George Wilson (1826 - 1899) & Jane Walker (1825 - 1901)

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The SS Forfarshire in 1835

Seahouses' moment in history occurred on 7th September 1838 when the SS Forfarshire was wrecked on the Farne islands. Grace Darling, the daughter of the Longstone lighthouse keeper, saw the boat and decided that the sea was too rough for the lifeboat to set out from Seahouses, so she and her father rowed out to the boat themselves and rescued several of the passengers. The lifeboat did eventually make it to the islands, but found only dead bodies; and the seven fisherman on board the lifeboat, including Grace's brother, had to spend three days in the lighthouse until the weather improved. Grace became the toast of the country, receiving a large reward and the admiration of everyone. Wordsworth and Swinburne wrote poems about her exploits, and several authors put her at the centre of their stories. She died four years later of tuberculosis when she was only twenty-six, but a memorial and museum ensured she would never be forgotten[1].

The closest places on the mainland to the Longstone lighthouse are North Sunderland, Seahouses and Bamburgh - all in the parish of Bamburgh, where Grace Darling had been born. These are also the villages where George Wilson and Jane Walker grew up so, given the small size of the community, it is inconceivable that they didn't know people concerned with the rescue; and as Jane's father, George, was a master mariner, it is likely that he knew William Darling and his family personally. The Walkers had been in the area for generations, long before Seahouses became a separate village. For centuries the beach near North Sunderland had been enclosed by two rocky promontories, so forming a natural landing place for boats and, from the 17th century the requirements of the fishing trade had led to a wooden jetty being built. In the late 18th century, some landowners had put up fishermen's cottages along the coast, known as the 'sea houses', and in the area near North Sunderland the community that gradually evolved took on that name. A map of 1810 shows several houses grouped together including one owned by Thomas Walker, a fisherman, and George's father. This was the house where George would have lived as a child; which he would eventually inherit; and where he would have learned the skills of sailing - skills which would soon make him a master mariner.
Seahouses in 1810; Thomas Walker's house is the most North-Easterly

Initially Seahouses was as much a harbour for the lime trade as for fishing, serving the nearby lime kilns which had been built in the 1770s, and allowing most of the lime to be carried to Scotland for fertiliser. That trade also stimulated the coal business; but during the 19th century the lime industry would gradually vanish as the fishing grew. The old lime kilns along the edge of the harbour then became convenient storage places for the herring catch, and it is said that an oven in one of these kilns, accidentally left on all night, would lead to the world's first kippers, soon to become Seahouses' most famous export. However, when George married Isabella Mitchell in 1823 the port was still being used to export corn, fish and lime [2]. Isabella's father, Alexander was a successful fisherman and after his daughter's marriage he bought a share in the 'Union of Berwick' (the ship that George skippered) which, when Alexander died in 1836, he left to his daughter. Apart from the boat, Isabella and her sister had been equal beneficiaries of Alexander's property, but each was instructed to leave £50 to their nephew (their dead brother's son), so clearly Alexander and George were not poor, with both property and disposable cash to their name.

By the time Alexander died, all five of George and Elizabeth's chldren had been born (although one had died when very young). Jane was the eldest and the only girl. She was educated; the local girls' school did not open until 1852, but there was a girls school based in Bamburgh Castle which she may have attended.
Jane Walker's sampler
In 1837, when she was twelve, she produced a simple sampler which, although it could have been copied, gives hints as to her literacy. [3] Seahouses was expanding, but that brought problems. The well on the edge of the village couldn't provide enough water for the increasing number of inhabitants, and in 1832 the villagers all signed a petition to the Lord Crewe's Trustees who owned the land, asking for a new pump or reservoir. George's signature appears at the bottom [4] with four others who saw themselves as the community leaders. Such was his success that he would eventually be able to retire, styling himself a 'proprietor of houses' in his last census; but all his sons remained seamen. Although fairly well off, the reality of the danger inherent in their occupation was cruelly brought home to them in 1842 when George's brother drowned in his own boat [5] when he was only twenty-six; but the three remaining brothers all lived near each other in Seahouses, successful house and ship owners, with children who were also destined to sail.


