Peggoty’s Boat-House

This Article is attributed to:

vntop

“Illustrations by Phiz and Barnard of Peggoty’s Boat-House in David Copperfield”

Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor, Victorian Web, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario [Victorian Web Home —>Visual Arts —>Illustration —>Phiz (Halbot K. Browne) — >David Copperfield]

Ever since the early chapters of David Copperfield appeared in the Chapman and Hall serial in 1849, some scrupulous readers have noted that the description of the Peggotty family’s boat-house “cottage” on the Yarmouth sands does not coincide with Hablot Knight Browne’s illustrations. The question of the upside down or right side up deployment of the seaside cottage extends beyond the authority of the text over the illustrations (which constitute a first reader’s response) to the matter of ultimate authorial intention, since Dickens had several opportunities during serialization to adjust Phiz’s conception of the Peggotty home, and could easily have vetoed the 1850 title-page vignette. Ironically, this novel, despite less than stellar sales compared to those of its predecessor, Dombey and Son, was Dickens’s “favourite child.” Surely he would have taken pains to instruct Phiz carefully as to what he required in the way of illustration in each of the nineteen months of part publication.

Peggotty (Illustration)1

The few surviving letters from author to artist do suggest that Dickens was alert to even minor details, so that the inverted boat-house of David Copperfield constitutes something of a literary mystery. Jane Rabb Cohen offers the following solution to it:

As Browne seemed to be taking special pains to please, Dickens was less prone to criticize him. Even when the artist turned Peggotty’s boat home upside down, in contradiction of the text (III, facing p. 30), though not reality, the author said nothing. [101]

Cohen here seems to be suggesting that Dickens knew that the boat-house at Yarmouth was not inverted, but chose not to correct Phiz’s misconception. Certainly, the 1850 title-page vignette, one of the last monthly illustrations that Phiz created for the novel, in preparation for the volume edition by Chapman and Hall, implies by its very presence at the beginning of the single volume an authorial sanction; after all, if Dickens had fundamentally disagreed with Phiz’s reconfiguration of the Peggottys’ home, he could have required another subject. Although we have scant evidence of Dickens’s monitoring Phiz’s compositions for the novel in serial, we know that he approved mightily of the illustrator’s conception of Micawber and intervened in the matter of David’s wearing an Eton jacket rather than a travelling coat in “The Friendly Waiter.” Moreover, Mark Cronin, arguing that the opening vignette may be intended to prefigure Steerforth’s overturned boat (depicted as capsizing in Barnard’s full page illustration “The Storm”), terms the upside boat-house “a textual synergistic disjunction that works.” Although Dickens’s text does not so specify in chapter 3 when David first lays eyes on the unconventional cottage, both Phiz’s exterior and interior plates of the Peggottys’ cottage depict an upturned boat with a door and window cut into its sides. Two plates from the original monthly serial numbers depict the boat-house’s interior as commodious; the second plate for the first instalment (“I am hospitably received by Mr. Peggotty”) and the second for the seventh instalment (“We arrive unexpectedly at Mr. Peggotty’s fireside”) imply by the curvature of the ceiling beams that the boat is upside down, so that the floor is actually the underside of the deck. The breadth of the room and the arching beams in “I am hospitably received by Mr. Peggotty,” a scene involving four adults and two children), indicate that the ceiling is the inverted keel, reinforced by a thick cross-beam at the top of the plate. In “Mrs. Gammidge casts a damp on our departure” (first illustration for the August 1849 monthly number) we see the transom (right) and the keel uppermost, but the boat is a mere backdrop to the foregrounded social action (Barkis and Clara Peggotty driving off to their wedding in a chaise attended by David and Emily), so that the only Phiz image that communicates his conception of the exterior of the Peggottys’ boat house is that in the title-page vignette, one of his last plates for the nineteen-month serialisation. The curvature of the walls as they blend into the ceiling is once again evident in “We arrive unexpectedly at Mr. Peggotty’s fireside” (second illustration for the November 1849 monthly number), but the room seems to have expanded to accommodate Steerforth’s height and the size of the social gathering (six adults disposed in three groups of two each), and the window, curtained over (right), seems bigger than in either of Phiz’s exterior realizations. Compare these interiors to that of a righted boat, that in “The Emigrants” (second illustration for the October 1850 monthly number), in which there is no curvature of the walls. Finally, Phiz’s exteriors of the boat are at variance, that in “Mrs. Gammidge casts a damp on our departure” suggesting a small hut, but that in the title-page vignette suggesting a house of regular dimensions.

