Something Very Different

This is…well, I have a good idea about what I’d like it to become, but whether that will ever happen is another matter.

I’ve long harboured the idea of a book where Leeds is the main character, seen as it grows, seen through different eyes with different views. How to do it has always been the question. Finally, an idea came – a multi-generational saga. Not covering all of history, but a part of it. My own ancestors arrived here in the 1820s. Going from there to just after World War I would let me tell a very fictionalised version of their stories, as well as leaving Leeds the focus of it all in what was probably the richest time – in every way – of its growth.

Who knows how far I’ll get. But this is a tentative beginning. Please, let me know what you think.

Many years later, sitting by the hearth as the flames rose from new coal on the fire, he wondered what he used to dream after he closed the shutters in his room at the Golden Lion.

The market square would be quiet by then, the echo of the bell at St. Michael’s tolling eleven. All of Malton dark. His wife would already be asleep, the children bundled together in another big bed. Finally the darkness would take him for a few hours, until first light crept through the window and the day began again.

Hard work, running an inn. Long hours, frantic whenever a coach arrived. The bustle of market day, people crowding in to eat and drink. No time to plan then, not even to think. But man was made for work and he earned money.

In the rare luxury of off hour, he could stroll around the town. See the butcher’s shop he’d once run on Newbiggin. It was a milliner’s now, run by Mrs. Mercer, catering to women with taste and husbands who’d allow them to run up bills.

The butcher’s, the inn, all of them of them had steps, he realised, always moving towards something, even if he didn’t understand then what it might be. Going back to being six years old in Westow, set out in the fields to run around and scare the crows, working in the harvest until he was big enough to help with the farming.

Then  he was twelve, riding with his father in the cart, five miles over tracks, looking at the endless flat fields and hedgerows and stretched away as far as he could see. They followed the old road into Malton, the old horse weary in its traces, hooves dragging up dust on a bright, dry summer morning.

‘You must do your work well, Isaac. Promise me.’ His father wasn’t a man to spend words. The village parson had taught him his letters, enough to make out the words on a page and sign his name. But he could read the land and the weather, It was knowledge he kept inside, small secrets to be hoarded. He turned his head, eyes watching his son. The hands that cradled the reins were hard, the colour of oak.

‘I will.’ He was going to live with the butcher and his family, apprenticed in a trade. He’d make something of himself, his mother insisted. The second of the three sons, not the one who’d inherit the scrap of land that fed the family and gave them produce to sell. The money they’d saved for this opportunity was his inheritance.

The cart moving through the market square, almost empty today. He’d been here before, several times a year. This time, though, it seemed larger, more forbidding, ready to swallow him. No journey home at the end of the day. The year of our Lord 1792. The first step.

Each one after that had been bigger. A journeyman butcher. His own shop. Marriage. The tumble when his business failed. The change to managing the inn.

And finally the leap, the move to Leeds. Was that the idea that filled his dreams on those winter nights upstairs at the Golden Lion? He couldn’t remember now.

 

The fire crackled, a coal sparked on to the rug. He stamped it out and a memory came unbidden.

He was fourteen. A chilly late autumn day, across through the market square in his bloodied apron on an errand for his master. Isaac spotted his father, one of so many selling and buying. He sat on the back of the cart, vegetables piled neatly on the wood. A face as weathered and creased as tree bark as he took someone’s money. Dividing the coins between the two pockets of his waistcoat. Dipping his head as he handed over the purchase with large hands, scarred from a lifetime of the fields. He’d become like a shadow Isaac had known for so long that was now slipping away as the light changed.

The man didn’t see his son and after a moment Isaac ran on, the apron flapping around his legs.

Fourteen, thinking he was a man because he worked for a living. Sleeping in a butcher’s house, eating at a butcher’s table. Doing all the petty, menial jobs: sweeping in the morning, raising the shutters on the shop, the cleaning and scouring when business was done for the day. The only consolation was eating meat with every meal. A life that was so tightly fenced that he might have been penned like one of the animals waiting for slaughter.

 

Months passed, piling one upon the other. Gradually he learned the trade. How to identify a good carcass, to wield the cleaver with a single smashing blow. All the cuts, setting the best aside for certain customers. He could lift a side of beef on his shoulder and heft it through the marketplace, laughing with the traders. From a solitary child he’d grown into a social youth, with a ready laugh and a pleasing manner. A shopkeeper’s pleasing traits. The opposite of his father. His hair grew thick and wild, a rich brown he kept trying to tame with a comb. He had a tilt in his eyes that made him look as if he might be trying to see beyond the horizon. Growing into manhood.

