ONE HUNDRED YEARS BEFORE THE MAST
ONE FAMILY'S JOURNEY THROUGH TIME
by STEWART HACKNEY
As a young boy at school, my favourite subject was history, but I
didn’t realise at the time just how much it would dominate my thoughts
in later life. I have always been fascinated with the demographics and
socio-economics of "the family", the questions of "who", "where", "why"
and "when" have never been far from the forefront of my mind.
Who were my ancestors? Where did they originate from? Why did they come to
Knottingley? Why did they move away? When did this all start? Just some
of the questions that are only now starting to receive some answers. But
with every answer more questions arise. History and more specifically
genealogy, can become an addiction and the need for an answer becomes
all consuming. Sometimes the answers, while not what you were expecting
or hoping for, are far more interesting.
Like many other people who take up genealogy as a hobby, I started with
the thought that there may be a line to nobility, land or money. The
fact is, my father’s ancestral family were ordinary hard working folk,
coping with the trials and tribulations of life in a community that was
renowned for being poor. A community that up to the late 19th century
lived in exceptionally squalid conditions where sanitation was non
existent, disease and hunger were common place and education was a
luxury not many could afford. Knottingley of the 1800’s was a hard place
in which to live, described by historians as a place with dark
passageways and cramped conditions. The one thing that comes through all
of this is the way in which families stuck together, to help each other
through the trials of life, something that in today’s society, for the
most part, is missing.
This account of the Adams family, while personal to my family, is by no
means an isolated story; there were many dozens of families in
Knottingley who owed their existence to the waterways and coastal routes
of the area.
Many made a meagre living on the canals and rivers - but many died by the
sea, the infant mortality was extremely high and the general life
expectancy was low.
Although Knottingley was mentioned in the Doomsday Book as being part of
the Pontefract community, the area was inhabited from about the 7th
century. During the life of Pontefract Castle, Knottingley was the port
where the provisions for the castle were landed and stored.
The start of the industrial revolution gave Knottingley the growth spurt
it needed to move from a small farming community of the 1700‘s to an
important inland port, the furthest from the sea. This transition gave
rise to a new community, "the watermen", sometimes entire families
living and working on the river and later the canals in and around the
area. The work was hard and dangerous, conditions were more cramped than
those of the main town but there was work to be had and a living to be
made. Most of the boats were Sloops or Keels of about 40 - 60ft.
Necessity demanded that the bulk of the boat’s capacity was taken up by
the cargo hold, therefore living space was a premium and many Masters
had large families. Under normal conditions the crew of a sloop
consisted of three mariners, the Master, a Mate and an Ordinary Seaman
but the fleet of Knottingley turned into a floating "town".
Many of the "watermen" married within the community, therefore there are
many families who are related in Knottingley that are bound by a single
link to the past - the waterways.
In order to understand the conditions under which these families lived you
first have to understand the boats on which they worked.
The Keels built in and around Knottingley were derived from designs that
dated back to the Viking long boat. The word Keel is derived from the
Anglo Saxon for a single masted square rigged boat, ceol. Keels, as
working vessels, have been known about in the Yorkshire area since the
16th century, being listed in York Corporation’s Tudor records.
By the start of the nineteenth century when Knottingley started to come
into its own as a port, the Keel was built out of carvel planked oak
with oak frames and oak bow and stern posts with pine decks. (The
twentieth century steel Keels followed the same design).
The hold had wooden hatches which were in turn covered by tarpaulins,
narrow side decks connected the short fore and aft decks. The Master’s
cabin was under the Aft deck while the crew were under the fore deck,
the single mast carried square white mainsail with topsail over. Keels
were tiller steered and their dimensions were determined by the
waterways they worked and the lock sizes on those waterways.
Keels were the waterway’s workhorse for over five hundred years but by the
start of the twentieth century, cheaper, faster means of transport were
available and the building of sail boats declined. By the Second World
War, grants were available to motorise any remaining sailing Keels.
Sloops were developed from the Keel design in the eighteenth century and
were designed to work both in estuarial as well as inland waterways,
carrying up to 130 tons of bulk cargo; farm produce from Lincolnshire,
coal from West Yorkshire, tiles, cement and chalk stone from Barton and
South Ferriby, to the Humber ports.
Sloops were heavy clinker built boats with triangular main and fore sails
tanned with preservatives which gave them an ochre colour, this design
of fore and aft rigging was particularly efficient in the Humber tidal
regions. As with the Keel, this boat was tiller steered and the hold was
covered by wooden hatches with tarpaulins over. The Captain’s cabin was
under the aft deck while the crew cabin was under the fore deck.
Through the work of the Humber Sloop and Keel Preservation Society, these
boats live on and sail today on the River Humber, trips can be arranged
through their web site www.humberships.org.uk
My ancestral family, the Adams, were just one of those who made a living
from the waterways of the area. John Adams, born 1740 at Pontefract,
moved to Knottingley in about 1760. His first son, Alexander, was born
at Knottingley in 1760 and here started the transition from agricultural
labourers to the family’s one hundred years on the waterways, both in
Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. There were three other sons recorded;
William born circa 1761, Abraham 1764 and John born 1766. To date I have
not traced the descendants of William or Abraham, but John’s family all
lived and worked on the waterways.
Alexander Adams and his wife Mary (Rogers) had five sons and two
daughters; William 1784, James 1786, Alexander 1794, Thomas 1797,
Margaret 1783 and Mary 1792. William Adams was, as far as I can
determine, the first of the familys’ mariners. He married Mary Ouram
(their family name later changed to Howram) of Ferrybridge, and they had
seven sons and one daughter that I have been able to trace. Of these,
five of the surviving sons lived or made a living from Knottingley
vessels. It should also be noted that the Owram or Howram family also
had close links to the waterways.