Valerie Browne Lester argues that the composition of the boat-house plates “is a reminder that Phiz occasionally had the upper hand” (147) in his collaborative arrangement with Dickens, and contends the inversion actually constitutes an improvement in the conception of the Peggotty family’s home. In her attitude she is echoing Frederic G. Kitton’s earlier assertion that the sequence of boat-house plates are the result of the novelist’s uncharacteristic failure to conduct adequate “surveillance” (103) of Phiz’s monthly contributions, although, as has already been noted, “To Hablot Knight Browne, 9 May 1849,” implies quite the contrary. The illustrator may have simply assumed that the writer had intended an upside boat. Despite local traditions reflected years later in such illustrations as “The Old Boat-House at Yarmouth” (The Graphic, 1 November 1879), there is no evidence that the writer actually saw such a boat house when in company with John Leech and Mark Lemon he visited Yarmouth on 9 January 1849; even that most meticulous of biographers, Peter Ackroyd, can only speculate as to Dickens’s experience on the shore at dusk: “It is possible that he also saw the Yarmouth boat-house, an odd structure with its roof made from the bottom of a boat” (553).

In 1931, Lawrence Gadd cited Dr. Bately, a native of Yarmouth, as stating that such a boat-house existed in the 1830s, although not quite where Dickens in the novel locates it: “it was originally built, partly of an old boat, on a piece of swampy land, as a shed in which to stow the fishing gear of a shrimp-man” (71), coinciding with the catch that Daniel and Ham Peggotty present to David at school. Dickens may have deliberately shifted the location of the cottage seaward in order to facilitate its destruction by the tempest at the end of the story. However, Gadd’s source “asserted that Dickens never saw it. It is not clear on what ground he made such a confident statement, unless he knew that the original boat-shed was hidden by the brick-work and tile roof prior to Dickens’s first visit to Yarmouth in 1848” (72) as of his time of writing, Gadd reported that “numerous old boats, upright and inverted, high and dry upon the shore, at many places round the English coast and used as habitations” (72), and any of these could have provided Dickens with his model. Indeed, in his 1929 article in the Dickensian, Gadd proposed as a likely source of inspiration the boat-house on the Gravesend, Higham Canal, near Rochester, which Dickens knew from visits to the immediate neighbourhood in 1836 and 1841:

a quaint little cottage consisting of an inverted fishing-boat, or navy cutter, supported upon low walls of brickwork. The entire boat, which is 30 feet long, 71/2 feet beam and 5 feet deep, was used to form the roof and upper part of the house; and at the bow end there is a small brick chimney to carry away the smoke from the kitchen fire. Small as it is, the cottage has two stories, the actual boat forming an upper chamber, lighted by a small window cut in the stern. (125)

This Gravesend structure, as Gadd has demonstrated, was erected on that spot between 1802 and 1832, and therefore was likely known to Dickens in his twenties, if not earlier. Yet another source, K. J. Fielding suggests, was Samuel Laman Blanchard (1804-1845), a Yarmouth native and member of Dickens’s intimate circle who heard Dickens read The Chimes in Forster’s rooms in December, 1844. It is not implausible that Dickens combined James Sharman’s boat-shed (located at the foot at the Nelson Monument) from his friend Blanchard’s recollection of it (for the original was demolished in 1845) with other boat-houses he had seen elsewhere on the coast and in particular with the boat-house on the Higham Canal.

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“That’s not it?” said I, “that ship-looking thing?” “That’s it, Mas’r Davy,” returned Ham.
1870s. Illustration by Fred Barnard (engraved by the Dalziels) for the Household Edition of David Copperfield(Chapter III, “I Have a Change,” p. 15). Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web ]
Whereas Fred Barnard twenty years later interpreted the letterpress literally to show the cottage at the first moment of its appearance in the novel as a boat “high and dry,” as though washed ashore on the sands, and “roofed in” like a child’s Noah’s ark, according to Hammerton in 1910, “On the Denes at Yarmouth, however, in recent years might have been seen an inverted boat that had been converted into a snug dwelling-place” (339). Hammerton states that Phiz, whom he terms “the least imaginative and inventive of the famous illustrators, improved upon the text, for the pictorial value of the inverted boat will not be denied” (339). In fact, so compelling is Phiz’s conception that it has failed to convince only two of Dickens’s principal illustrators (Harry Furniss and Fred Barnard). The 1935 MGM film adaptation clearly shows the ribs of the boat’s keel in the set design, which undoubtedly reflects Phiz’s interior scenes. The appeal of the inversion alluded to by Hammerton may well be that the boat house’s interior scenes visually as well as psychologically foil the novel’s early conventional drawing room scenes, dominated in the letterpress by the glacial Murdstones (enacted by the sinister Basil Rathbone and Violet Kemble in the 1935 black-and-white film). As David G. Smith remarks,

