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The Long View Thursday 12 March 2009 [Corrected 24/12/12]
Synopsis: Some fragments of family history on the occasion of my parents' golden wedding anniversary. People mentioned: Captain James Goffey (1807-1855); Alfred Goffey (1844-1887); James Shepherd (1854-1914); William Bartlett (1858-1920); Harry Goffey (1871-1951). Artists & Writers name dropped: Oscar Wilde (1854-1900); Sir Hubert von Herkomer (1849-1914); Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930). Clicking on the doorway to the Esplanade swimming pool at Warrenpoint, Co. Down will take you to another country. The Past.
Don't worry this isn't going to be a history lesson. Just a few notes loosely based on family history. It struck me that fifty years ago, had my parents' nineteenth-century ancestors been press-ganged into attendance along with bubbling bridesmaids and kissing cousins, they might have felt more uncomfortable than most families on such occasions.
Of course, they weren't invited. And rightly too. The only baggage required consisted of two neatly packed suitcases and a walking guide to the Lake District.
But what if they had been there, lurking in the wings? Might there have been, mixed with the joy and anticipation of a shared future, a sudden and perhaps uncomfortable realisation of a shared past?
Mum's ancestors were from Liverpool. Capt James Goffey, the first of that name we know anything very much about, brought Palm Oil from the Niger Delta in exchange for the prerequisites of western culture: democracy, gunpowder, alcohol and bibles. His sons were ship owners in the last days of sail, a lawyer (a role model to the young Lloyd George, apparently) and one, Alfred - my great great grandfather, a Wholesale and Italian green grocer with premises a marlin spike away from the Cavern Club and a large villa in leafy Toxteth.
Last year I had my hair cut in Alfred's shop. The barber told me that the day he moved in he discovered an ornate tiled floor, but finding it would be too expensive to repair, he'd covered it with lino. He was astonished that it had been a green grocers' and remembered a funny conversation he'd had with the first person to come into the shop on the day he opened. The man was several sheets to the wind. He staggered in and cast his eye slowly around the freshly plumbed in sinks and bright mirrors. "What's it going to be?" he demanded. The barber stared at him, blankly. "A green grocers'."
Harry Goffey, my great grandfather, was a keen amateur sailor in his youth. According to my grandfather, Dennis, he often sailed across to the Isle of Man and perhaps to Ireland. At Warrenpoint in 1893 he rescued the son of a Presbyterian minister from drowning. We visited the half-drowned eighteen-year-old's grave a couple of years ago. Crawford Strain died in his eighty-first year in a house built by Queen Victoria for her daughter, Princess Beatrice, and is buried without a headstone in Old Kingston Cemetery, East Cowes. Ah, the penny's dropped. I'm an anorak. An obsessive. But listen. The Isle of Wight is OK. Staid. But OK.
A year after the rescue Harry Goffey and his future wife, Elinor Semple (from another Liverpool family, of Scottish descent and dubious reputation) were both students at Bushey School of Art studying under Hubert von Herkomer.
Herkomer is all but forgotten today. In common with many Victorian artists, he fell off the map after the First World War; and it was only really in the last two decades of the twentieth century that his reputation has begun to be reassessed, championed locally by the Bushey Museum and on a national stage by, in particular, Julian Treuherz, who recently retired as Keeper of Galleries at National Museums Liverpool.
Herkomer made his name as an illustrator on The Graphic, a reformist newspaper, in the 1870s. His work at that time was a kind of pictorial journalism marked by an unsentimental eye and deep sympathy for the poor and disadvantaged. Van Gogh was an early and enthusiastic collector of his work and mentioned him frequently in his letters. In fact, when Julian Treuherz curated an exhibition based around Herkomer's painting of unemployed farm workers, "Hard Times," (painted in Bushey, RA 1885) most of the early illustrations were borrowed from Van Gogh's own collection.
"I have another decoration for my studio. I bought very cheaply some beautiful wood engravings from The Graphic. Just what I've been wanting for years. Drawings by Herkomer, Frank Holl, Fred Walker and others. For me, the English black and white artists are to art what Dickens is to literature. They have exactly the same sentiment - noble and healthy - and one always returns to them". 1
It was an oil working of one of these illustrations which brought Herkomer overnight fame when it was hung at the Royal Academy in 1878. "The Last Muster", a picture of old soldiers at a service inside the chapel of the Royal Chelsea Hospital, became one of the most exhibited paintings of the Victorian era.
