Denis Bennett stepped out the door of the Old Fort Tavern onto the cobbles of Bath Street and into the dank air. Dark, dreary air that, with one brushstroke, coloured the Liverpool canvas grey. Denis turned up the collar of his coat against the biting north-east wind that licked the waters of the Mersey into short, sharp waves. A forest of ships’ masts stood above him, piercing the fog as it dispersed above the walls of Prince’s Dock.
Ships, that Denis had hoped he would be unloading that day. He had managed only two days work in the past week, earning seven shillings. It wasn’t enough; a guinea and his family could live in comfort, but work was scarce. That morning, after waiting with the other porters and hoping for a day’s work, he’d been rejected again. How to tell Hannah?
It wasn’t his intention to stay long at the tavern, but Paddy Kelly was there after finishing up at Clarence Dock. Kelly told Denis a grim story of famine refugees; a steamer had spilled out another miserable flood of 250 desperate souls from Dublin. Deck passengers on a night crossing had endured a horrendous journey. A tarpaulin, rigged up to give protection, had provided little as the sea washed over the ship. Some lost what scant luggage they owned when it was swept overboard. One poor woman lost more than that.
“Ah, Den, was so sad.” Kelly had said. “That poor woman. And the other pitiful beggars. Wet and cold; they’ve nothing to keep ’em warm.”
“Aye, and I don’t know how we can help ’em. I’m no use; can’t even get enough work for meself. And they say there‘s been more deaths here from cholera. What have they come to?” Denis had replied.
Thrusting his hands in his pockets, Denis now turned away from the tavern to go home. In the distance, some boys, thin frames draped in rags, kicked a ball among themselves. Two figures broke away from the group.
“Da, Da,” his sons called out.
“Why ya going home so early, Da?” Patrick, the younger boy, said coming up to him.
“Naw work for me the-day,” his father said, neglecting to explain his whereabouts for the intervening hours since he left that morning. “What are you lads doing out here. Why are you not being at school?”
“Naw school for us the-day,” John came back, mimicking his father’s accent.
Denis feigned a swipe at John, but put his arm around his shoulders instead, giving him a quick hug, after the grinning boy tried to duck away. He continued on his well-worn route home from the docks, now joined by his sons. His boys were his light and warmth. Besides these two, there was baby James at home with Hannah, Michael, who ran errands for a victualler, and Bernard, who had a job shoeing horses. Frank, well, Denis just hoped he was safe. The family hadn’t seen him in a while. Word was that he was working as a ship’s cabin boy, and Denis always kept an eye out for him. He had stayed at the docks today, just in case.
Now, as they walked along, the melancholy truly grabbed him. He thought of Catherine, the only girl in the family, who died in 1843.
“Bloomin’ chin cough,” Denis said under his breath. “My poor, wee lassie.”
“What, Da?” Patrick said.
Patrick had a sudden thought. “Oh, Da, please can we go the toff’s way?” he said, anxiously tugging at his father’s elbow. He was referring to Water and Dale Streets, the main, commercial thoroughfare of Liverpool. “Paddy O’Neil said there’s a beautiful tea set in Joneses window.”
Denis usually kept away from the crowds, preferring to go via Chapel, Tithebarn, and then across Vernon, which came out opposite Cumberland, his home street.
Annotated map from Liverpool Pictorial – http://liverpoolpictorial.co.uk/liverpool_1863/
He considered Patrick’s suggestion. The thought of having the boys entertained by the sights of central Liverpool cheered him, and it would delay his arrival home. His failure to secure work for the day and his time at the public-house weren’t the only things he was hesitant to discuss with Hannah. He thought about the woman on the steamer, and Kelly’s words echoed.
Finally, “all right.” Denis stopped, stood a bit taller, buttoned his threadbare coat and walked towards Water Street.
Patrick ran back around the corner after his brother, who had already proceeded into Chapel Street. He stopped and shouted, “John, we’re going the other way, to see the silver tea set.” John retraced his steps.