Dickens’s acceptance of Phiz’s alteration of his plans (if that’s what happened) might have been because he recognized the thematic rightness of having the boat turned upside down. After all, the Peggottys continually encounter tragedy and death. Dan Peggotty, Mr. Gummidge, and Ham all end up “drowndead,” Em’ly meets a fate worse than death, and the last time we see the boat it is nothing more than an abandoned wreck. It’s a household that is figuratively turned upside down — perhaps Dickens thought it would make sense if it happened literally as well.

Since, however, as Valerie Browne Lester notes, Phiz and Fred Barnard were great friends during the period when the younger illustrator received the Chapman and Hall commission for the Household Edition, we must also consider the possibility that Barnard’s revised image, true to the textual description of a “roofed in” boat and the biblical associations of the boat house (the very name Ham, one of Noah’s sons, and such Old Testament figures as Abraham, Isaac, and Daniel depicted in the cheap coloured prints on the interior walls), had Phiz’s sanction and therefore represents his final intention. Further, one might plausibly argue that when Davy, born aloft on Ham’s shoulder, first spies the “superannuated boat not far off, high and dry on the ground” in chapter 3 he would have commented upon its being an inverted boat as he subsequently describes it, rather than “That ship-looking thing” (Norton, p. 32). Further, it is less likely that the boy in chapter 10 would experience apprehensive fancies “that the sea might rise in the night and float the boat away” (Norton, p. 127) if the boat were not grounded on its keel.

Peggotty (austen_boat)
An interpretation of of the Peggottys’ boathouse by the twentieth-century illustrator John Austen. http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/phiz/dc/austen.boat.html

Part of the appeal of an upside-down boat is its verisimilitude (for such huts were common enough on England’s southern coasts, apparently), and part its suiting the unconventional, anti-bourgeois Peggotty family. Phiz’s image matches a peculiar cottage with an odd family, for Daniel Peggotty’s “children” are neither his nor brother and sister, and Daniel Peggotty’s housekeeper is not even a blood relation, but the widow of his deceased fishing partner; and yet this family unit like the cottage itself is hardly dysfunctional. Guiliano and Collins in the second volume of The Annotated Dickens include both Barnard’s right side-up boat house (p. 39) and a period photograph of an inverted boat house at Gravesend which they suggest may have given Dickens “the idea for the Peggottys’ house (note 5, p. 38), despite the fact that such a conception “is at odds with the text” (38). Moreover, they allude to K. J. Fielding’s citing in “Peggotty’s Boat: Fact and Fiction” (Dickensian, May 1960) local journalist Louis Meall in A Guide to Yarmouth (2nd. ed, 1851) as saying that the inverted boat house was “as much a creation of the author’s fancy, as the adventures of the heroic and true-hearted Peggotty himself; but it is a very characteristic feature in a coast scene of 30 years ago” (118).

Significantly, Fred Barnard chose the scene of David’s seeing the Peggotty cottage for the first time as the subject of his first full-page illustration, “That’s not it?” said I, “That ship-looking thing?” “That’s it, Mas’r Davy,” returned Ham.” (see above). In the British Household Edition this appears opposite the relevant letterpress (page 15), but after the interior scene with David and the Peggotty family grouping (“Dead, Mr. Peggotty? Page 9, – see below). The placement of this large-scale illustration is even more effective in the American edition (opposite the relevant letterpress, p. 18) since it occurs prior to the interior scene (p. 21). A point of continuity between the exterior scenes of Barnard and Phiz is the domestic hearth; the discontinuity is the supporting beams, which frame action in Phiz but are absent in Barnard, who presents the characters in profile in two groups of three on either side of the enlarged and emphasized hearth. In terms of the large-scale, exterior illustrations, Phiz has foregrounded a melancholic little Emily on the beach with the vessel behind, clouds and breakers contributing to the overall mood, while Barnard has foregrounded the figures of Ham, Clara, and David (right half), and reduced the boat house to half of the frame. The crosshatching in the 1872 plate’s boat house roof and walls echoes the crosshatching in Clara Peggotty’s shawl and box, David’s coat, and Ham’s sweater and boots.

