A Tale Of Two Brothers

Not just any pair of brothers; well, not to me. These are my great-great-great uncles

When my great-great-great-great grandfather moved to Leeds from Malton, had brought a family with him: a wife and four children. He was a butcher, and would have had to serve an apprenticeship in the trade. He quickly set up shop on Timble Bridge.

Isaac’s oldest son was also named Isaac, baptised in 1815. Four years later, another son named George, came into the world. Both were born in Malton and arrived in Leeds as boys As they grew, they apparently had little interest in following in their father’s footsteps. Instead, both became painters and decorators (as did another brother, John).

To enter the trade, they would probably have both had to serve an apprenticeship or indenture. Isaac Sr. would have needed to pay a fee for this, although it would have been less than for other trades.

Isaac married Elizabeth Watkinson, who was a year older than himself and the daughter of a wool stapler, at the Parish Church in Leeds in October 1834. He would have been 19. Their son, William Robert Nickson, was born in 1837. On the 1851 census, Isaac was listed as a painter and living at 50, Birch’s Yard.

George was also 19 when he married Mary Caroline Hewson, in 1839.   By 1851 they had four children, the oldest being a boy of nine, and lived at 31, Meanwood Road. George described himself as a painter and paper hanger.

Isaac and George went into business together in 1847. Before that they’d probably been journeymen, employed by others. Their business premises in the Lowerhead Row – in Birch’s Yard where Isaac was listed as living.

Birch’s Yard goes off to the left, between buildings

Home decoration and painting, and especially wallpaper, had become a thriving business as the 19th century progressed. Where it had once been an indulgence of the upper classes, it had moved beyond that. The middle classes wanted to make their mark on the houses they owned. Together, the brothers could take advantage of this (although their boast of ‘workmen sent all over the country’ was probably just as way to make themselves sound like a big firm). They were also listed as wallpaper marblers. This was a fad that had come back into vogue; knowing how to do it themselves would bring in more business.

George and Isaac seemed to do well enough for the best part of a decade. Then, in October 1856, Isaac announced in a newspaper ad that they’d dissolved the partnership “by mutual consent” and that he had new premises on Wade Street (although he’d also be in the place on Lowerhead Row until 1859). By now he was a sign-writer, furniture painter, whitewasher, and handled ornamental colouring, as well as “painting and paper hanging in all its branches.”

It seems straightforward enough. However, in a single, short line, a publication called Perry’s Bankrupt Gazette offered the real reason: The partnership had been dissolved on October 8 because of debts by George Nickson.

It wasn’t until 1859 that Isaac finally moved from the Birch Yard address to trade solely in Wade Street. He did also briefly have a place at 21, Roundhay Road in Sheepscar, but that doesn’t seem to have lasted long.

George kept on the Birch Yard premises as well as using his home address in Meanwood. Both appear on an invoice from 1858.

If he’d had debts, they hadn’t stopped him continuing to trade, which he did until his death on December 30, 1866, at the age of 46.

He was buried at Beckett Street Cemetery, his address showing as 42 North Street – barely a stone’s throw from where he used to live on Meanwood Road. His gravestone shows several of his children buried in the same plot.

He must have done moderately well for himself, although he only left under £450 to his wife.

But she proved to be a very adept businesswoman.

She continued the business after he died, and in the 1871 census proudly declared that as a painter and decorator she employed seven men and a boy.

However, in 1877, she married a man from Hunslet and moved there, dying in 1897 at the age of 76.

In 1870, their daughter Jane married a man named Ward, the event warranting a notice in the papers.

The death of his song George in Hunslet in 1888 also received a notice.

Isaac, however, had moved up in the world. Painting and decorating were lucrative for him. He’d become a voter, which means that his property on Wade Street, which was both home and workplace, as was often the case, had a good freehold value, and he apparently owned another property of Back Blundell Place

In 1866, he was one of a number of speakers at an event in the Working Men’s Hall, a sure sign that he’d become somebody. He was also listed as one of those campaigning for Edward Baines in the election.

He didn’t have too many years to enjoy his success. In May, 1871, though, Isaac died, aged 55. He was buried at Woodhouse Cemetery.

Interestingly, it wasn’t just George’s wife who continued the family business. Elizabeth, Isaac’s widow, was listed in the 1872 directory as a painter and paper hanger, still at the Wade Street address.

In 1876, however, she remarried, aged 63. On June 27, no longer calling herself a businesswoman, she married Thomas Drewery, a man 10 years her senior. He lived on Hanover Street, just off Hanover Square, a fashionable Leeds address, and styled himself as a gentleman.

Elizabeth die in 1899 and left £2200, a very respectable sum. However, the two people who shared the money hadn’t shown up before in her family. Who they were remains a mystery. Her second husband had died in 1892 and left over £2000 to his son.

Isaac and Elizabeth’s son, William Robert, also made a good living as a painter. He also held enough property to become a voter, with a house at 11 Wade Street, very close to his father. He died in 1890, by which time he and his family were living on Ramsden Terrace, and was buried at Beckett Street Cemetery.

Two brothers, two families that went very different ways. I have to admit, I’d love to know what debts of George’s broke up the partnership, or was there more simmering underneath? Far too late to know now, of course. But what we can learn does offer its own tale.