rapidly, the Tod’s earning a reputation for the best quality of baker’s flour and soon outgrew the confined premises at Stockbridge. So it was in 1859 construction began of a large, new, steam-powered mill, by the wet docks on Commercial Street in Leith, was commenced, being completed by the end of that year.

Tod’s Mill, looking west along Commercial Street, in 1895. Photograph by John McKean, © Edinburgh City Libraries

On account of the unsuitable nature of native wheat, Scottish bakers baked with flour milled from imported foreign grain; traditionally from Europe but increasingly from Australia and Canada. With its expansive new docks and railway connections Leith – not traditionally a milling town – was therefore an eminently sensible place for a mill, and would come to equal Glasgow as a centre for Scottish milling. The Tod’s new works cost £33,000 – about £4.7m in 2023 – and saw 27 pairs of grinding stones in operation. They were expanded upon only a few years later in 1861 at a cost of £50,000 (£7.6m). Demand could still not be met, and in 1869 a third extension was added at a cost of £12,000 (£1.8m). This final phase of development saw the mill operating a total of over 100 pairs of grinding stones, employing three shifts, each of around 300 men and boys. The operation ran day and night, stopping only on Sundays, grinding 7,500 quarters (quarters of a hundredweight, or 28lbs, or 95.2 metric tonnes) of wheat a week, producing 8,000 bakers sacks of flour. The mill rose to 7 storeys tall on Commercial Street and it’s 180 foot tall chimney was double that height, dominating the locality.

1876 Town Plan showing the mill in its locality. To the north (top) of the map is Leith Docks, to the east (right) can be seen the railway yard of the North British Railway. The mill is bounded by Commercial Street to the north, Prince Regent Street to the south and Couper Street to the west. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
1876 Town Plan showing the mill in its locality. To the north (top) of the map is Leith Docks, to the east (right) can be seen the railway yard of the North British Railway. The mill is bounded by Commercial Street to the north, Prince Regent Street to the south and Couper Street to the west. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The story of the Tod brothers is one of restless and relentless modernisation and expansion; they constantly sought out the latest new technology for their mill. In 1869, a new granary building was added on the junction of Prince Regent Street and Couper Street. This six-storey building had a floor area of 14,000 square feet and had six cart entrances, arranged in a “drive through” manner so that carts could load or unload under cover without having to back up or turning back on themselves. This latter building is all that now remains of the mill, converted into a block of houses known as North Leith Mill.

The former granary building, now North Leith Mill houses. Note the lintels above the former cart entrances.
The former 1869 granary building, now North Leith Mill houses. Note the lintels above the former cart entrances.

The Tods were well respected around Leith and were generous benefactors to the community. They “never ceased to take a practical, kindly and personal interest in the welfare of [their] servants“. They ran the mill in a benevolent manner, having taken all their employees into a form of co-partnership for the purposes of profit sharing. In 1872 they announced a 5% bonus on wages, raising it to 7.5% in 1873 as the result of a prosperous year. The workers further respected that they were practical men, familiar with their trade having worked their way up; and they appreciated their direct manner of dealing with them in the broad Scots of country boys.

So it was on the fateful evening of January 16th, 1874, around 730PM, that the alarm was raised when a fire was discovered in the mill’s oldest wing. It spread rapidly and had taken complete hold of that part of the works within half an hour. Spreading relentlessly, by 10PM it had entered the third of the mill’s three wings – circumventing a fireproof boundary wall by creeping over the rooftop. By 1AM that night, despite desperate efforts to contain the spread, the whole of the main mill block was ablaze from end to end. The fire reached its zenith at 2AM and it was not until between 5 and 6AM that it was finally under control. It was said that Leith was so brilliantly illuminated “that at almost any point one could read with ease in the streets, and the reflection could be seen for miles around“. People turned out in their hundreds from Leith to gawk at the unfolding calamity, reinforced by thousands from Edinburgh drawn from afar to the spectacle. They came to be thrilled and terrified by the noisy pyrotechnic display; flames, sparks and smoke were ejected out of the the hundreds of small windows and each time a floor collapsed, machinery was sent crashing into the depths of the blaze below.

Contemporary engraving of the 1874 fire, the observer’s point of view is on the far side of the wet docks, looking south towards Commercial Street

The entirety of the Leith Fire Brigade (two steam engines) and much of the Edinburgh Fire Brigade attended. So intense was the heat from the fire that it was not possible to stand on Commercial Street opposite and the sandstone of the walls was seen to split and peel off in large flakes. As the masonry weakened and the internal structure tying the building together burnt out or collapsed, the external walls of the mill began to bow out dangerously. At 10PM, the top 2 storeys of western gable on Couper Street gave way and collapsed onto the street below, followed around twenty minutes later by the entire wall, all 450 feet in length and 4 remaining storeys of it. When it became clear that all was lost with the mill, the hopes shifted to stopping it spreading to nearby tenements, bonded warehouses and shipping in the Queen’s Dock. The wind blew sparks and burning detritus towards these vessels and they had to be hauled to the eastern end to keep them from catching fire.

