[Taken from Ellan Vannin Vol 1 No 2 June 1924 pp52/62 -the author is J.A.Brown the publisher of the Isle of Man Times, and a founder of Free Masonry on the Island - Most, if not all, of the buildings described have now gone]
WHEN in a weak moment I allowed myself to be persuaded to contribute an article to the new Magazine, the " ELLAN VANNIN," I did not realise what I was letting myself in for, especially in face of the fact that the subject selected was that which heads this article.
This selection is no doubt due to the circumstance that I have resided in Douglas somewhere about eighty years, and that I have, for over sixty years, belonged to a profession which has brought me into contact with all sorts of men -good, bad, and indifferent - from Calcraft, the hangman, to the highest in Manxland, and into equal familiarity with almost every local development-many bad, some indifferently so, and the majority intended for the public good and the wholesome development of the little Island in which we live and move and have our being.
Now, the " ELLAN VANNIN " MAGAZINE is not, I presume, a political publication in the interest of any party or sect. Its mission is, I take it, to deal mainly with the progress of the Island in its physical, rather with the purely social development of the little self-contained Home-ruled community, and I must confine myself to such personal references as may be actually necessary.
Let me then give you a word-picture of what Douglas was really like, as I knew it some sixty to seventy years ago. It was then a very different kind of place to what it is now. Then it was a conglomeration of narrow, tortuous, evil-smelling, ill-drained (or not drained) lanes and streets, with houses such as one expects to find in a small fishing village, with here and there a large, well-proportioned mansion, such as might be considered to be a fit residence for a commercial magnate.
There still remains a few of these old-fashioned localities, with houses quite too large for such surroundings. There is the Fairy Ground, a collection of twisting streets and alleys, extending from the North Quay on the right; to New Bond Street-on the left, to the Market Place. In this district there are several of the big mansions to which I have referred; one is to be found in the narrow street debouching into New Bond Street, near the old schoolroom belonging to St. Matthew's Church. This house, a double-fronted one, has a large entrance, a commodious hall, and a staircase such as you will find in very few modern residences even of the most Pretentious kind.
Leading out of Fort Street, near St. Barnabas Church, is another of these delectable districts-St. Barnabas Square. There are several houses here which in the old days were the homes of the " best." On the left-hand side, going up from Fort Street, is a double-fronted house which was once the residence of Mr Quirk, the High Bailiff of Douglas. On the opposite side, a few yards beyond the Square, is a large house, access to which is up a flight of steps. This was no doubt a " swell " house in its day and generation. Straight on, after a turn to the right, is a building containing two houses, one over the other, the upper house being reached by a flight of steps leading from the street. This narrow lane bifurcates, one portion leading to the left, to New Bond Street, and the other, to the right, to Chapel Row. If this " fork " is pursued, we enter Muckle's Gate, which takes you, by the rear of St. Barnabas Church, to the Widows' Houses at the junction of Fort Street with Victoria Street, at the back of the Grand Theatre and the Salisbury Hotel.
Fort Street derives its name from the fact that, over a hundred years ago, there was a small fort perched on rocks now covered by the base of the Victoria. Pier. Just here, on the site now occupied by Knowles & Sons' Coal Yard, was a large house in which the Isle of Man General Hospital and Dispensary-now well known as Noble's Hospital-was established, and in the long, straggling house, just opposite, Joseph Swinnerton, the Manx sculptor, was born; and the only Masonic Hall in Douglas in that day was in a court opposite St. Barnabas church, and in it Lodge 123, under the Irish Dispensation, carried on the mystic rites peculiar to Freemasonry.
Just round the corner here was a loft, reached by a ricketty staircase. In this den the notorious " Tom the Dipper" found a shelter. Tom was a ferocious liar and a clever smuggler, from whom many a hundred pints of rum were purchased at the low price of sixpence a pint. Neither the police nor the licensing authorities were so particular in those days as they are now, and "Tom the Dipper" pursued his illegal career practically unmolested. Muckle's Gate extends from here. It was at one time a decent neighbourhood, with nice houses and nice people. But in time it degenerated and "slummed," and was ultimately rescued from degradation by being adopted for the business of Todhunter & Elliott, behind whose fine premises in Duke Street, Muckle's Gate is situated. At the top end of this thoroughfare is the Old Crown Inn, for a generation carried on by John Hodgson, who died there, leaving a very comfortable fortune, a goodly portion of which afterwards went to swell the endowments of Noble's Hospital.
