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Ladies of Liverpool

16 Jan   ( If you haven’t already, you may like to read this first.)

Chapter One

Molly’s Shop 1889

The day had not begun well, with ten funeral hats to complete and no black feathers, in spite of the order having been placed weeks before.

Catherine’s fingers ached after a particularly busy week. All the ladies in Liverpool seemed to be dressing for occasions. Summer was always hectic, with garden fetes and the races. Floral fashion filled the shop with vibrant colours, but this week had been devoted mostly to funeral hats, black lace and feathers to offset black felt wide brims. Consumption and cholera were taking their toll on the city and Catherine was reminded of her oakum picking days at the workhouse when her fingers became calloused and sore with the dreary task of pulling apart old rope thread by thread, and although life had improved somewhat, there was still the daily grind to get through.

Living above the shop on Church Street in her own room with her own bed was a great improvement compared to her six in a bed days of the foul smelling workhouse dormitory and although her room was not much bigger than the average  coffin, it had a set of drawers for her belongings and a window where she spent her evenings watching the busy Liverpool street life.

This funeral was going to be a grand one. Consumption had taken the daughter of one of the wealthy merchants ‘It’s not picky!’ Molly the shop owner had commented the day before as they laboured to finish the order. ‘Consumption will carry off king and pauper.’

Catherine knew all about the merciless disease, and as Molly chattered on, her thoughts drifted to their old life in the house on Great Newton Street, her mother’s death and her father’s disappearance: the terrible loss which had caused Aunt Lizzie to leave Catherine and her little brothers to suffer two years in the Liverpool Workhouse.

‘That’s twenty finished with ten more to do, but the dark’s setting in so we can’t do no more Cathy darling. Cathy! Dreaming again! Did you hear a word I said?’

She became aware again of the feather strewn shop and Molly’s good-humoured smile. ‘It’s time to stop.’ Molly mouthed with slow emphasis. ‘Put down your needle. We have an early start tomorrow, so it’s a quick supper and bed for us.’

Although it was late, a midsummer glow lingered in the sky above Church Street and work weary, Catherine knelt on the window seat watching the darkening figures of people on the street; drunken men and women staggering home and wealthy theatre goers languishing in horse drawn carriages. Now and then a child would dart across the road, barefoot and ragged. Catherine watched the children and remembered. Always remembering, always, always remembering. She was fifteen now, not old, but youth had escaped her, when night after night she had wandered the streets and bars looking for their daddy; and here she was at the window still watching for him; imagining that he would emerge from the alleyway opposite the hat shop and she would race down the stairs and into his arms. But for now, she must accept the way things were, and as the golden gaslight glowed along the noisy street, casting shadows on her bedroom wall,  she snuffed the flickering candle and was soon asleep.

The early dawn awakened her, with little more than feathers on her mind and ten more hats to make. Molly was already in the workroom when Catherine arrived, still drowsy and not quite ready for the demands of the day. ‘Get your porridge Cathy girl it’s waitin’ in the kitchen.’ Molly ordered. ‘We’ve the day from hell to get through!’

Molly approached each morning in this manner. Every day was the one from hell, understandably so with the workload each new dawn brought. Sometimes it seemed they were making hats for all the women of Liverpool with only a week to complete the job. In the tiny kitchen, Catherine began to wake up.

Outside, the day began to unfold. Trams and carriages jostled for space and bleary eyed young clerks made their way to busy offices, shops put their shutters up and pulled bright awnings down.

In the workshop, unadorned hats were piled according to size and shape on shelves along the wall facing the entrance to the shop. A long pine table filled most of the space in the room and to the left of the door stood three ornate  chests of drawers in which were kept the  trinkets used to decorate hats, lace and ribbons of every colour imaginable, studs and sequins, feathers and bows, butterflies and exotic birds, a treasury of possibilities and Molly Briers had a talent for creating hats of style, so popular that she had a waiting list. She was an artist in her craft and never disappointed her faithful customers from the young and fashionable who liked their hats to perch atop their head and piled high with foppery, to the planer bonnets, usually the choice of the mature lady, less ornate and often with a floral theme to brighten them.

Catherine spent most of her time in the workroom while Molly dealt with customers in the shop, which was always stocked with a variety of hats for men, women and children. When there were no orders to complete, Catherine would work on bonnets or picture hats for general stock.

‘There’s never an end in sight’. She would complain to Molly, who would join her whenever she was able to help with the stitching. ‘The day there’s an end in sight, will be the day my business dies young lady.’ She would retort. Molly was a friend of Miss Clancy, Catherine’s sewing teacher at the workhouse. Miss Clancy had recommended Catherine as a good worker and seamstress, and Molly had no regrets about her decision to employ the sallow faced young girl who seldom smiled and seemed to carry the sorrows of the world on her shoulders, but her work could not be faulted.

‘We need those feathers Cathy, and there’s no sign of the order arriving so you’ll have to pop round to Mrs. Sanders on Paradise Street. I’ll give you a note and some cash. Let’s hope she has a few to spare. I’ve helped her out a few times. Here, wear this fancy bonnet and if anyone comments tell them I made it’.

Catherine gladly donned the daisy dressed bonnet and set off on the short trip to Paradise Street. Early morning trams and carriages bringing workers into the city jostled for space along the road, leaving little room for pedestrians. The day promised to be a hot one and the smell of freshly baked bread and coffee, together with the earthy scent of horses and dust from the sun dried street, the seagulls call and the peel of bells from St Peter’s Church lifted her spirits, after hours of working in the back room of Molly’s shop, it felt good to be outside.

She hurried towards Lord Street, passing young flower girls and fruit stall owners arranging their bright fresh wares, relishing the sights and the brief spell of freedom, but her mood was darkened briefly by the thought of Alfie, her brother, not yet free.

Mrs. Sanders was very obliging and supplied the required black feathers without hesitation. ‘Lovely bonnet you’re wearing, one of Molly’s I take it? She’s a talented lady’.

‘Thank you’. Catherine smiled and blushed, unaccustomed to compliments. ‘We have a big funeral order to finish today.’ she explained, feeling an explanation was required ‘The feathers didn’t arrive in the post on time’

‘You can never rely on the post.’ Mrs. Sanders sighed. ‘Best be on your way and get to work young lady.’ Catherine thanked the elegant lady and hastened back to Molly’s. As she reached Church Street she heard her name called from somewhere above. ‘Cathy! Catherine! It’s me! On the tram!’ Looking up to the open top of the passing tram, she saw her Cousin Maud waving frantically.  ‘I’m going to work, I’ll call in at Molly’s later tonight.’ Maud yelled as the tram jostled away up the now chaotic street. Catherine waved, brightened further by the encounter with her cousin Maud. ‘I love your bonnet!’ Maud bellowed, pointing to her head in case Catherine was out of earshot.

Chapter Two


Liverpool was having a turbulent year. In March the dockworkers’ Union called a strike for more pay. Men travelled to Liverpool to find work and hundreds found themselves stranded with no money to fund a journey home or to buy food and drink. They were directed to the workhouse. Their desperation forced hundreds to endure the shame with no other choice but starvation. The rules forbade them to stay for only a day, in order to be nourished, if they were admitted they must stay at least a week and work. Many of the stranded refused, but others could find no alternative and the workhouse, already an overcrowded mire of misery became home to the broken strikers, their fury potent and intimidating.

‘Keep out their way Alf.’ Billy urged his little brother ‘I don’t like the look of any of them’

The brothers were together in the dining hall, two ‘bags of bones’ among row upon row of the same. ‘Whatever you do don’t look at them.’

Most of the stranded strikers were from Manchester, too weak and hungry to make the journey home, and unsure how they would manage even after a week in the workhouse. They were defeated and humiliated.