His younger brother watched him as he ran past St. Nicholas’ Church, standing majestic, its spire pointed to heaven. “I like St Nick’s,” Patrick said, when he was back at his father’s side, “it’s much grander than St Anthony’s.”
“God visits them both, Pat.”
John came up to Denis and Patrick. “I seen the tea set, already.”
“Now, young Johnny, you know that your mammy and I don’t like you going through town by yourselves. The rich folk don’t want you boys hanging around causing a nuisance,” Denis said, as they continued walking. The boys amused themselves along the way by trying to push each other into the horse droppings that were scattered about.
Just past the newly-completed Tower Building, the trio reached Water Street and began the climb towards the Town Hall, half a mile in the distance. Although they couldn’t yet see it, opposite the Town Hall, on the corner of Dale and Castle Streets, was the building of Robert Jones and Sons, jewellers and silversmiths.
To read the engraving on the silver tea tray in the store window, Christopher Hird Jones had to first remove the items from it. He put his top hat on the counter, along with his cane. He withdrew piece after piece from the tray, the silver kettle, sugar basin, cream ewer and tea and coffee pots, placing them aside with the utmost care. His brothers had pressed each piece from the finest silver plate, before joining them and using a variety of tools to engrave and hammer an intricate design. Spoons, forks and sugar tongs followed as Christopher studied them one by one and laid them aside.
He read the inscription aloud. “Presented to Mr. William Coulthard, eleven years Resident Engineer of the North Union Railway, by his fellow servants and other friends, on this occasion of his retiring from the service, 4th March, 1849.”
“You’ve done a splendid job with the tea service,” Christopher said to his younger brothers, Josiah and Robert, as he studied the sugar basin.
“Of course they’ve done a splendid job.” Christopher wheeled around at the voice. His sister Susannah came down the stairs from her lodgings above the shop and joined her brothers. “After all, they’re not the junior partners anymore, they are both masters.” She came over to Christopher, and they embraced.
“Yes, I know. Of course they are.”
He turned to his brothers who were standing side by side at the counter. “Master Goldsmiths. You would make Father proud.” Susannah’s gaze locked on her brother’s face and her eyes narrowed. Detecting his flippancy, she pressed her lips together and wrinkled her brow.
Being thirteen years older than his next younger brother, Christopher couldn’t help but take on the patriarch’s position when their father died, even though both his brothers had families of their own.
Realising his words had met with Susannah’s disapproval, he changed the subject and said to his sister. “I’m sorry I didn’t come up to visit you, Susannah. I really must get along, as I have a meeting of the Mechanics Institution tonight. I wanted to see the final product while I was in town.”
Christopher again focussed his attention on the silver items. He spun the sugar basin over to reveal the distinctive maker’s mark. RJ, the mark of his father, Robert Jones. He pulled in a deep breath, thrusting his chest out. Robert Jones had been a master goldsmith, like his father before him, when he died in 1833. Now the firm had been in existence for over 100 years.
Josiah interrupted his brother’s thoughts. “You are lucky that Mr Coulthard agreed to let us display his gift for a while.”
After gently wiping all the tableware and utensils with a soft cloth, Christopher put them onto the tray and back in the display window. Right at that moment, he looked out and saw a man in the street, with two scruffy boys, looking in.
The account above is a fictionalised, chance encounter in 1849 of Denis Bennett (my 3x great grandfather) and Christopher Hird Jones (Chris’s 4x great grandfather). With both men living and working in close proximity to each other, it is possible that they crossed paths. However, they would have led divergent lives, their social status being at opposite poles. This was typical of Liverpool life, with the mixture of rich merchants walking down the central streets and the very poor labourers living in the smelly, overcrowded courts tucked off alleyways in the town centre.
Note – the silver tea set did exist, but was presented to Mr Coulthard in 1847. I changed the date so that the boys dialogue would better represent their ages in 1849 (about 11 and 5).
The next blog post I do will follow Denis and the boys the rest of the way home.