Friday, 27 September 2013

Part 5:Writing Liverpool and Beyond

Like many a writer I had no plans to retire. There is something very addictive about creating your own little world to escape into when real life gets too much. Furthermore it’s intensely satisfying to know that there are readers who want to share that world with you. I just had to keep coming up with a story and for my publisher to like it enough to publish it.
      I remember independent publisher, Judy Piatkus, saying to me, ‘Liverpool, it’s a port! You can take a story anyway.’
      As a kid, I’d always loved going down to the Pierhead and watching the ships go by and I’d dream of travelling to far distant lands on one of those ships. The furthest I ever sailed was to the Isle of Man when my husband was skin diving and Ireland a couple of times. Firstly to Bantry Bay for skin diving again and secondly I had travelled with my youngest son and we’d taken our bikes. It was the school summer holidays and I intended doing some research for a medieval romance. We cycled into the Wicklow Hills and also stayed in a youth hostel in Dublin. The experience was also to come in useful for FLOWERS ON THE MERSEY.
      Australia, I thought, for my next heroine. But I had to think up a story first, most of which would still have to be grounded in Liverpool. I decided it was going to start in the thirties and my heroine’s family home was going to be a dairy with cows in a shippen to the rear. My husband remembered one such place in Lombard Street, off West Derby Road in the forties.

(This photo was sent to me by Elizabeth and Ken Ledgard of Canada after they had read my book. The owner of the dairy was Elizabeth's uncle and he was known to John, my dairyman. The dairy was  situated in Boaler Street, about a mile from my fictitious one and was taken in the thirties.

I knew I would need more information about running a dairy, so I asked my milkman, John Moor, could he help me out. Indeed, he could. Further more a cousin of his father had written a book based on how their grandparents had left a farm in Yorkshire in Victoria’s reign. I felt a stir of excitement, thinking, And they came to Liverpool! I had visited Knaresborough in Yorkshire by train and bus to check out the actual site of a castle for a medieval romance a few years before. I had named my hero Guy Milburn and written two more books involving two of his offspring. Could the Milburns really have come from Yorkshire?
       Furthermore when I mentioned needing to talk to someone who had emigrated to Australia, my milkman said, ‘Funny, you should say that.’
      Strange, indeed! The person John knew was Athol, kin to him, and, who as a boy had gone out to Australia with his parents in the late twenties/ early thirties. Later he had gone to sea and ended up back in England where he had met a girl from Manchester and married her. He had returned to Australia but at that very moment he was back in Manchester in search of his roots. He had been in touch with my milkman on a trip to Liverpool Central Library to have a look at the Victorian censuses!
     Athol and I met and we had a useful and interesting chat, not only about Australia but also about his search for his roots. He showed me what he had done so far and incredibly he had Nelsons living in Northern Ireland on his family tree. We couldn’t find a link between his Nelsons and mine but it certainly stirred my interest again in wanting to know more about my ancestors.
     But in the meantime, I immersed myself in my own little world and carried on writing. It’s when real life drags you out of that world and you have to leave it behind that it fades and is difficult to recapture.
     A hot June evening and a phone call from Fazakerley Hospital. ‘Dad, can you come and pick me up!’ ‘Oh my God! What are you doing there?’ Last we knew our youngest son had been meeting friends and his sixth form teacher for a celebratory meal in Crosby after finishing A Levels.
      Apparently he had been attacked on the way home but he had managed to escape but had been chased. The police had been called and had taken him to hospital. Besides cuts and bruises, his shoulder blade had been dislocated from its socket when he had been dragged around.
     One of his attackers had been apprehended and the case was eventually to go to court. By that time Daniel was at Durham University and had to come home three times to attend court because twice the case was postponed.
     His attacker did not have a leg to stand on because a woman had witnessed the attack from her bedroom window and was prepared to stand up in court. It was a relief for all of us when it was over but Daniel’s shoulder blade was never to be the same. 
     But at least he was safely up north in Durham and I could immerse myself in my writing world again.
     I would emerge regularly from that world and enjoyed several trips to Durham with its stunning cathedral over four years. It did occur to me that sited where it was in Northumberland, not far from the border with Scotland, that my Milburn roots might be there.
     The summer of 1999 Daniel graduated and we had a spell of hot weather, so while he went off cycling through France, I persuaded my husband that I could do with a couple of days up north. He had bought a map and on it we found that there was a Milburn forest. It lay not so much near Durham but further west, nearer Penrith on the edge of the Lake District. I can't help thinking how much easier it would have been to find it if only the internet and satnavs had been available then. Still, maybe it was more exciting doing it our way.  But here is a link to the history of Milburn.,_Cumbria
I can scarcely describe the thrill it gave me when we found the village down a winding narrow country lane. I felt like singing. This surely had to be the origin of the Milburn branch of my family but what were they like and when had they arrived in Liverpool? And what of the Nelsons, the Cookes and the Rogers?  Where had they come from?