Herkomer's school opened in 1883, and by the time it closed in 1904 had established a world wide reputation. It was sometimes referred to locally as the Tower of Babel because of the number of languages spoken by the students. His teaching was progressive for its time and students were encouraged to develop their own style from life rather than the study of old masters which was more usual in the art schools of the period. As for his own work, although he never completely turned his back on social realism, his bread and butter came from what is generally agreed to be competent but pretty uninspiring portraiture. This bankrolled his numerous enthusiasms including the art school, experimental theatre, film (Bushey has the oldest surviving glass film studio in Europe), castle-building and even motor racing.
Herkomer demolished the original school buildings to make way for a rose garden which still exists but for the last couple of years has been chained up, pending a lottery-funded make over. The garden also contains a section of the cloisters from the original building, which were rediscovered recently.
Most of Herkomer's castle-like home in Bushey, Lululaund, was demolished in 1939 "in a wave of anti-German sentiment," according to the DNB, but an elaborately carved sandstone gatehouse has survived in Melbourne Road, fronting a small hall. It is now the home, neatly enough perhaps given Herkomer's path to fame, of the Royal British Legion.
Whilst mum's ancestors were importing grain from the colonies in super fast sailing ships, dad's ancestors, of course, were agricultural labourers (there's a clue in the name) from Oxfordshire and Devon, forced off the land by, among other things - duh - the importation of cheap grain by enterprising ship owners.
It's quite tempting to see my parents' marriage as part of a very slow burning revenge strategy. But that's unfair. Although it has to be said a happy and successful career as a civil servant is about nothing if not taking the long view. Ditto a happy marriage. In fact I might say that taking the long view is perhaps our parents' greatest gift to their children. Except I won't because that would be frankly cheesy, not to say pretty extraordinary coming from me.
Dad's grandparents were from families for whom the workhouse was as much a part of life as clouds and clods. Whilst Captain James read Chamber's Journal and drank himself into oblivion on the banks of the Bonny River my paternal great grandfather, James Shepherd, was born in Wheatley, Oxfordshire and William Bartlett was born in Widdecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon and his mother signed the birth certificate with a cross as she couldn't read or write.
Details about their early lives are necessarily sketchy, but we assume (working backwards from where they ended up) that they both took the King's shilling at the earliest possible opportunity (we have a photograph of James with a very fine row of medals which seems to point in this direction, assuming he didn't hire them along with the comedy moustache). Both would eventually gravitate towards the metropolis and end up in the criminal justice system. As guardians, you understand: James, a metropolitan policeman who would retire with 25 years unblemished if a little unexciting record and William, a prison officer at Wandsworth Prison, who retired and promptly dropped dead after serving a double life sentence at nobody's pleasure, least of all, one would imagine, his own.
Right, you're getting bored. Two literary bon bouches and then I'm done. My particular historical inspiration is to tease out literary and artistic connections to our family. These are poorly researched and tenuous. Kind of snobbish too, in a way, aspirational as much as inspirational. But they make my heart beat a little faster, which is something in an area of research characterized by databases and spreadsheets and where you can all too easily feel the dull spread of leather patches sclerotizing your elbows like coral on a sunken hulk.
1. As you might expect, there are plenty of yarns and salty tales to be told about Goffey ships. The first ship built for Colonel Goffey was the iron barque, Dumfriesshire. Her most famous commander was Captain Alex Grieg of Peterhead, who stood over 6 ft., had a long white beard, and always wore a velvet skull cap. This much I gleaned from Sea Breezes magazine, published in 1932. (I really should get out more.)
at Port Glasgow. The first ship built for
J&WGoffey of Liverpool.
[Correction 24/12/12. This is the wrong Dumfriesshire*. (duh). I'll post a goodun' if I can find one. Whilst we're on the page, Conan Doyle's Arctic memoir has now been published as Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure. I flicked through it in the Brit Lib bookshop but couldn't see any reference to Grieg. I'll read it properly when it hits the the library shelf.]
But what really impressed me was a footnote to a letter in the magazine about another Goffey ship, the Oranasia, commanded at one time by the same able and experienced commander.