The only thing he could never do was wash the smell of blood from his hands.

‘It’s the butcher’s curse,’ his master said, watching as he scrubbed with the strong lye soap one night. ‘But at least the money you’ll earn will make up for it. Plenty of woman will put up with a bit of a stink for a secure life.’ He laughed as he lit his pipe.

Isaac stared, not understanding, scrubbing harder until his hands were raw.

And then, finally, he was in the last season of his apprenticeship. He could feel his freedom like a breeze, almost smell it. Served his seven years like a sentence, not even sure who he’d been when he started. A child he no longer recognised, someone dulled and fogged in the looking glass.

Half a day’s summer holiday, so rare it seemed like riches. A chance to wander around Malton without rushing hither and yon. Gazing in windows at the things he might soon be able to afford, then turning to stare at the clear sky over the tower of St. Leonard’s church. He’d arrived here on a day like this, he remembered, the earth dry and crumbling after three weeks without rain. Why should he recall that?

He lowered his eyes, breathing in the smell of horses and sweat, and spotted two figures emerging from Chancery Lane. Mrs. Coultas and her daughter Jane, walking arm in arm towards him. He’d served them both in the shop, always staring at the counter to avoid Jane’s steady look. Every time she saw him she seemed to be weighing his qualities and always fining them wanting.

As they passed, he raised his hat and wished them good afternoon. Mrs. Coultas nodded and gave a polite smile. But Jane stopped, inclining her head.

‘Mr. Lawrence, have you run away from your job?’

He could see the twinkle playing on her face, a little devilment. Her lips curled in amusement, as if she was gently laughing at him.

‘A half day,’ he told her, then blurted, ‘I’ll soon have served my time.’

Why did he say that, he wondered? To try and impress the girl three years younger than him? It wasn’t as if she came from grand stock. Just a farming family like his own, with a smallholding in Appleton-le Street. With her country face, turned brown by sun and weather, she’d done her share of work outside. But she carried herself like a lady.

‘What will you do then, Mr. Lawrence?’ the girl asked. Before he could answer, he mother was tugging her away, up towards the Golden Lion.

‘I’m sorry, sir. Come on, he’s got better things to do than waste his time talking to you. Honestly, I’ve told you before. So forward no man’s ever going to want you.’

Jane didn’t look back, walking over the cobbles in quick, confident strides and raising her chin in the air.

Advertisements

Breaking The Old Bonds

Fortunes could change quickly in Victorian England. In a single generation some men could leap beyond tradition. And some women could find power and independence.

It’s hardly a secret that most of my books are set in Leeds. But my family, on both sides, goes back generations here. Leeds and family are pretty much the same thing to me. But how did those ancestors of mine live?

Its turns out to be a question with a few surprising answers.

My great-great-great-great grandfather Isaac Nickson was born in 1785 and arrived in Leeds from Malton somewhere around 1826/7, with his wife Jane and six children (two more would be born here). In 1823 he’d been listed in the Malton trade directory as a butcher, with premises on Newbiggin, a trade he carried on in Leeds. How much he made of himself is debatable, at least from his shifting addresses: East Bar, a shop and house on Timble Bridge, 43, Marsh Lane, Garland’s Fold. By 1840, Jane had left him, moving to Rothwell with two of his daughters.

 

 

                          By Timble Bridge, late 19th century

1841 census_1

But things grow more interesting with the next generation.

Of his five sons, four became painters and paper hangers. It was a theme that would continue for some of the men into the 20th century. Others had similarly unskilled occupations – heeler and boot repair, tailor’s cutter. Poor men, in other words. My father and his brother were the first to have secondary education, in the 1920s, purely because they won scholarships.

Isaac’s oldest son, also named Isaac (b.1815), and younger brother George (b.1820), were in business together, with premises in Birch’s Yard, 4, Lowerhead Row, advertising themselves as House and Sign Painters, Paper Hangers, Marble Painter Manufacturers.

