A man who helped transform the old town

Neilson delivery lorry.
Neilson delivery lorry.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the history which is often preserved in the names of our streets.

In my area of Falkirk for example we commemorate famous men like former Provosts Azariah Griffiths and William Hodge who served around the time the streets were created in the 1880s.

Interesting as their stories undoubtedly are they don’t come close to the career of a man of many parts who gave his name to my street around the same time – Bailie William Wood Neilson.

Until his death in 1915 he was at the heart of almost every development of significance in the burgh while at the same time creating a highly successful aerated water company which at one time was a rival to Barrs.

William’s family hailed from Greenwells near Shieldhill where he was born in 1854 the only son of a very successful farmer whose many talents included poetry and music – among his published works were patriotic songs celebrating the Royal Family!

Young William attended school in Shieldhill and Reddingmuirhead before joining his father on the farm where he acquired practical knowledge of land surveying in which his father was something of an expert.

In 1879 despite having no formal qualifications he was selected from over 100 applicants to be Falkirk’s sanitary inspector coupled with the post of land surveyor.

His uncle James was a very successful auctioneer in the town and no doubt helped with the contacts he needed to get his career underway.

He was just 25 and it was the start of a long and very successful career which saw him at one time simultaneously hold the posts of cleansing inspector, master of works, inspector of lighting, firemaster and inspector of food and drugs as well as his two main jobs.

He quickly became a Scottish expert in sanitary matters and in the town established a public cleansing department to replace the unsatisfactory private contractors employed up until then. He was also well to the fore in the various schemes to improve the failing water supply and is credited with creating Newmarket Street as we know it today.

Despite these successes some councillors thought he had too much power and following an attempt to strip him of some of his offices he resigned and turned his attention to another project.

The growing temperance movement and the host of thirsty iron workers made aerated waters a good investment and in 1899 he purchased the established Falkirk works of James Marshall.

Under his shrewd management and that of his sons, the business expanded from Garthall works (where Woodlands Games Hall stands today) to West Calder, Hamilton and Motherwell.

Soon the Neilson name appeared on bottles and carts all across central Scotland.

Not long afterwards he accepted an invitation to stand in the local elections no doubt with a view to taking revenge on the rascals who had unseated him.

He was elected in 1902 and went on to serve with great distinction as Dean of Guild where his earlier experience was invaluable.

After a short spell on the magistrates’ bench William Wood Neilson retired from the council in 1913 because of failing health and died two years later aged just 61.

As the cortege left his home at Stewartfield, Gartcows Road, the Steeple bell rang continuously and the flag above the Municipal Buildings flew at half mast. A fitting tribute to a man who helped transform the old town and lay the foundations for what we enjoy today.

I am very grateful to his great-granddaughter Jean Whyte of Dorrator Road for her help with this story and for access to the family photographs.