Sean Connery in Haddington

On August 25th 1930, in Foutainbridge, Edinburgh, Thomas, the elder son of Effie and Joe Connery was born. The event, although it was to prove significant, did not save the house concerned from the ravages of demolition, but a recently erected plaque opposite the Foutainbridge brewery has belatedly earmarked it as the birthplace of one of Edinburgh’s favourite sons.

Know first as Tommy and later as big Tam, the youngster grew up as a resourceful hardworking son of a very working class family. From an early age he worked in a variety of jobs, the best known of which were as paperboy and milkman, before his sense of restlessness caused him to join the Navy in the late 1940s. His Navy career was inconspicuous and he was invalided out with duodenal ulcers and a 6s 8d weekly pension in 1949, aged 19.

After a few more odd jobs, Connery won a scholarship with a British Legion scheme to provide a trade for young disabled ex-Servicemen and decided to become a French polisher.

Thus qualified, he joined the ranks of Starks, Joiners and Undertakers, in the Nungate, Haddington, and his brief flirtation with the Royal Burgh had begun.

The date was 1951-52 and, 50 years on, his short encounter with Haddington is still fondly remembered by some of his former colleagues. But many have now passed away, while for others, it was a long time ago and memories start to fade, hence the need to put pen to paper now.

Fifty years ago Starks was a thriving business, although it had already been devastated by fire in 1948. The undertaking side of the business made a large number of coffins for retail and wholesale distribution and a number of French polishers worked along with carpenters in providing the finished product. Some of the employees, whose names remain well known in Haddington today, include the late John Blackie, The Wark brothers, Tom and George, the late Willie Young and his younger brother John, who started his apprenticeship as a French polisher around that time.

John Young, currently residing in Davidson Terrace, provided most of the material for this short article.

He recalls how Connery originally travelled daily from Fountainbridge in the company of three others, a man and two women, a timely reminder of just how important an employer Starks was at that time. For whatever reason, however, when Saturday work was to hand, Big Tam developed the habit of staying over in Haddington on the Friday night, originally sleeping in his workplace, allegedly in one of the (empty) coffins. Over the years Sean, as he became known, may have been responsible for spreading this story himself and it has become a well known part of the Connery folklore!

The use of coffins as containers for the not yet dead seems to have been fairly common practice in those days, and well-known Nungate resident Hugh McAuley remembers narrowly avoiding being the victim of such macabre horseplay at the hands of a couple of Starks employees, when visiting the yard for stretchers for the family washing line.

Whether Connery was one of his would-be imprisoners is unclear, but he is remembered as a robust and energetic practical joker. Tom Wark, however, who worked with him for about five months, recalls him merely as a handsome man of about twenty-one.

As Tam became established as a French polisher of promise, and his friendship with Willie Young developed, he was only too happy to forsake the coffin bed and spend his Friday nights with his pal in Balfour Street, (now Priory Walk). John smilingly recalls Tam’s massive appetite – “He ate everything that was put in front of him” – and the fact that none of the beds in the household was long enough to accommodate him, Tam slept with his feet sticking out of the end of the bed.

Sadly, it has not been possible to find out anything about Tam’s love life at this stage, but his thespian leanings were beginning to surface. He could often be heard declaiming classic speeches or quoting poetry as those around him got on with their work.

Although it is now 50 years since Connery left Starks and with the passing of time it becomes increasingly difficult to separate fact from folklore, Tam’s departure seems to be entirely in keeping with the swashbuckling star he was to become.

As John Young recalls it, the foreman was out and Big Tam seized the opportunity to practise his Shakespeare by wrapping himself in a tarpaulin and loudly sounding off to the rapidly gathering audience! On the foreman’s return, the confrontation became nasty and Big Tam stormed off, via Fountainbridge and the London stage, for Hollywood, his promising career as a French polisher in tatters!

It is a measure of the man’s stature that rumours periodically surface about Big Tam’s supposed revisiting of Haddington. It has been said that he is looking for a house within commuting distance of Muirfield, but it seems likely that the lack of legroom would rule out a return to Priory Walk!

Persistent rumours abound that he has been seen in the Waterside Bistro within the last few years asking for his pal, Willie Young. John Young finds this entirely believable. Connery would have been unaware of Willie’s death in 1988, and despite his recent accolade of being nominated “The Greatest Living Scotsman” it seems possible that he would have decided to look up the old pal who gave him a bed in his time of need!

Are there any good scriptwriters out there?

Bob Mitchell
May ‘02