Posts Tagged ‘Matthew Grisdale’

The Grisdale family came from the hills of Matterdale in Cumberland. This means that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries most of them were tenant farmers or were involved in rural trades, such as blacksmithing, either in Matterdale itself or in the neighbouring parishes of Watermillock, Threlkeld, Barton, Martindale and Patterdale. Of course some joined the clergy and others either emigrated or went into the army. Yet there were a surprising number who at one point or another made the journey to the nearby Cumbrian ports of Whitehaven, Workington and Maryport to follow a life at sea. Some of them, or their descendents, subsequently moved on to from there to Liverpool and London.

Whitehaven harbour in the nineteenth century

Whitehaven harbour in the nineteenth century

For example, when the American War of Independence started the port of Whitehaven set up a defence fund in early 1778. Local citizens gave quite generously. The contributors included two Grisdales: a certain John Grisdale of Queen Street, who gave £1. 1s , and another, listed mysteriously as ‘Grisdale of Quay’, who gave  2s. The Scottish-born and Whitehaven-trained American privateer John Paul Jones did in fact make a raid on the port on 23 April 1778, which wasn’t of much import really but has become part of American historical naval folklore. Then there was a poignant notice in a Whitehaven newspaper on 27 December 1777 which read,

Whitehaven, this morning: Workington mariner John Grisdale was found drowned in the harbour; “ he has left a wife, and several children.”

Also in Workington a mariner called Edward Grisdale married Mary Robinson in 1791. He was still there in 1811, as a Captain, living in Town-end. He was the owner of a ship named Mary – probably after his wife. It’s likely that his son, also called Edward and a mariner himself, went to Australia in 1834 and married a convict in Parramatta with whom he had shared the voyage to Sydney on the convict ship Numa. And finally in 1809 we find a Captain William Grisdale in London. He was the master of a Muscovy Company ship which was set to sail for Antigua. Now all of these sea-faring Grisdales found their roots in Matterdale. But their stories are for another time.

My little tale here concerns a Whitehaven mariner called Matthew Grisdale, who disappeared for some years in Victoria in Australia, only to return to Cumberland – where he died shortly thereafter.

Roper Street, Whitehaven

Roper Street, Whitehaven

The story starts with his grandfather, also called Matthew Grisdale, who was born in Martindale, Westmorland in 1852 and who, when young, had moved to Whitehaven and became a successful and ultimately wealthy ‘corn factor’. When he died in 1838 he divided his considerable fortune, somewhat unevenly it seems, between his surviving children. His first child was called John Grisdale (1785 -1852). In his will his father Matthew left him, from his estate of over £10,000, his ‘ house and shop warehouse and premises’ in Whitehaven plus £600 cash and £400 stock. John became a ‘Grocer’. This probably meant he ran some sort of wholesale grocery – think at least the equivalent of Robert Onedin in the TV series The Onedin Line. He carried on his business in a shop at 35 Roper Street, Whitehaven. On 9 October 1815 John married Hannah Watson in Whitehaven. The Watson family was itself a sea-going family. John and Hannah Grisdale had five children; Matthew was the second to be born. He was baptized in Whitehaven’s Holy Trinity Church on 5 April 1820. For reasons we don’t know, but probably influenced by the many family connections to the sea in Whitehaven, Matthew first went to sea as an apprentice in 1935 aged just 15. This means he was on track to become a Mate and maybe even a Captain. Matthew’s seaman’s records tell us that he got his 2nd mate’s ticket in April 1845 when he was 25 – he had a ‘scar on his forehead’. What ships he served on in his early years is unknown,  but given his subsequent career it is likely that at least some of the time he was aboard ships built and owned by the Whitehaven and Liverpool shipping line and ship builders of Thomas and John Brocklebank.

The Brocklebank Line Flag

The Brocklebank Line Flag

In the relatively short period that the government insisted upon each merchant seaman’s every voyage being recorded (the seamen hated the system because it just helped the government to know who it could impress into the Royal Navy) we find that Matthew made several voyages to and from Liverpool between 1845 and 1848 – always listed as being born in Whitehaven.