It is not too much to say that the destruction of these mills is in some respects a national disaster: for when it is taken into account that there was not a place from Carlisle to Shetland to which they did not send flour, their stoppage cannot fail to occasion inconvenience to trade and affect the grain market in a greater or less degree.

The Fife Herald, 22nd January 1874

When the flames had finally died down, there was an awful spectacle to be seen: “those portions of the walls of both mills that have not fallen tower, in mid air, reminding one of the ruins of an old castle, while below there is a burning mass which still requires all the efforts of the firemen to prevent it from breaking out into a fire of considerable magnitude.” Only the fireproof boiler house, engine house and their chimney remained in one piece along with a detached flour store on Prince Regent Street and part of an adjoining tenement used as offices on Couper Street. In the month before the fire, the Tods had imported half a million quarters (6,350 tonnes) of grain into Leith. All that remained were were 500 sacks of grain and flour that workers had bravely salvaged from the stores during the blaze, piled up in Commercial Street. Such was the extent of the destruction that a definite cause for the fire was never found; but it was thought likely that a rotating screw for moving flour in one of the Dressing Rooms had overheated for lack of oil in its bearings.

The Tods were fortuitous indeed that their entire premises and stock were well insured, and that their safe had been carried out of the offices before they were destroyed. Nevertheless, there was a real worry in Leith that the brothers would take the insurance money and retire. Indeed, Alexander, aged 63 and fifteen years his brother’s senior, decided to do just that. So it was with much local cheer that in March of 1874 it was announced by Robert that he had decided to carry on the business and that the mill was to be restored on a new plan. Determined to make it as fire-proof as possible, he set off on a tour of Europe to inspect the latest in mill operations and fire-proofing.

After reconstruction, the mill settled back down to a prosperous and relatively uneventful existence. In 1882 it was thoroughly modernised by converting it from grinding stones to rollers, with the three different wings of the mill each set up to produce a different grade of flour. That industrious peace was shattered on Monday 5th April 1886 at 1230PM, when a “terrific explosion” erupted from the Exhaust Room, which was situated above the boiler house, directly below the lofty chimney stack. The explosion blew out the upper storey of the boiler house (where the exhaust room was located), reducing the two-foot thick walls of solid stone to rubble. Tragically, the collapse of the walls onto the foot of Prince Regent Street killed a Leith Corporation street sweeper at work outside and two young brothers, William and James Orchardson, playing in the street. A third brother – John – and another boy were scalded by the release of steam from a cracked pipe, and were pulled injured from the rubble, as were three men at work in the boiler house.

“Tod’s Mill After the Explosion, 5th April 1886”. Looking up Prince Regent Street from Commercial Street © Edinburgh City Libraries

The room in which the explosion originated contained machinery to vent hot air from the mill, which was laden with fine flour dust. Somewhat ironically this was to reduce the risk of fire and explosion within the mill itself. Fire fighters came first from the garrison of Leith Fort, who turned out with their engine, before they were joined by the regulars of Leith Fire Brigade. Further assistance came from the sailors of the gunboat HMS Elk, tied up in the Queen’s Dock nearby. Despite the upper walls and roof being totally blown off the boiler house, the damage to the boilers, engines and the mill itself was minimal; initial fears that the chimney stack might collapse proved unfounded.

Leith Fire Brigade, 1890. Firemaster James Brown, centre front with large beard, was in charge in 1886 too and led the emergency response to the explosion at Tod's Mill. © Edinburgh City Libraries
Leith Fire Brigade, 1890. Firemaster James Brown, centre front with large beard, was in charge in 1886 too and led the emergency response to the explosion at Tod’s Mill. © Edinburgh City Libraries

Once again the mill was rebuilt. Alexander Tod died in 1888, leaving an estate valued at £97,221 4/5, or about £16.2m in 2023. After retirement he had dedicated himself to the life of a country gentleman at St. Mary’s Mount in Peebles. He spent his days fishing in the Tweed, his evenings in Edinburgh at musical concerts and allowed himself to indulge a little in politics, being a firm public supporter of Gladstone.