In 1851 Jane married George Wilson. The Wilsons were also a local family, with Jane growing up virtually next door to George, but most of the Wilsons earned their money on dry land. By 1851 George had moved to North Sunderland with his sister, Sarah, who acted as his housekeeper, and a house servant. Living so close, George would have known that Jane had had an illegitimate daughter two years earlier, but the baby had died after ten months, and George may have been the father anyway. His (George's) father, Robert, had been a mason from at least the time of his marriage to Mary Dixon in 1805 until the birth of his youngest child, George, in 1826. His family may have been masons for generations: there were Wilsons living in North Sunderland whose forebears had worked as masons on Bamburgh Castle from at least 1760 and, while a common name, they may be connected. By 1830 that branch of the family had fallen on bad times[6] and it may be that masons in the area were finding work hard to come by at that time. Whatever the reason, at some stage between 1826 and 1841 [7], George and his father, Robert, set up as herring curers; and did so successfully. Seahouses was rapidly becoming the centre of the herring industry with boats arriving from long distances away to have their herrings smoked, and Robert may just have had an eye for the main chance. Seahouses itself was still trading a great deal of corn - over a 1000 tons was shipped out in 1846 - and the lime quarries were still exporting, but by 1860 the draw kilns had closed, just as the upsurge in fishing was starting.
North Sunderland and Seahouses in 1848 at the time of George and Jane's marriage. The two communities can be seen a mile apart; Seahouses was starting to grow rapidly while North Sunderland hardly changed in size
The 1848 Tithes showing the houses owned by Thomas Walker, George Walker (two) and Robert Wilson)

George and Jane had nine children, including twins, who led a comparatively comfortable life in a comparatively poor area. They probably attended the private school in North Sunderland where the teacher was paid £10 a year paid for by the 2d and 3d a week that the pupils paid. All this was possible because George's businesses were successful. His and his father's decision to cure herrings was a good one, but George was always looking to expand his interests and, for a few years, acted as a slate merchant, presumably using his own boats to transport the slate. He also bought a small farm which, over the years, he added to until there were well over 100 acres and he was employing five people to help him with it. However, the herring curing business must have been his principal concern. Seahouses itself supported fifty fishing boats, but others would bring their catch to the port as well. The herrings would be split, gutted and put into barrels of brine, ready to be exported to both British customers and those on the continent. Doing the splitting and gutting were the 'herring lassies' who would follow the fishing fleets and shoals down the coast of Britain, and work at several ports throughout the summer. Many were from Scotland, and they often slept above the herring sheds after a day of repetitive and arduous work. The pay was good (10s or 50p a day) and they were able to knit the traditional fishing sweaters while they waited for the next load of fish. They worked in groups of three or four and one imagines that the sharp knives caused several accidents, and that the conversation was rarely genteel; but between them they had filled nearly 6,000 barrels in 1843 and there were better years to come. To visitors, the air would have smelled strongly of fish: decades later a guide book to Northumberland described Seahouses as "a malodorous place, where fish-curing is extensively carried on" and the same would have been true earlier. Apart from the smell, the layout of many of the houses would also be a clue to the industry at the heart of the community. Some of the cottages had been grouped round three sides of a courtyard in traditional 'fishermen's squares' so that nets could be dragged into the courtyard for mending, and lines baited, in an area that offered some protection from the elements.