Alfie was ten years old, a slight, fair haired boy with bright blue eyes. ‘Don’t worry Bill. I can look after myself’ Billy was worried. He would be leaving Alfie for the day to work on the ‘Coral, Captain Featherstone’s boat which would be sailing to the Isle of Man with him on board. Soon he would be going on long voyages at sea and have no need to stay at the workhouse, but the captain had arranged for day release permission while he learned the ropes. There was often tension and aggression in the male quarters, but there was also resentment between the Liverpool and Manchester inmates, which Billy sensed could turn nasty.

Breakfast over, they filed out and Bill tousled his little brother’s hair. ‘Keep clear of trouble. I’ll see you later.’ Alf playfully punched his brother in the stomach and they parted, grinning.

Alfie spent mornings in the school room. He set off across the yard with his group of raggedy friends.

‘Billy said to keep away from the new Dockers he advised them. ‘They’re angry’.

‘Not ‘appy that’s for sure.’  Arnie agreed. Arnold Styth was the son of a Russian migrant, a skilled engineer, trying to find his way in the city, but now dependent on the workhouse for survival. Alf and Arnie had become good friends since the latter’s arrival in February. Both boys were survivors in the classroom in spite of the strict supervision and punishment for the slightest misdemeanor.

Above the roof tops and chimney stacks a patch of pale blue sky lingered briefly before thunderous  storm clouds rolled in, and the yard  became bleak and oppressive.  Alfie saw a seagull, its whiteness captured by a single ray of struggling sunlight, and for a brief moment thought about beyond the walls, to where the River Mersey lay and Billy on the boat to Isle of Man.

The funeral hat order complete, Catherine tidied the workshop and studied the orders for the next batch, which were mostly lavish picture hats, her favourite. Molly would design them according to the customer’s request regarding colour and ornamentation and would instruct Catherine on the making. The hat trade had suffered due to the introduction of factories, which could turn out many more hats in a day than Molly and Catherine were able to manage in a month, but it was Molly’s personal touch that kept her business buoyant. Molly Briars’  hats were gaining fame amongst the ladies of Liverpool.

‘Right Cathy we need blue net, feathers, birds and ribbon out on the table to start with. Here’s the base. Now that hat is for Mrs. Bagshaw, a good customer and very influential, so I need top notch work from you.’ Catherine nodded nervously, it seems a huge responsibility. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll guide you every step of the way.’ Molly smiled, ‘Get everything on the table and ready to go!’

The rest of the day was devoted to Mrs. Bagshaw’s blue hat and Catherine was so absorbed, she hardly noticed the violent thunderstorm that raged outside, until Molly called her to help sweep the rain water away from the shop, by which time the worst had passed and only a steady patter remained, as rain drenched Church street gleamed clean and freshly polished by the downpour. The two fought gallantly against the sudden torrent, which had rushed along Bold Street and Church Street, joining in with the laughter of shoppers and shopkeepers caught out by the storm, which was slowly moving out towards the Irish Sea.

The shop was spared and still giggling from the drama, Molly put the kettle on the stove. ‘We deserve a cup of tea Cathy my dear!’ The two settled by the stove in the little kitchen removing their shoes to dry them off.

‘What’ll you do on your day off tomorrow Cathy?’ Molly asked, watching her little helper who at fifteen years of age could pass for twelve, ‘scrawny’ was the word used by Mrs. Bagshaw,

‘You’re telling me that scrawny little waif is working on my hat?’ She had whined when Molly mentioned that Catherine was busy stitching the blue symphony together.

‘She is a very proficient needle worker Mrs. Bagshaw I can assure you utmost satisfaction.’ Molly had gushed, secretly hoping that the ‘little waif’ would not let her down.

‘I’ll call on Auntie Lizzie’ Cathy responded, enjoying the rare break and hot drink ‘I saw Maud on the tram this mornin’ she was shoutin’ and wavin’ from the top deck, Cathy, Cathy!’ she parodied Maud’s behavior and the two laughed again. ‘She said she was going to call in later, but she was on her way to work so I don’t know when she’ll finish’

‘Maud’s working?’ Mollie queried. She had met Catherine’s cousin a few times now and understood the close friendship shared by the two cousins. ‘What’s she doing?’

‘I don’t know Molly. It’s the first I’ve heard of it’

‘Oh well all will be revealed soon enough no doubt. Now back to that hat with you. We have another hour of daylight before supper.’

Chapter 3

A Tragedy at Sea

When Billy arrived at the Coral, the crew were stowing cargo; Captain Featherstone greeted him and set him to work on the rigging. The River Mersey was as busy as ever with ships in dock, ferries crossing to the Wirral and smaller sailing boats bobbing on the water here and there. Out at sea the waves were restless, but that was not unusual on the Irish Sea and the Captain anticipated an uneventful crossing with time for lunch at the Isle of Mann, returning to Liverpool early evening.

Within an hour of reaching open seas a thin haze began to mask the sun, like a bride’s veil and before long they watched the storm explode above Liverpool, lightning relentlessly struck the City, thunder rattled long and loud and as they watched, the crew saw the dense, murky storm cloud shifting ominously in their direction.

‘We’re afore storm lads’ The Captain called ‘It’s slow moving, so let’s get ready for battle!’

Billy had never experienced a storm at sea, but trusted his captain to get them through. He followed the rest of the crew in securing cargo and battening the hatches, but he sensed the severity of the onslaught they were about to endure.

As Catherine battled with the yards of blue net on Mrs. Bagshaw’s hat and Alfie battled with his six-time tables in the workhouse classroom, their Billy prepared to face the biggest battle of his life.

By suppertime Maud had not arrived and though Catherine watched from her window she knew, as darkness fell, that Auntie Lizzie would not allow her cousin to wander the streets. She glanced across to the alleyway from whence her father would one day emerge, or so she yearned, and accepted that her curiosity would have to wait until her visit to Great Newton street tomorrow, when Maud would tell her about her new employment and she would tell her cousin about Mrs. Bagshaw’s blue hat. Then in her darkened room and listening to the sounds of Church Street night life, while a glow from the street lamps peeped through the curtains. casting narrow shafts of light upon her bedroom walls, she thought about her daddy and brothers and from her aching heart she prayed they would be safe.

Chapter 4

A Surprise Encounter

Maud had found employment with a family living in a big house on the outskirts of the city. Events had unfolded so quickly she had no time to tell Catherine about her new status. The girls’ grandmother Margaret, had noticed the advertisement in the Echo, Liverpool’s local newspaper, and suggested to Maud that she apply. Within days of sending her letter, the lady of the house, Mrs. Bagshaw, had called to see Maud, astonishing the family with her huge purple taffeta enveloped presence, which filled their tiny parlour.

‘A remarkably clean room’, she approved, ‘and Maud, my first impression of you is that you are a sensible, comely girl. I would like to trial you for three weeks. If all is well you will have a permanent place in my household. You must be prompt and keep my house as spick as this room. Come tomorrow morning at seven o’clock. There is a tram that leaves Lime Street at half past six. Alight at the Newsham stop and there will be a woman by the name of Edith waiting for you. If you miss the tram, do not bother coming. Good day to you all.’

Whereupon, Mrs. Bagshaw emptied the room of her presence and returned to her carriage, leaving Maud and her family dumbstruck.

It was the following morning that Maud spotted her cousin Catherine from the tram and promised to call on her later to give her the news, but on her return at eight o’clock that evening, she was too weary for social calls and chose instead to go straight home. Neither girl could have predicted the circumstances of their next meeting.

Chapter 5

The Long Wait

Catherine was awakened by the shop bell jangling and loud banging on the door. “Dear God it’s morning already.’ She cried, jumping out of bed and hastily pulling on her skirt and blouse. The knocking continued and a dazed Molly met her at the top of the stairs. ‘What in the name of all that is holy is happening?’ They sped down the stairs, through the workshop to the shop front door; through the frosted glass they could perceive two figures. “Who’s there?’ Called Molly, nervously, wondering what could be the cause of this commotion. “It’s us Molly, Denis and Maude. We need to talk to Catherine.”