Tod’s Mill, Goad 1892 Insurance Map of Edinburgh and Leith, Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Robert continued to run the business for the rest of his life. He was not a man of the public stage, but was known universally by the public as a man of philanthropy. He was long a director of the Leith Hospital; was a founder and trustee of the new Magdalene Asylum at Gorgie, of a convalescent home at Balerno and of the Leith Association for Improving Condition of the Poor. Around that burgh his charitable work was extensive, including supporting the Sailor’s Home, the Leith Industrial Schools, and the Leith Gymnasium for Working Lads and Girls. His time and energy for these causes was matched by contributions from his deep pockets.In later life he sponsored Sunday evening concerts in Leith to try and attract those who had not attended church and who might otherwise be drawn to less wholesome evening pursuits.

Robert Tod in later life, from newspaper clipping
Robert Tod in later life, from newspaper clipping

In 1894, Robert converted his sole partnership of A. & R. Tod into a Limited company, with the shares taken up principally by himself, his two eldest sons (Thomas and George) and the general manager, the chief clerk and department heads of his Mill. He died in 1897 at his mansion house of Clerwood, near Corstorphine in eastern Edinburgh. His passing “was received in Leith… with deep regret by all classes of the people… Tod’s death [was] regarded as a public loss“. He left an estate of £180,424 11/3, around £30m in 2023. This did not include the extensive land and mansion of Clerwood, which passed to his son Thomas.

1910 directory advert for A. & R. Tod Ltd.
1910 directory advert for A. & R. Tod Ltd.

Despite the passing of its founding partners, their Mill went on as it always had and the Tod remained a benchmark across Scotland for quality flour. On December 2nd 1921 the mill was once again rocked by an explosion of flour dust, but this time there was no fire and no injuries, damage being limited to windows blown out in the mill and broken in the surrounding streets.

The last calamity to beset the mill took place on September 6th 1943 when a granary, constructed on the corner of North Junction Street and Prince Regent Street, caught fire. It was quickly engulfed and fire precautions failed to stop it spreading across a connecting gantry to the 1869 granary over the road. The efforts of the fire brigade did however save the fire from spreading further into the mill, an adjacent bonded warehouse and neighbouring tenements. There were no injuries, but the loss of grain was hard felt during the period of wartime scarcity – mountains of charred and toasted wheat spilling out into the street through the broken windows. Fifty local residents were made temporarily homeless due to water and fire damage to their homes and were evacuated to hostels that had been prepared for air raid victims.

Fighting the mill fire of 1943 from a contemporary newspaper photograph taken looking down Prince Regent Street from North Junction Street, showing the gantry connecting the 1869 granary (left) with another that had been built on North Junction Street (right).

The North Junction Street granary was completely gutted, its roof gone, its floors and one of its exterior walls collapsed and it had to be pulled down. The 1869 granary was badly damaged above the 3rd floor and was reduced to that height as a result. It is for this reason that in the 1944 Ordnance Survey town plan of Leith, the 1869 granary is drawn as an unshaded outline, denoting an un-roofed structure, and the building opposite is missing entirely.

1944 OS Town Plan of Leith, Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
1944 OS Town Plan of Leith, Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Flour milling was always a dangerous business; the risks of explosion and fire were an ever present hazard, not just to the Tods but to all millers. In the 100 years from 1850 to 1950, no fewer than 11 other notable fires and explosions afflicted the mills of Leith:

February 1859John Hay, Leith WalkMill largely destroyed, granary and contents saved
May 1862J. & R. Lawson, BonningtonMill entirely gutted
June 1869Gibson & Walker, BonningtonOlder section of mill badly damaged
August 1874Gibson & Walker, BonningtonFire contained
January 1888J. & A. Lawson, Leith WalkRoof destroyed
October 1894G. Wilson & Co., SwanfieldRoof destroyed, machinery damaged
September 1897SCWS, Junction MillsBoiler fire. Contained
February 1903J. & A. Lawson, Leith Walk Roof and top floor machinery destroyed
February 1910J. Wilson & Co., Swanfield£9,000 damage (c. £1.4m in 2023)
February 1916SCWS, Chancelot MillsTop floor and grain cleaning room destroyed
January 1931J. Wilson & Co., SwanfieldFire contained
Table of Leith flour mill fires and explosions, 1850-1950

Once the largest and most modern mill in Scotland, Tod’s Mill was eclipsed in the second half of the 20th century by two newer and larger mills built nearby; the 1955 Caledonia Mill of Joseph Rank Ltd. and the 1970 (New) Chancelot Mill of the Scottish Cooperative Wholesale Society. Tod’s Mill soldiered on into the 1960s before closing, being demolished in the mid 1970s and replaced by a rather grim-looking red brick Job Centre office in 1979.

Lindsay Road, looking down Commercial Street to Tod’s Mill, now and a photo taken by John R Hume in 1970, © HES. Reproduced courtesy of J R Hume


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s