Published on April 13th, 2021 | by All Things Warrington0
‘Family Fortunes: The Smiths of School Brow’ by Stan Smith
Few parts of nineteenth century Warrington were as industrialised as School Brow, Cockhedge and Howley. But as well as factories, mills and tanneries, there were houses too: rows upon rows of cheap dilapidated working class dwellings that were home to thousands of men and women living as virtual slaves to their jobs.
It was the sailcloth industry that brought Stan Smith’s 2 x great grandfather James Smith to town in the early 1810s. He made the short journey to School Brow from Newton-le-Willows to work at Rylands Brothers, a large sailcloth manufacturer that was on the cusp of diversifying into wire-working and pin-making. The sailcloth trade was booming at the time due to the Napoleonic wars and much of Nelson’s fleet being docked at nearby Liverpool.
For the next 160 years, the close-knit Smith family lived and plied their various trades in and around School Brow. As conditions improved so did the family’s fortunes. And then came the wars.
In 2008, author Stan Smith published ‘Family Fortunes’, a collection of 50 short poems re-imagining the lives of five generations of his family based on public record and family anecdote. The poems – a selection of which are below with a handful of Stan’s family images – evoke a real sense of nostalgia, capturing the spirit and essence of the times, the people and the various industries then active in the town, trades that serve as good introductions to Stan’s words.
Fustian (velvet) cutting was a major occupation in Warrington for around 150 years. It was a highly-specialised, painstaking craft often practiced in the long, open attics of joined terraced houses. In the mid-1850s, Isaac Smith, Stan Smith’s great grandfather, set up his own small-scale fustian cutting operation on the corner of School Brow and Hopwood Street. Here, a small number of casual workers would run a razor sharp blade across long lines of cloth to create the distinctive ‘high pile’ required to produce velvet, moleskin and corduroy. One of Isaac’s workers, Agnes Thomason, got more than pin-money for her endeavours: she went on to marry his eldest son, Ike, on Christmas Day 1895. Pictured left in 1943 is Agnes and, right, in 1946/47 is Isaac. The child on both images is Stan, the poem’s author.
The attics of the terraced two-by-twos
their place of work. Lit badly by oil-lamps,
long trestle tables on which the velvet’s stretched
running the length of several terraced houses.
The trick, to keep the knife straight on the wefts
from end to end then back, and up and down
fluffing the half-cut pile. Back-breaking work,
day in, day out, and ruinous for the eyes.
Agnes Thomason, spinster of this parish,
a fustian cutter in the service of
Isaac Smith senior, given this day in marriage
to the young Isaac, and six months gone I’ll wager.
The world goes on; who knows what will come of it.
The Empire has its need too: cannon fodder.
© Stan Smith 2006
The wire-working trade has long been associated with Warrington and one of its stalwarts was Rylands Brothers who, in 1817, moved their small Bridge Street wire-drawing concern to Church Street, adjacent to School Brow. 30 years later, with steam engines having a major impact on the high seas, Rylands pulled their sailcloth production to focus solely on the manufacture of wire. By 1905 they were the biggest wire manufacturer in the country with over a thousand employees producing 60 tons of wire per week. As well as producing most of the barbed wire for the trenches in the first world war, they also supplied most of the wire used for containing the cattle and sheep of Australia. One of its long-serving employees was Stan Smith’s uncle, Arthur Smith, who worked as a Rylands wire drawer all his life. Arthur’s job was a dangerous one, as the following poem reveals.
Uncle Arthur was built like a brick shithouse,
near enough square, as broad as he was high,
a short-arsed wiredrawer. Once he saw
a mate get sliced in two by white-hot wire
snapping and flailing like a demon string.
Yet “Now the Wire!” was his and the town’s war-cry;
League-toppers all, the home team made him sing.
Rebranded ‘Warrington Wolves’, American
hype and rough-house rule where once wit and brawn
– they were big buggers – hugger-muggered the Cup.
I have a snapshot from the Isle of Man,
him paddling in the sea in the flat cloth cap
and shiny three-piece suit he always wore,
too young for one, too old for the other war.
© Stan Smith 2006
Although never a mill town on the scale of, say, Bolton or Oldham, Warrington did have a number of cotton mills. The largest, by far, was Armitage and Rigby’s Cockhedge Mill on School Brow. Operating from 1831 to the 1960s, the mill employed hundreds of townsfolk, particularly women, and at its peak in the 1920s a fifth of the town’s female workforce was said to earn a living there. According to Worrall’s Cotton Spinners Directory, in 1891 the mill had 64,000 spindles and 1,400 looms and such was the noise generated by the mill’s machinery that the workers, who included Stan Smith’s Aunty Nell had to communicate by lip reading.
Hidden from History
Like all the mill-girls Ellen Smith could lip-read,
essential in that endless hubbub, skills
much prized at royal weddings, funerals
(as seen on TV), giving furtive pleasure
in knowing what the nobs said to each other
when they believed the servants couldn’t hear.
Each day she combed the William Hickey column
For further lowdowns on their goings-on.
Some local history of (her phrase) ‘Old Sodom’
depicts the long demolished Cockhedge Mills
with all the women silently arrayed
in front of stilled machines, in limelight solemn.
‘Aunt Nell’s in there,’ Dad said.
‘Which one is her?’
‘Oh you can’t see her. She’s behind someone.’
© Stan Smith 2006
Iron mongery (and bicycles)
Ike Smith, Stan Smith’s grandfather, ran a hardware and cycle store from 1917 to 1938 in the old ‘Tudor Cottages’ in Church Street, a building Oliver Cromwell supposedly lodged in (or near) in 1648. When the cottages were acquired by Rylands to make a canteen just before the second world war, Ike was forced to move his store to Dial Street. As Dial Street was less residential than Church Street his business suffered, but in typical Smith fashion he kept it going until his death in 1947. This poem is addressed to Stan Smith’s grandson Vaughan (6 times descended from sailcloth-maker James). In it he recalls the tales he was told about Ikey’s Tudor Cottage by his own parents Stan senior and Edie.
Unintended Consequences: Stan & Ollie
If it weren’t for Oliver you’d not be here –
not in the generalised historical sense
that regicide delivered Church and State
from Papist paws, for loyal ‘Prodestants’,
but quite straightforwardly, because my parents
did all their courting in the cluttered back
of Ikey’s Tudor Cottage hardware store
on which when I was young an ancient plaque
recorded that in 1648
Cromwell had quartered on or near the spot.
Not, though, that there was any hanky-panky, not
at least until they’d fixed the wedding date.
After two misses, I came ten years late.
The place is now an Indian restaurant.
© Stan Smith 2006
About Stan Smith
Stan Smith is Professor Emeritus in English at Nottingham Trent University. He has written eight books on modern and contemporary poetry, including two on W. H.Auden, and edited several collections on literature and politics in the 1930s, globalisation, travel writing, modernism and postmodernism. His recent books include Irish Poetry and the Construction of Modern Identity (Irish Academic Press) and Poetry and Displacement (Liverpool University Press). “Family Fortunes” (Shoestring Press) is the first collection of Stan’s own poetry and tells the tale of five generations of the Smith family who lived in and around the half square mile of School Brow, Warrington. As well as being pictured right, you might spot a more youthful looking Stan on the ‘Marriage Lines’ photographs above.