Without hesitation, Molly unlocked the door and opened it to find the two extremely disturbed and anxious on her doorstep. “Come in won’t you? It’s an unearthly time to be callin’ round mind. What’s happened?” She asked, ushering them inside. Denis set his lamp down on the kitchen table and Maude took Catherine in her arms. “There’s been a horrendous storm over the Irish Sea Cathy.” Denis was panting after running through the streets. “The same storm that almost flooded us out today, no doubt.” Molly added. “The very one.” Denis nodded solemnly.

Catherine had stiffened in Maude’s grasp and had already guessed what she was about to hear, “No!” She cried. “No, don’t say it! I won’t hear it! I won’t hear it! Not Billy!’ Molly, now fully awake became alert to the situation, “What happened?” She asked. “Some boats went down in the storm. The Coral hasn’t been seen since. Some were saved and some are dead. Billy hasn’t been found.” Denis could hardly contain his emotions, while recounting what he knew of the tragedy. “Not found.” Catherine murmured. “Not found is hopeful Uncle Denis. Don’t you think Maude?” It’s hopeful. We’ll wait, and soon we’ll hear that he’s alive. Our Billy’s strong and would never break our hearts.”

Molly was stoking the stove, aware that Catherine may not be able to bear the loss of her brother. ‘What can we do Denis?” ‘We must go to the Pier Head.’ Catherine responded. ‘We must go and wait for Billy.’

Chapter 6

Joy and Grief

At the Pier Head, a subdued gathering kept vigil at the water’s edge as the river gently lapped the landing stage and a full moon brightened foamy waves. Waiting people stood motionless, listening and watching for a single sign of life on the bleak horizon. Rescue boats arrived at intervals, bringing the living and the dead ashore. Scenes of joy and grief unfolded where only hours ago the sailors embarked that sunny day.

The four stood in hope of Billy’s return. They spoke not a word, but stared into the dark abyss that was the Irish Sea, willing Billy alive. As she waited, unaware that in the shadows another anxious figure stood close by, Catherine thought about her mammy, sailing in from Ireland to seek refuge from the terrible famine. As a little girl, her mammy had stepped safely from the boat. “If only Billy would do the same.” She thought. “Bring him home Mammy, bring him home.” But the darkness was intense.

Inevitably, dawn began to break, pink clouds and seagulls hailed another day; a voice called out.

“A boat!” And there on the pale horizon could be seen the sails, bright in the new dawn, of a small craft. “It may be The Coral.” A murmur rippled along the quayside while an old sailor pulled a telescope from the pocket of his coat and peered out to where the boat was gliding closer and closer to the cold and weary hopefuls. Molly and Maude drew closer to Catherine. All eyes were fixed on the sea weathered old man with the telescope. “It’s The Coral all right.” He finally announced, and Catherine’s legs gave way. Molly and Maude were ready with support. The people remained quiet and soon The Coral could be clearly seen by all.

Chapter 7

A Brother Alone

Alfie lay awake in the bed he shared with four other boys of varying age and size. Billy had not returned in time and had been locked out of the workhouse for the night. There was no way to find out what had happened to him and Alfie wondered where he would be and whether or not he was safe. The streets of Liverpool were dangerous at night. He began to fear the day ahead and what terrible news it might bring. What if he never came back? How would he manage without Billy?

Daylight slowly seeped into the dismal room, there was a strong odor of urine, bed wetting being an unfortunate and frequent occurrence among the younger boys. Alfie watched the slumbering men and boys, remembering Billy’s warning. There had been some tension throughout the previous day and a number of inmates had been expelled from the place. The morning bell rang and reluctantly, the mass of bony arms and legs began to stir.

Chapter 8

Joy and Despair

“Jaysus Cathy we heard the news and ran straight here. They say the Coral’s missin’ and I know Billy’s on it.” Colleen enveloped Catherine with a comforting hug. She had arrived at the riverside with her sister Bernadette and Paddy her father , sick with worry for her Billy, but working hard to conceal the depth of her feelings. The three were breathless from the rush to be with their friends.

The sky had changed from pink to powder blue, dappled with puffs of white cloud which drifted above The Coral, escorting her home.

“The Coral’s coming in Paddy, but I won’t rejoice until I see Billy in the flesh, Denis pronounced, cautious and practical, as was his nature. Molly shivered in the early morning chill. They had been standing for two hours, so mesmerised by the moonlit silent vigil, that they hardly noticed the creeping cold which gripped their bones.

The Coral reached the quayside and thick, heavy ropes were thrown ashore. Catherine saw them and for an involuntary moment was back at the workhouse picking oakum, tearing those thick ropes apart, trapped and hopeless, but now she would trade a life time of the same for her brother to be safe.

The crew was silent as they moored the boat and lowered the ramp, then with quiet dignity, two men bore a stretcher to land and placed it on the ground. The crowd remained restrained as one by one the sailors came ashore. Then Billy, subdued and bereft of his usual zeal, appeared and was engulfed by twelve relieved and loving arms, which ushered him swiftly away from the scene and all that he could utter were the awful words. “The Captain’s dead.”

The riverside remained a scene of quiet joy and devastating grief while the sun began to warm the day and the dark drama of that night was dispersed by seagull cries and sparkling waves. A lone figure rested on a rusty bollard. Since the storm had drifted out to sea, John had waited for The Coral to return, had watched as boats sailed in and brought the bodies back throughout the night, had watched his anguished daughter and wanted to be with her, as he knew he should, but now was not the time. For now, he knew that Billy was safe. For now, that was enough.

Chapter 9

Mr. Cranny

At breakfast there was still no news of Billy and Alfie was shocked when the prayer reader, whose duty it was to read Bible extracts and pray for those who partook in the meager morsel that was breakfast, mentioned the souls of those who had perished in the Irish Sea last night.

‘It von’t be Beelie Alf. I promees you!’ Arnie had comforted him. ‘I sink zay tell you eef it Bill.’

‘I hope you’re right Arn.’

‘Vee must vait and hope.’

The school room was hot and Mr. Cranny paced the floor while the boys laboured on their slates to emulate the copperplate script displayed on the chalk-board. Alfie excelled at this but Arnold’s lacked any resemblance to the original and Mr. Cranny struck him with his cane.

‘Useless boy! You call this handwriting? A monkey could do better!’ he bellowed.

The blow was unexpected and Arnold’s face reddened with anger and fear.

‘Do it again and keep to the lines!’ Mr. Cranny roared.

Luckily the bell heralded end of school and the boys filed out in perfect silence.

‘One day I vill murder Cranny,’ Arnold muttered.

‘Soon I hope,’ Alfie responded placing a hand on his friend’s shoulder as they made their way across the yard to join the queue for lunch before the work routines began.

‘Where’s your Billy Alf?’

The question came from a tall, gaunt boy, one of Billy’s gang.

‘I don’t know George. He never came back yesterday. He went out on the Coral to the Isle of Man. I hope he’s alright.’

‘The Coral came back Alf. Captain dead but crew survived. Jack the warden was talking’ about it. Bill should be back soon.’

Alfie and Arnold exchanged rare gleeful glances. It was the best news Alf had ever received in his lifetime.

Chapter 10

The Thankful

‘You’d best come back with me Billy lad.’ Denis lay a sympathetic hand on his nephew’s shoulder. Billy shrugged it off. ‘No thanks Uncle Denis, I’ll be fine.’

In his despair he could not forget that had it not been for, what he considered, the heartlessness of his Uncle Denis and Aunty Lizzie, he and his brother and sister would not have been forced to suffer the horror of life in the Workhouse. And although at heart he belived his father was to blame, he could not easily forgive the pair whose decision it had been to let them go.

Catherine shared his anger, but her friendship with Maud gave her a different perspective. She understood the desperation that had pushed Aunt Lizzie to act the way she had.

‘Sure he can stay with us Den’ Paddy offered swiftly trying to expel the uncomfortable moment. It was agreed by all that this was a good solution, since Molly had nowhere for Billy to sleep, and quietly wished to restore normal routine to her life as soon as possible.