The last maritime record we have of him was in 1854. After arriving back in Liverpool, he was signed on as a Mate aboard the 338 ton Brocklebank-owned barque Patriot King – which had been built by the Brocklebank shipyard in Bransty, Whitehaven in 1832. And then Matthew disappears from our records. But not quite! In late 1857 in the Melbourne Argus the same notice appeared twice:

If Matthew Grisdale of Whitehaven in the County of Cumberland, England, who sailed from England to Melbourne in July, 1854, will communicate with Mr Clayton, solicitor, Melbourne, or with Messrs Brookbank and Helder, solicitors, Whitehaven, he will hear something to his advantage. Whitehaven 11 March 1857.

Clipper Marco Polo

Clipper Marco Polo

So it seems that Matthew had either jumped ship in Melbourne to join the Victoria gold rush, which thousands of other mariners did at the time, often leaving dozens of ships without any crew. Or (less likely) he had only signed on for the outward voyage, to work his passage to Australia and departed legally. The natural conjecture would be that he had sailed to Australia on the Patriot King, to which he had been signed in 1854. But had he? The Patriot King made many voyages but as far as I can see they were all to India, China, Batavia (Java) and even to South America for the Guano trade. I don’t think the Patriot King ever went to Australia? So maybe Matthew went on another ship. We are told by the Melbourne newspaper notices that he had left ‘England’ for Melbourne in July 1854. Looking at the shipping records it is possible he made his voyage on one of James’ Baines’ Black Ball Line ships regularly plying Liverpool to Melbourne ‘gold rush’ runs. Maybe on the famous Marco Polo commanded by Captain Wild:

The Marco Polo sailed from the Mersey on the 22nd July and reached the equator after 35 days, which included 10 days becalmed in the Bay of Biscay. The only good weather she encountered was on the run from the Cape of Good Hope to Cape Otway, taking 26 days.

There were two or three deaths on the passage, one was a cabin passenger, William Gore Tipper. On the 1st October he was thrown overboard when the ship lurched. It was dark at the time and the ship was travelling at 11 knots, there was no chance of rescue.

Or possibly on the equally famous Star of the East which left Liverpool on the 4 July 1854 and arrived in Melbourne on 23 September 1854.

The newspaper notices in Melbourne in late 1857 were dated 11 March 1857 in Whitehaven and the Whitehaven contact was the firm of solicitors Brookbank and Helder, who dealt with all of the Grisdale family’s legal matters; as well as those of most of the major sea-faring families in the town. We have no idea whether Matthew saw these newspaper notices or not. He was most likely somewhere in the Victoria gold diggings at the time, trying to make his fortune. But it’s a pretty good conjecture that the ‘something to his advantage’ was that he had been left something significant in the will of his unmarried brother William, who had died in Whitehaven in January/February 1857. The dates fit.

The Orwell

The Orwell

Whatever the case, sooner or later Matthew either saw the notices or he decided that he wasn’t going to be one of the lucky few who would strike it rich at the diggings. In 1860 he paid ‘aged 40’ for his own passage home to England on the ship Orwell, which departed from Melbourne for London in July.  The ship made it safely back with Matthew aboard. No doubt when he made it home to Whitehaven he got his inheritance from his brother. Was he able to continue with his maritime career? Did he want to or have to? We don’t know. All we know is that less than four years after his arrival back in England Matthew Grisdale died aged just 43 in Cumberland. The index of his will says the following:

29 February 1864 – Letters of Administration of the Personal Estate and effects of Matthew Grisdale late of Whitehaven… Mariner in the Merchant Service a Bachelor deceased 13 February 1864 at North Mosses in the Parish of Arlecdon… (Effects under £800)

Alecdon is just a couple of miles inland from Whitehaven and many sea-farers retired there. There are also a number of family connections with the village – Matthew’s mother Hannah was even born there.

Maybe Matthew had became ill in Australia? Maybe he died so young for other reasons. Who can say? It’s just one short life, but a full and interesting one I think.


