I WAS born on the 10th of August, 1823, in the town of Douglas, in the Isle of Man. The island was not then the place of popular summer resort that it has been for the last forty years. In those days no one would have thought of going thither for pleasure. Steam-boat communication with the place had scarcely begun. I suppose that at the time of my birth the only steam-boat that honoured the Isle of Man with a visit was one that plied between Glasgow and Liverpool, and, weather permitting, took up and set down passengers in Douglas Bay or the Bay at Ramsey; the passengers being taken to and from the steamer in small boats. Such traffic as there was, whether of goods or passengers, was carried on chiefly by smacks which, with a fair wind, might make Whitehaven in four hours, and Liverpool in seven. But such passages were rare. I have been told that my grandfather was once three weeks at sea in attempting to get to Douglas from Liverpool. As most Manxmen in those days got drunk with great regularity, the navigation of the smacks was not conducted with much order. I once heard my father say that, on one occasion, the captain and crew were all dead drunk: he and the other passengers had to take the vessel in hand: they ran her upon a sandbank in Liverpool Bay, and had to remain there until the tide took them off, by which time the mariners had become sufficiently sober to attend to their duties.

Thus slow and uncertain was the communication with the Isle of Man, and in the island itself there was a great dearth of travelling arrangements. Opposite our house in Douglas lived an old gentleman named Tayler. Over his door was a sign-board bearing a picture of a coach and horses. Mr. Tayler, I understand, was the first, and for years the only person, who let out conveyances for hire; but there was no coach for the public use. The only vehicle by which one might travel to Peel, Castletown, or Ramsey (if one did not hire Mr. Tayler’s carriage or drive one’s own trap) was a covered carrier’s cart, which went at a walking pace, and stopped a good while at every public-house upon the road; the carrier and several of his passengers being generally very drunk before they reached their journey’s end. On the principal roads there was a public-house for every mile.

The inhabitants of the Isle of Man consisted mainly of its own native people, a branch of the Celtic family, bearing names almost all of which begin with a k, or, qu, a ce or a hard c; remnants, as some suppose, of the original Mac; certainly, if mac be added to a Manx name it will in many instances become Highland in its character. The genuine Manx people were not remarkable either for temperance, diligence, or cleanliness. They were in those days chiefly small farmers, whose land was most wretchedly neglected, and whose houses and homesteads were utter horrors of discomfort, disorder, and filth. Another portion of the population— perhaps the smallest, but certainly the best—consisted of Scotch and English farmers who had immigrated, bringing with them their capital, together with skill and industry, setting an example which, however, the native Islanders were very slow to follow. The Isle of Man was a notable Cave of Adullam. Debts contracted elsewhere could not be sued for there. The place accordingly swarmed with men of broken fortune and questionable character who set their creditors at defiance. I once heard my aunt tell of an Irish baronet who finished in the Isle of Man a very disreputable career. His friends greatly desired that he should be buried in the family vault in Ireland; but there was the danger of having the corpse seized by the creditors on its being landed. To prevent this scandal, the burial service was read over the body in the hold of the vessel, as she lay in Douglas harbour; after which ceremony it would have been illegal to seize the remains. The conclusion of the great wars arrived at by the Battle of Waterloo had sent to the Isle of Man a large number of naval and military officers, who lived on their half-pay or their pensions; people poor and proud, and generally ill-informed, who spent their time in idleness, and did nothing to improve the tone of society. There was another and still worse element in the population—men given to drink—whose friends thought the Isle of Man the best place for them. There they could get drink very cheap, and would soon finish themselves.

At the time of my birth, my father, Robert Brown, was the minister of St. Matthew’s Chapel in Douglas Market Place. He was the son, the only child, of a ship-master, who died abroad when my father was very young. My mother’s maiden name was Thomson— Dorothy Thomson. Her father was a Scotchman born and bred, belonging to Jedburgh. He learned the business of gardener, and when still very young went to the Isle of Man, where he laid out and planted the nursery grounds near Douglas. He subsequently became a farmer, seedsman, etc., and although he made some money, I believe he lost most of it. Of my grandfather Thomson’s relations I know nothing, save that one of them was, fifty years ago, a farmer near Amersham, and that nearly forty years ago I found him keeping an inn at Farnham Royal, near Windsor. My mother’s mother was a Cumberland woman; the name of her family was Birkett, and they lived at or near Workington. She went to the Isle of Man in some capacity, I do not know what, and was there married to John Thomson. She had three daughters—my mother, my aunt Barbara, and Bethia, who died young. My grandmother Thomson lived to the age of eighty-three, and died, I think, in the year 1842: She spoke to the last with a strong Cumberland accent. Birketts are in Cumberland as plentiful as blackberries, but of our Birketts I have no trace. My brother Tom, more interested in genealogies than I, went, some years ago, to the supposed original village of the family, and found that there was a Birkett who kept a small huxter’s shop down the street. Fearful of making a too plebeian discovery, he pursued his inquiries no further. Thus then, although I am a Manxman born I do not know that I have any Manx blood in my veins; but I have English blood from the Birketts, Scotch from the Thomsons, and, very probably Irish from the Drumgolds or Drumgools; but from whatever sources derived it is not of any great account.