Thursday, 26 September 2013

They Came to Liverpool

In August I sent off the finished manuscript of my latest novel, 'It's Now Or Never', set mainly in Liverpool in the Fifties, with a sigh of relief. I crossed my fingers that my editor would like it and turned my thoughts to writing something that had been in my thoughts for a while.
      Being a saga writer for almost thirty years, I have done a fair amount of research during that time about the city - and its people - it's where I grew up. More recently I've had the help of my son, Iain. What I hadn't done during most of that time is research how it was I came to be a native of the place some folk call Scouseland. I started doing something about that five years ago.
      I'm new to blogging and don't even know if I'm doing it right now but after reading in the Saga magazine about the numbers of silver surfers who blog on all sorts of subjects, close to their hearts, I decided to give it a go.

     When I was a girl playing in the streets of Liverpool, some kids used to taunt me by calling me One-eye Nello! Sometimes they'd give me my full title of Nelson. For the rest, one of my eyes used to close of its own accord in bright sunshine. Opticians had a name for it - Lazy eye. Only years later did I discover I was long and short sighted and my eyes didn't focus together. This could prove a pain in the neck when giving author talks year later and a couple of people would throw questions at me. Because of my weird eyesight, they couldn't always tell which person I was addressing. Hence also the nickname of Gozzy by the kids and Four-eyes when I had to wear National Health glasses. I mourned that I'd never find a fella because it was said that 'Men didn't make passes at girls who wore glasses'.
     But I digress.
     I was proud of being a Nelson and as a kid growing up in a seafaring city, I wanted to believe I was descended from Britain's greatest sailor, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. There was even a street in Liverpool named after him in the heart of Chinatown, as well as a hotel near Lime Street station.
I was to be disillusioned.
     Us Nelsons, as my brothers and sister and I called ourselves with a proud tilt of the head, apparently had Scandinavian blood, which might explain why my plasterer father, Stanley Nelson, created this fabulous plaque of a Viking longboat. I wish I'd thought of squirrelling it away when I left the family home in the sixties before Liverpool's town planners tore our street down in the seventies and it disappeared forever, but I didn't.
     I reckon if Us Nelsons were to have had a family crest then that Viking longboat would have been smack in the middle of it but as far as I know they never have. It was to be years later in the 1990s that my much older cousin, Lila, who moved away from Liverpool after her marriage, sent me a photocopy of our grandparents marriage certificate. From that I discovered that my Nelson great-grandfather's Christian name was Martin and fittingly he was a mariner. My search had begun. 
     Well, it was a sort of beginning. But there were to be hiccups to my really getting going in the search for my forebears. To be honest, I had no idea where to start - in those days there was no Ancestry or any of the other Trace Your Roots organisations. There was no Broadband or internet of any sort  available to someone like me using an Amstrad PC. So I pushed the idea to the back of my mind. Besides, I told myself, it would take time and there were lots of changes going on in publishing in the nineties with supermarkets getting ever larger and beginning to sell books. This led to discounting and was to prove a big threat to the smaller independent bookshops. It was also really no time to be a midlist writer as I was because it was only the top best sellers which the supermarkets wanted to stock. I knew I had to work hard at my novel writing if I wanted to stay in the game.
      On top of that, my mother had developed senile dementia. For a while my sister, Irene, brother, Don, and I shared the load of looking after her. (My eldest brother, Ron, had moved to Essex and lived nr Southend-on-Sea, so he could not help). Within a couple of years Mam's condition had so worsened that she had to go into a care home. Although we all had to travel to visit Mam, the care home was happily situated for us just behind the Grafton dance hall. A place built on the site of an old theatre and of which We Nelson had lots of happy memories of dancing beneath a glistening ball to a proper band, a place which has made an appearance in several of my sagas.
     It was tough because during the last four years of Mam's life she never spoke, although she would smile at us when we sat beside her and held her hand. I remember I used to feed her jelly babies which she loved. But at least I could remember Mam telling me a fair amount about 'the old days'. Sadly that was more than my dear ol' dad had done and he had died in 1980.
     My mother, May Lillian, was a Milburn and apparently they came from further north. When Mam was nine years old, shortly after hostilities ceased in the Great War, her mother, Flora, died, leaving a husband and five children. Flora had two sisters, so one took in the boys and the other took in my mother and her five year old sister, also named Flora.