The Bamburgh; used on the North Sunderland Line from 1898
As the 1880s approached George and Jane were living in Seahouses next door to Grace Darling's nephew, William, and his family. Their youngest child was still at the local school, while Isabella was a governess, but lived at home, where she would remain for many years, looking after her parents, with the help of her sister Annie. Despite the nature of his occupation, George appears to have been something of a snob. In 1881 his daughter Jane married a teacher who, although born in the South, was working locally. George thought his daughter too good for the young man, despite his being a qualified teacher and talented musician, and only gave his consent on condition that they both move away from the parish (which they did).[8]. He had only to think of his own (or certainly his wife's) past to see that this was an arrogance, but being a big fish in a small pond may have given him illusions of grandeur. Whatever his manner, his business continued to flourish. For many years fishermen and local businesses had been petitioning the North Eastern Railway to build a four mile extension from the mainline to Seahouses so that the fish and other goods could be moved around more easily. Their efforts bore no fruit, so they set up a private company[9]. Following a public meeting in 1891, the North Sunderland Railway Act was signed by Queen Victoria in 1892 and building started four years later. The line opened in 1898, initially for goods only, but soon for passengers as well, operating a single engine called 'Bamburgh' together with five carriages bought secondhand from Inverness. It was never a financial success, and plans to extend the line North to Bamburgh never materialised; but George would probably not have known this because he died in 1899.

Any thought that Jane would live the last few years of her life in comfort was stopped by the Boer War. One daughter had already died in Glasgow in 1890, but now two of her sons were fighting in South Africa. Both ended up in Kroonstad from where Robert (Bob) wrote home in words that seemed designed to worry his mother: '...They sent about 100 mounted men after us but by firing and then hard riding alternately we got away from them...we beat them off until dark when we got away with the loss of one man. Next day we had a sort of running fight of it all day with different parties and late in the afternoon were chased to within 400 yards of their main body. They signalled to us to lay down our arms and a few of them came out front and held up their hands to signify they would not hurt us; but as we saw a party behind with rifles levelled, we wheeled and gave them a volley dropping several, and then by desperate riding got right away from them, though they turned a big gun on us and fired shrapnell after we got out of rifle range. They killed eight of the horses but the chaps hung on by the others stirrups and we got clear away.' And so it went on. Bob did survive the war, but only a week or two after his letter arrived, news came that James had died fighting with the Imperial Yeoman Scouts, the regiment made up almost entirely by middle class volunteers. And worse was to come: the following year Bob died in Hong Kong. It was all too much for Jane, and a few months later she died herself. As Presbyterians neither she nor George were buried in the local church. They had achieved the Victorian goal of reaching the middle classes and, in many ways their life was a success; but the end was not what they had planned.

References

  1. Family tradition has it that the museum held some objects from the SS Forfarshire washed up on the shore and found by Robert Wilson, but there is no other evidence to support this. Thanks to Joe Catcheside for pointing out that there is a sealskin cigar case in the museum which states that it was recovered from the wreck by a George Wilson who received a Humane Certificate for his part in the rescue. Whether George is connected to the family is unproven
  2. Entry in 1828 directory
  3. The sampler includes the initials of all Jane's relations including her four grandparents and three surviving brothers. James is listed as 'GW' which suggests a misspelling of James, or at least the lack of parental guidance while she completed the piece. Jane did also have a brother called George, but he had died four years before the sampler was completed, and James had already been born
  4. The signature actually looks like 'George Waker' but it appears to have been done in haste and is presumably George Walker's
  5. His brother John owned the boat 'Bamburgh Castle'
  6. A letter written by a George Wilson in 1830 mentions a father who worked as a mason in the castle for many years from 1760, and a brother who fell to his death while working as a mason in 1792. The letter is deferentially polite, but is essentially begging for help
  7. There are several invoices dated 1830-1832 from a Robert Wilson of Bamburgh for building work near Bamburgh which, if they refer to the same Robert, indicate that he was still working as a mason/builder into the 1830s
  8. This story comes from Jane's granddaughter; there is no documentary evidence, so it may be exaggerated
  9. Jane Walker Wilson's granddaughter said that her father set up a private railway with a group of friends. There is no documentary evidence linking him to this venture, but it is the only one that it could be, and is at least a logical thing for him to do