The life of Sir Joshua Walmsley – Chapter IV

CHAPTER IV.  This all takes place between 1816 – 1819.

The young couple took a house in Gloucester Street, at a rental of seventeen pounds per annum; the furnishing of which proved no easy matter, but by his old age there was no greater delight to Sir Joshua than the retrospect of these happy days, to tell of their many straits, and the difficulty they had to make the two ends meet, of their various vicissitudes and unvarying affection.

It was a time when the bare necessaries of life were hard to get, for the harvest of 1816 proved the worst England had known for years. The Corn Laws of 1815, prohibiting the importation of grain until homegrown wheat had reached eighty shillings per quarter, increased the distress. Misery was widespread over the country ; in Liverpool we find twenty thousand persons depending upon parish relief for support, and to feed this starving multitude the rate of one shilling and threepence levied upon the pound. As it inevitably happens, the heaviest burden fell upon small incomes, and accordingly it became imperative upon Mr. Walmsley to devise some means by which to increase his.

“My first resolve,” he says, ” was that my duty to my employers should not be interfered with, nor the time I owed them encroached upon. To solve this problem of reconciling the two conflicting interests seemed no easy matter, yet it was not long before I hit upon a plan, and I set to work at once. At the county markets, of which Warrington and Manchester were the principal, I was getting well known. My discrimination in grain had earned me a reputation. I now determined to try some modest speculations on my own account. I therefore bought small packets of rice, arrowroot, Indian corn, and disposed of them at those markets. My plan succeeded beyond my expectations. It saved us from penury. Those small speculations in grain succeeded so well in the county markets that I took a room, or rather a barn, in South John Street. There, in the early morning, I weighed out my packages and carried them to their various destinations. I was never a moment behind time at Messrs. Carter and Piers’ office, although before this regular business hour I had often done a hard morning’s work. I never slackened my energy in my employers’ interest, and in the early hours I was earning more than double the salary they allowed me. Thanks to Peter Evans’ training, on the Corn Exchange I was recognised as a first-rate judge of cereals. By plunging my hand into a sack, I could recognise by the touch alone the quality and kind of grain it contained.”

Queens Dock, Liverpool

To this period belongs an incident which Sir Joshua often related :

“ One morning, very early,” he said, ” I issued out of my modest warehouse, carrying a heavy bag of rice on my back. It was destined for Mr. Harrison, a ship-biscuit baker, residing close to the dock. The percentage on it would be barely two shillings. I quietly wended my way — few passengers being in the streets as yet — when suddenly on approaching Queen’s Dock, I found myself surrounded by a crowd of porters, shaking their fists in my face, yelling that I was encroaching on their rights, that I was taking the bread out of their mouths. They threatened to throw me and my bag into the river. The crowd of furious men was swelling. The expression of their faces, their gestures, told me that the execution of their threat was imminent. No help could be looked for from the ‘ Old Charlies.’  For one moment I was startled, then I leaned my back and my bag up against a wall. I shouted at the top of my voice, bidding them be still. I told them, I too was poor, poor as the poorest of them. I was the last who would encroach upon the poor man’s rights, but I claimed that right for myself — the right to earn honestly what lay in my power. I told them what percentage this bag of rice would bring me, scarce enough to pay one of them to carry it to its destination ; and this I could not give, for it would be the price of my dinner.”

“The words appealed to the men’s sense of fair play, and their yells were turned to cheers. When I moved on they walked behind me in procession, hurrahing lustily. Mr. Harrison, attracted by the noise, came to his door to ascertain its cause. He was not a little astonished to see his expected rice-dealer coming towards him, his bag hoisted on his back, surrounded by a cheering crew of dock-porters. He could scarcely believe his eyes, but when I told him the story of that morning’s adventure, he offered there and then to take me into partnership. The days of my apprenticeship however not being ended, I could not accept his offer.”

Circumstances were brightening in the little household in Gloucester Street When, after two years, the eldest son was born, [Again this is a little hazy with the facts, Joshua Walmsley II was born in 1819, four years after the marriage, and Elizabeth Walmsley, the eldest daughter was almost two.] Mr. Mulleneux, who had been watching his son-in-law’s career, forgave the two offenders. His daughter’s husband might be poor, but he was made of the right stuff; his principles and aims were upright and manly, and his determination to carry them out indomitable.