Peggoty (Dead Mr Peggoty).jpg
“Dead, Mr. Peggotty!” I hinted, after a respectful pause.
“Drowndead,” said Mr. Peggotty
—Chap. iii

The scene, then, is fundamentally different in the 1850 and 1872 presentations as Barnard presents the house as an extension of a family unit rather than an adjunct to the romantic scenery of the beach, waves, and sky. The potential for melancholy, evident in the Phiz title-page vignette, is dispersed in Barnard’s illustration by the presence and size of the human figures, and the viewer cannot be even momentarily deceived about the nature of the hulk in the background, which, but for the slight whiff of smoke blowing towards the right in Phiz’s title-page vignette, might be a derelict left high and dry on the sands. Phiz has chosen to alienate Emily as a child to suggest her apartness from David’s intense and largely indoor middle-class milieu; Barnard has chosen not to show her at all, focusing through carefully accumulated nautical details on the mixed working and domestic nature of the boat house, which serves both as the Peggottys’ home and their place of business. Barnard’s emphasizing the hearth in the initial interior but including—uncharacteristically—so much maritime bric-a-brac reinforces the comfort and coziness of this outwardly odd but inwardly normative Victorian home. Despite their working class background and untidily anti-bourgeois configuration, the Peggotty family offer a far more welcoming environment than David’s legal guardians, the Murdstones, who though possessing all the outward signs of middle-class respectability and affluence, including formal education and the property inherited from David’s mother, impose an emotionally stifling home life on the child and eventually exile him.

As for the issue of whether there actually was such a cottage on the Denes in Great Yarmouth in January 1849 when Dickens visited, despite traditions enshrined in such pictures as “The Old Boat-House at Yarmouth” (The Graphic, 1 November 1879), we should accept K. J. Fielding’s verdict that “whether there was ever a ‘real hut’ one can probably never hope to decide” (117).

Note: James Sharman was something of a local character at Yarmouth, and author of the Guide to Yarmouth (1854). Fielding (118) quotes the following from Louis Meall, who regarded Sharman as “the prototype of the brave Ham”:

Sharman ( With Medals)
James Sharman

In 1817, James Sharman was appointed ‘Keeper of the Pillar’, and looked after the Monument for 50 years until his death in 1867 at the age of 82. As a 14-year old, Sharman was working as a waiter at the Wrestler’s Inn when he was forcibly press-ganged into the navy. He went on to serve on HMS Victory at Trafalgar. He later claimed to have helped carry the fatally wounded Nelson below decks, though this may have been his own embellishment in order to gain extra tips from visitors! Sharman was certainly a colourful character. His better documented exploits included a brave rescue of several sailors from the brig Hammond which was shipwrecked on the beach near his house in 1827. Charles Dickens read a newspaper report of this. While writing David Copperfield, which is partly set in Yarmouth, he visited Sharman, and apparently based the character Ham Peggoty [sic] on Sharman. An event that Sharman must have witnessed occurred in 1863, when an acrobat called Charles Marsh climbed up to stand on Britannia’s shoulders. Sadly, he missed his footing while climbing down and plunged to his death before the horrified crowd gathered below.  [See “Nelson’s Monument — Background Information (Yarmouth)”

 

References

Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.

Cohen, Jane Rabb. Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio State U. Press, 1980.

Cronin, Mark. “Turning Peggotty’s Boat Right Side Up: Hablot K. Browne and the Overturned Boat House of David Copperfield.” 14th Annual Dickens Symposium. Providence, RI: Providence College, 9 August 2009.

Barnard, Fred, il. Charles Dickens’s The Personal History of David Copperfield. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1872.

Browne, Hablot Knight (“Phiz”), il. Charles Dickens’s The Personal History of David Copperfield. 1850. London: Nonesuch, 1937, rpt. 2004.

___. 1850. The Personal History of David Copperfield. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.

Dickens, Charles. The Letters of Charles Dickens. Ed. Graham Storey and K. J. Fielding. The Pilgrim Edition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981. Vol. 5 (1847-1849).

