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Knottingley and Ferrybridge Memories



Being a descendant of Knottingley mariners, I grew up with tales of relatives who had gone to sea, and in many cases not returned. My paternal grandmother, Maud Houlder (nee Green) told a tale of her Uncle Russell, a naval pensioner (and merchant captain in his own right) who had only one leg, the other being cork. Uncle Russell slept in the afternoons, and little Maud entertained her friends by sticking pins into his cork leg whilst he slept. One day a friend decided to pre-empt her, but impaled the wrong leg!

Other stories were told by Aunt Maria (pronounced correctly, as in Black Maria). Maria was my grandmother’s aunt, and was the daughter of Ephraim Green, sea captain. She was an old lady living with us when I was growing up in Ivy Cottage on Womersley Road during the war, and spent her time knitting and entertaining my brother and myself. We learned that she had lost both sons to German torpedoes in the previous war, but typically, we were most interested in her account of the collapse of the Tay Bridge. She had been seventeen when this catastrophe occurred, and had dreamed of it during the night that it happened (as did many people apparently).

The events of that last Sunday of December 1879 were etched into my imagination to such an extent that for several years afterwards, I felt a frisson of excitement when crossing any of the canal bridges! Many years later as I was crossing the new Tay Bridge in Dundee, and saw the seaweed-covered stumps of the original structure, that original Frisson again overwhelmed me, and I remembered Aunt Maria with affection.

Maria had a younger sister, Lilly, who in her teens was lucky enough to obtain employment as a lady’s maid to the wife of J. Bruce Ismay, Director of the White Star Line of Liverpool. Undoubtedly her marine connections played a part in obtaining this post, and the fact that her father was by this time deceased must have had some influence. Lilly eventually left this employment to marry a local (Lancashire) farmer who had been an early pools winner. When he died in the mid-fifties, she returned to Knottingley, and whilst her cottage in Racca Green was being readied for her, stayed with us in Bondgate, Pontefract.

The weeks that she lived with us were memorable for a historically minded teenager. This was the time when A Night to Remember, later filmed under the same title, was published, and the Titanic disaster was once again in the public consciousness. (For people too young to remember, this is probably the best film ever made about the sinking, shot when many people could still remember it vividly.) Aunt Lill recounted the story of how J. Bruce Ismay decided not to take his wife on the maiden voyage; a simple decision that saved Lilly from an adventure that would really have made me sit up, had she lived through it. Her employer’s husband was unlucky enough to survive when many others didn’t, was publicly pilloried, and eventually died as a result of the shame. Stories of him dressing as a woman to enter a lifeboat were proved false, and as many other first class men also lived to tell the tale, the whole episode looks today like scapegoat-ism. Incidentally, some lady’s maids did survive the sinking, as they were able to board the boats with their mistresses.

My memories of Aunt Maria and Aunt Lill were reawakened when the modern Titanic film was released. As a historian, I found this to be quite as bad a film as Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. Both films incorporate modern values, modern music and even modern morality (or rather, lack of morals). But that is another story. I cannot imagine what Aunt Lill, a real Victorian Lady, would have said.

Eric Houlder

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