JOHN ADAMS: My Gt, Gt, Great Grandfather, John Adams, was William’s
youngest son. Born in 1827, he married Hanna Coward whose family were
already earning a living from the waterways. Hanna’s uncle was Charles
Coward, captain of the Apollos, and his son, also called Charles,
followed him to sea. Both gave their lives and were drowned in stormy
John Adams was a Master Mariner and master of the sloop Two Sisters owned
by Knottingley businessmen. The cargo, in the main, was lime from the
kilns at Brotherton and Fairburn, transported to the farmlands of
Lincolnshire. As the coal fields of Yorkshire expanded and the need for
more industrial power grew, coal became the primary cargo, the "black
gold" was moved along the newly constructed canal system from
Knottingley to Hull, Goole and Saltfleet Lincolnshire, for forward
shipping to the continent.
John and Hanna had a family that consisted of five daughters and one son,
also called John, who worked on the Two Sisters with his father until he
was drowned in1876 at the age of 25 years.
In 1866 at the age of 37, while giving birth to her youngest daughter
Sarah, Hanna died and John had no option but to move the entire family
onto the Two Sisters and there they remained until one by one they
married or became of an age that allowed them to move out. My Gt, Great
Grandmother Alice, born 1857, was probably the first to leave when she
married Thomas Midgley Brook. Alice had two children before she married
Thomas; John Edward Adams, born 1875, (my Great Grandfather) and Lilly,
born 1876. Lilly died at 18 months old in 1878.
EDWARD ADAMS: William and Mary’s second youngest son. Born in
1820, he was to become a very successful businessman as both a coal
merchant and boat owner. Edward married Jane Dixon, and together they
had a large family of 7 sons and 3 daughters; something that was very
common in the 19th century. Edward provided very well for the family.
His "empire" consisted of several boats, each mastered by his sons, bulk
coal businesses in Knottingley and Saltfleet, Lincolnshire and property
in Knottingley. Adams buildings (Adams Yard) a row of terraced cottages
and storage buildings were located in Low Green where United Glass
warehouse now stands opposite the boat building yards and the Red Lion
public house. Edward also owned seven properties in Aire Street, the hub
of the town at that time. Edward’s family was, even by the standards of
the day, dogged by disaster, something for which his wealth cold not
His son Edward, born in 1852, married Grace Dorothy Tate and they had three
children. The youngest, Amy, was the inspiration for naming Edward Snr’s
Sloop "Amy". In addition to his life on the waterways, Edward was also
an Inn Keeper; landlord of the Rodney Inn at Skidbrook, Lincolnshire.
Like many of the day, Edward had to survive with two occupations. Amy
was scalded to death at the age of 4 years and is buried at Knottingley
along with her mother. Three years later in 1887 at the age of 35 years,
Edward was drowned in Hull Old Port in somewhat suspicious circumstances
and is buried near Saltfleet Lincolnshire.
Another of Edward’s sons, Robert, drowned while serving on the sloop "Try".
This episode (the Saltfleet Tragedy) forms one of the family’s darkest
moments when the boat mastered by Captain John Adams, floundered in a
storm off Saltfleet Haven. Johns wife and three of his children were
lost, along with his brother Robert, Edward and Jane’s youngest child.
The Try was eventually restored and returned to work. Captain John died
in 1927 after a full working life on the waterways.
JAMES ADAMS: Born in 1816, James Adams, like his other brothers,
worked as a mariner until his death in 1869. James married but only had
one daughter, Susannah. His wife Elizabeth died at the age of 29 and
there is no record of James remarrying.
WILLIAM ADAMS: Born in 1813, William was master of the Keel "Industry"
and by 1871 was working with his only son also called William who was
born in 1844. Following the death of his father in 1881, William Jnr
married and he and his wife Hanna worked as Master and wife of the sloop
GEORGE ADAMS: Born in 1808, George and his wife Maria had six children,
however two of the boys died within their first year. Maria died at the
age of 29 following the birth of their youngest son, Thomas, in 1840.
George worked, not only as others did on the inland waterways, but also
along coastal waters. He was lost at sea in a violent storm in 1857 off
the Cromer coast.
THOMAS ADAMS: The eldest of the brothers, Thomas was also listed as a
mariner, but he was dogged with ill health. Thomas married and had one
child, Elizabeth, born in 1834. His wife Harriet died shortly
afterwards. Thomas was forced to retire form a working life and was for
the most part looked after by his mother Mary, until he died in 1843 at
the age of 37 years.
Many of the family’s daughters married other watermen, and the tradition of
life on the sloops and keels remained until the start of the 20th
century, when, with the advance of the railways and road traffic, the
need for the waterways declined. It was at this time that the family
members moved into the industries like the glass works and the tar
works. By the 1920’s many of the sailing sloops and keels had
disappeared from the Knottingley area; powered vessels were now the mode
of transport and an entire way of life was being consigned to history.
The Adams family played their part as many other Knottingley families did.
For over one hundred years they helped drive the economy and start the
industrial revolution in this area. Some paid the ultimate sacrifice,
many were drowned, life was hard but life continued.
Perhaps the epitaph of Jane Adams illustrates the pain and suffering of many
mariner families of the time.
"I was long with pain depressed
That wore my strength away
It made me long for endless rest
Which never can decay
Afflictions sore long time I bore
Physicians were in vain
Till God did please by death to ease
And free me from my pain"