Fielding, K. J. “Peggotty’s Boat: Fact and Fiction.” Dickensian, May 1960. 117-119.

Gadd, Lawrence. “Is This Peggotty’s Boat-House?” Dickensian 25 (1929): 124-126.

___. “Peggotty’s Boat-House.” Dickensian 28, 221 (Winter 1931-1932): 71-72.

Guiliano, Edward, and Philip Collins, eds. The Annotated Dickens. Vol. 1. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1986.

Hammerton, J. A. The Dickens Picture-Book: A Record of the Dickens Illustrators. London: Educational Book, 1910.

Kitton, Frederic G. 1899. Dickens and His Illustrators. Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2004.

Lester, Valerie Browne. Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens. London: Chatto and Windus, 2004.

“Nelson’s Monument—Background Information [Yarmouth].” http://www.nelsonsmonument.org.uk/…/2.1%20Monument%20History.doc, accessed 21 August 2009.

Smith, David G. “Re. Peggotty’s boat house.” E-mail to Philip V. Allingham. 18 August 2009.

Titanic: The Real Jack Dawson!

The 15th April marks the 106th Anniversary of the Titanic sinking. It is time once again to air the life of one of the least known but, probably, the most intriguing of all Titanic victims.

by Senan Molony

There is a grave in Halifax – a humdrum, unadorned marker, modest in comparison with many of its fellows, victims all of the RMS Titanic disaster. The stone at Fairview Lawn cemetery in Nova Scotia bears the number 227, the date of the epoch-making disaster, and the terse inscription of a name: “J. Dawson.”

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For years it was just another name, a headstone and a footnote. Until a 1997 cinematic blockbuster that propelled the Titanic catastrophe back to the forefront of public consciousness. J. Dawson didn’t matter until James Cameron made the fictitious character of Jack Dawson a vehicle for his ice-struck love story. Leonardo Di Caprio broke more than the heart of his screen sweetheart, the equally fictitious first class passenger Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet).

Were Jack and Rose Based on Real People?

You won’t find Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater on any passenger list (Jack only won his ticket at the last moment!

Titanic (Jack Dawson)1.gif

They were both fictional characters. As this articles explains there was a J. Dawson on the Titanic, but his life was very different to the one portrayed on the screen. There was even a Rose travelling in First Class… but Rose Amelie Icard was only a maid to one of the wealthy passengers.

A modern generation of young females pined for the young vagabond – and allowed their tears to blur their perceptions of reality. Websites like Encyclopedia Titanica were plagued with questions asking whether Jack and Rose were real people. The grave marker suddenly became a focal point for adolescent emotion. The nondescript body fished from the sea by the Mackay-Bennett and buried in Canadian clay on May 8, 1912, was now a “somebody.” Floral tributes sprouted in front of the J. Dawson stone.

Titanic (Leonardo DiCaprio)1
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson in the Film ‘Titanic’

Admirers left photographs of Di Caprio and of themselves, tucked cinema stubs beside the granite, took photographs and clippings of grass, even left hotel keys…….Movie director James Cameron has said he had no idea there was a Dawson on shipboard back in April 1912. There are those who don’t believe him, choosing to see instead the hint of an eponymous “jackdaw” plucking an attractive name – and subtly creating an extra strand to the myth.

So who was the real Jack Dawson?:

A Discovery channel documentary aired across the USA in January 2001 addressed that question, drawing on new research in which I have played a part through my book, The Irish Aboard Titanic, the first text to draw attention to the real identity of body 227. Many more details have been unearthed in further research since.

Titanic folklorists long held to the oddly unshakeable belief that J. Dawson was a James, but this is now shown to be just another false assumption. His dungarees and other clothing immediately identified him as a member of the crew when his remains were recovered, and it is ironical that there are indications that Dawson had gone to some length at the time of deepest crisis to assert his right to an identity. Because off-duty when the impact occurred, crewman Dawson had time to root through this dunnage bag to equip himself with his National Sailors and Firemen’s Union card – before finally being allowed topside with the rest of the black gang when all the boats were gone. It appears the 23-year-old was determined that if the worst should come to the worst, then at least his body might be identified for the sake of far-flung loved ones.

