Sharing the lives of a bygone world
Jun 17 2008 by David Charters, Liverpool Daily Post

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Sharing the lives of a bygone world

In an old gin box bought by chance, a sculptor found photographs, letters, poems and diaries telling of a family’s rise in Liverpool. David Charters reports

IT’S faint now, the scent of those ghosts, whose faces gaze from the photographs spread across the stout kitchen table, where the man on the chair adjusts the angle of his spectacles to examine each one more closely.

Ah, the sailor suits and the bonnets of the children, the glorious, imperial hairstyles and the “Belle Epoque” dresses of the tight-waisted mothers and daughters – the fob-watches and puffed chests of the whiskered gentlemen, whose tweed and careful poses suggest a family on the up, and fast.

Even now, the air is sweetened when the lid is lifted on the tin of pot-pourri, once sniffed in the bedrooms of giggling sisters and now savoured by Robin Riley, who exclaims delight at each image before him.

The tin, which says, “Old English pot-pourri, very strong and lasting,” was true to its words.

This is history as most people experience it – the tiny domestic details which gather into a picture of the nation.

We make history all the time. But in the rush of our days we forget that. We forget that we are history, too – just as much as King John, Winston Churchill, Paul McCartney, Posh Spice or Gordon Brown. You play a part, even if your name isn’t in the papers every day.

But we didn’t know that we were history then, so our stories, diaries, letters, photographs and souvenirs were often lost, or tossed into a box to be forgotten in the attic.

That happened to the collection on the table before the sympathetic, blue eyes of Robin Riley, the sculptor and local historian, devoted to ensuring that his native Liverpool’s heritage retains its proper place in today’s regenerating city.

In the mid-1980s, he was in the old auction rooms of Marsh Lyons in Rigby’s Building, Dale Street, where he had bought a settee, a chest of drawers and a cupboard.

In the cupboard was a Gordon’s gin box. It looked ready for the bin, but the staff said that he had bought it, so Robin decided to take it with the furniture to his Georgian home, near Liverpool Cathedral.

Fleeting consideration was given to throwing out the box, which seemed to be stuffed with papers of no great importance.


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Instead, though, it was left in the attic, where it would have stayed had it not been for Robin’s son Si, 48, a geologist, who started sifting through it. The collection’s charm lies in it not being of great importance in the same way as government records, but it gives us a picture of people in Liverpool, during the most exciting period in its history, from the mid-19th century to World War II.

Robin, 75, is trying to piece into chronological order the various fragments, the tin of pot-pourri, letters, exercise books; religious verses and sentiments, all in copperplate handwriting, of the Cooke family, who seem to have been joined by marriage or friendship to the Cadmans and the Millers.

John Miller, of Hope Street, an old boy of St Margaret’s Higher School, Princes Road, was a leading gymnast in Liverpool in the 1920s and later a PT instructor.

But long before that, in October, 1875, Minnie Cadman had copied Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade (1854) into her book. Three years later, she wrote at the end of the same book, “God hath wonders which we cannot fathom . . .”

Robin’s collection dates from April 23, 1830, when Richard Cooke signed his indentureship with a company of ribbon manufacturers.

He moved to Liverpool, where the family prospered, staying for periods in America – some members perhaps even settling there, as can be gathered from the following letter’s reference to the Chicago World Fair of 1893, marking the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus discovering the New World.

Written on that June 19, it anticipates that they will have picked up American ways.

“My dear Papa and Minnie and all enquiring friends, You will think that because I have not written, I have forgotten all about you, but I have not.

“I often think about you and wonder what you are doing. I would like to be with you. I expect when you come home you will be saying, ‘I guess so’ and be getting like the Indians. I do not mean in manner, but in colour. I suppose you missed the boat accidentally on purpose (had they been expected home earlier?) but you may not see America and the World’s Fair again, so you are having a long stay while you can. I do wish you would hurry up and come home.

It is very lonely without you. I wish I was with you and seeing all the things in America. I wish you could bring me a specimen of everything there is there that we have not got in Liverpool.

“How are my cousins and uncle and aunty. We are having a rounders’ match on the 28th and we have to wear blue skirts and white blouses. I think this is all I have to say this time.

“With love to all from all. I remain your loving daughter Annie. Excuse bad writing as I do not feel very well and it is bedtime. Will you ask my cousins to write me a letter.”

