A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Hooptedoodle #210 - Jim and Ike and the Cowhouse

From time to time I post here what I consider some of the more entertaining tales by which my family commemorate our quirkier ancestors. I’ve grown a little wary of doing this, since some of the comments I’ve received make it pretty clear that the authenticity of these stories is a matter of some doubt, that the tales are sometimes thought to be faked for the viewing audience.

Not so. If I had the strength or the moral fibre I would protest – I might even expostulate, if I knew how. If I had the imagination to invent this stuff I would be quietly pleased. This does not preclude the simple possibility that a bunch of lies has been handed down the family over the years, of course, but, though the tales may have been polished in the retelling, I believe they are substantially correct. Anyway, here’s another one…

A surviving "cowhouse" in the south end of Liverpool - this one at Aigburth/Sefton
Park - these were still a common sight when I was a kid, though few of them were still
working dairies. Typically, in their heyday, these places were run by people with a farming
background - i.e. who knew one end of a cow from the other
Recently, while I was visiting my mother in hospital, we had a lengthy conversation about Great Uncle Jim. My mother remembers some of these old characters with astonishing clarity and detail, and a lot of affectionate humour. Since she cannot always remember where she is on a given day, or why, we have to cherish the good bits of her memory, I think.

Now then. Let’s go back just a little. Great Grandfather George was my father’s father’s father (which is a straightforward idea, if tricky to say), and he was a moderately wealthy market gardener (vegetable farmer) near the small town of Rainhill, in Lancashire. He was a tenant farmer, and his business was run very efficiently by his wife Ellen, who was not a local woman – she came from somewhere further south – possibly Gloucestershire, as I recall.

The big problem was George’s thirst. Things got to a point where he would set off with his horse and cart all loaded up, on a Saturday morning, to take the produce to Warrington Market, and the horse would bring him back on Sunday, drunk and penniless. Every rum-pot in Warrington knew where to cadge a drink if George was in town. He was a celebrity, of a sort.

Brickmaker's Arms public house, Warrington, c1900
Ellen did a remarkable thing for those days – sometime around 1895 she decided she had had quite enough, and left her husband, and went to the nearest city (George is believed to have died in Warrington workhouse eventually).

Warrington workhouse - old George is in an unmarked grave somewhere here
She and her teenage sons moved into Liverpool with what little savings she had scraped together, and she opened a dairy (a milkhouse or “cowhouse”, as they were known, with a couple of cows and everything) in the vicinity of Hill Street, Toxteth. The idea of a dairy in such a location seems very far-fetched now, especially in post-Derek Hatton, modernised Liverpool, but such things were common in those times (non-UK readers who do not know about Derek Hatton are congratulated on their good fortune). The sons were Jim (the elder) and Ike (Isaac, my granddad), and they were up before dawn every day; they milked the cows, and delivered the milk in the neighbourhood – filling customers’ jugs from churns on their handcart.

A Liverpool milk-float - not Ellen's - the Anfield Dairy looks rather up-market
I believe the dairy did reasonably well, the hand barrow was replaced by a horse-drawn cart, and eventually Ellen sold up and retired, and Ike got himself a job in what was the then brand-new electrician trade, and he went into business converting houses to electric lighting – subsequently he was a foreman with Mersey Docks & Harbour Board, in the Electrical Workshop at the docks, and he (of course, since he was my paternal grandad) married and raised a family.