See also:

Matterdale is a rural land-locked valley community in the lake district of Cumberland. But Cumberland has another side to it; the flat coastal plain was until comparatively recently a major maritime and industrial entrepôt. Thus it’s not surprising that many members of the Grisdale family have from time to time made their way to the coast, to find work and perhaps to make their fortunes. One such was Matthew Grisdale, who might possibly have been present in Whitehaven, Cumberland, when Benjamin Franklin paid a visit in 1771 and when the Scottish, turned American, naval captain and privateer John Paul Jones raided the port in 1778.

Whitehaven harbour in the nineteenth century

For much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the town of Whitehaven was a major ship building hub, trading port and coal mining town. It only lost its position slowly as Liverpool rose to prominence. Whitehaven was created in the seventeenth century by the powerful local Lowther family, the Earls of Lonsdale. It remained for a long time a sort of company town. The Lowthers also started, owned and developed an extensive coal mining business in Cumberland, particularly in an around Whitehaven where deep coal seems extended far out to sea. Hundreds of ocean-going ships were built by Whitehaven’s ship-builders and vessels carried on a trade in coal, tobacco, corn and even slaves with America, the East and West Indies, Ireland, the Baltic and Africa. It was quite a hive of bustle and business.

It needs to be said that the working conditions of the men and children in Lowther’s Whitehaven coal mines were horrific. In a previous article on The Wild Peak Blog, I gave the description of a Whitehaven trained slave ship Captain, Hugh Crow, of this “white slavery”:

Think for instance of the poor fishermen, during the winter season – some of the greatest slaves in existence. Think of the miserable beings employed in our coal-pits, and in our iron, lead and copper mines – toiling underground in unwholesome air, which is constantly liable to fatal explosions! Think of all the men, women, and children, confined by hundreds, in heated factories, their health rapidly wasting, and their earnings scarce sufficient to keep soul and body together! Think of other slavish employments – often under masters quite as arbitrary and unfeeling as the planters!  Think of the thousands who are rotting in jails for petty offences, to which many of them are driven by want and starvation! Think of the thousands that have been imprisoned – ruined for killing a paltry hare or a partridge! Think of the wretched Irish peasantry! Think of the crowded workhouses – and do not forget to think of poor Jack, who after devoting himself to a life of toil and danger in a vocation to which his country owes much of her prosperity, is dragged by the hair of his head to shed the blood of his fellow creatures at the hazard of his own life; or, perhaps, to wear out an embittered existence in foreign stations, far from those who are nearest and dearest to his affections!

Martindale, Westmorland, Where Matthew was born

Probably quite a change then for a young Matthew Grisdale when he first arrived in the town, probably in the early 1770s. Matthew was born in the rural Westmorland valley of Martindale in 1753, the tenth and last child of parents Solomon Grisdale and Anne Lowther. Martindale is just across Lake Ullswater from Matterdale, and Matterdale-born Solomon farmed there at a place called Hen How. (If you are interested in which Solomon Grisdale of Matterdale was Matthew’s father, please write to me).

Whether Matthew arrived early enough to be present when Benjamin Franklin came to town in 1771 isn’t known, but I like to imagine he was. Franklin came with:

Sir John Pringle on a sort of voyage of scientific interest. It was suggested he visited William Brownrigg, considered one of the greatest scientists of the day, who by then had given up his medical practice in Whitehaven to concentrate on his scientific endeavours at his home of Ormathwaite, near Keswick. Whilst at Keswick, Benjamin Franklin and William Brownrigg carried out an experiment on Derwentwater to investigate if it was true that oil could calm troubled waters. They found that due to the surface tension oil would spread out to a monolayer on the surface of water and thus a surprisingly small amount could reduce the waves over a considerable area.

After his visit Franklin wrote to his wife Deborah:

In Cumberland I ascended a very high mountain, where I had a prospect of a most beautiful country, of hills, fields, lakes, villas, &c., and at Whitehaven went down the coal mines, till they told me I was eighty fathoms under the surface of the sea, which rolled over our heads; so that I have been nearer both the upper and lower regions, than ever in my life before…

Saltom Mine, Whitehaven, where Benjamin Franklin visited

In a letter the following year he wrote to Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg:

On the nature of sea-coal. To M. Dubourg: I visited last summer a large coal-mine at Whitehaven in Cumberland; and in following the vein, and descending by degrees towards the sea, I penetrated below the ocean, where the level of its surface was more than 800 fathom above my head; and the miners assured me that their works extended some miles beyond the place where I then was, continually and gradually descending under the sea. The slate which forms the roof of this coal-mine is impressed in many places with the figures of leaves and branches of fearn (sic), which undoubtedly grew at the surface, when the slate was in the state of sand on the banks of the sea. Thus it appears that this vein of coal has suffered a prodigious settlement. B. F.