"It may interest you to know," wrote the correspondent, "that Captain Grieg's first voyage to sea was in a Peterhead whaler as a cooper, and the late Sir [Arthur] Conan Doyle was the Doctor on board who, when the vessel was frozen in, and wintered in the Arctic, taught the young cooper the three R's for the skins of three seals he had shot on the ice."
That sounds like a good deal to me. Possibly not so good for the seals, though. The trip provided material for several stories, notably "The Captain of the Pole Star," which gave me chills, if you'll pardon the expression, particularly thinking about my own 3g grandfather's fate. It's not Moby Dick, of course, but then again you can't read Moby Dick in the time it takes to reach the soggy remainder of a ship's biscuit at the bottom of a mug of tea. Conan Doyle, incidentally, also did a palm oil run to west Africa, once again as a ship's surgeon, soon after taking his degree in 1881. He comments in his autobiography, "What with whale oil and palm oil there certainly seemed to be something greasy about my horoscope." He was singularly unimpressed with Bonny, which he decided, "certainly never got its name from the Scotch adjective." Though, to be fair, the trip did nearly kill him, and a ship's surgeon who falls ill on his own ship can quite justifiably feel very sorry for themselves. His most abiding impression of the trip was, in fact, the drinking proclivities of the ex-pats and the river gentlemen temporarily domiciled on the "sullen brown continent," an impression our own family's history does nothing to contradict. 2
2. My second literary snippet concerns William Bartlett, who was working at Wandsworth Prison when Oscar Wilde was incarcerated there before the fallen literary idol was transferred - more famously - to Reading Gaol.
Of course I've no way of knowing whether their paths crossed. It is, after all, a big prison. But I have no doubt at all that William would have liked him. If only for the fact that Oscar, of all the inmates (children excepted), was the least likely to attack a prison officer, except perhaps with a witty aside or artfully raised eyebrow.
I came across a memoir by a colleague of William's in Reading Gaol. He was particularly fond of Oscar who, it transpires, took time out from a busy schedule of oakum picking and staring at the walls, to help the warder, who had recently married, win a competition in a weekly newspaper to win a silver tea service.
The warder needed to sum up, in so many words, why he should be the proud owner of the silver tea service. Oscar's winning suggestion was:
1. Because it would suit us to a T (tea).
and 2. Because we have good "grounds" for wanting a coffee pot. 3
I think that story reflects very well on both parties; although there's possibly a question mark against the taste of the competition judges.
I actually have a better story about our prison officer ancestor, which manages to link him with Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, an abandoned first division game at Highbury, and the murder of Grigori Rasputin in St Petersburg in December, 1916. But you will believe me if I tell you, we really don't have time right now.
To recapitulate, then. Mum's family were successful Liverpool merchants of, it should be said, sometimes dubious reputation, whose artistic leanings and enlightened views on marriage at the end of the nineteenth century, put them on the dip slope of polite but inevitable economic decline. Dad's family were on the same slope, but moving in exactly the opposite direction. Meeting somewhere south of centre, they proceeded forward, at an alderman's after dinner pace or roughly the speed that spring travels up from the south west every year. They've maintained this steady course together despite the best efforts of four children to throw them into penury at every available opportunity.
This short study of our ancestors is also, in a very tangible way, testament to Ann and Brian's commitment and inspiration over half a century. I salute them for taking the long view.
1 Letter from Vincent Van Gogh to his brother, Theo, quoted in Julian Treuherz's transcript of 'The Last Muster' podcast at National Museums Liverpool, 2007. The podcast is also available on the website, along with useful Herkomer links. Van Gogh was a prolific letter writer and 2009 sees the launch of an academic website dedicated to his letters as well as the publication of a five-volume book and a special exhibition, "Van Gogh's Letters," 9 October 2009 - 3 January 2010, in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
2 Memories and Adventures, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Wordsworth Editions, Ware, Herts. 2007.
3 The Story of Oscar Wilde’s Life and Experience in Reading gaol. By his Warder. Reprinted from “Bruno’s Weekly”, Oriole Press, Berkeley Heights, N.J., 1963.
|© richard shepherd, 2009 |
*[Corrected 24/12/2012, thanks to Nicholas Burningham: "The one shown is the four-mast barque built circa 1890. The 1877 Dumfriesshire, built by Russell & Co., was a three-master."]