The following is the account Sir Joshua gives of his coach-travelling days, as Messrs. Carter and Piers’ salesman :

” The speed at which coaches travelled now was very different from the slow old days of my childhood. Once I remember having left Liverpool at seven in the morning, breakfasting at Prescott, dining at Warrington, taking tea at Hallam’s Green, eating Eccles cakes at Eccles, and reaching Manchester at eight. The thirty-six miles had taken thirteen hours to perform. Now the thirty -six miles were accomplished within three hours and a half. Travelling had become safe too. Highwaymen were almost an extinct race. During the time I travelled thrice weekly between Liverpool, Warrington, and Manchester, there was but one coach robbery on record, and by a sort of poetic justice the robbed man was himself his employer’s robber. The hours of travel we often spent in playing whist. There was a Quaker whose name was well known in Liverpool, a worthy member of the Society of Friends. He often travelled down by the Warrington coach, or in the gig. He did not play whist himself, but he lent his great- coat to be spread on the players’ knees to form a temporary table. He also held the candle for them when it was too dark to distinguish hands. With unaccountable interest he watched the game, and often when I was about to play a wrong card he would jog my elbow, a hint I always followed.”

Mr. Walmsley had long been following with keen interest the progress of steam navigation. He foresaw that this marvellous propelling power would usher in a new era in commerce. Men’s minds were divided on the subject, some holding the expectation of any great change for the better resulting from it to be visionary, whilst others watched and half believed.

Mr. Egerton Smith, in the columns of The Liverpool Mercury, strenuously advocated the use of steam to tow sailing-vessels out to sea. Pointing to the ruinous delay caused to merchants by the prevalence of north-west winds off the coast, detaining whole fleets for weeks in the Mersey, he urged that by the use of steam they might be towed out and go on their way, and also that during calms the river and docks might be relieved from momentary pressure.

Gradually he went further and collected evidence to prove how steam might be applied to sea-going ships.

” The famous Dr. Lardner vigorously opposed the idea. He admitted that on the calm waters of the great American rivers it might work, but to apply it to ocean-going ships was insanity. At a lecture, to which I listened with breathless attention, the doctor laughed to scorn the notion of steam as an ocean- going motive power. He stated boldly and decisively that not only was it an impossibility, but that it would ever remain so, that no vessel ever could cross the Atlantic and carry her own coal. This he theoretically demonstrated to the satisfaction of his hearers and himself. On the 30th June, 1815, I formed a unit in a great crowd assembled on the frontage towards the river. About noon of that day arrived the first steamboat ever seen on the Mersey. I shall never forget my emotion as I watched the strange ship ploughing the waters, and sending puffs of smoke upwards in the air.”

Beaumaris and the Menai Straights

He records his first trip in a steamer :

“ One of the first steamships seen on the Mersey was placed at the disposal of the mayor, Jonathan Hollinghead, and the municipality, in order that by means of a short trip to Beaumaris and back they might satisfy themselves of the practicability of steam as a motive power. A ticket was offered me, and I gladly availed myself of it. It was a glorious day, but just sufficient sea on to make the plunging of the vessel testify to the power of the engine. The destination was reached in safety, and the mayor and his guests landed, visited this lovely and romantic spot, then once more embarked, and the St. George steamed out of the little harbour amid the wild cheers of the inhabitants, who crowded the shore to behold the crowning wonder of the age. The afternoon sun was shining brightly, the sea had gone down. On deck a bounteous repast was laid, the host’s jovial merriment communicating itself to all his guests. Presently two Manx herring-boats were seen luffing up into the wind, their sails shivering to slacken their way, in order that the fishermen might gaze on a vessel advancing without sails. Willing to gratify them, the captain slackened speed, and the St. George steered right between the two tiny craft. The boats, as it neared them, both filled and stood on the same tack. The breeze was fair, and they easily kept way with the steamer, one to starboard, the other to port. Suddenly, one of our party seized an apple and flung it at one of the fishermen. Another and another followed, then a volley, and the mania spreading, apples, oranges, cakes were thrown in a perfect storm. It was the broadside of the ship-of-war together with the file-firing of the marines. The mayor forgot his dignity and shouted with glee. Aldermen and common-councilmen grew young again, and grave grey-haired men pelted and shouted like children. A moment the fishermen were staggered and utterly bewildered, then with a howl of vengeance, they seized upon their finny prey, and the air grew dark with herrings. They fell in showers upon the assailants, the deck was slippery with them, the table was covered with them, still on they came, thicker and faster.

‘Go ahead full steam !’ shouted the captain, and the St. George obeyed, drawing out of Herring reach, while the mayor gave a parting cheer, and hurled his hat in defiance in the direction of the Manxmen, whose responding shouts were heard as the lost hat bobbed up and down on the waves.”

Thus a naval encounter marked Mr. Walmsley’s first trip to sea.

The time of his apprenticeship now approached its close. He could choose his future path. Messrs. Carter and Piers offered him a liberal salary to remain. Mr. Harrison was ready to take him into partnership. There was a third opening for him : Mr. Booth, a gentleman he had often travelled with, who had begun business two years before, also offered to make him his partner. It had often occurred to Mr. Walmsley that a first-rate and secure business might be got together in the corn trade by buying brokers. Mr. Booth agreed to the plan, and Mr. Walmsley closed with the offer. His reputation at the different markets, his knowledge of all his future customers, had formed for him an extensive commercial acquaintance, and he felt sure of success.

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