It has been suggested that Franklin was starting to think about plate tectonics years, indeed centuries, before they were suggested. In 1782, he wrote again about his Whitehaven visit:

It seemed a proof that there had been a great bouleversement in the surface of that island, some part of it having been depressed under the sea, and other parts, which had been under it, being raised above it. Such changes in the superficial parts of the globe seemed to me unlikely to happen, if the earth were solid at the centre. I therefore imagined that the internal parts might be a fluid more dense, and of greater specific gravity than any of the solids we are acquainted with; which therefore might swim in or upon that fluid. Thus the surface of the globe would be a shell, capable of being broken and disordered by the violent movements of the fluid on which it rested.

John Paul Jones’ Raid on Whitehaven

But a few years later, after the outbreak of the American War of Independence, Whitehaven got another, not so friendly, American visit from Scottish-born John Paul Jones, who was by now one of the first captains in the fledgling US navy as well as a privateer for his own account. Perhaps with the encouragement of Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones, in command of the USS Ranger, conducted a brief raid on Whitehaven – the last time a British port was attacked. At 11pm on 22 April, 1778:

Commander John Paul Jones leads a small detachment of two boats from his ship, the USS Ranger, to raid the shallow port at Whitehaven, England, where, by his own account, 400 British merchant ships are anchored. Jones was hoping to reach the port at midnight, when ebb tide would leave the shops at their most vulnerable

Jones and his 30 volunteers had greater difficulty than anticipated rowing to the port, which was protected by two forts. They did not arrive until dawn. Jones’ boat successfully took the southern fort, disabling its cannon, but the other boat returned without attempting an attack on the northern fort, after the sailors claimed to have been frightened away by a noise. To compensate, Jones set fire to the southern fort, which subsequently engulfed the entire town.

Jones knew Franklin well and perhaps he had his permission for this raid. He orders read: “You shall judge best for distressing the Enemies of the United States, by sea or otherwise.

After the raid Benjamin Franklin and John Adams wrote to Jones:

We shall recommend the men who landed with you at Whitehaven, to the favor of Congress, because we think they merited it; but lest our recommendation should miscarry, we wish you to recommend them, and enclose in your letter an extract of this paragraph of ours. As they have done to themselves so much honor in this expedition, perhaps Congress would approve of the deduction of the advance at the time of entry, which they all received from me, being made from their wages in America, that the men may have their prize money here.

Mercants’ Houses in Irish Street – Like the one Matthew lived in in 1811

Whatever the case, Matthew Grisdale had established himself well enough in Whitehaven by 1783 to marry. His wife was Esther Fletcher. Matthew had become a “corn factor” i.e. a trading merchant. Eight children soon followed: John (1785), Joseph (1787), Lowther (1790), Thomas (1792), Ann (1792), and William (1793), Jane (1798) and Mary (1801).

Things obviously were going well for him because by 1811 his business acumen had enabled him to be living in a fine merchant’s house in Irish Street, Whitehaven. By 1828 he was living, presumedly in an even finer house, in Lonsdale Place and by now was called a “Gentleman”.

Matthew died aged 86 in June 1838. In his will dated 13 June 1837, we can see how wealthy Matthew had become. He divided his estate (unequally) between his children. In cash and government debt he bequeathed around £10,000, plus extensive properties, including his house in Lonsdale Place plus warehouse and shop in Roper Street and extensive household goods. He had done very well!

Many of Matthew and Esther’s children had interesting lives themselves: John became a grocer in Whitehaven, Lowther went to university, became a clergyman and school-master, and was for 28 years the headmaster of Bolton Grammar School in Lancashire, Thomas moved to Liverpool and became a pawn-broker, while William became, like his name-sake Benjamin Grisdale, the manager of Whitehaven’s Customs House. But those stories are for a later date.