1848 Issac and George

George, who married Mary Caroline Hewson (known as Caroline) in 1839, was at Crimble Row, close to Camp Road.

crimble street

Crimble Row, 20th century

Another brother, William Isaac (b.1824), was also a painter, as was youngest sibling, John (b.1827), who lived first on Lower Brunswick Street, then Vandyke Street, off Regent Street, and had his premises at Ship Inn Yard, off Briggate

ship inn yard

Ship Inn Yard

George and Isaac seemed to go their separate ways before George’s death in 1867. Caroline took over George’s business, very rare for a woman in those days, and in the 1871 census she’s shown as employing seven men and two boys – obviously a successful woman. She was living at 200, North Street, and had one servant, 15-year-old Elizabeth Strafford. George was buried at Beckett Street Cemetery, plot 5932. In 1877, Caroline married George Heuthwaite, a widower of Hunslet Road who made his living as a dyer, and she died in Hunslet 20 years later.

birchs yard

Entrance to Birch’s Yard on left, past Dobson’s

Caroline 1868

caroline 1871

North Street

North Street

FullSizeRender (8)

Gravestone for George and Caroline’s son, Thomas. Beckett St. Cemetery

Caroline’s son, Robert Hewson Nickson, probably took over the business and made it pay well, with premises in Lonsdale Yard on the Lowerhead Row (later known as Bradley’s Yard).

robert lonsdale

lonsdales yard

Lonsdale Yard

On his death in 1893 he left £331 19s 5d over £40,000 in today’s money, a staggering figure for a working-class man. Yet they still lived in an ordinary terraced house on Stamford Street, although they had a servant, Edith K. Simmons, aged 12.

stamford street

Stamford Street

In 1901, Robert’s widow, Clara, is listed as a painter and decorator, so she took over the business, although two years later she’d sold it and had a boot making business on Roundhay Road.

 

Isaac obviously as well as his brother, because in 1868, still living on Wade Lane, he was on the electoral roll, owning property worth more than £50, a large amount. In these days of a universal franchise, it’s difficult to believe how restricted the vote was in the 19th century.

Isaac voter 1868

wade street

Wade Street, 20th Century

Isaac Jr.’s son William Robert was yet another painter. Born in 1837, he learned the trade properly, and the 1861 census lists him as a journeyman painter, so he’d obviously completed his apprenticeship. At that point he was living on Wade Street with his father (although in the census he’s shown as a servant, strangely, and his uncle William is also shown there, again as a servant, although he has his own census listing with his family on Elm Street). But by 1868, he, too, was on the electoral roll.

1861 census2

WR voter 1868

William Robert had his business premises in Wheatsheaf Yard, off Briggate.

entrance to wheatsheaf yard

Entrance to Wheatsheaf Yard

FullSizeRender (10)

Grave of William Robert and three of his children, Beckett Street Cemetery

He died in 1890, but the 1891 census shows his widow Anna (or Hannah) Elizabeth living on the very respectable Ramsden Terrace and running the painting and decorating business – not bad for someone, it was noted, who could not write.

Ann1891

ramsden terrace top of pic

Ramsden Terrace at top of picture

Her son (yet another Isaac) lived with her, following in his father’s footsteps as a painter and decorator.

These are just a few instances, of course. But they show that in Victorian Leeds, it was possible for working men to make the leap across the class barrier to wealth and property. Yet what strikes me as remarkable is the fact that not once, but three times, women took over the businesses, and very male businesses at that. They didn’t give up, didn’t immediately sell them off. And they did it all successfully. In a time when that wasn’t a woman’s role, they showed that women could do it, and do it well. It was possible, for some, to transcend their origins and traditional roles.

Of course, not all the brothers did so well. William Isaac, my great-great-great grandfather, married Charlotte Berry in 1844. They had two children, John William and Martha, and lived on Elm Street, just off York Road in the Bank.

elm street

1871 census

William died in 1883, with no money for a funeral, not even enough for a guinea grave. He’s buried in an unmarked plot at Beckett Street Cemetery. Charlotte moved in with Margaret and her husband in Louisa Street in Hunslet. She died in 1889, and is also buried in a pauper’s grave at Beckett Street.

So, to those who have occasionally expressed surprise that Annabelle Harper in my Victorian series of books would be able to run a business so well, all I can say is that the precedent is right there. No wonder I see it as natural; it’s in the family.

All street images from Leodis.