Toxteth - c1900 - not very rural - this is Wilson Street, at the Dingle

...and here is a supper bar in St James St
Jim never married – he missed the countryside and he returned to his roots (literally?), working on a few farms in Lancashire and Cheshire before acquiring a smallholding at Willaston, in the Wirral Peninsula. My dad could remember episodes from his childhood when all the family went for a working holiday on Jim’s farm at harvest time – the women, girls and infants slept in the farmhouse, while the older boys and the men all slept in a big shed, which was freshly painted out with bitumen each year to keep the fleas down – sounds pretty fancy – must have been great for the Liverpool catarrh, you would think. Dad always treasured the memory of these childhood visits, and throughout his life was fascinated by farming and the countryside. He remembered an incident when he must have been about five or six, when Jim’s carthorse, Samson, got overexcited and pushed its way into the back kitchen. There was no room for the horse to turn around, and the women in the house ran screaming while Jim confronted the monster. He punched it on the nose, and the astonished horse backed smartly into the yard – unfortunately, Samson was now wearing the doorframe and the beams across his shoulders, and most of the kitchen promptly collapsed, but my dad always saw this as a great success for his uncle, despite the collateral damage. You can see that, as a hero figure, an uncle who punched carthorses was a cut above a dad who fixed people’s lighting.

More like the thing - Willaston Village, Wirral, around the
same date - Jim had a smallholding at Nine Acres, not far from here
So this is shaping up to be an idyllic tale of Old Uncle Jim, who ran a lovely farm in lovely Cheshire, where the sun always shone, and where disobedient horses were disciplined promptly and with terrible strength. The truth is, Uncle Jim was a bit mad.

Jim knew for certain that any stranger who came near his farm was up to no good. One weekend he intercepted the collective gentry of the local hunt (yoicks!), who were crossing his land, and told them that if he saw them again he would shoot them. They dismissed him airily, as you would expect, and two weeks later he fired a shotgun during a hunt, allegedly at them, and was arrested. He spent a little while in prison, and then some time in a mental institution.

When I knew him he was over 80, I guess, and I was a very small child – if I had started school then I had only just started. Jim was long retired  - he gave up the farming, basically because he was always too lazy to make any money. He then lived in a council flat at Knotty Ash, Liverpool, which was many miles from our house, yet for a while he regularly visited us around teatime on a Saturday – my dad used to buy fish and chips for our weekend treat on Saturdays, and Jim was more than happy to drop in, unannounced, and share. He always claimed that he had just been passing, but a journey from Knotty Ash on the tram was a lengthy undertaking, requiring much planning. He used to come via the Saturday market in Garston, where he used to purchase crazy gifts for me – once a plaster figurine of an Alsatian dog, daubed with gold paint, often a bundle of pencils which only had about an inch of lead in each end, and once a framed picture of the Pope (cut from a magazine) – interesting in their way, I suppose, but each of them a poor swap for a decent plate of fish and chips.

Jim and Ike both had telephones installed in their homes – neither had many friends, and they kept in constant touch by means of this new technological wonder. I was once in my granddad’s house when he was on the phone to his brother, and I remember that they both shouted so loud that I thought they could simply have opened the window and communicated without involving the telephone service. Like a lot of retired men of their era and their background, they sort of lost their way a bit, having no useful role in the community. Ike was desperate to fix stuff, to repair things, to be useful and respected.

He repaired a handbag of my mother’s, and it was about twice as heavy after he had fixed it, the new leather patches contrasted strangely with the original material, and it would not open properly. It went in the bin.

He agreed to fix Jim’s alarm clock, which had stopped working. After he had got it working, he quizzed Jim on why it had been so rusty – he had had to strip down and hand-polish all the internals with oil and carborundum paper – a lengthy job. When Jim explained that it had fallen in his chamber pot one night, Ike said he was a dirty bugger, and they didn’t speak to each other for some weeks.

Ike’s worst ever repair job was when my Auntie May brought back a delicate silver bracelet from Spain – from the first foreign holiday any of that family ever went on (if you ignore Uncle Les’s time in Tunisia and Italy in WW2). He thought it looked disappointingly flimsy, and offered to improve it for her – this involved very large blobs of extra solder at every joint, and Auntie May was heartbroken, though it was definitely stronger – Ike was getting a bit past it by then, if that is an admissible defence…

Jim lived on his own in his flat in Knotty Ash, and he got very frail and very dotty. He still insisted on riding his bicycle, to everyone’s despair, in spite of frequent blackouts. On one occasion a motorist found him lying in the road, helped him up and stood him up in a shop doorway to see if he was all right – Jim punched him because he felt that the motorist must have knocked him off his bike. I believe that may have been the end of Jim’s cycling.