     What of the father still alive in 1919?
     John Milburn was what was known in those days as a marine fireman - in other words - he worked as a ship's stoker. Physically hard, dirty work shovelling coal to power the engines. He had kept on the two up, two down family home in Viceroy Street within walking distance of Anfield football ground and he returned there whenever his ship docked.
    As soon as May knew he was home, she'd hightail back there. This wasn't to say that she wasn't happy with her aunt, uncle and their family of mainly girls who lived south Liverpool way. I remember her telling me of Uncle Ted Swift and how on Fridays he would slip her a penny to visit the pawnshop to reclaim his Sunday suit which she had taken in and pawned the previous Monday morning. But her brothers lived with the other aunt and uncle, only a couple of streets away from the family home in Everton. Interestingly John Milburn and Flora Brookes had met in the dying days of the 19th century when a few years earlier Flora's oldest sister had married John's older brother, so strengthening the ties between them.
     Below is a photograph of my grandparents, given to me a year or so after my mother died in 1994, courtesy of my cousin, George Milburn. It was taken on John and Flora's wedding day, Christmas Day, 1902.

I had not seen my cousin, George Milburn, since his mother's funeral in Lytham, St Anne's, a year or so before. I didn't know him well then, because not only was he six years older than me but he had left Liverpool at seventeen and moved to the south east to do with work. But I felt comfortable with him almost straightaway. Perhaps because he reminded me of my brother, Don. Both were fair-haired, good-looking, friendly and enjoyed conversation.
     With certain exceptions I've found that funerals can be enjoyable social events. Laughter can mingle with tears as memories are shared. The only member of the previous generation who was still alive in 1994 was my Uncle Bill, who had married my mother's younger sister, Flora Milburn. Although, he had been a great help to me while researching motor cycles for one of my sagas set in the thirties, he was almost ninety and so not at Mam's funeral. His eldest daughter, Maureen, was but she knew little about the Milburns because her mother had been brought up by our mothers' aunt who had married Ted Swift and lived miles away from the two Milburn families.
     George, on the other hand, could shed a little light on the Milburns. Whilst in the south, he had met not only his future wife, Ann, who was on the stage, he had also stayed for a while with some kind of second cousin and her husband in Essex. Unfortunately when he had travelled north to work at the Sellafield Nuclear plant in Cumbria, he had lost touch with them. But he remembered their daughter was called Pat and she had married a Harris. Pat's mother, Ivy, had been a Milburn but just how she was linked to us, he didn't know. It was all so long ago in the fifties when he had met them and if he had been told he had forgotten some of it.
     I wondered how Ivy was connected to us? How come she was living in the south? Was she from another Milburn branch who had travelled south from the north east? George said he would dearly love to meet up with Pat and her husband again. If only we could trace them.
     Maybe the contents of a Turkish Delight box that had belonged to my mother might prove useful? I had taken it from my mother's flat when my sister and I had been doing some clearing out after Mam had gone into care. Once she had kept old letters, birthday cards, and postcards in a chocolate box on top of a cupboard in the bedroom of our old house. I don't know what happened to it after she and my father had to leave our family home. The Turkish Delight box contained her insurance policies, the deeds to the family grave in Anfield where my parents were buried, my father's army demob papers dated 1946 and my grandfather Milburn's birth certificate.
     I had scarcely glanced at the latter at the time but after more carefully scrutiny I discovered that my grandfather, John, had been born 8th January, 1872. His mother was a Mary, formerly Rogers, and his father a William, who was a joiner. They lived in Lowwood Street in the district of West Derby.
    Below is a photograph of my mother, May Lillian, and my grandfather John Milburn, taken in the 1940s in his backyard.


I have in my possession a 'BARTHOLOMEW'S POCKET ATLAS AND GUIDE TO LIVERPOOL 1928, price 2/6, which my husband bought me from a second-hand bookshop. As a printer he loves old books. It's proved invaluable to me as a Liverpool saga writer when thinking up locations to set a book in the first 60 years of the 20th century. It even shows which roads the trams travelled and the whereabouts and names of all the docks. Anyway, Lowwood Street where my great-grandparents, William and Mary Milburn lived in 1872 was off Low Hill.
     I knew Low Hill well as the bus that used to take me into town to work went past the Royal Hippodrome cinema on West Derby Road and turned into Low Hill. I had done that journey so often that it was no problem having one of my heroines picturing the scene. Annoyingly Lowwood Street is another one of those working class streets that has been demolished. Still, knowing where my great-grandparents had lived set me thinking about what Liverpool must have been like in 1872.
     I have never researched Victorian Liverpool to any great extent, although when I was toying with ideas for writing my second saga I considering setting it during the period of the Great Famine in Ireland and its aftermath when thousands of Irish flooded into Liverpool during 1845 -1852. I did a fair amount of research and wrote two chapters and a synopsis, only to be told by my new publisher that 'Historicals were out and could I bring the story into the twentieth century?'
    With certain alterations to the plot I did and that novel became 'FLOWERS ON THE MERSEY'.
Of course, I knew in Victorian times that the port of Liverpool was an exciting but also a dangerous place to live in. Drunkenness and crime was rife. It was a prosperous place for many a merchant and ship owner but there was also terrible poverty, squalor, homelessness and disease. Infant mortality was high and motherless children roamed the streets, often in rags and barefooted. Two people stood out for me as shining examples during that period. The woman who was known as the Saint of the Slums during the cholera outbreak of 1832 was Kitty Wilkinson whose selfless actions led to the introduction of washhouses for the poor and Dr William Duncan, the first Medical Officer of Health in 1846. The date is interesting because it was a time when many an Irish immigrant brought typhus to Liverpool. 