Considerations of space enable me to devote myself to only a mere brief statement of other slumming parts of Douglas. Among these might be mentioned Water Lane, Society Lane, Fancy Street, Hanover Street, Bigwell Street, Little Ireland (or more generally known as " Little Hell "), Athol Court, Shaw's Brow, the " Back Street " (now known as Market Street), Quilliam's Court, Tynwald Court, the district still known as " Senna." In my young days these unsavoury districts, with their utter want of sanitary methods, were a distinct danger to the health of the town, and certainly contributed an undue proportion to the death rate. It is indeed something to be thankful for that the majority of them have been improved, off the face of the earth, or so altered and improved as to be no longer a menace to the public health. The beneficial effect of the municipal government of the town is demonstrated by the fact that the death rate has been reduced from between 20 and 30 per thousand per annum, to from 15 to 18 per thousand.
But Municipal Government was not secured for Douglas without many struggles and bitter controversy, and the old Wellington Hall, now Collinson's Cafe, was the scene of many small riots and fierce opposition. The most doughty opponent of the proposed Act of Tynwald was Mr. Robert Faragher, then proprietor of the " Mona's Herald " newspaper. He was a vigorous and eloquent speaker, and as the determined promoter of the " No Bill " meetings he succeeded in putting off municipal improvements for a considerable time. Ultimately the Douglas Town Act, 186o, was passed through the Insular Legislature. The Douglas Town Commission was established, with authority to levy a shilling rate, and, with this modest impost, Douglas was started on a career of sanitary improvement, which has consummated its development into one of the healthiest and up-to-date resorts in the Kingdom.
The enactment mentioned, the Douglas Town Act, 1860, resulted so beneficially that the Town Commissioners very soon found the necessity for increased powers, and, in course of time, several measures giving them the necessary authorization were placed on the Statute Book.
It is in connection with one of these Acts that, in the opinion of many, is to be attributed the passing of the House of Keys Election Act, 1866, which abolished the then self-elected 'House of Keys, and gave the people 'of the Island the right to select and elect their own legislators. The story of this " bloodless revolution," as it was then described by the great London newspaper, "The Daily Telegraph," has often been told, but it would not be well to give even a sketch of Douglas during the past hundred years, without referring to a matter which brought about so important a change in the constitution 'Of the Island's Legislature.
Realizing the necessity of obtaining increased municipal powers, the Douglas Town Commissioners caused to be introduced into the House of Keys the "Douglas Town Amendment Act, 1864." The Bill caused a prolonged and acrimonious discussion in the Keys. Some of the Keys ridiculed the idea of giving power to the "mere tradesmen " members of the Douglas Town Board, and one of them, even more sarcastic than his fellows, said that these Commissioners, if allowed to have their own way, would soon be claiming " the right to wear crowns." This would-be witty remark, it is reported, caused roars of laughter.
This ill-considered action of the House of Keys created great indignation throughout the Island, especially in Douglas, and hardened the determination of the people, that the House of Keys, as a self-elected body, should come to an end. This determination on the part of the people found reflection in the then Douglas journals, and two of them-" The Isle of Man Time's " and the " Mona's Herald "-were extremely outspoken, indeed, almost brutal in their denunciation of the action taken in this matter by the self-elected Legislature. The Keys held a meeting with closed doors in their House in Parliament Square, Castletown, and, at this meeting, passed resolutions to the effect that the articles in the two newspapers mentioned constituted a " breach of the privileges and a contempt of the House," and the proprietors of the two newspapers mentioned were summoned to appear at the Bar of the House to answer for their offence.
Both the newspaper proprietors appeared on the day fixed. The proprietor of " The Isle of Man Times " was first called. Mr. Alfred Walter Adams, the then leader of the Manx Bar, had been engaged to appear for him, but the House, by resolution on, refused to allow any advocate to appear for the incriminated journalist, and he had to plead his own cause. This he did, by reading verbatim et literatim the condemned articles. The House was cleared, and, in half-an-hour, the journalist was called in and immediately condemned to six months' imprisonment in Castle Rushen Gaol. He was at once seized, torn away from the side of his wife and sons, and placed in a cell in the gaol. Castle Rushen was at that time divided into two sections. One side of the gaol was for insolent debtors ' and the other for condemned prisoners. As the journalist came under the latter denomination, the attempt was made to incarcerate him as a criminal. An appeal was, however, made to Governor Loch, who at once ordered that he should be confined on the debtors' side. The effect of this decision of the Governor was, that the prisoner could be supplied with his own food, have his own bed and home comforts, all of which he. would be denied if incarcerated as a criminal.