For a while my father used occasionally to travel on his Lambretta scooter (125cc) to visit Jim, to see how he was getting on, and invariably found him to be cheerful, full of energy and completely bats.

Lambretta 125, just like my dad's - that pillion seat was not
recommended for long distances - I still walk with a limp 
He was making a fried breakfast one Sunday when my dad arrived, and Jim invited him to share it, though there were no plates – the idea was they would both eat from the frying pan, since this saved on the washing up. Needless to add, the frying pan was never washed either. He also offered my dad some homemade bread to go with it – he said that he had become very keen on baking, which he thought was doubly useful since it kept his fingernails clean. My dad declined this splendid offer. Uncle Jim asked my dad (who was, like his father, an electrical man) to have a look at his radio, which hadn’t worked for a while. Apparently it was a real museum piece – Jim hugged it and pressed his ear to the silent speaker – he said that he was sure there was still life in it (actually, he referred to it as “him”), and that he had heard “him” speaking sometimes when he was in the other room. My dad swore that Jim had a length of wire from the EARTH (ground) terminal on the radio chassis, and the other end was in a plant-pot full of soil from his yard – I’ve never been sure about this – it sounds too much like an Irish gag.

Ike had a severe stroke when he was about 75, and died within a couple of days, but he died secure in the proud knowledge that he was something of a local rarity, since he owned his own house (he had bought it with the £500 he inherited from the sale of his mother’s dairy), and that he owned the first TV set in his street; they had bought it so the neighbours could watch the (1953) Coronation on it. Since he already had a telephone that he overcharged the neighbours to use, this was the ultimate in Beating the Joneses. My granddad was quite big-time – as a foreman in the electrical workshop, almost unbelievable nowadays, he used to wear a waistcoat and a bowler hat. My lasting childhood memory of him is sitting in his armchair, resplendent in waistcoat and silver watchchain (which I have somewhere), with the cufflinks and detachable starched collar removed from his work shirt, slurping a cup of tea.

Jim was well into his eighties when he died – his end was unfortunate, solitary, and in some ways had a lot in common with his life. He was boiling eggs on his gas stove in his little flat when he seems to have had some kind of dizzy turn. The coroner’s inquest reckoned that the pan of water boiled over, extinguishing the gas flame, and Jim was gassed while he was unconscious.

That’s enough about that lot. I also might add, in passing, that I have a relative from a different branch of the family, who was gaoled in the 1970s for spying for the Russians – this is absolutely true, by the way. I think I’m probably not allowed to say anything about this story, so I’ll leave it for the moment. Just saying.

Things could get worse.


  1. LOL! Excellent.. far more entertaining than my family....

  2. What? You mean someone would dare cast doubt upon the veracity of your family traditions? The very idea!
    Personally, I thought everyone had relations like these and I lament the passing of the great British good-natured eccentric of yesteryear.
    (Though I suspect punching carthorses is rightly frowned upon these days as animal cruelty.)
    Whatever, keep up the good work.

  3. Whatever the authenticity you have tales to tell that we all enjoy I'm afraid I missed out on most of my families eccentric members!

  4. Superb stuff, Tony! Glad to see that other people's families have as many eccentrics as mine....one day I'll bore you with the tale of 'Piano Hugh', my great-grandfather.....

  5. Excellent read! Keep'em coming. 👍

  6. Its a shame really that I left home at 17 and went so far away before I realized that stories about ancestors I'd barely or never met, were both interesting and important.

  7. AGreed! Your family stories are wonderful.

    Best Regards,


  8. Gentlemen - you are all very kind - not to say tolerant! Ross's mention of the importance of family stories chimes a chord with me. My wife was commenting yesterday that my family seems to be unusual in the number of stories which are preserved (wrong word - cherished is better) and the extent to which they have always been enjoyed - at Christmas, when I was a very small child, my Granddad Ike would be encouraged (after a small sherry) to recount the tale of Cousin Vincent and the Chinese cook, or similar, and would allow himself to be persuaded. Everybody knew the tales by heart, but the laughter and the discussion never grew less as the years past - no-one got tired of the stories. To me, the nearest similar thing I can think of is another Liverpool tradition, of joining in the singing of the same old songs, night after night, in the pubs.

