A Hieland Laddie in Victorian London

Previously on Mums Marbles (A Family Business, 28 July) ….

Account by Theresa Otto – My grandfather was born in the house at Spean Bridge. The present sitting room was then 2 rooms and he was born in the middle room.  His father had been away for a period attending the Falkirk Tryst (market). He returned with one or two friends in the evening and his wife served them with a meal. There was a squeak from the corner.  “What’s that?” asked Peter Snr. “That’s your latest son” replied his wife!!!  And that’s how my great grandfather heard of the birth. The baby who had popped into the world with so little inconvenience to his busy mother, and even less to his father, was my great grandfather, Peter MacFarlane, the youngest child of Peter Snr and Mary Drochaid MacDonald. He was born on the 20th of June 1849.

cradle-18821

We’re now going to follow the adventures of this youngest child.

Peter was educated at Kilmonivaig School, where the Schoolmaster was one James Munro, who lived with his sister Jean at Blarour Farm and was known as the Blarour Dominie (Teacher). James was a Gaelic scholar and a poet, and in his younger day had written “A Practical Grammar of the Scottish Gaelic”, published in 1843. This book is still, I am tickled to note, available in facsimile form on Amazon, where the description runs thus: This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important, and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it, and his poetry is also still well regarded by scholars.

I’m willing to guess that Peter and his classmates would have had no idea that they were being taught by such an illustrious master, someone who had a part in maintaining the knowledge base of civilization as we know it! Once his schooldays were over, Peter, age 16, became apprenticed to a chemist in Fort William, a four year apprenticeship that commenced in November 1865:

“It is Contracted, Agreed, and Ended between Allan Ritchie Affleck Chemist and Druggist Fort William of the first part and Peter MacFarlane junior residing in Fort William with the advice and consent of his father Peter MacFarlane senior carpenter Unachan. Allan Ritchie Affleck binds and obliges himself to furnish the said Peter MacFarlane junior with sufficient bedding, food and washing during the whole space of his apprenticeship and to pay him the sum of ten pounds sterling annually in name of salary for the last two years of his apprenticeship over and above his lodging, bedding food and washing as aforesaid”.

So, off he went to Fort William where he worked for Affleck and did his studying by correspondence. I notice that he didn’t actually get paid anything until he was a full two years into the agreement! Once qualified, Affleck wrote Peter the following letter of recommendation: “I can confidently recommend him to fill a situation as assistant to anyone requiring his services (signed) A R Affleck Apoth Hall Fort Wm.” Whereupon the young man packed his bags and headed off to seek his fortune in London, or in fact to gain experience working for an established chemist there.  It is reputed that when it was time to leave Fort William, Peter left £10 in the till in case he might be responsible for any bad debts.

On arriving in the Metropolis, he asked directions to “Holburn” and asked for “Holburrin”. “Oh” replied a Londoner, “you must mean “Owbun”! “No, I don’t mean Oban, I mean Holburrin!” The accounts of his early days in London are somewhat sketchy so I don’t know who he worked for there, or where he lived (Holborn maybe. It could be that his brother John lived there, or that was where Affleck had a contact.) The one story that we do have is that he arrived in London wearing a tweed suit from his father’s tailor, which somehow got completely ruined when he was tasked with tramping something wet and squashy to extract a dye, or perhaps it was just that the dye ran out of the suit in the rain. Anyway, he was told that the suit wasn’t suitable for London.

holbornMy heart goes out to the rather naive sounding 20-year-old arriving all the way from Lochaber seemingly unequipped for life in the big English city. But make his way he did because the next report we have of him is that he has met one Louisa Priest and married her at the Brompton Oratory on 15th of April 1877, a Sunday. He was 28, she 29. The Oratory was in the process of being re-built at the time and wouldn’t open until 1884, so the wedding must have taken place in the existing temporary church.

Other than the fact that she married my great grandfather and originally came from Honiton in Devon, I know next to nothing about Louisa Priest, my great grandmother. There is the odd snippet, the most tantalising being that she had a beautiful singing voice and once performed in front of Queen Victoria! As to what brought her to London and how she met Peter – well, that’s a story yet to be discovered. However, I DO have this picture of her…

Louisa Priest
This framed photograph is a family heirloom and was left to my father in his father’s will. It hung in our hallway in Kersland Street for many years and when my Mum passed away in 2015, my sisters decided it should go to me, the eldest daughter. It now hangs proudly in my living room, alongside pictures of Mum and my grandmother Beatrice.