The letter was sent from 7, Cases Street, Islington, Liverpool. Information from the 1891 Cen- sus, provided by the Liverpool Record Office, lists the household as John Cooke, 49, a licensed victualler, born in Coventry; his wife Annie, 48, born in Burslem, Staffs; daughters Minnie, 27, a barmaid, born Burslem; Annie, 12, born Liverpool; Maude, 10, born Liverpool. Also in the house was a widowed aunt and widow, Ann Marsh, 70, born Hanley; Laura Grellen, 21, a domestic servant, born Barnstone, Not- tinghamshire; and Elizabeth Chadwick, 68, widowed grandmother, born Hanley. The Vine Hotel then stood on the site.

Although some of the writing is hard to read and the references are personal, using Christian or affectionate nicknames, a picture slowly emerges.

Another note refers to how, on April 27, 1893, Miriam Cadman and Maude left the Alexandra Dock, Liverpool, on SS Labrador. They arrived in Quebec.

On May 17, “loving daughter” Minnie wrote to the family, including Lord Green (thought to be a parrot), saying that they had tea with a Mr and Mrs Cooke.

“This collection is more than fascinating,” says Robin. “It is another world, so different to our own, but it is the world into which many of our parents were born.

“I thought ‘oh God’, but they (the auctioneers) said that, as I had bought it, I might as well take it away. I looked at it rather cursorily and these photographs fell out and I thought, ‘this is very strange’. Although I realised that it was interesting, I forgot about it.”

It remained in the attic until one of those family sorting-out sessions.

“Si, my son, said, ‘what are you going to do with this lot?’. I had almost chucked the whole lot in the bin, but it is an incredible collection.

“I had no idea of what was there until we began to look through it. It was the sort of furniture a middle-class family would have,” he says. “It wasn’t top-grade Victorian furniture, but it was good, practical, functional furniture.

“This is a remarkable glimpse of family life at a particular point in Liverpool’s history. I just love to be able to piece it all together. We also have got references to Crosby, Staffordshire and the diary which went to Canada.”

When he is satisfied that he has the collection in a manageable form linking dates and people, Robin, 75, could either pass it onto the descendants of the family or, if that’s not possible, a home for it with a museum or an archive.”

What sort of picture does it give Robin?

“Well, you have a ribbon-maker coming north. My view is that, in coming to a port, he might be sending cotton and all sorts of other stuff back to Coventry, which was the centre of ribbon-making for the whole country. Ribbons and borders, lace-making to attach to clothing, was very popular – hats and early shoe-laces. They dressed up horses with ribbons. The trade had a very long ancestry.

“It is obvious from the photographs that they were a slightly affluent family who had gone past the point of being tradesfolk. In the early part of the 20th century, they travelled. You have pictures of the Lake District, of them camping. They have a motor-car. They go to Wales.

“What is crazy is that I almost put the lot in the bin. All this family’s history could have evaporated. We should assemble it all together and return it to the family. It would be a super thing to do.”

One of the family albums was from Edith and Annie Cooke to Maude, “Wishing her very many happy returns of the day, March 4, 1896.”

Fashionable Liverpool photographers, such as GE Mills, of Wilde Street, Mowll and Morrison, of Hardman Street, and Astor, of Church Street, took the family groups.

So Robin glimpsed into an old gin box and he holds before him a vanishing way of life – when people wrote long and loving letters, kept diaries and slotted photographs into the white corners on the dark brown pages of albums.

Outside, people were photo- graphing each other on mobile phones. In the box, Annie wrote to Minnie about Maude, but the fingers on their clocks never stopped – through wars and celebrations, through life itself.

* IF MEMBERS of any of the relevant families contact David Charters on 0151 472 2427, he’ll pass the information on to Robin Riley.

The smell of history

“ISN’T it wonderful,” says Robin Riley, sniffing the tin of Cinet Old English Pot-Pourri, from Warrick Brothers of London. “I have no idea of its date, but it actually smells very good still. I would have thought that it was from between the wars.”

The blurb says, “An exquisite combination of specially selected flowers. It is a most pleasant and refreshing addition to drawing room or boudoir, place in the linen chest, imparts its fragrant aroma in a fascinating manner. Cinet Pot-Pourri has an established and world-wide reputation.”

davidcharters@dailypost.co.uk