And so it proved – Card number 35638 gave the key – the corpse was that of one who signed himself J. Dawson. The name duly appears on the Titanic sign-on lists. J. Dawson was a trimmer, a stokehold slave who channelled coal to the firemen at the furnaces, all the time keeping the black mountains on a level plateau, so that no imbalances were caused to threaten the trim, or even-keel of the ship. The sign-on papers yielded more – that Dawson was a 23-year-old, much younger than the estimated 30 years of age thought by the recovery crew who pulled him from the Atlantic’s grasp. His address was given as 70 Briton Street, Southampton, and his home town listed as Dublin, Ireland.

But the man whose body wore no shoes – many firemen pulled off their heavy workboots on the poop deck of the Titanic before the stern inverted, hoping to save themselves by swimming [Thomas Dillon was one of the few who succeeded] – was to leave no footprint in Southampton. Later researchers would wander up a dead end, for there was no number 70 at Briton Street in those days. The numbers did not go up that far, and the trail was cold.

It is only through his Irish roots that the true J. Dawson begins to emerge.

A little over a mile from my house in Dublin there is a nursing home, where the oldest surviving member of the Dawson family lives out a feisty twilight at the age of 88, surrounded by crosswords and puzzle books. May Dawson was born in that year of 1912. She remembers tales of Joseph Dawson, the family member who went to sea aboard the greatest vessel of her time. The trimmer who signed with a modest and economical first initial, instead of the Christian name that pointed to Catholic upbringing, identified with a plain “J”, just as he had been when voyaging on the RMS Majestic, his first ship before Titanic.

How Joseph Dawson, a trained carpenter whose toolbox survived in the family for many years, left his home city and found a berth on the ship billed the “Queen of the Seas” is a story in some ways more fascinating than even that woven around his invented namesake, Jack Dawson. The similarities between fact and fiction are striking however – both were young men, both largely penniless, who “gambled” their way aboard Titanic. One a serf to coal, the other a character who wielded charcoal to woo; and both were intimately bound up with beautiful sweethearts.

Yet the Joseph Dawson story has more with which to amaze and enthrall than that of the Di Caprio portrayal. There is more to it, indeed, than can be told in an hour-long documentary tailored for a TV mass market. Charlie Haas, Brian Ticehurst, Alan Ruffman and your essayist herewith all contribute interviews to the programme, “The Real Jack Dawson” which was made by BBC Manchester, and aired in 2001. While others touched on varying aspects of the disaster and the vessel as it affected a lowly trimmer, I hope here to tell the extraordinary personal story that shaped Joseph Dawson. He was a child born in a red-light area to a father who should have been a priest.

Joseph Dawson was born in the slums of Dublin in September 1888 – at the very time when Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror among prostitutes was at its height in the gas-lit cobble lanes of neighbouring London. The mewling infant that came into the world in the sordid surrounds of “Monto”, the inner-city Dublin demi-monde whose trade in a myriad predilections was later to provide the backdrop for the Night town chapter in James Joyce’s Ulysses, could not have known the circumstances of his birth. Those details are indeed obscure – and deliberately so. The birth was never registered. The mother was a widow. The father was a widower who had once simply “jumped the wall” in family folklore to escape an o’er-hasty decision to enter as candidate for the Roman Catholic priesthood.

If Patrick Dawson, Joseph’s father, was ever married to Catherine Madden, there is nothing now to say so. This union – a union that begat Joseph – was itself never registered. There is nothing to show the parents were married at the time of birth, not in the records of Catholic inner-city parishes where tenements bursting at the seams provided an endless succession of tiny heads to be wetted at the font, nor in the ledgers of the State which, since 1864, had been dutifully recording every marriage and each new citizen of Her Imperial Britannic Majesty, Victoria, by the grace of God, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.

The failure to comply with the dictates of colonial masters is hardly surprising – up to five per cent of recalcitrants avoided official registration in those days – but the dispensation with Church sacrament for the wailing whelp is indeed extraordinary. It suggests an impediment, as indeed may have existed in the marital stakes. Perhaps Patrick Dawson had burned his bridges. As a “spoiled priest,” his choices in personal relationships were strictly limited in a society deferential to its clergy. And Patrick Dawson’s family was steeped in the faith. It provided a living for many of them in uncertain times. And it had done so for the extended Dawson clan since the days of the late 14th century, when proud kinsmen had been stripped of their lands around Tullow, Co Carlow. This vengeful scattering of the once-wealthy forebears followed the assassination of Richard Mortimer, Earl of March, heir to the English throne, ambushed and slain by the leading MacDaithi at nearby Kellistown, on July 10, 1398.