     The only fact I knew for sure about 1872 was that the Intoxicating Liquor Licensing Act was passed. It's said that once upon a time there was a pub on every corner along Scotland Road and there were many corners.
     But how and when did my great-grandparents fit in to Victorian Liverpool? Were they born there? William Milburn being a joiner meant that he could have come to Liverpool because there was work in the building industry as the population increased and more housing was needed. And Mary - was she a Liverpool lass?
      I also wanted to know more about my grandfather William Nelson and his wife. I knew from their marriage certificate that my grandmother's maiden name was Ada Florence Cooke. (My middle name is Florence, so presumably that was in deference to her and there is no doubt in my mind that she was probably named for the Lady with the Lamp, Florence Nightingale).
     So much can be learnt from a marriage certificate.

     Ada Florence was twenty years old and a spinster when she married. William was twenty-five and a lamplighter. I can't help thinking that most likely she had a job but being a woman it wasn't thought important as from the day she said, 'I do!' her job would be in the home. As they were married on 3rd March 1896, I could work out that most probably she was born in 1876 and William first saw light of day in 1871, so he was born a year before my other grandfather, John Milburn. I've already mentioned William's father was Martin the mariner but not that Ada Florence's father was a James Cooke, baker.
    Both William and Ada were living in Nicholson Street, Everton. Another street gone but from my old map book, I was able to discover that it was off Netherfield Road, which was an extremely popular shopping thoroughfare even when I was a little girl. It ran almost parallel with Great Homer Street, still well known for its outdoor market on a Saturday. An ideal setting for a scene in more than one of my novels. I remember in particular SUNSHINE AND SHOWERS set in the Twenties.
     Running almost parallel with Great Homer Street was the notorious Scotland Road where it was once said that the police would only travel in pairs on a Saturday night. There was an invisible line that divided the area into Protestant (Orange) and Catholic (Green). William and Ada lived in the Proddy area which was something I should have expected.

     I knew Dad's older brother, my chubby, red-cheeked, jolly Uncle Jim, had played the flute when the Orange Lodge paraded on the 12th July because my mother used to take me and my sister to watch them march. Neither she nor Dad were members. In fact Dad was an agnostic. Although we had the family Bible in our house, he had no time for the Orange Lodge or ministers of religion. This despite his making plaster plaques of William of Orange crossing the Boyne to sell in the weeks coming up to the 12th which were displayed in the fanlight over some front doors. Neither of my parents attended church but we kids were sent to Sunday School. I remembered Mam telling me that she wasn't even allowed over the Nelson threshold until she declared her colour, Orange or Green. 
     So where did my Nelson/Cooke grandparents' allegiance to the Orange Order come from? Where had they come from? There had never been any mention of Northern Irish blood in the family? Only Scandinavian.
     I needed to find out more and where did I go when in search of information? Our wonderful libraries. In this case Liverpool Central Library.
    I was already a regular visitor to the Local History Archives. I would read old Liverpool Echo's on microfiche; fashion, local news, weather, etc. all helped to colour the pages of my books and sometimes helped provide plot development. A PLACE TO CALL HOME an actual real life event down at the docks was at the heart of the story.
      The microfiche machines were always busy and they had to be booked in advance. Not always easy because I was in competition with those wanting to search the pages of the Victorian censuses. Mainly older people with time on their hands. I realised why. Tracing one's family tree was now the 'in thing' for the retired.
One could only book a machine for two hours at a time which was enough if your eyesight was far from perfect like mine. Newsprint was small or in the case of the census the handwriting was hard to decipher. With a sinking heart I realised I was going to have to make a choice. Apart from my research for my books, I put in hours in front of the word processor writing. Tracing my roots was going to have to take a backseat. Possibly until I retired!