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

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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.

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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.

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

Caroline 1868

caroline 1871

North Street

North Street

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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

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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.

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A Journey Through The Past And Back Again

Sometimes life holds out a little magic, and all you have to do is grab it.

Looking back into my family history, I’d reached the late 1700s, and I seemed to be stuck there. Digging into a different family history site recently, I struck lucky. Suddenly I was tumbling back and back through time. All the way to 1545, in fact. 250 years in a day.  It felt like being the Doctor, but without the life-threatening adventures, Daleks, or sonic screwdriver.

I discovered that my family has in roots in Westow. I’d never heard of it before, but it’s a tiny village (current population 339) near Kirkham Priory, and five miles from Malton. 1545 was the first Nickson birth recorded there, but keeping births, marriages, and deaths in Parish Registers only became law in 1538; they could well have been there for centuries before that.

John Nickson was the first, then his son Thomas, born in 1587, and his son Thomas, who arrived in 1617. William came in 1660, Richard in 1692, another Richard in 1729, And then Isaac in 1752. One of his children – had had seven – was yet one more Isaac, who came squalling into the world in 1785, hanging around until 1857.

That Isaac is pivotal to the family tale. He certainly broke away from Westow. Around 1720 he ran an inn called the Golden Lion in Malton, five miles from home, and somewhere around the middle of the decade decided to try his luck in Leeds, taking his wife and children with him. That’s how we came to this town.

The descendants remained. Isaac himself went back to Westow to die in 1857, so the pull of the place and his forbears must have been strong. Or perhaps he’d simply had enough of life in a noisy, dirty town that was growing by the day, with its dark Satanic mills, industry, and crime.

On Saturday I visited Westow. A pilgrimage of sorts, if you like. I needed to see the place, to sense if there was any atavistic tug. It’s barely a village, really more a hamlet. There’s a pub, but no shop. Some old buildings along the main street, which is pretty much the only street. It’s peaceful, bucolic, surround by fields, deep in the heart of arable farming country.

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A number of the places look as if they were probably standing when Isaac struck out for Malton. Did he live in any of these houses? There’s no way to tell, and ultimately it doesn’t matter. Too many other generations of stories will have filled the stones since then.

And there’s an old hall, of course, as there should be in every village. Safe to say my family never lived there.

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The church is about a mile away, equidistant between the two villages it serves. The old Norman tower still stands, I’ve read, but the rest is newer, rebuilt from the original stones. It was locked, but what I wanted was outside: the graveyard.

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It was always hopeful thinking to imagine I’d see a Nickson headstone. Maybe Isaac’s after he returned to die. But no, not a single mention of Nickson. Yet, that was fine, I realised as we drove away. I’d seen the place, I’d walked some of the same earth they did all those centuries before. Now I knew.

From there, to Malton. The Golden Lion still stands in the marketplace. It’s been empty for a few years, apparently, but still in good condition. I stood across the street as I took a picture and looked up at the two floors above the bar, thinking that Isaac and his family lived and slept there. They had joy, they had pain there. That single upward glance seemed to cross 200 years in a heartbeat.

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That’s what I try to do as a writer. I try to bring the past alive, to make the people breathe in the here and now. It’s a way to try and commemorate people who would otherwise be unremembered. Many are fictional, of course, but some did live.

Like all writers, I love hearing from readers who enjoy the work, for whom the people who spring out of my head seem real (so please keep the emails coming). And good reviews are heartening. Two that arrived in the last week for On Copper Street, out in America as an ebook on June 1) made me happy. Booklist gave it a starred review and call the series “top-notch,” writing: “the story features meticulously researched period detail; a strong sense of the social, economic, and political situation at the time.” Publishers Weekly noted: “Nickson successfully creates an intimacy between the characters and the reader by showing, with each successive book, how his protagonists grow and change as they face life’s milestones: marriage, children, promotions at work, and the death of dear friends.” And past is place as well as people. The Fully Booked blog wrote: “When the sad time comes for Chris Nickson to shuffle off this mortal coil you will probably find the word ‘Leeds’ engraved on his heart. His knowledge of the city encompasses every nook and cranny, every church, chapel and graveyard, every legend, every tall tale, every dark hour and every moment of joy.” It’s not the first time someone has said I have Leeds in my core. But it’s probably true. I came back here after almost 40 years away. Isaac Nickson had his Westow, the place that called him home. I have Leeds.

Yes, those reviews make me feel I’m doing something right in my writing.

As I said at the start, sometimes life holds out a little magic.