I’m not sure at what point Louisa came into his life, but I do know that Peter eventually started off his own business with a shop and a room, somewhere near Brompton Oratory, which would have been Knightbridge – rather a good address, though at that point still well and truly in the suburbs. Story goes that on his first day he had no customers, on the second day he had one customer. In despair, on the third day he went down on his knees and prayed – he took in 2/6 that day. One of Peter’s best customers asked him where he went to Church. “Just round the corner!” Some time later, the same lady came in very cross “Mr MacFarlane! You deceived me! I didn’t know you were a Catholic!” “I beg your pardon, Madam, but my pills are purely Protestant!” He didn’t lose his customer.

Another story is that Peter was great friends was a Dr Abernethy, a fellow Scot.  Dr A asked Peter to fashion a portable medicine case with small quantities of necessary portions. Peter did so and thus was born the first BLACK BAG!  Dr A is commemorated to this day in the Abernethian Hall at Barts, London. Now, I am a little little doubtful about this story, much though I would like it to be true. Research tells me that it was a different Dr Abernethy who was associated with Barts – Dr John Abernethy (1764-1831), founder of the Abernethian Society and inventor (or at least his sister was) of the biscuit which bears his name to this day (he was looking for a plain nutritious food which would aid digestion).

‘Our’ Dr A was very taciturn and hard working. One day he took a day off and was relaxing somewhere upon the upper reaches of the Thames. He spotted a dairymaid with her kirtle (petticoat) tucked up, wading through the water and balancing a tub of butter on her head. He called out to her “How deep is the water and how much is your butter” and quick as a flash she replied. “Up to the knee and nine-pence.” Dr A eventually married that girl. He admired her economy of words!

As to the black bag… Well we can tie this up to the invention of the Gladstone bag (patented in 1854 and named after the Liberal politician, later Prime Minister). It was an instant success as a travel bag, and soon caught on as a doctor’s bag. I’m sure that Peter and Dr A would have been among the first to use it as such, but I hope I’m not being disloyal if I rather doubt that they actually invented it…

doctor's bag

I believe that Peter and Louisa knew each other while Peter was building his business, but if his premises were a shop and a room, there wouldn’t have been the space for them to set up home together and start a family. However opportunity came in the shape of the old master Affleck, who wanted to retire. Peter was able to buy out his business – perhaps this was always the plan – and he and Louisa moved to Fort William as man and wife probably in the same year as they got married. (I’ve seen an old document in which Peter states that he started his chemist business in 1877).

Peter and Louisa lost no time establishing themselves in Fort William and the next 15 years or so saw the birth of nine children in rapid succession. Sadly, the first and third of them, John and Donald, died in infancy. The 1891 census shows the family living at 17 High Street, Affleck’s original premises. I guess this would have brought back memories for Peter of his apprenticeship. It must surely have afforded him no small degree of satisfaction to now return as proprietor of the establishment. I wonder if he retrieved his £10 from the till!

I find it quite striking when you look back at Peter’s early days, that he seems always to have had strong role models before him, from his mother and father, then brother Archie, running the family business in Spean Bridge. Then the three brothers, John, Angus, George, and sister Jane Eliza, all successfully making their way in life; James Munro, the able first schoolmaster; Affleck, the chemist who was his guide as a young apprentice; Dr Abernethy, the taciturn, hard working friend. It’s no surprise really that Peter himself was no slouch when it came to enterprise and ambition whether for his business, his family or the community at large.

Perhaps the most notable thing Peter did in this period – apart from fathering nine children! – was to send his family to live with his sister Jane at Arisaig for a whole year while he supervised the building of new premises at number 50 High Street – a shop with a dwelling house above. Jane Eliza’s family, the Mackintoshes, a bit older than the MacFarlanes, were supposed to have enjoyed making their cousins talk, due to them having a sort of English accent. If the family were still at 17 High Street in 1891, I think this relocation must have taken place in 1892, and that perhaps Peter and Louisa’s youngest child, Anise Jane, might have been born that year at Arisaig.

But events were to take a very dark turn, and it couldn’t have been long after the family had come back and taken possession of their new home than Louisa was struck down with cerebral meningitis and died after a short illness on the 4th of April 1893, with her husband at her side. She was 45. It must have taken all of Peter’s reserves of character and resilience to get through the succeeding months and years dealing with his own loss and with seven bereaved little children relying on him. We’ll follow the years of his widower-hood in the next post.

Peter and children, 1893
With an empty chair at the back denoting the absence of Louisa, here are Peter with (back) Ethel Sarah, Mary Louisa, Winifred Grace; (centre) Peter John and Anise Jane; (front) Muriel Davenport and George Archibald.

 

 

 

 

 

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