Thursday, June 08, 2017

A Message Across the Ages: Why I Will Be Voting Labour on 8th June 2017

Was the last general election just two blog posts ago? I really need to get on here more often! My most recent pastime of choice has been researching my family tree, a passion ignited by the TV programme, 'Who Do You Think You Are.' I can keep myself entertained for hours with it. Never had I considered the emotional energy that would be expended by spending so much time 'down among the dead,' as I call it. There is a sense that, by uttering the names of these long forgotten people from the 19th and early 20th century, we can somehow bring them back to life again, if only momentarily.

I had always craved to know more about my Dad's family. My Grandad, James, died when I was just a year old.  I'd heard a story that he and his twin sister had come over from Ireland as babies and young Margaret had died as the result of a tram accident.  Researching the documents told a different story. Seems that Grandad was born in Liverpool after all - it is writ clear on the baptismal registers. He was born into a court in Ben Jonson Street, one of the worst streets in Liverpool at the time.
Ben Jonson Street
There is scant documentary evidence of this little family's existence but what there is tells a sad tale.  James and his twin Margaret were born to James and Ann Kelly in 1890. Ben Jonson Street was arguably the least salubrious address in Liverpool at the time.  The road consisted of courts which were cramped, unsanitary dwellings lacking any through ventilation.  Dwellings of this kind served as homes to the massive influx of Irish migrants, many of whom were escaping famine brought about by the potato blight. The lucky ones were able to take a ship to new worlds, many settled around the Scotland Road area of town which was close enough for work at the thriving Liverpool Docks. James senior was one such dock labourer and apart from his occupation, I know nothing about him. 

On census night in April 1891, my grandad appears on the census, not in Ben Jonson Street, but at Walton Prison, He and his sister are each listed alongside their mother as 'infant of prisoner'. How very sad that in this day and age when every moment of a child's life is documented with photographs on Facebook and Instagram, these children have only their births and a brief stay at Her Majesty's Pleasure to evidence their existence. They possibly spent their first birthday there. I don't know what the crime was but given that it was a relatively short stay that it was probably petty theft of food or something. Ann Kelly would have had no recourse to food banks. Just a few weeks later, at the end of May, little infant Margaret had left this life. The cause of her death was 'marasmus bronchitis' a condition symptomatic of malnutrition.

Coroner's Inquest into the death of Mary Condron
In early October of 1892, Ann gave birth to another girl. Mary, but she too had died by the end of the month.  A newspaper search yielded brief information from the Liverpool Mercury. Among the inquests dealt with by the Coroner's Court on Tuesday 1st November 1892 was the sad case of Mary Condron, the daughter of James Condron, a dock labourer. She was found dead at her mother's side in bed and a verdict of 'Accidental Suffocation' was given. There were no other children born to the couple and by 1898, my Great-grandad had also died at the age of 40 years.  The address shown on in the records of Ford Cemetery, was 'Liverpool Workhouse'. From the time I saw this it troubled me but, in fact, the workhouse had an infirmary so this needn't have meant the worst.  When I finally got hold of his death certificate,my theory was confirmed. His address was still at Ben Jonson Street. He had died from an abscess with chronic suppuration and presumably had it treated at the Workhouse infirmary.

This small human tragedy saddened me more than I expected. I had pieced together the fragments of these lives from a few extant details and felt pain in my heart.  I suppose this shouldn't surprise me. After all I share their DNA. Part of grandad, and my great grandparents still lives in every cell of my body so why shouldn't I feel their pain and misery across the ages? I have since reflected on the fact that of all of the siblings, my grandad was the survivor. Miraculous, then, that I am here at all!

On one level this is a personal story, but on another, it is a political one. What sort of world was it in  late 19th Century  Liverpool? Liverpool was a thriving port, one of the wealthiest cities in the world at that time - we still have an embarrassment of riches in terms of beautiful buildings, the like of which would never be built nowadays.  If some of the banking and shipping buildings which lie empty now, or else have been turned into boutique hotels were in Italy, they would be deemed palaces. And yet the Irish migrant population lived in cellars and courts which were soon after condemned as unfit for human habitation.  One of the saddest things was the case of little Mary. We take for granted that our children have a room each.  This family would have only had room for one bed in their cold, damp little court so they would have all had to huddle together to keep warm. This was not uncommon. The same day that the Coroner dealt with Mary's case, two other cases of accidental suffocation of infants were brought. One child was in a bed with both parents and two other siblings. One of the babies was buried on the same day as Mary, probably in the same pauper's grave and the third child was buried the next day. It's all there in the meticulous records of Ford cemetery. 

These were the days before the welfare state and the NHS. Poor people went to the Workhouse to have their ailments treated and probably waited until it was too late. Many of our old Victorian hospitals were former workhouses. 

In our contemporary society, where the filthy rich get more obscenely wealthy with each day and the poor become inexorably drawn into the depths of desolation, it is not hard to imagine a return to those bad old days. I think we ought to call time on a Tory government, which sees the working classes merely as a vehicle to to drive profit for their own selfish ends, and looked for a new alternative. That is why I will be voting Labour later today.