Saturday, 2 November 2013


Two days ago it was Halloween and I’d just made myself comfortable on the sofa with a book and a cuppa char when there came a knock at the door. Fortunately I was prepared, having bought a bag of small pumpkin wrapped chocolates and ugly heads filled with toffee. I had eight young visitors during the next hour and if awards were handed out for sheer effort than I have to admit that the girls would have won hands down; in their black tights, tulle ballet skirts and painted faces, I was reminded of The Rocky Horror Show.
     When I was young, Halloween was called Duck Apple Night. The other day it amused me no end to find a page in a magazine, informing readers just how to duck for apples. First half fill a bowl with water and place your apples in it and then try and catch them with your teeth. There were also instructions for what we called Bob Apple. My dad would tie string to the stalks of apples and then fasten the other end to the drying rack attached to the kitchen ceiling. Us kids were blindfolded and expected to keep our hands behind our backs, whilst trying to catch the apples in our mouths. Dad also roasted chestnuts on a shovel over the coal fire and they were tasty.
     Innocent pleasures! I can’t understand this obsession with tricking and treating and horror that’s come over from the US of A.

     Yet it’s thanks to Halloween that I broke into publishing. Old customs held a fascination for me and I wrote some to do with that time of the year and sent them to My Weekly. Only to be told they weren’t spooky enough but that I had a good idea. The editor suggested I used mine for an article for Valentine’s Day, (I’ll print it here sometime), and also that I write about customs for other special occasions of the year. The first piece of writing I had accepted and received payment for was of Christmas customs around the world. But it was not printed until a year later because I had sent it in too late.
      It’s too early for Christmas just yet and most churches and schools have had their Harvest Festival. Our offerings this year went to a communal food bank to help those families suffering due to the economical situation. No doubt food that was given to decorate churches to celebrate a successful harvest in Victorian Liverpool was given to poorer families, too. I bet the words of a well known hymn, ‘We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the ground …’ meant much more then than to us now.    

      Charles Dickens, whose books have given us a lot of insight into the lives of the Victorians and  could almost be said to have invented the way Christmas became to be celebrated, visited Liverpool several times during the 1830s and 1840s.
      In 1837, the 18 year old Queen Victoria came to the throne. The same year in Norway my great-grandfather, Martin Nelson was born. It would be a few years before he set foot in Liverpool but the queen and her consort were to visit in 1854. The Albert Dock was named after Prince Albert and it was he who also brought the custom of decorating a tree for Christmas from his own country.
     My great-great-grandfather, carpenter Joseph Milburn, arrived in Liverpool before such famous people. He married Mary-Ann Green in Liverpool’s parish church of St Peter in 1836.

     Joseph was born in 1812 in the village of Culgaith, nr Penrith, a year when war raged between Britain and North America in what was known as the 2nd War of Independence. It led to a shortage of grain and flour in Britain and starvation. The same year the Russians celebrated the retreat of Napoleon’s army from Moscow.

        CULGAITH: November 2010
Who says it always rains in the Lake District?
Top: June and son Iain outside the Black Swan Inn, possibly this is where my 3 times great-grandfather, William Milburn, was the innkeeper.
Middle: Culgaith Parish Church
Bottom: Memorial Plaque inside the church which has a Thomas Lancaster listed. My 3 times great-grandmother was Ann Lancaster, so he is most likely a blood relative.

Two years before Joseph was born and around about 200 years before these photos were taken, Mary-Ann saw light of day in a town, approximately 27 miles (39 kilometres) to the west of Culgaith, called Cockermouth. It was the birthplace of the poet of William Wordsworth. By the time Mary-Ann was born, he was 40 and had moved twice. Firstly to  Dove Cottage, Grasmere, where he lived with his wife and children and sister, Dorothy, then he moved again to Rydal Mount. I visited the latter house in the 70s, while staying in nearby Rydal Hall on a parish holiday and also swam in Rydal Water. It was fun despite, my three year old son, Tim, breaking out in spots two days before we were due to go on holiday with the measles.
       Cockermouth was more recently famous for the terrible floods that swept the town in 2009 and below is a photo of the river there, when we visited the week before that very wet November, 2009. You can see how high the river is at the time.


You’ll have gathered that the beautiful Lake District was one of my favourite places, even before I traced a branch of my ancestry to Cumbria.

     So how was it that Joseph and Mary-Ann met and came to Liverpool?

      Joseph’s mother, my three times great-grandmother, Ann Lancaster, was also born in Culgaith in 1784, during the reign of George III. William Milburn, who was three years her senior was born only a few miles away,in the ancient territory of the Milburns, who centuries before had been Border Reivers; one of the families who often battled with the border Scots, as each raided the others’ lands.

     William became a publican, most likely at the Black Swan Inn, Culgaith, by by 1841, according to that year's census, he and Ann were living in an inn on the High Street of Brigham, a village, near Cockermouth.
      Cockermouth is not that far from the sea and so I can only presume that it could have been news of Liverpool’s growing prosperity that caused Joseph and Mary-Ann to travel so far from their families; although possibly other Milburns had led the way.

      Whilst William and Ann were still living at Brigham, a Thomas Milburn was lodging with Joseph and Mary-Ann in Great Albion Place, Liverpool. By 1851 the family had moved to Pembroke Gdns and Joseph's widowed mother, Ann, was living with them, an ex-innkeeper, who was now a pauper.
      In 1861, the family had moved again and by then Ann had died and Joseph’s unmarried brother, William, was lodging with them, and their six children.

      This was the year the American Civil War broke out and William was a porter which meant he probably worked in the warehouses down by the docks. Maybe a large part of his job had involved unloading tobacco and cotton. It would be in very short supply if the war was to continue for more than a year. It did and resulted in unemployment for many in Liverpool and more particularly those in the cotton mills of Lancashire. Poverty and starvation followed for many. In the meantime Joseph was most likely working either in the building trade or the furniture making business and kept the family going.
      The American Civil War ended in 1865, the year my great-grandfather Martin Nelson, married Mary Harrison. By the time of Joseph’s death two years later in 1867, his son William, one of my other great-grandfather's was thirty. The following year William married Mary Rogers. On their marriage certificate they signed their own names which proved they could read and write, unlike Martin and his Mary (Harrison).

       Mary Rogers was born in Liverpool but her parents, Thomas Rogers and Ann Jones, were Welsh, and had arrived with two of their children from Wrexham at a time when the Irish were flooding into the port due to the famine in Ireland. Thomas was an agricultural labourer but once in Liverpool he became a carter, and later was to own his own cart.
     (It’s believed by many that Ireland was the only country to suffer from a potato famine but it affected Britain, too, and countries in mainland Europe as well. Why it was such a greater calamity to Ireland was due to their reliance on the potato for their staple diet. Apparently in England bread and cheese was more likely to be eaten by the working classes.).

Neither the Milburns nor the Rogers settled in Toxteth where the Harrisons and Nelson had dwelt, but at various times lived in Kensington, Kirkdale and Everton further away from the docks. In my opinion the women were not only survivors but in some cases matriarchs.
      Ann Lancaster Milburn lived to be almost seventy, whilst Mary-Ann Green, died at the age of seventy-four in 1884, outliving Joseph, having moved home at least five times and as a widow, had two of her sons living with her, as well as three of her grandchildren. Liverpool was now a very different place to the one where she had married Joseph in 1836.
      Her son, William, and his wife, Mary, who had lived next door in Lowwood Street, decided to leave Liverpool for London that decade, taking their four children with them, including my grandfather, John Jones Milburn. But that's for another day.

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