Scotland Road was already buzzing with life when Paddy, Billy and Bernie arrived exhausted from anxiety and lack of sleep. Forlorn children huddled on doorsteps, housewives shook dust from tattered rugs. The stench of beer and urine hung in the air from Saturday night pub revelers, and feral dogs rested as the sun began to warm the day. Paddy and his daughters shared a large room

on the ground floor of a three story terraced house, the numerous inhabitants of which would have populated a small village in rural England.

Their room was neat and pleasant, benefitting from Bernie and Colleen’s homely touch and their father Paddy’s meager but regular income from his work on the railway. There were chairs to sit on and a bed each, as well as a table to eat at and a stove. Compared to the Workhouse life, they were living in luxury.

Colleen warmed a pan of porridge as daylight brightened the room. Billy had a long tale to tell of his survival through the storm, but it could wait. Sleep beckoned, and they gladly responded. Paddy drew the blinds and gave Billy half of his bed. They slept the sleep of the thankful.

It was the break of a solemn day in Liverpool and the bells of St Peter’s sounded a mournful note in respect for those who had died at sea.

Chapter 11

A Big Decision

At her bakery in Knowle, Mary Cattell sat down for a break with her daughter Kate. They had been busy making pastry and dough for the morning rush and would soon leave the work for Mary’s son Tom to complete overnight.

‘It’s been too long with no word Kate and you know how I worry. It’s starting to get me down love.’

‘You know John Mam, he doesn’t think. Gets wrapped up in his problems and the world can go hang itself. He’ll be fine; back with his children safe and sound.’

It had been six months since John Cattell left the pretty village of his birth to return to the colossus of a city that Liverpool had become. Mary and the family had helped him through the crisis he endured after Mary Ellen’s death, and on his return he had been strong and confident that he would be reunited with his children. Mary waited for word from him, but as time passed began to despair.

‘It’s a rum place that Liverpool. The stories I hear! He might have been pressganged and forced to slave on a ship all over the place, or gone on a prison ship to Australia. There are people would kill for a slice of bread, Kate.’ She sipped her tea. Her round face pale with a dusting of flour, always present after a baking session.

‘Mum, John can take care of himself,’ Kate observed, feeling impatient with her older brother; whose self-pitying approach to life was beyond her comprehension. ‘He has a good skill and three children to look after. He’ll be too busy to write to us.’

‘I feel I must go Kate.’

‘What nonsense! You in Liverpool? You’ll be gobbled up Mum. They’re hard, hungry folk and I’m not letting you go. That’s final.’

The sun was setting to the sound of birdsong through an open window. At the solid wooden table, the two women drank tea in silence, contemplating. Mary had hardly strayed beyond the boundaries of Knowle, let alone travel the long road to Liverpool. She surveyed her life; the sacks of flour, trays of dough, jars of sugar and spice, the fragrance of baking. It would be hard to leave, yet leave she must.

Chapter 12

Mr. Dooley

Since John had stood on the quayside watching ‘The Liverpool Lady’ drift towards the horizon, he had experienced a terrible regret, and yet was sure he had made the right choice. There was no place for him, but here, with his children and soon it would be time to gather them together. He was working for a small printing firm called Dooley’s, which specialized in religious books. He enjoyed preparing the intricate lithographs of biblical characters and events. John knew his craft well and Mr. Dooley appreciated his skill, paying him a fair price for each completed print.

‘You’ve got talent John, and the best way to use it is in the service of the Lord,’ Mr. Dooley would pronounce.

He was a good man, with good intentions, which John appreciated, but piety was not a character trait which he could stomach in large doses. Fortunately his employer spent most of his time away from the premises doing good deeds for the down trodden masses, as well as seeking outlets for his business amongst the new middle class church goers and clergy.

John’s work was not motivated by religious fervor, but by his desire to put things right for his family. As he worked he planned, and wondered what had become of the young lad to whom he had tossed his ticket to New York that misty February dawn, when he had forgone his journey in order to seek out his children. The ragged youth had not hesitated to take the ticket and board the ship, and John had wished him well as he sailed towards his new life.

Chapter 13


Life at the workhouse had been briefly brightened by Billy’s return that Sunday evening. Although his usual cheer had been replaced by a solemn gravitas, his friends were pleased to see him and Alfie, beside himself with joy.

‘Don’t leave me again Bill. I thought you weren’t comin’ back. Didn’t know what to do. I was going to come lookin’ for you.’

They were sitting on the cobbles in the grey yard, but Billy’s thoughts were sea bound, on the Coral battling the storm, the torrent of rain, wild wind, forks of lightning stabbing the restless waves and his captain falling. He shuddered at the memory. His captain was no more.

‘I won’t leave you Alf,’ he promised. ‘I won’t leave you again.’

The brothers remained together on the cobbles as the sun set and shadow engulfed them.

Chapter 14

Careless Words

By Monday morning Molly and Catherine were back to work on a big order for the races. The hats were fun to make with lavish, colourful decorations, birds, butterflies and exotic feathers piled high on a straw plate with silk ribbons to tie in a huge bow beneath the chin.

The ladies of Liverpool were in high spirits when they came to try their special ‘Molly’ creations and Catherine’s fingers ached from endless needle-work.

‘I think we need help Cathy,’ Molly announced late that evening. ‘There’s so much to do and I know you’re working as fast as you can, but it’s not enough. I’m going to ask Marion Clancy if she can send another worker. It means you’ll have to share your room and bed, but you’re used to that, coming from the Workhouse.’

Catherine did not allow Molly to see how badly her words had hurt. She continued to stitch and kept her head bowed. Molly was a kind employer, but a business woman at heart, and her father had instilled in her the notion that there is no heart in business. She was a plain talker and it did not occur to her that she had been carelessly hurtful towards Catherine, but sadly the words she had spoken caused a rift which would never be mended.

Chapter 15

Weary Travellers

Mary and Kate arrived late and spent the night in a temperance hotel recommended by Mary’s neighbour, Martha.

‘Plain but clean,’ she had pronounced as they sipped tea at Mary’s baking table the evening before their departure. ‘And no drunken sailors!’

Mary was relieved to know this, never having travelled far beyond Knowle. She had heard worrying stories about Liverpool, which made her flesh creep, but Martha was a decent soul and trustworthy.

The Hotel was situated on Lord Street, near the coach stop and a slender young porter willingly carried their luggage, which consisted of one large old leather trunk, to the portal of The Oak Hotel. The journey had been long and the road far from smooth, leaving the travellers weary and aching. Although it was late, laughter and music emanated from the numerous public houses close by and barefoot ragged children crouched beneath the gas lamps.

Mary and Kate hurried up the scrubbed steps of The Oak to be greeted by Mrs. Quayle, a stout lady from Drumour in the north of Ireland.

‘It’s yer beds that yer need’n afther such a long journey’ she cooed and gently guided them to their sparse, but clean and welcoming room. With great relief they locked the door and too exhausted for further dealing with that day, were soon slumbering soundly.

Chapter 16

New Girl

The new girl arrived a week after Molly’s announcement. She was small with a mass of black curls and her name was Vera. Apart from the startling cloud of hair framing her anxious countenance, Vera was remarkable for her silence.

‘She’s never spoke a word Colleen,’ Catherine told her friend, one warm and pleasant Sunday as they strolled from Church Street to the workhouse. They longed to get word of Billy and Alf, neither of whom they had had contact with since the sinking of the Liverpool Lady. Captain Featherstone was dead and Billy no longer had his sponsorship or the freedom he had enjoyed while he was alive.

A host of seagulls swept the sky calling frantically as they dipped and dived, the fanfare for another splendid summer day. The girls were wearing two of Molly’s bonnets for the morning, adorned with daisies and roses, with light cotton shawls, green for Catherine and Colleen’s was pale blue to match the sky that day.

‘Such pretty pictures’ Molly had gushed. She liked her hats to be worn around the town, and often picked up a few orders after such excursions atop Cathy’s head.

