[From William Cooper's Castletown]


William Henry 'Henny' Cooper

Everybody in Castletown knew William Henry Cooper as 'Henny', a tall, quiet man with a moustache; a skilful carpenter and joiner, he worked for the family firm, James Cooper & Sons, of builders and undertakers. Retiring and shy; it has been suggested that, as one of the youngest in a family of thirteen children, he was perhaps browbeaten by his older as well as his younger, bossy sisters. He remained single and lived in the family home all his life. During his long life he collected in his remarkable memory a wealth of stories about the people of the town, their nicknames and funny ways, their businesses and houses, and all manner of things to do with the history of Castletown.

William Henry was born in 1870. At that time the family lived at 39 Arbory Street. In the 1881 Census, the family comprised James Cooper, Master Joiner, widower, and ten children, of whom William Henry, was the eighth. He was then eleven years old. His mother, Eleanor, née Clague, died in 1877. At the time of the Census James Cooper employed six men and two apprentices. James was the son of an English soldier, garrisoned in Castletown, who had married a Manx girl, Elizabeth Karran, in 1811. The firm James Cooper & Sons, Builders and Undertakers, was founded in 1869. The firm closed down when William Henry's nephew, Arthur, retired in 1989.

In 1950, in his eighty-first year, William Henry Cooper came into contact with the Manx Folk Life Survey. When some of his recorded memories came to the notice of Castletown Heritage, the exceptional interest of Cooper's recollections of the houses in the town, and the people who lived in them, encouraged us to place a part of them before a wider public in print.

The Manx Folk Life Survey

After the First World War there was increasing interest in the collection of 'folk life' in the Isle of Man. Under the directorship of William Cubbon, and his successor, Basil Megaw, 'A Manx Farmhouse' interior was created in the Manx Museum. Harry Kelly's cottage was opened to the public in 1938 as the beginning of what is now the Cregneash Village Folk Museum. A project to collect older peoples' memories, in a more systematic form, began after the Second World War.

The Manx Folk Life Survey was modelled on a similar survey, long established in Ireland, based originally on pioneering work in Scandinavia. A volunteer from the Manx Museum would visit a contributor and perhaps record an interview, sometimes based on questionnaires. A notebook was sometimes left with the contributor where he or she could write what they liked. When filled, and handed in to the Museum, the material was transcribed, catalogued and indexed for use. In writing the labels for the Folk-Life Gallery in the Museum, and at Cregneash, much use is still made of the Survey's material.

In the winter of 1950-1951 Cooper filled three notebooks for the Survey. The contents were transcribed at the Museum, and typed on foolscap paper. A carbon copy was handed back to Cooper to keep. The carbon copy transcripts of the three books are at present collected in a folder, under the title Them Were the Days, and are in the possession of David Collister of Castletown. He also has a transcript of these texts. Another manuscript covering similar, but not identical, material is catalogued in the Manx Museum Library under the title Castletown Observations. The text published here is taken from this latter manuscript. Internal evidence suggests that this text was transcribed from speech, and very little has been done to change its conversational style.

'Castletown observations'

One of the objects of Castletown Heritage was from the beginning in 1997 'to preserve, research and make public records and memories of Castletown and its hinterland'. One of the first contributions to this end came from the Library of the Manx Museum, when one of our members was shown pages of typed notes, found among the papers of Archdeacon Stenning. They had been catalogued under the title of 'Castletown Observations'; their author and date were not recorded (MN9877/5). The notes consisted of the carbon copies of 52 typed pages on flimsy foolscap. Now very frail, the pages are tied with pink tape through holes in the margin. They were in an envelope on which was scribbled 'Arthur Cooper = undertaker in Castletown'. Our member asked for a photocopy to take away for closer examination.

It did not take long to discover that this was not Arthur Cooper's writing as, in the text, the author tells us that he was born in 1870 at 39 Arbory Street. We thus realised that this was the work of Arthur's uncle, William Henry Cooper. The Library staff recognised the pink tape as typical of the Folk Life Survey transcripts. A comparison with the pages held by David Collister proved that the same author compiled our text, and that somehow it had once been part of the Survey. How and why these pages came into the possession of Archdeacon Stenning remains a mystery.

The manuscript is in two parts. The first eight pages are in three sections headed, 'Castle Rushen', 'Bridge House', and 'Some notes on reading Mr. C. E. Watterson's Paper'. The first two contain arguments for and against Canon Stenning's views, as expressed perhaps in his Isle of Man (The County Books), which was published in 1950, or perhaps in public talks and lectures. If there were arguments between the two, face to face, we may never know. The third part, 'Some notes on reading Mr. C. E. Watterson's Paper' refers to Watterson's article, 'Old Castletown', published in the Proceedings of the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society, also in 1950.

The second part consists of 36 typed pages. The first five are headed 'Notes on some of the persons mentioned in the attached hand-written extract from an Isle of Man Guide 1843'. The extract mentioned is not appended. The remaining text is headed 'Earliest occupants of houses I remember'. It is this part of the manuscript which is transcribed here.

'Earliest occupants of houses I remember'

In thirty-one tightly typed pages, Cooper tells about the houses in Castletown, and the people who lived in them. It is as if he walks up one side of the street, pausing to tell us what he remembers about each house before going on to the next. When he gets to the end, he walks down the other side of the street. It is a prodigious feat of memory, for he not only remembers things from the age of eight or ten, but also what his father and older sister told him at that age. When Cooper writes 'when I was a lad', it would appear to mean a period between 1870, when he was born, and 1900, when he was thirty years old. The text was written down in 1950/51, but when he uses the expression 'in my day', it usually refers to a period up to the Second World War.

In editing this text, the entries are transcribed in full. Since, however, it is most likely that the transcript was based on notes taken at an interview - rather than on his own writing - typing errors and clearly misunderstood names, have been corrected. In annotating the text, I have sometimes quoted from other parts of the various Cooper manuscripts, and from the recorded memories of other Castletown people. Where I have checked Cooper's facts against the Census returns of 1881, 1891 and, the last available (from 1901), they are so accurate that I don't bother to mention this, unless the Census returns have something of further interest to contribute.

At no time did I feel the need to add much to this wonderful panorama of Castletown people over half a century. This is a story told through the houses they lived in, houses which became shops with windows put in or taken out, or with another floor added; houses falling into disrepair or rebuilt. A story of families moving to a better address for their business and then moving again to a humbler house for their retirement or, indeed even moving to America. There are some fine pen-portraits of some famous 'Castletown characters' - although he was not too impressed or amused by their antics. Cooper was a typical Manxman, he tells a splendid but understated tale.

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Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
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