The proprietor of the " Mona's Herald," who was in indifferent health, taking warning from the fate of his fellow journalist, promised to publish an apology, and did so. No proceedings were taken against the proprietor of the other Douglas newspaper-" The Manx Sun."
Proceedings were taken to secure the release of the imprisoned Journalist, and in six weeks and five days he was set at liberty by order of the then Court of the Queen's Bench. Subsequently proceedings for damages for illegal imprisonment were taken in the Isle of Man Common Law Court, with the result that a verdict of £515 and costs was given against the House of Keys.
I have gone into this incident somewhat at length, because of the general belief that it was this action on the part of the House of Keys which was largely, if not altogether, contributory to the drastic alteration in the constitution of the Insular Legislature.
Governor Loch was a born statesman far-seeing, adventurous, fair minded, generous and liberal. In his effort to bring on the important change in the constitution,-he saw the opportunity of putting the finances of the Island on a more satisfactory basis, for the Island, than then existed, and, subject to a payment of £10,000 a year to the Imperial Exchequer, the Island secured practically the control of its revenue. On the funds thus placed at the control of the Insular Government, the Island has largely developed, and many public works have been constructed. The Victoria Pier and the Battery Pier at Douglas, the Queen's Pier at Ramsey, the Breakwater at Peel, the Alfred Pier at Port St. Mary have been built, and the resources of the Island as a health and pleasure resort have enabled it to take the highest rank as an attractive holiday district. And all this advancement may fairly be attributed to the action of the House of Keys in its attempt to prevent criticism of its actions and to stifle liberty.
And now I must crave some space to deal with the social life of the Island during the past century.
Up to the time following the Napoleonic Wars, there was no existence in the Island of what we describe as " Society." Then the absence of taxation and the cheapness of living induced many half-pay officers from both services-naval and military-to take up their domicile in this Island; and there was also a fair sprinkling of gentlemen who were taking advantage of the easy laws of Manxland to escape the unwelcome attentions of their English creditors.
In addition to them the population consisted of a few merchants in Douglas and a few farmers who cultivated their own estates. The bulk of the people were fishermen, crofters, hobblers, sailors, and such like; and, truth to say, the Island's morality was at a low ebb, the crowd of half-pay officers having little to amuse themselves with but dances, gambling, amateur theatricals, and in other even less commendable ways.
For the majority of the population there was also little in the way of amusements, except an occasional theatrical entertainment. The first theatre of any moment in Douglas was the St. George's Hall, afterwards the Roman Catholic Chapel, and now the suite of offices, the main part of which is occupied by Mr. Shannon. In this theatre Edmund Kean, the greatest tragedian of his day, once gave a performance. Then the present Court House in Athol Street, built by the Oddfellows, was carried on as a theatre, under the management of Mr. James Rogers, of the Hanley Circuit. Later the Theatre Royal, In Wellington Street, now the local headquarters of the Salvation Army, was erected by the late Mr John Mosley. In this theatre appeared as members of Mr. Mosley's Stock Company, several actors who acquired fame. Amongst these may be mentioned-G. V. Brooke, John Dillon, the Vandenoffs, Henry Irving, Barry Sullivan, Walter Montgomery, Marie Jones, Harry Beckett, and others. The Wellington Hall was at one time a theatre- The Gaiety-and here the famous Sothern appeared for a brief season. Then the Victoria Hall, behind Victory House on Prospect Hill, Douglas, blossomed into a theatre and became the scene of the amateur activities of Mr. A. N. Laughton, John Joshua Harwood, Richard Tuton, and others, who displayed their talents in " Penny Readings," and occasionally in theatrical entertainments. After putting up with this half-baked efforts at providing amusements, there came the great developments which culminated in Falcon Cliff, in Mr. Laughton's enterprise at Derby Castle, Mr Lightfoot's building of the Grand Theatre (afterwards purchased by Alfred Hemming, and now the Grand Super-Cinema); the Marina (now the Gaiety Theatre), followed by The Palace, and lastly by Villa Marina.