‘You were the same Cathy. Sure remember how Bernie and I worried about you.’

They met Maud on the way as they passed her house on Great Newton Street and linked arms together, united as they approached the Workhouse.

‘It’s not the place to be on a day like today’ said Colleen mournfully, remembering the dismal days of their confinement. The three were suddenly silent as the shadow of the monstrous edifice blocked the sun and made them shudder. Standing at the old familiar meeting gate, Catherine recalled the horror she felt when Colleen and Bernie left and she was alone.

They passed that gate and soon reached the main entrance which they decided would be more helpful for their quest.

‘It’s the girlies!’ crowed a voice they all knew well, as they approached the gate. ‘Cathy and Colleen look at you now, all posh in yer flower ‘ats. Are yer missin’ us girlies? Want to come back?’ The old woman cackled with benign pleasure, limping towards them with a wide, toothless grin.

‘Gertie!’ cried the girls genuinely happy to see one of the few sources of warmth beyond the gates.

‘Ave you come to visit? I’m just on my way in’ Gertie informed them as if inviting them for tea and cake in a salubrious pile somewhere far away from Brownlow Hill.

“Ach sure Gertie darlin’ we’re after lookin’ for Billy and Alfie, Cathy’s brothers. It’s been a while since we had news of them so it has.’

‘So you’s ‘aven’t ‘eard?’ Gertie’s sagging features darkened and Cathy’s heart skipped a beat.

‘Heard what Gertie?’

Gert was a drama queen and enjoyed being the bearer of tidings, whether good or bad.

‘They’ve went,’ she said peering steadily at Catherine with her cloudy eyes.

‘Went where?’ Colleen queried. ‘And why have they went?’

Chapter 17

The Bluecoat School

The atmosphere in the men’s block of the Workhouse had resembled a restless volcano since the Manchester dock strikers had been admitted. Bill and his friends steered clear of the hostility caused by frustration and disappointment. The Manchester men had journeyed to Liverpool to join the rally which achieved nothing and were now obliged to rely on the Workhouse for food, an entitlement the more troublesome Liverpool inmates resented.

Due to the overcrowding many of the young boys including Bill, Alf and Arnie were moved to the Bluecoat School, an establishment which, although also bursting at the seams, was solely for children and therefore a better environment. The boys were grateful to have remained together and Alfie was especially joyful to be singing in the choir at St Peter’s Church on Church Street, which traditionally enrolled children from the school  The move was so swift they had no way to relay the news to Catherine.

Chapter 18

Vera’s Dilema

It was a bright Monday morning when mother and daughter emerged from The Oak guesthouse into the elegant streets of Liverpool. They were excited by the vibrancy of the city, and how purposeful the people were. There was a sense of optimism here where people gathered on their way to the New World. They saw the very rich and the very poor sharing the streets. Barefoot children played on the steps of St George’s Hall, a huge neo classical pile designed to reflect the success of the great port. They dodged the horse drawn trams and carriages along Church Street and were drawn by the rich aroma of coffee exuding from Coopers an elegant café and grocery store. Mary had dipped into her savings for the trip and felt that a breakfast at Coopers would be a justifiable treat after their long journey the previous day.

‘I don’t feel dressed for it mother’ Kate protested somewhat mildly, ‘but why not?’ she giggled and entwined her arms with Mary’s as they walked proudly into the oak paneled café, dazzled by the chandeliers and gleaming floor to ceiling mirrors. The tables were covered with white cotton, lace trimmed cloths and seated around them were the crème de la crème of Liverpool society, daintily sipping from delicate china cups.

They were escorted to a window table from which they could watch the unfolding of the Liverpool morning.

‘These people seem quite normal to me Kate’ Mary whispered conspiratorially, nothing like the thieves and murderers I expected from what Martha was telling me. They’re just going about their day.’

‘Not one murder to be witnessed,’ smiled Kate, studying the menu. ‘How disappointing!’

Mary ignored the sarcasm. ‘Mind you, it wouldn’t be happening in broad daylight. The nights will be different.’

Although their attire was plain compared to the lavish cut of the ladies at Coopers, the two were smart in their fitted jackets, white, lace trimmed blouses, long skirts and polished leather shoes. Mary had insisted they look their best for finding John. Kate had chosen green taffeta and Mary, navy blue linen and had the suits tailored especially for the trip. However, they were both aware that their outfits lacked something that seemed requisite for a lady to be truly acceptable in places such as Coopers of Liverpool. They were in fact enthralled by the hats of so many colours and such variety of décor.

‘I wouldn’t want one that was too lavish’ Mary confided. ‘Simple but with a few of those feathers, a nice pale blue perhaps.

‘I fancy the white roses and possibly a butterfly’ said Kate beginning to feel excited at the prospect of owning one of the works of art sported by the women out and about this summer morning.

They had walked for only a minute after leaving Coopers, when they came across the shop ‘Molly’s Hats.’

‘Let’s go inside for a look’ said Mary.

Molly was busy dusting off some pretty, floral hat boxes popular with the spring hat customers, when Mary and Kate arrived at her shop. Vera was in the back room stitching scarlet feathers on a wide brimmed black hat, destined for the lead actress in a play showing at the Empire theatre.

‘Good morning ladies, how may I help you?’ Molly enquired, sliding the boxes aside.

‘Good morning. We are hoping to purchase hats and would like to view a few bonnets and plate style.’ Kate said, already eying some generously decorated creations displayed on a variety of dummy heads around the shop.

After some serious discourse and deliberation, choices were made which required a few adjustments of décor and colour.

‘We only have the week here in Liverpool.’ Said Mary, and would appreciate your haste in preparing out hats.’

They will be ready for collection tomorrow, madam, rest assured. Your good name please?’

Molly enquired, pen hovering over the receipt. ‘Mrs. Mary Cattell’, replied Mary, spelling it out for Molly, who registered with some surprise, the fact that these seemingly well to do ladies shared the same unusual surname as Catherine, but felt it of no consequence and had no intention of trying to link her customers with the little workhouse refugee who was presently out visiting her brothers at the Bluecoat Chambers for destitute children. As the two Cattells left the shop, Molly shrugged off thoughts of any connections and resumed her task of dusting and hat boxes.

Vera, however, felt otherwise. She had been listening to the conversation and on hearing the name given by the elderly, white haired woman, Vera put down her work and waited for Molly to comment on the coincidence, surprised that she had allowed the pair to leave without a word about Catherine. Having witnessed Catherine’s pain each night as she waited at the window for her daddy, there was no greater desire in Vera’s life than to see her workmate happily united with her family.

If she could only break free from her silent state, she would let Catherine know what had happened on her return, but her voice had withered over years of disuse and she no longer had the skill to make the sounds or form the words that those around her longed to hear, Her doleful, deep blue eyes had seen such horrors and her body subjected to such pain and neglect, before the age that language should begin to flow. It never flowed from Vera. Locked within her silent world she had been raised in the workhouse from the age of three.

Chapter 19

A Clue

‘My feet have never been so sore!’ Said Mary, perched on her bed in their tidy room, back at the guesthouse, rubbing her swollen ankles.’ We must have traipsed for miles today and all for nothing.’

‘I wouldn’t say for nothing, mammy.’ Kate responded, endeavouring to erase the failures of their day. ‘At least we know where John isn’t, and we have our hats to collect in the morning.’

‘I’d rather be collecting John tomorrow, Kate.’

The two had walked to Brownlow Hill and sought John’s old address, now occupied by an Irish couple and their large brood.

‘We’v bin ‘ere a year ma luvs.’ The weary woman told them in a quiet Irish lilt. ‘Sure we don’t be knowin’ a John Cattell.’

Disappointed, the women made their way down the cobbled hill and back to the town centre.

‘What’s that awful place, I wonder?’ Said Kate, looking back over her shoulder at the vast, gothic building blocking out the sunlight.’ Some sort of prison, mayhap.’ Mary mused. ‘I think is may be the workhouse mammy. I feel sorry for any poor soul that finds themselves in there.’ Kate shuddered.

