Bouverie Francis Primrose, Secretary to the Board

Wick Harbour in about 1863
Wick Harbour in about 1863, Johnston Collection

As the industry developed, the government’s financial incentives were phased out and none were paid after 1830. The abolition of slavery in 1833 and the Irish Potato Famine in 1846-47 had a negative impact on the herring trade, but the continental trade developed positively during this time. The Fishery Board was keen to emphasise the importance of the Brand in maintaining standards, but in the era after the repeal of the Corn Laws in in 1846 there was a great belief in laissez faire capitalism and some people considered the Brand to be an anachronism. There was a genuinely felt belief among some fishcurers that they could act without supervision, and in 1848 it was announced that Mr. John Shaw Lefevre, former Secretary of the Board of Trade and Assistant Clerk of the House of Lords would travel to Edinburgh to inquire into the Board’s effectiveness, with a view to abolishing it.1 In this dispute the Hon. Bouverie Francis Primrose, recently appointed Secretary to the Board of Manufactures and Fisheries 2, found an unlikely but uncomfortable ally in James Methuen, who was variously described as ‘the greatest herring curer in the world’.

Bouverie Francis Primrose was born in 1813 as the younger son of Archibald John Primrose, the 4th Earl of Rosebery by his first wife Harriet Bouverie whom he subsequently divorced for infidelity in 1815. The family seat was in Dalmeny, about eight miles out of Edinburgh. From the 1851 census we learn that at that time he lived Moray Place in the Edinburgh New Town with his wife, seven children, and six servants, one of whom was a Swiss governess and that he was 37 years old. Moray Place has been described as ‘in the way of private building, the most splendid thing in Edinburgh’3.

The Board of Manufactures had been established in 1727, twenty years after the Union of the Crowns. Its original purpose was to promote industry in Scotland, in particular the linen trade and fishing. In 1823 the regulation of the linen industry was abolished, and the Board was tasked with the decorative arts and the encouragement of education in the fine arts, while continuing with its responsibilities for fishing. This rather unusual combination of responsibilities continued until they were separated by the National Galleries of Scotland Act in 1906. According to a much later account by Primrose4, the Board, as constituted, was an unpaid commission and the attendance was ‘irregular, uncertain and often at very distant intervals’. It seems reasonable to assume that this was the normal mode of operation. Under these circumstances, the operational control of the organisation would devolve onto the Secretary. An 1870 treasury investigation into possible economies in Scottish administration gave Mr Primrose and his department a glowing report: ‘Mr. Primrose attends daily and remains during, and frequently after, office hours...…He is seldom absent from his duties in Edinburgh, except when on his annual leave, or when engaged upon his inspection of the fishery stations, which occupies several weeks each year. His time is, we are sure, fully employed.’5

In 1850, with the growth of the industry, the Board had responsibility for sixteen coastal fishery districts, stretching from Eyemouth in the South East all the way round the Scottish coastline to Glasgow and there were also districts on islands or groups of islands -Orkney, Shetland, Stornoway, The Isle of Bute and the Isle of Man making a grand total of twenty-one. Each was the responsibility of a fishery officer. Given that the officers were quite isolated, they had to work to strict guidelines, and would be faced with difficult decisions in dealing with fishcurers whose livelihoods were dependent upon gaining their approval.

After Primrose took over the responsibility for the Board there is a distinct improvement in the quality of the annual reports and – as we have seen- in the gathering and dissemination of information. Apart from one case in 1817,6 the Board had paid little attention to the trade on the Continent, but this changed once he took over.

1. Aberdeen Journal 1st November 1848

2. Notice of retirement in the Edinburgh Evening News 25/1/1882

3. Youngson A.J. The Making of Classical Edinburgh (Edinburgh 2002) p.222

4. Select Committee on the Herring Brand(Scotland) 30 May 1881

5. Report of the commissioners appointed by the Lords Commissioners of Her Majesty's Treasury to inquire into certain civil departments in Scotland (Treasury Report),1870 p.4

6. Report by the Commissioners for the Herring Fishery 1817 p.2