MacDaithi, in the Irish language, means “David’s son”, pronounced MacDawhee – and the native phonetics would later engender a simple Anglicisation to Dawson. From a place as patriarchs, the Dawsons were reduced to the status of beggars, mere tenants on their former pastures. Thus the Church would become a refuge. It provided a living. One Dawson established an entire convent, and a tradition of Holy Orders grew through the centuries. In 1854, the father of the man fated to die on the Titanic was born in Tullow. Patrick Dawson was one of four sons born to slater Thomas Dawson and his wife Mary. All four of these sons would enter the seminary. Only Patrick blotted the family escutcheon by “jumping the wall.”

Patrick’s three brothers – who became Fr Thomas, Fr William and Fr Bernard – were versed in Latin and Greek and moved up in the church. Patrick, the sole escapee, reverted to his earlier training as carpenter. He moved to Dublin. He married a widow, when he was 24. The spoiled priest was lucky that any woman would have him. Maryanne Walsh, a maker of corsets, from Fishamble Street, where Handel had given the first-ever performance of his celebrated “Messiah”, agreed to be his wife. After all, she already had a daughter, Bessie, to care for, and could not afford to be proud.

Patrick Dawson and the Widow Walsh were married in St Michan’s Church, North Anne Street, in the heart of Dublin’s markets area, on June 23, 1878. They lived at Dominick Place in the city. The Widow Walsh bore him two sons, Timothy and John, bound to become a slater and tea porter respectively. Timothy, who would later serve in the Boer War with the Dublin Fusiliers, arrived first, in 1879, and baby John two years later. Tragedy would strike with the third child.

The Widow Walsh developed complications in delivery at the couple’s cramped rented rooms in Copper Alley. She was rushed to the Coombe lying-in hospital where her child was born stillborn as its mother lapsed into coma. She died six days later, on February 22, 1883. She was only thirty.

Life was cheap, the pressures intense. The family had already hurtled from one rooming house to another, surviving on the piecework Patrick found as a coachmaker. One of the streets on which they lived had no fewer than three pawn shops, a sign of the widespread misery in a city long-before swollen by a tide of famine fugitives from the countryside.

Patrick was down on his luck when he fell in with Catherine Madden – another widow, again with a child of her own to rear. Soon they were living together in a room in Summerhill, close to the yard where Patrick worked. They moved again and again, ever downward it appeared. Joseph Dawson, the focus of this article, arrived in 1888, followed by a sister, Margaret, four years later. This time the birth was registered, the parents formally identified.

By 1901, all the other childen save Joseph and Margaret were sufficiently grown up to have moved away or into the homes of other relatives. It is in the Irish Census of the turn of the century that we find Joseph Dawson listed for the first time – and the record, in the Irish National Archives, is the only piece of contemporary paper to list his full name.

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The entry for the Dawson family in the Irish census of 1901, with Joseph’s name on the lower line (Irish National Archives, Courtesy of Senan Molony, Ireland)

Patrick Dawson, described as a joiner, aged 44, is found living at a tenement in Rutland Street, north Dublin. Catherine, a year older and listed as Kate, is described as his wife although no certificate was ever issued. Here are the children – Maggie Dawson, aged 8, and Joseph, 12.

It is April 1901. In eleven years, Joseph Dawson will be the 23-year-old trimmer from Dublin who signs aboard the RMS Titanic. For now however, the family must live in just two small rooms, one of nine families compressed into the four-storey tenement. And they are among the lucky ones – other families of eight and nine members make do with a single room. Determination drove them on through a widespread squalor, now thankfully consigned to the past. Joseph received an education, learned his father’s trade of carpentry, was taught lessons by Jesuits who brought a crusading zeal into the community from nearby Belvedere College – later home of Fr Francis Browne SJ of Titanic photography fame – and grew to manhood. Then an event, in March 1909, catapulted him towards his fatal encounter with the White Star Line.

Catherine, mother to Joseph and his sister Margaret, succumbed to breast cancer. Her distraught husband Patrick, now 55, turned to his wider family for solace, just as relatives rallied round to provide opportunities for Joseph and Margaret in the wider scheme of things. Fr Tom, Joseph’s uncle, offered to provide them with accommodation and a start in a new life. He was now based in Birkenhead, near Liverpool, England. Joseph Dawson and his sister took the boat for Britain, as so many Irish emigrants before them. Margaret went into service, and Joseph took the King’s shilling, enlisting in the British Army as his half-brother Timothy had done only a decade before. Joseph chose the Royal Army Medical Corps and liked it. He took up boxing in the regiment, and was duly posted to Netley, one of the largest military hospitals in England. The magnet of Titanic now draws him closer. Netley is but three miles from Southampton.