‘What next, I wonder?’ Mary could not conceive of a way to find her son in this great, busy city teeming with people, trams, carriages, dogs, cats, pigeons and seagulls. Where could John be amongst it all?

A leather bound bible lay on the mahogany bedside table between the two narrow beds. Mary, rested her tired body, propped up by two generously feathered pillows and for want of something to do, reached for it and began to turn the pages, her thoughts in turmoil. She knew her Bible well and was comforted by the familiar presentation of Verse and Chapter and admired the intricate illuminated lettering which prefaced each Chapter. Soon she was engrossed and silent as Kate dozed and an ornate clock sitting proudly on the polished surface of a tall dark oak dresser, ticked loudly and outside there was chatter and the clip clopping of horse hooves as the populace went about their business.

‘I think I’ve found him Kate.’ She suddenly murmured, staring at the book in her hands. Kate stirred from her slumber.

‘I didn’t know you’d lost him mother, you always seemed so strong in your faith.’ Kate looked sincerely concerned. ‘I don’t mean I’ve found God, Kate! I’ve found John! Come and look at this.’

Soon, Kate too agreed that the signature on a print depicting the Angel Gabriel as prelude to the New Testament was John’s. ‘I’d know it anywhere Kate. He practiced it so much when he was a lad. Look, Benjamin Dooley, Printer, Lord Street, Liverpool. Seems our plan for tomorrow is sorted.

Chapter 20

The Print Works

The next morning displayed another clear blue sky for the residents of Liverpool to enjoy. Benjamin Dooley was early as usual at his small print works, pondering the fact that his lithographer, John Cattell, had not been to work for three days. It was common for him to stay away for a day or two, after which he would arrive with sketches and ideas for the work in progress, a prayer book for children, which would be well received by the well to do Liverpool church goers. John’s prints were fashionably detailed and sentimental. Three more illustrations were required before the book could go to print and Dooley hoped that would be soon in order to boost his dwindling coffers. However, a three day absence with no explanation, was more than Dooley was happy to accept and although John had been his employee for almost a year, it struck Dooley that he had no idea where he lived or if he had family thereabouts. There was little hope of finding a replacement with John’s talent and, he may be forced to publish ‘The Little Cherub’s Prayer Book’ minus three illustrations.

So deep were his thoughts that he failed to notice the entrance of two comely ladies who now stood before him in his small, dusty office, littered with inks and stencils and shelves lined with ornately scribed religious publications.

Chapter 21

Vera’s Anguish

Catherine was subdued on her return from visiting Billy and Alfie at the Bluecoat Chambers, conscious that their confinement there remained indefinite. Since Captain Featherstone’s death Billy had failed to find a sponsor and seemed to have lost his enthusiasm for the sea.

‘It’s better than the workhouse ‘ere, an’ Alfies still sing’n in the choire.’ He told his sister.’ ‘But it’s time we ‘ad a home again Cathy.’

She couldn’t get his words out of her mind and felt that all her hopes of getting the family together again were fading.

Vera was waiting and hoping that Molly would mention the two women who had been in the shop that day to Catherine. However, at supper Molly talked about everything but their visit.

‘We need to bring the black and scarlet ware down form the top shelf Catherine. You’ll be working on a fancy piece for a new customer tomorrow. She sent her maid along with a sketch and will be coming in to the shop in a day or two. Vera you have a few orders to finish off tomorrow. The daisy bonnets are doing well lately, which reminds me Catherine, I’ll need you to call on Mrs. Sanders, she’s got a surplus of daisies and we could do with some extra.’

The young girls listened attentively to Molly. They worked long hours, especially now the days were lengthening as summer unfurled, but Molly was a kind employer and the hats they worked on were such delightful creations that neither girl felt bitter about her lot, especially since both had experienced the workhouse regime.

Catherine and Molly accepted Vera’s silence and no longer expected her to respond verbally. She communicated through gesture and expression and her needlework could not be faulted.

At bedtime that night Catherine was aware that Vera seemed restless and agitated. ‘Is something wrong?’ She asked taking her usual position at the window and checking the street beyond. ‘I know you think I’m mad, Vera, lookin’ for me dad every night, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop. Not until me dyin’ day.’

Chapter 22

Finding John

‘Good morning ladies. Benjamin Dooley at your service, how can I help you?’ Mr. Dooley buttoned his overcoat and checked the silver fob watch hanging from the pocket of his brown, pin striped waistcoat, for no particular reason but to look busy and important.

‘Straight to the point Mr. Dooley’, Mary announced locking eyes with the large gentleman who seemed to fill the space behind the counter. ‘We’re here in search of my son, John Cattell.’

‘Indeed? In that case dear ladies, please let me know when you find him.’

Kate and Mary exchanged disappointed glances. ‘You mean he’s not here?’ Kate responded, putting a comforting arm around her mother. ‘No sign of John for three days and I’m waiting for some work from him.’

‘Ooh Kate!’ Mary wailed. ‘I thought we’d found him.’ ‘Mother!’ Kate’s arms were around Mary guiding her towards a chair beside the counter. ‘What are we going to do Kate? Where can we look now?’ Ben Dooley was shocked at the poor woman’s distress and regretted his abrupt response.

‘Dear, dear madam. I apologise. How could I be so heartless? May God forgive me? It’s not unusual for John to disappear for a few days. I dare say he’ll be here before the weekend. No need to despair.’

Mary took some comfort from the words and Kate cast an appreciative glance towards Mr. Dooley.

‘We’ve come all the way from Knowle looking for John, Mr. Dooley. Haven’t seen or heard from him for two years.’ Kate explained. ‘There’s a bible in our lodgings with one of his prints in it. Mother recognized his signature. We thought we’d find him here, so you can appreciate our disappointment, I hope.’

Mr. Dooley listened sympathetically. ‘Let me reassure you that if, err should I say, when, John turns up, my good ladies, I will send word immediately to your place of lodging.’ his round, ruddy face exuded sincerity.

‘For that we thank you, Mr. Dooley’, Mary sighed feeling weary, but hopeful. Kate wrote the name of the guesthouse for Mr. Dooley and helped her mother to her feet. ‘I bid you farewell ladies. May the Lord walk with you.’ Dooley waved as they crossed the cobbled courtyard of the mews and returned to Lord Street which was not far from Church Street, where they hoped their new hats were waiting.

Chapter 23

Fetching the Daisies

Catherine was enjoying working on the black and scarlet hat. Molly occasionally received such orders, usually from actors passing through the city while performing at the Grand Theatre, such flamboyant choice was not common amongst Molly’s usual customers. The wide brimmed felt hat was to be one of her most extravagant creations, adorned with copious amounts of lace, feathers and sequins.

‘If only we had more orders like this, Cathy.’ Molly mused. ‘They’re such fun to put together, but too brash for our clients. It needs to be ready for the customer later today.’

‘I’ll have it ready Molly, but don’t forget the daisies need fetchin’.

‘‘Vera can go along with a note. Will you do that Vera?’ Molly’s request made Vera flinch and her two companions smiled at her reaction. ‘Vera luv’, your face is almost as scarlet as this feather.’ Catherine giggled; Mrs. Sanders won’t eat you, she’s a nice lady.’

Vera had resolved to ensure that Catherine would meet the two ladies she had missed yesterday; she was convinced that they were connected in some way to Cathy and her family. What if they arrived while she was collecting the daisies? They would take their hats and leave without Catherine ever knowing they existed.

‘A trip out won’t hurt you Vera, it’ll be good for your confidence. I’ll write it all down for you and it’s not much of a walk to Paradise Street, so stop worrying! I’m going to open up now. Catherine you get on with the sequins. Vera take the note and the cash round to Mrs. Sanders now; you can’t get on without the daisies.’

Vera shook her head, panicking’ she needed to get her message across, but Molly became impatient. ‘Vera! Go now!’ she ordered, opening the door and gently pushing the distressed girl out onto the already busy Church Street. ‘What is wrong with that child?’ Molly asked herself, reaching for the order book. ‘Such a strange one.’