Years before the providing of the present gigantic halls (The Palace and Derby Castle) the terpsichorean devotees of Douglas danced round the lighthouse on the Red Pier to the creaky strains of an accordion, played by a German, named George Mullinger, and varied by the efforts of that ineffectual musical instrument-a German concertina-played "for the fun of the thing " by various amateurs, one of whom, it so happened, is the writer of this sketch.
But even these hurried references to Old Douglas would be incomplete without some particulars of the printing trade in Douglas. Some seventy years ago the Isle of Man enjoyed a somewhat peculiar privilege. All publications printed on the Island had. the benefit of free postage to any part of the Kingdom. The result was that quite a large colony of printers, fully three to four hundred, settled here, and there was an enormous number of publications produced. Amongst these were the " Manx Cat," the " Manx Punch," the " Manx Lion," the " Rising Sun," the " Manx Liberal," the " Mona's Herald," the " Manx Sun," and a host of others, some of very questionable character. Amongst these miscellaneous productions was the " Oddfellows' Chronicle,"' and a seditious journal, the " National Reformer," brought out by an Irishman, Daniel O'Connor, the most prolific swearer, the greatest liar and snuff-taker, the most rabid and reckless scribbler it has been my lot to encounter.
This company of printers were a merry, rollicking, boozing," devil-may-care lot, who found plenty of occupation for Police and Courts. Some idea of the facilities provided for these merry gentlemen may be formed from the fact that there were eight hundred licensed houses in the Island, and on the North Quay, Douglas, alone, at one place, there were no fewer than thirteen public houses all in a row." Some of the houses in that row are still existing, but the majority have disappeared, thank goodness. But drinking, moderately or otherwise, was not confined to those described as the " working classes." The tradesmen were likewise given somewhat to inordinate indulgence. Nearly all of these were to be found every night, indeed, to long after midnight, in three hotels -The York, Redferns, and The Adelphi. The latter is the only survivor of these three. The same men could be found every morning from eleven to noon in the same resorts, and even up to recent times, the habit of making morning calls," or, I should say, " morning crawls," from one hotel to another, was the vogue. Life is too strenuous in these days to allow these indulgences.
This sketch is, I fear, spreading out to too great a length, but, before winding it up to a finale, I would like to record just one frolic perpetrated by the colony of printers who infested Douglas in the old time when the Island enjoyed the privilege of free postage.
In those days, as is still the case, a Trade Union, the Typographical Society, ruled the doings of the employees; and in these days, as is still the case, printing offices which worked in accordance with union rules and conditions, were by the men described as " Union," or " Society," or " fair " offices; while those which discarded and defied the rules of the Society were described as Rat-Offices." The printing offices in Douglas comprised both classes of offices, " fair " and " rat." An intensely bitter feeling existed between the two classes of printing works, and this feeling culminated in the following ludicrous incident. A compositor employed in one of the " fair " offices caught in a trap a huge rat. In a spirit of pure mischief, the compositor packed up the rat in a neat parcel and sent it by post to Mr. Cudd, the proprietor of the "Manx Cat," which was printed and published in a rat office. Mr. Cudd was very much angered by the trick which had been played upon him, and he determined to have his revenge upon the perpetrator of the joke. The joker was summoned to the High-Bailiff's Court, charged with doing an act calculated to cause a breach of the peace. The case was fully heard, and, as might be expected, it ended in being dismissed with costs. The " fair " compositors regarded the whole thing as a great victory for their principles, and they celebrated the victory by parading the streets of Douglas, the leader of the procession carrying the rat at the top of a tall pole.
I might continue those scrappy recollections to a still greater length, and some day I may again " fall from grace," and inflict some more scribbles on indulgent readers. But, for the present, "enough is as good as a feast."
But this recital has focussed on my mind this gratifying fact, that, in every way, in morality, in temperance, in business methods, in prosperity, and in the general well-being of the people, the Isle of Man in general, but Douglas in particular, shows an improvement which must be apparent to everyone, and especially gratifying to every lover of the " Dear Little Island."