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Joseph Dawson in uniform of the Royal Army Medical Corps, 1911. From “The Irish Aboard Titanic” (Courtesy of Senan Molony, Ireland)

Joseph chose to leave within a few years. He had heard about the great Transatlantic liners that promised good pay for those unafraid of hard work. A temporary certificate of discharge was issued at Netley on June 30th, 1911, and survives in the family to this day. It reads: “CertifiedThanks , that number 1854, J. Dawson, is on furlough pending discharge from 1st July 1911 to 20th July 1911, and that his character on discharge will be very good.”

There was another reason for leaving. On previous leave, which inevitably led to the bars and bright lights of Southampton, Dawson had made the acquaintance of a ship’s fireman, John Priest. More importantly, he also came to know Priest’s attractive sister, Nellie. The Irishman and the seaside girl began courting.

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Titanic fireman John Priest, who survived. He encouraged Joseph Dawson, who was courting his sister, to take a job with the black gang. (Public Record Office, courtesy of Senan Molony, Ireland)

It was John Priest who poured into Dawson’s ears the tales of the sea as they sat in pubs like the Grapes or the Belvedere Arms. And when discharge came, Dawson moved in as a lodger with Priest’s mother at 17 Briton Street. The man inking the crew lists for the stokehold of the Titanic would hear the address incorrectly, writing it down as number 70, instead of seventeen. Perhaps Joseph’s Irish accent was to blame; another Irish crew member, Jack Foley, had cried out that he was from Youghal, Co Cork. They put him down as coming from York.

John Priest was fated to survive the disaster. The Southampton Pictorial would report in 1912 that Mrs Priest had “one son restored to her, but her daughters Nellie and Emmie both lost sweethearts.” Poor Joseph Dawson, thinking of his Nellie as he stuggled up from a liner’s innards to a star-pricked sky that night in April. Had it really come to this? But a few months journeying with the Majestic, a glimpse of home again when the Titanic called to Queenstown, and now to face a lonely death in freezing wastes. He began taking off his shoes. buttoned the dungaree pocket in which he’d placed his Union card, and bit down hard on his lip.

There was a belief in the family that Joseph Dawson might have married Nellie Priest. The newspaper report and a search of Southampton marital records for 1911-12 are all against it. Perhaps they had simply pledged their love forever. The idea of a marriage is also suggested by a letter, which also survives in the family, sent from the White Star Line to “Mrs J. Dawson” at 17 Briton Street. It reads:

“Madam,

Further to our previous letter, we have to inform you that a N.S. & F. Union book No. 35638, was found on the body of J. Dawson. This has been passed into the Board of Trade Office, Southampton, to whom you had better apply for the same.

Yours faithfully, for White Star Line – “

…….and a squiggle. The union card was all she ever had. No-one claimed the body of Joseph Dawson, and it appears the relatives might not even have been told that it had been buried on land. But branches of the family in both Britain and Ireland hold on to their memories – and Seamus Dawson, the oldest male relative and a nephew of Joseph, now lives by the crashing surf at Skerries, Co Dublin, looking over the waves to Lambay Island, where the first White Star Line maiden voyage disaster came with the loss of the Tayleur in 1854, the very year of his grandfather’s birth.

Patrick Dawson, spoiled priest, died penniless at the age of 77 in 1931. True to family form, he passed away in the care of the church, under the ministrations of the Little Sisters of the Poor. His son Joseph – carpenter, boxer, lover, trimmer, Irishman – lies half a world away, sleeping in a green slope in Nova Scotia, his grave now more popular than even that of the Unknown Child. It is a must-see site for the passengers of cruise liners that placed Halifax on their itinerary after the success of the highest grossing motion picture of all time. So, Jack Dawson never did exist. But Joseph Dawson was a man of flesh and blood, ripped from the veil of life at a tragically early age. So were’t they all flesh and blood? And their stories deserve to live, those of all the humble headstones serried nearby, tales untouched by a brush with recent fame.

© Senan Molony, 2000