Monday, 24 August 2009

Holt's Mutual Aid Society Booth Cathcart Street Birkenhead

After agreeing to meet Nikolai on the Oedipus Tyrannus, he had gone with some of the sailors to a "Mutual Aid Society Booth" in Cathcart Street, near the berth of the ship, a street dreary in the grainy rain, and loud with the clatter of shunting dockside engines and the shouts of floury stevedores... Ultramarine

We continue with my detailed look at Lowry's first novel Ultramarine based on his journey to the Far East aboard the Holt's Blue Funnel Line ship Pyrrhus in 1927. Lowry's hero Dana Hilliot goes to the "Mutual Aid Society Booth" to collect his uniform and equipment for his journey to the Far East as Lowry had done in 1927.

The Holt's wharf was based at the bottom of Cathcart Street in Birkenhead adjacent Vittoria Dock in the East Float section of Birkenhead Docks. In the 1930 photograph above, you can see the wharf in the centre of the photograph on the far left. The map below shows the position of the wharf with Cathcart Street running all the way down from Conway Street in the west to the Great Float in the east.

The Birkenhead Warehouses which were used by Holt's were demolished in the late 60's and replaced by the existing dockside buildings which run from Duke Street down to Tower Road. Below is a photograph of the wharf in the 1950's which shows Blue Funnel ships tied up a the wharf.

The gate which Lowry would have used to cross into the docks is now bricked up and the lower part of Cathcart Street has disappeared covered over by the later warehouse. The old LNWR goods station which was next to the Holt's wharf has also long gone. The only railway tracks that still exist are the ones which run alongside the later dock buildings and were last used in the early 90's and are now overgrown with weeds and plants.

Until recently, I was unsure of the precise location of Holt's "Mutual Aid Society Booth". I have now located a building which stood at the top end of Cathcart Street which was owned by Holt's Mutual Aid Society to manufacture maritime clothing. Unfortunately, the building no longer stands. It was located behind shops on Conway Street and could be accessed by a short entry running from Cathcart Street to the rear of houses in Edgar Street. You can see below the site of the building as it exists now:

The map below indicates the exact position of the building:

In 1927, Holt's Mutual Aid Society Limited was managed by Captain Alfred B. Pightling who was a Marine Superintendent. It is possible that Holt's had a "booth" nearer to the dock but I have not found one indicated on any map, in a trade journal or a history of the company. Certainly, the uniform Lowry obtained for the journey and proudly wore during his time at Cambridge University was manufactured in the above building.

In Ultramarine, Dana Hilliot buys the following from the "booth":

....a sea jersey, two singlets, a shanghai jacket, and dungaree trousers, and a pair of sea boots. Norman, who bought a pair of Blucher boots, had advised him to get all those, as it was his first voyage.Ultramarine

Another reference made in his later short story Enter One In Sumptuous Armour by Lowry of the Cathcart Street area is The Dolphin Pub. The pub was located on the corner of Cathcart Street and Corporation Road. The pub can been in the slide show above as it is today. The pub was re-named the Royal Hotel after Lowry's time and had this name before it was closed and converted to a private home.

According to an ex-Blue Funnel sailor who I know, the Dolphin Pub and the Mersey Arms on Neptune Street/Corporation Road (which can be seen in the slide show above) where regular stopping off points for the Blue Funnel Line crews to have a drink before setting sail. So it is entirely possible given Lowry's mention of the Dolphin that he drank there before sailing in 1927. He may have drank in any of the 40 odd pubs that I have identified in the area adjacent to the docks on the Birkenhead side of the Great Float which existed in 1927. I doubt whether the Dolphin pub landlord, a Mr William George Rogers, had any trouble with the young Malc as other landlords had in later life!

Drawing near the Birkenhead dockside the pubs came thick and fast, with sea sounding names here: the Dolphin, the Blue Peter, the Right Whale. Funnels appeared over the sheds; the crosstress of a windjammer. Smells of cordage wafted to our nostrils. Enter One In Sumptuous Armour

I have not been able to find the other 2 pubs in 1927 trade journals that Lowry mentions in Enter One In Sumptuous Armour. It is entirely possible that it suited Lowry to give the other ones sea-sounding names.

What is interesting is that Lowry must have been quite familiar with Birkenhead as it is mentioned more times than his birthplace New Brighton in Ultramarine. Birkenhead has a significant place in Lowry mythology as the starting point for his great adventure East. Windjammers still sailed into Birkenhead even in the 1920's giving the port a romantic air of years gone. Lowry may have been harking back to memories of his grandfather John Boden who had been first mate aboard the Vice Reine. Below is a photograph of the Cutty Sark in Birkenhead circa 1910 when she was called Ferreira.

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