Esther Liston

— #07 Annfield Street

Overview Newhaven and Leith Hospital Esther Liston Jimmy Rutherford

Newhaven's Last Working FIshwife

A personal reminiscence by Esther’s granddaughter, Jane Anne Liston

Grandma was born Esther Murray in 1896 in Newhaven.  Although her mother carried the creel, she did not want her daughters to follow such a hard life.  Esther went to Couper Street School, rather than the high school, Trinity Academy, because she wanted to stay with her friends.

One of the subjects she studied was dress-making, and after leaving school she became apprenticed to a dress-maker along at Starbank. However, she did not actually continue in that profession after completing the apprenticeship; instead she worked in the British and Argentine butcher’s shop in Ferry Road.  This change of direction must have coincided with the First World War and indeed that may have been the reason. (I did hear that one of the services offered by this shop was the neutering of tomcats round the back!)

Esther was young and strong, and used to swing the sides of meat on to her shoulder. ‘You’ll be sorry, my girl,’ warned the butcher, and indeed she did displace her collar-bone, which injury was probably to be exacerbated later by the creel.

A few years later, in 1923, she married George Liston, another Newhavener.  He worked at the Edinburgh Stock Exchange, although his parents were fisherfolk too; strange, then, that Esther felt she wasn’t considered ‘good enough’ by his family, and their wedding took place at the manse away up at Morningside in the south of Edinburgh, although they lived in Newhaven, settling in Ann (Annfield) Street.

Tragically, the marriage did not last long. George fell a victim to tuberculosis. Advised to get plenty of fresh air, he swapped the stock exchange for his father’s fishing boat, the trawler River Tweed.  It was not a good idea, and he died in 1932, leaving Esther a widow at 36, with two boys at primary school.

2_3237 Esther Liston in a posed picture wearing her "braws"

That was when Esther took the creel, involving an early start to buy the fish at the market, then selling it to her customers, and a career of over 40 years. I well remember her coming round in the 1960s in the navy working-dress, with the creel on her back, Tuesdays and Thursdays, and watching her fillet the fish on a board so expertly that there was hardly a bone left in it.  This spoiled me so that I am wary of fish from any other source.

The usual fish were haddie (haddock), sole and whiting, also halibut, turbot, dory and herring.  Occasionally she had partans (crab) for customers, very much ‘alive, alive-o’ which I watched warily from a safe distance as they gripped a piece of newspaper.  Saturdays she came round just to a few select customers, and in civvies with the fish in a
message-bag rather than the creel.

Esther stopped carrying the creel around the end of the 1960s, but still visited a small number of customers until she retired in 1976.  As she lived until she was 92, with hardly a day’s illness, the lifestyle cannot exactly have been harmful to her!  I don’t think I could manage two stone or more of fish on my back!

During the period of redevelopment, tenements on the north side of Annfield Street were scheduled for demolition.  Esther was one of the lucky ones that were able to be re–housed in one of the sympathetically designed new houses on Main Street where she lived out her days.

2_3238 Esther Liston carrying the creel wearing her darker working clothes, dark so as not to show the stains from the wet fish in her basket


Esther left a fine legacy to Newhaven in the form of her children and grandchildren.  Her son, George Liston Jnr, was founder of the original Newhaven Community Museum.  His son — Esther’s grandson —  Jeff Liston, an internationally well-respected paleontologist, is currently Chair of Newhaven Heritage, the charity which devised this Stravaig.