    Was it a city thing? Was it a characteristic of large families who had lived in small areas, always in each other's pockets, often through hard times? Was it that people (who often were illiterate, let's remember, if you go back far enough) clung to an oral tradition and had nothing else to entertain them anyway. I don't think it was specific to Liverpool or Northern communities.

    The fact remains that many of the characters in these old stories only really survive in memory because of some funny thing that happened to them one day - we know nothing of the context - I can only look at the old photos and wonder. As I've said before, it's like King Alfred's cakes - just about all we know about Uncle Jock Mubery is that he was sacked from being a river pilot because he was drunk, and fell overboard during Edward VII's visit - but what else would you want to know?

    I think that where we came from, and what it was like, is important - for our identity and to help us appreciate where we have got to now. I also think that it is impossible to hang onto everything that ever happened. There are genealogy and nostalgia websites which are so crammed with old tales and old pictures (and so badly organised, sadly) that hardly any of it ever gets read. I fear that something which is securely stored online will disappear from our collective consciousness far more quickly than the oral tradition and the pub stories of old - for a start, we stop thinking about them once they are safely documented. Trying to keep a record of everything is not only daft but a sure recipe for insanity.

    I do have one major regret in this area. My father started at Liverpool Docks as an apprentice in 1937 - he saw the new Cunard ship, Mauretania, in the Mersey the week he started - and he worked there right through the war, moving onto a new job elsewhere only in the early 1960s. He had a collection of sailors' stories, eye-witness stuff (especially of the Blitz) and a knowledge of the old port which was breathtaking. When he was retired, before he moved to Scotland for his final years, he used to spend a lot of time at the (mostly demolished) South Docks, taking photos and painting in watercolours. There was talk of his being commissioned to do some work for an official port history, but it came to nothing.

    I used to egg him on to write some of it down, before it was lost forever, and in fact I made some approaches to a noted Liverpool historian, who agreed to come up to Scotland and do some interviews with him, with the intention of making a professional job of it. It never happened - both the historian and my father died within a few months of the idea being discussed, and that was it. Dad never even did any of the jottings I nagged him about, either, so it's all lost now.

    Maybe that's correct and decent - the past is important, but the detailed narrative is only important for a short time, in a local area. Maybe a light-hearted glimpse in a daft blog is the right format, after all!

    Thanks again - regards to anyone who read this far! - Tony

    1. Possibly a large family thing plus tradition. Mom and various uncles were always full of family stories but the gatherings were too few given the distance we swere spread over and I wasn't the only one who listened without learning and remembering the details or who was who and what the relationship was between various people we'd never met.

      My dad on the other hand, it was really hard to get anything from him, he only slipped a few things later in life but a double cousin who knew him before the war spread some light on that past but now he's gone too.

      My generation has started telling each other family stories but too few of us paid enough attention to remember details of previous generations each following generation has at most 1/2 the previous one and even the human side of places are often gone or changed beyond recognition so ere long we'll be like prehistoric folk, just shadows will remain.

    2. Ross - now you mention it, I think maybe that was the point of the constant repetition of the old family tales - like the Druids, we had to work at the oral tradition - we had to put in the effort and the hours to keep the stories intact. As you say, if it ceases to be a constant ritual, the stories fade.

    3. Not just families either - I am a 'member' of a couple of social groupings (one sailing related and one beer related), not a club, just a bunch of like minded mates who gather on a fairly regular basis.... it is noticeable that we do exactly the same - and still fall about gurgling like drains when the stories are trotted out of previous events and happenings... even though it's the umpteenth time we've heard them.... I think it's a comforting thing, an affirmation that you are not alone....