As I have said, my father at the time of my birth was minister of St. Matthew’s Chapel in Douglas Market Place. The first nine years of my life were spent in that town. I should think that as chaplain of St. Matthew’s my father’s income was rather under than over £100 a year, on which sum he kept his mother, his wife, and before he left Douglas, five children—and then there were two servants. We lived in the chaplain’s house, situated in a very narrow dirty street, which was dignified with the name of New Bond Street. The house was a long building with vaulted cellars beneath, which were let to a grocer as a wine and spirit store; the rent formed part of my father’s income. I have a rather indistinct recollection of the arrangements of the house, but they were not very comfortable. Some of our neighbours were very drunken, wretched people, of whose nightly brawls I have a very lively remembrance. An Irishman named Connell, who was a hobbler on the quay, was in the habit of beating his wife, and threatening to murder her. And so from my earliest infancy I was accustomed to fights and brawls of the most abominable kind. Our surroundings were of a mixed character. In front of the house was a low public, kept by a Mrs. Foreman ; at the back there lived a lady of aristocratic manners; she was taken to church every Sunday in a sedan chair, and the sight of the chair with the two stalwart bearers in knee-breeches going down the street, was looked forward to as one of the chief excitements of the week. St. Matthew’s is a very plain building. I should think it accommodated about three hundred people. There was in the front of the gallery a very grand square pew, covered with a canopy and surrounded with curtains.

This was the pew set apart in old times for the Duke of Athol or Lord of the Island, but before my time the Athol family had sold their rights to the Government. So the Duke’s pew was empty, but we looked at it with a feeling of awe. There was no gas-light then in Douglas, and the chapel was lighted with candles, which Henry Fuzzard the sexton snuffed at intervals, but which before the end of the sermon grew very dim, and sweated and spluttered abominably. As far as I can remember, the chapel was very well attended, for my father was a popular man with the town’s people.

The clerk of St. Matthew’s was a little man, named Dan or Danny Mylchreest; he was a joiner and under taker, and always smelt strongly of shavings and rum. It was the custom to toll the bell when any of the town’s folk died, and people went to the chapel to ask who was dead. He was rather tight on the occasion of the death of George IV. He tolled the bell at the chapel, and on our going the fourth time to ask who was dead, he lost his patience. "His most gracious Majesty King George the Fourth, be ——-— to you !" There was neither instrument nor choir at St. Matthew’s, and Dan had all the singing to himself:

St. George’s Church was frequented by the great-folk, and one of my earliest recollections is that of witnessing the Bishop laying the foundation-stone of St. Barnabas, within two hundred and fifty yards of St. Matthew’s. My father never liked that enterprise. It threatened him with extinction, and I do not think that it was at all necessary to build the new church so near the old. There was also the Methodist Chapel in New Street, the Primitive Methodist in Preaching House Lane, the Independent Chapel in Athol Street, and the Roman Catholic Chapel out on the Castletown Road, and some small split from the Independents met for worship in a room in Fort Street. There was a Lancasterian School for the poor in Athol Street; and in the same street a building used as a theatre ; at least it was called The Theatre. The Roman Catholics afterwards removed to it, and made it their chapel. There was an Institution called the Douglas Library, which was kept in the house of Mr. Calvin, grocer, Duke Street, and to which my father was a subscriber; but there was also a library connected with St. Matthew’s, and kept in our house. What became of it I don’t know, but I expect that after my father left the place, the books were just left to perish of damp; perhaps were used to light fires with.

A family named Geneste, with whom we were intimate, had laid out by the shore a pretty little garden, with hot and cold water-baths. Close by the baths was a shipyard, the property of James Aiken of Liverpool, who died a very old man in the winter of 1879. The baths, the shipyard, the shore, were our playgrounds; but we often wandered up Douglas Head, and scrambled among the precipitous rocks. We also frequented the harbour, with its quays and its pier stretching out into the bay, watching the smaller schooners, brigs, and trawlers that came and went, and my idea was that Douglas was a great and busy seaport. There was no Tower of Refuge on Conister Rock; I just remember the wreck of a steamer called the ‘St. George,’ and I believe that sad event led to the building of the Tower which is so great an ornament to the Bay.

As to the town, it was of course much less than it is now. On a map it bore a singular resemblance to the Manx Arms, which are three legs. The Market Place was the centre, the bridge one foot, the pier-head another, Castle Mona might stand for the third. Athol Street was almost half-built, and there was nothing beyond it; Finch Road, then only partly constructed, was the northwestern boundary, and the town consisted of a most extraordinary lot of narrow lanes, running in all directions, Duke Street being the main thoroughfare, where were the principal shops; though even there some of the gentry had residences. Post Office Lane was at that period so narrow, that a tall man coulcll stretch his arm across it, and there was scarcely a street wide enough for two vehicles to pass. There were open gutters in all the streets, and in scarcely any was there a foot-path. They were paved all over with small boulders from the shore, and were, I can’t say lighted with oil-lamps, for they were apologies for such lighting, and the burning of a lamp opposite our house was an operation that I watched with great interest. Water was supplied by carts which went round the streets, and the water was sold at a halfpenny per can, the can being about the size of a bushel. The whole place was full of dirt and bad smells, and but for the tide which swept the fiithy harbour and carried away the offal from the shore, Douglas must have been almost pestilential. But there was the never-failing tide, and there was also a constant breeze of fresh air from the sea. I shall never forget the horrors of filth in Fancy Street, Guttery Gable, and other choice spots. The town is very different now.

The market was held on Saturday, and I used to think it impossible that there could be a greater crowd of people excepting at the Hollantide Fair, which was held in Athol Street, and was a scene of drunkenness so great that you could scarcely see a sober man on the ground.


Back index next

Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 1999