Catherine had already stitched half the sequins onto her project for the day and was completely absorbed in her work, so much so that she failed to notice the two women enter the shop, and was oblivious to the fact that the aunt and grandmother she did not know existed, were within yards of where she was seated.

‘Ahh yes the daisies Mrs. Sanders concurred, reading Molly’s note. I’ve a box here; ordered far too many. We’re having a run on lavender for the bonnets and soon I’ll be ordering the Autumn stock; fruit and nuts.’ She smiled at the silent, unresponsive child. ‘Sally, go and fetch the box of daisies I left ready on the table in the back for Molly Briers.’ Sally, a sullen, freckled red head, darted an unfriendly glance at Vera and ambled slowly into the back room of the shop, in no hurry to comply with the wish of her employer.

‘So you’re Vera?’ Mrs. Sanders mused in a kindly manner. Molly told me about you. Said you don’t talk; well that’s a blessing as far as I’m concerned. Some people never stop talking and most of the time it’s drivel. Molly says you’re a good worker, that’s what matters.’ Sally arrived with the box of daisies and resumed her position behind the counter.

‘There you are. One box of daisies, various sizes.’ Vera had waited patiently for the transaction to be completed, but now took the box form Mrs. Sanders and hastily handed her the money. ‘Oh! Almost forgot, Mrs. Sanders cried, placing the cash in her till. I’ve a little something extra for Molly. I think she’ll like it. One moment Vera. Sally, watch the shop while I nip upstairs.’

Vera had no choice but to remain, her heart breaking as she thought about the terrible missed opportunity that was occurring at Molly’s shop, knowing that by now the two women would have returned to collect their hats and Catherine would be working on the scarlet hat in the back room.

After what seemed like an eternity, Mrs. Sanders returned carrying another box. ‘I made this for Molly at the weekend. It’s a fruit cake. She asked me for the recipe, last time we took tea together, of course the recipe is my little secret, Mrs. Sanders smiled conspiratorially, placing her index finger on her lips. Vera nodded and aware that her countenance was again as scarlet as the feathers soon to be adorning Catherine’s hat, she took the fruitcake and daisies and sped as fast as she could along Paradise Street, dodging the bustle of people and carriages, back to Church Street, almost stumbling on the dewy cobbles as she arrived at Molly’s shop, bursting in to the surprise of Molly and her two customers.

‘Vera! Molly shrilled. ‘You’ve been racing; no need for such haste my girl. Take the stock to the workroom while I deal with these worthy ladies.’ Still flushed, Vera looked intently from one lady to the other, and hastened to the workroom where Catherine remained engrossed in the task of adding copious sequins to the now sparkling hat. To her great surprise, Vera grabbed her hand and began pulling her away from the table. “ Vera girl, what are you doing’?’ she shrieked. Vera continued to pull and Catherine sensed danger, never having seen her workmate so animated, let alone be pulled and pushed around in this manner.

Within seconds, Catherine found herself being forced into the shop ahead of Vera, who was pushing the reluctant girl with all her mite.

‘Vera!’ Molly cried, ‘What are you doing?’ she was outraged by the behavior of her young assistant while Kate and Mary were shocked to see the pale, fare haired girl hurtling towards them, vehemently resisting the assault.

‘Vera stop it!’ She pleaded. ‘What are you doing? Have you gone completely mad?’ Molly was mortified. ‘So sorry ladies.’ She lamented. ‘This is unusual behavior. Vera, go to the workroom now!’ Molly commanded. ‘Go!’

Vera’s confusion was intense and she stood silent, looking at Molly’s angry face and the confused reaction of the two customers and Catherine’s wild grey eyes darting from one to the other. She turned to leave, obeying Molly’s orders, but on reaching the door, turned again to the astounded tableaux and to the further amazement of Molly and Catherine screeched, ‘Catherine Cattell! Catherine Cattell!’

Mary and Kate gasped, Molly and Catherine simultaneously dropped their jaws at the sound of a voice they never thought they would hear coming from the tearful Vera, who on hearing her own voice, swooned and fell to the floor. Molly ran to her aid, lifting her gently onto a chair. ‘Catherine, fetch water. Please excuse Vera’s behaviour. She’s never uttered a word.

Mary and Kate watched the fair haired waif with tears welling in their eyes, as the realization dawned that the gentle girl was John’s daughter.

Chapter 24

Old Swan

John had awakened that morning to the sound of cockerels cheerily greeting another day. From his bed, facing a large, low window, he saw a pale, pink sky and distant, grey hills. He contemplated the day ahead. Living temporarily in an old cottage on farmland belonging to an artist he had met at the Swan Inn, he had no desire to travel to the city. The journey on foot would take him two hours at a leisurely pace, but he enjoyed his life beyond the smoky town away from the crowds. In Old Swan the air was clean and life seemed much simpler, but Ben Dooley would be waiting to complete the book and he had already spent a day longer than usual away from the print works.

Two days seemed to be acceptable but he supposed his employer would not be amused were he to stretch to a fourth. Besides he needed his wages to pay the rent. Within an hour he was on his way along Prescot Road, passing Tom the blacksmith hammering away beside a huge carthorse waiting to be shod. Tom waved a friendly hello.

‘Off to town John?’ he called. ‘Yes Tom, can I bring anything back for you?’ ‘Some of that good cheese from Coopers and a bag of sugar for the wife if it’s not too much trouble.’ ‘Will do Tom. We’ll settle up later.’ ‘Good man!’, said the blacksmith whose hearty countenance, after a lifetime of breathing clean air, bore a stark contrast to the sallow complexions of his city counterparts.

John continued the journey, stopping occasionally to sit by the roadside, as now and then a coach bumped past. At the Swan coach station he stopped for refreshment. As he reached Kensington he became aware of the stench of rubbish left on the streets to rot and thought about his children. He was feeling strong now, with work and money saved. It was time to gather them together, but so far he had not devised a plan to do so.

Dooley’s print works was close to the Pier Head in a mews behind Lord Street.

‘John! There you are!’ Dooley’s greeting was unusually enthusiastic.’

‘I have the work for you Mr. Dooley. A bit late, for which I apologise, but I hope you’ll be satisfied.’

‘Splendid!’ Dooley responded, genuinely appreciative. ‘Come over here John. I have something to tell you,’


The Cattells of Liverpool were finally reunited that day. John fulfilled Catherine’s dream and appeared at the door of the hat shop. He was afraid she would turn him away. but need not have been. It was a time of intense emotion and forgiveness. Alfie and Billy were released but John would not have it so easy with Billy.  He took the boys to the  cottage in Old Swan. where the country air soon began to heal their bodies and souls.  They would eventually return to Great Newton Street, where Catherine would join them.

Catherine completed the scarlet hat and was thrilled to discover the customer for whom she had worked was Rosie, her old friend from the workhouse. Rosie’s uncle, who had migrated to America had died and left her a fortune. As promised she had bought a hat from Molly’s shop,

Maud entertained Catherine with stories from Mrs. Bagshaw’s elegant house where the blue symphony hat took pride of place on the hat stand’

Alfie and Arnie remained friends for life and Alfie continued to sing in the choire at Saint Peter’s church and would use his artistic talent to make a living in later years, writing signs for Cooper’s store, where his aunt Kate and grandmother had decided to buy hats that day.

Colleen and Billy remained close until her return to Ireland when Paddy inherited a farm from his father. They lost touch when Billy began his life at sea in the Navy.

Catherine’s health would soon begin to deteriorate and consumption would take her life at the age of nineteen.

For now, they were happy.

