Who do you think you are?
Sue Johnston

Sue Johnston

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Sue Johnston's story revolves around the relationship between two men who played an important role in her family history. As she started her research into her own background she realised that they were of particular interest, because their lives reflected the increase in social mobility that followed on from Britain's Industrial Revolution.

The story of her great-grandfather James Cowan is an instructive one - an archetypal rags to riches story. He managed to pull himself up by the proverbial boot straps from the disease-ridden slums of Carlisle, and eventually became an independent man of means. His son, Alfred (Sue's grandfather), however, rebelled against the plans his father had for him, and went to work on the same railways that his father had worked on as he hauled himself out of poverty.

James Cowan was born in Scotland in 1825, and later moved to Carlisle. Records seem to indicate that he started work on the railways around 1849, at the time of the birth of the railway industry. The Industrial Revolution was changing the face of the country at this time, and the railways were at the forefront of the process.

James spent 25 years working at Carlisle Citadel station. Records show that in 1856 he started as a porter, then rose to be second head porter, and in 1861 he was promoted to second assistant platform attendant. Family legend has it that he eventually became a station manager. This, as Sue discovered, turned out to be untrue. He never made it to the top job, which could be the reason he resigned after 25 years of service. The records show that he left seven months after the death of the previous station manager, perhaps realizing that he would never step into his shoes.

Dickensian slums

By the time he left the job, however, his economic circumstances had improved dramatically. Most of his early life had been spent living in The Lanes, a notorious, almost Dickensian slum in Carlisle. Life was tough, as James's genealogy proves. His first wife, Jane Harrison, died of tuberculosis, and one of their four children also died.

In 1866 he was remarried, to Elizabeth Atkinson, and he had six further children. His place in the middle classes was cemented by the fact that he moved into a townhouse and employed a domestic servant - as the 1871 census shows.

When James left the railways, he entered the hotel business, another boom industry, and continued to succeed. The 1881 census reveals him to be a hotel-keeper, employing seven domestic servants, at the Station Hotel, Belle Isle Place, Workington. On his youngest son Alfred's marriage certificate of 1909 he is described as a 'gentleman', which is further evidence of how well he had done for himself.

Difficult decisions

This modest success meant that James could afford to provide well for his children. Alfred, who was born in 1885, was educated privately by a governess. It is clear that James wanted him to get a respectable white-collar job, which he did, as a shipbroker's clerk at the age of 15. But this obviously didn't suit Alfred. He threw it in, and went to work on the railways as a trainee fireman and an engine cleaner.

Whatever the inspiration for this move, one can only imagine the family rows that must have accompanied this decision. James had spent his life working hard to escape the railways, a resolutely working-class industry, only for his son to choose it as a career. Alfred also married Margaret Lacey, the daughter of a plate layer, and this too was probably considered an unsuitable move by his father.

Perhaps the difficulties between the two men were generational - James was after all 60 when Alfred was born, and much had changed from the time when he was a young man. Alfred also had the advantage of growing up at a time when the Labour Party was active and trade unions had gained some power. James, on the other hand, had had no support as he worked his way up the social hierarchy.

What Sue managed to find out about her two ancestors is fascinating for several reasons, but particularly for what it reveals about the railway boom that swept Victorian Britain, and about the increase in social mobility of the period. These two phenomena combined were responsible for many of the new habits and attitudes in British life that have created the society we live in today.

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