Old Swan Liverpool 1964
The old rosewood clock on the mantelpiece ticked away the seconds in an otherwise silent room, a time warp. A stolid, warn, brown leather suite, a mahogany piano and a small oak table in the bay window fit cosily into the meagre space. Shining brass wall hangings and ornate china figurines leant a touch of  sober frivolity to the gravitas which hung in the air, together with a faint aroma of pipe smoke.
It was a house once filled with family; eight children, a Dalmatian called Barry and chickens in the garden. Within its walls there had been grief at the loss of a young one, the joy of soldier sons returning safely from war and celebrations to mark marriages and births. Mary, the middle daughter had played the piano and there had been many a sing-along around the now neglected little upright.
No trace of that was evident today as Mary and her sister Maggie sat in vigil beside their father’s bed. The old man was close to death and the sisters waited quietly together for the inevitable moment.
Downstairs his grandaughter was home from school for lunch, enjoying hot chicken soup and contemplating possible excuses to escape the swimming lesson she had to endure at school that afternoon . Mary, her mum, pale and distracted, neither state being noted by her eleven year old daughter, came down to see her off to school and had just reached the door  when a strange sound pierced the silence of the house. Maggie’s grieving cry absorbed the essence of  that moment and Mary rushed back to her father’s side. But he had gone. Slipped away when she had slipped out of the room. A common habit of the dying.
Kathleen, his granddaughter , too young to be included at the scene, remained at the table listening to the ticking clock and trying erase the memory of the primal cry of raw grief she had witnessed as her gentle granddad Alfie Cattell, passed away.

She never would.


15 Jan

Old Swan Liverpool 1964
The old rosewood clock on the mantelpiece ticked away the seconds in an otherwise silent room, a time warp. A stolid, warn, brown leather suite, a mahogany piano and a small oak table in the bay window fit cosily into the meagre space. Shining brass wall hangings and ornate china figurines leant a touch of  sober frivolity to the gravitas which hung in the air, together with a faint aroma of pipe smoke.
It was a house once filled with family; eight children, a Dalmatian called Barry and chickens in the garden. Within its walls there had been grief at the loss of a young one, the joy of soldier sons returning safely from war and celebrations to mark marriages and births. Mary, the middle daughter had played the piano and there had been many a sing-along around the now neglected little upright.
No trace of that was evident today as Mary and her sister Maggie sat in vigil beside their father’s bed. The old man was close to death and the sisters waited quietly together for the inevitable moment.
Downstairs his grandaughter was home from school for lunch, enjoying hot chicken soup and contemplating possible excuses to escape the swimming lesson she had to endure at school that afternoon . Mary, her mum, pale and distracted, neither state being noted by her eleven year old daughter, came down to see her off to school and had just reached the door  when a strange sound pierced the silence of the house. Maggie’s grieving cry absorbed the essence of  that moment and Mary rushed back to her father’s side. But he had gone. Slipped away when she had slipped out of the room. A common habit of the dying.
Kathleen, his granddaughter , too young to be included at the scene, remained at the table listening to the ticking clock and trying erase the memory of the primal cry of raw grief she had just witnessed. She never would.


Catherine of Liverpool Part Two (extract)

29 Jan

liverpool landingThe new girl arrived a week after Molly’s announcement . She was small with a mass of black curls and her name was Vera. Apart from the startling cloud of hair which framed her anxious countenance Vera was remarkable for her silence.
‘She’s never spoke a word Colleen’. Catherine confided to her friend one sunny Sunday morning, as they strolled from Church Street to the workhouse, where they hoped to get word of Billy and Alfie, with whom neither had had contact since Bill’s return after the sinking of The Coral. As Captain Featherstone had perished in the tragedy, Billy no longer had his sponsorship, nor the freedom to come and go as he used to.
A flock of seagulls soared across the sky, their familiar call heralding that all was well with the world above ground at least . The girls were wearing two of Molly’s bonnets for the morning, adorned with daisies and pink roses. ‘Such pretty pictures!’ Molly gushed. She liked her hats to be worn around the town.
‘You were the same Catherine, so you were. Remember how Bernie and I worried about you? You never spoke a word, true enough. It was Alfie in the choir brought you round, so it was, after Bernie and meself had it out with that ould goat of a matron.’
As they approached the workhouse their mood darkened. ‘It’s no place to be on a day like today, so it’s not.’ Colleen shuddered as they entered the shadow of the monstrous edifice. ‘It’s no place to be on any day.’ Catherine retorted linking arms with her friend and pulling her close.
Passing the gate to the little yard, which had been their meeting place after Bernie and Colleen left her behind in the workhouse, Catherine recalled her despair and loneliness as she faced life without them. Had it not been for Rosy she would surely have reached the depths of dejection. The thought of Rosy brightened her mood somewhat and she wondered how her friend was faring.
They had reached the gothic gate which formed the main entrance, around which lingered would be inmates, possibly enjoying their last moments of freedom before being signed in by the man behind the desk.
‘It’s the girlies!’ crowed a voice they both knew well. ‘Catherine and Colleen, look at you now in yer flowery ‘ats. Are yer missin’ us girlies? Want to come back? ‘ the woman cackled with benign pleasure, limping towards them with a wide toothless grin.
‘Gertie!’ Cried Catherine genuinely happy to see one of the few sources of warmth beyond the gate.
‘’ave yer come ter visit? Im just on me way in.’ Gertie informed them, as if inviting them for tea and cake in some salubrious pile somewhere far away from Brownlow Hill.
‘Ach sure Gertie darlin’, we’re after looking for Billy and Alfie, Cathy’s brothers.
‘so yous ‘aven’t ‘eard? Gertie’s sagging features darkened and Catherine’s heart skipped a beat. ‘Heard what Gert?’
Gertie was a drama queen and enjoyed being the bearer of tidings whether good or bad. ‘They’ve went.’ She said, peering steadily at Catherine with her cloudy eyes.’

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Catherine of Liverpool

23 Aug




What Isn’t There

30 May

As a struggling artist at school, labouring over a picture of a tree I was trying to perfect, my teacher leaned in to take a look, and glibly suggested I try to focus on what wasn’t there. The comment so baffled me that I dropped Art soon after, my confidence shaken by the lack of ability to see what wasn’t there.

Later in life, I understood; she wanted me to capture the shadows and the play of light on the leaves, the transience of the moment.  If applied to the art of writing it is often what characters don’t have that gives them depth and shapes their presence in the novel. The intangible play of emotion caused by a lack of love, security, hope … is what motivates them and drives the plot.

It’s worth remembering this when creating a character. ‘ Focus on what isn’t there.’ (quote: Mrs Simpson, Art Teacher).

The Notebook

23 May


My protagonist is now an apprentice in a Victorian hat shop.  Consequently I have become a bit of an expert on the subject of Victorian hats.

My notebook contains pages of jottings about picture hats, bonnets, tea hats, top hats and the socio economic significance of the rise of the factory made hat. This would have had an impact on my protagonist; so it’s just as well I did the research.

It will be authentic to add a few factual references regarding the  Victorian hat scene, but I should be careful not to get carried away and lose sight of the plot.


17 May

He would go up the Lane and back again like clockwork.; flat cap, three piece pin striped suit, raincoat and tartan scarf. He was frail and slow. I knew he was going to the Blackhorse Pub to play bowls. Sometimes I would notice him, sometimes not. I was always involved in street games with a pack of other youngsters. He may or may not have noticed me. It did not matter.

We were never destined to get to know each other. Too great was the gap of time between us, so when my Granddad died I missed only that physical presence of which I had always been aware,  We had never interacted as people.

However, my mother did not let it end there.  I learned a lot about my Granddad’s life through her memories, scattered throughout our conversations; ‘Your Granddad used to say …’  or ‘Your Granddad always told us ….’  were familiar and often repeated phrases followed by memories which grew with me until I had a store enough to know a little more about the man I never knew.

I could picture him as my mother saw him for the first time returning from War, crossing the field at the top of Ulster Road, to rejoin his wife and children after years away. I could hold the paint brushes which had been the tools of his trade; and feel his anxiety as he waved his sons off to fight in World War Two.  But I was later to discover that my Granddad had memories he never mentioned; too painful to talk about, even to his daughters.