An Ordinary Man

Once upon a time the history books largely ignored the common, ordinary man. They were all about kings and princes and the rise and fall of nations, the grand sweep of history it is known as. The ordinary man never got a look in. Gradually, however, new ‘schools’ of history emerged that focused on other areas, most specifically on the ordinary man. He, the ordinary man, now forms an integral part of what we refer to as ‘social history.’

Social history reveals how truly ordinary, how like ourselves, a lot of people were. They went about their day to day lives, sometimes living in conditions that weren’t all that great, toiling away to provide the rich man’s banquet table with pheasant and grouse. There was oppression, there was subjugation… Ok, nothing has changed that much in some parts of the world but that isn’t my point. My point is that they were nothing special. They were ordinary. Without all these ordinary men and women living their ordinary lives much of history would never have happened. These people were the cogs keeping the clock ticking whilst the wealthy, the elite, were the ornate ormolu exterior. Without them society wouldn’t have worked. There wouldn’t have even been the ormolu exterior. There would probably have been no such thing as society.

The Ormolu Clock of society (courtesy of the V&A)

The reason these cogs were ignored for so long was because they were incorrectly perceived as uninteresting. The story of the elites was, and is, far more of a thrill ride. Whereas the more traditional, whiggish strain of history is all dramatic and filled with battles and scandals and duels, social history can be the exact opposite- Though it almost certainly does have its dramatic moments, such as with revolutions and rebellions and what not. It is sometimes delightfully pedestrian. Like the men and women who inhabit it it can be so ordinary. Therein, I am sure most people would agree, lies its charm, but before the sixties people passed it over because of that pedestrianism.

And so to a case study- The story of one of those ordinary man, one who lived through the latter half of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. He lived to the ripe old age of eighty seven and in that time, besides lifting himself out of poverty and becoming a respected citizen of the village where he spent his last forty years, he performed no great deeds, no acts of bravery or heroism and he left no great impression upon the world. He was my twice great grandfather and like myself he was called James.

Below is a newspaper cutting about his retirement but for certain reasons (you never know who might be lurking around on the internet with villainous intent) I’ve changed some of the names and places.





Mr. James Knowsley, the sub-postmaster of Little Smellington, can vividly recall the launching of the iron ship Tallow at Jackson’s Wharf on October 4th  18—  the establishment of the ‘Macklesham Gazette’ in the same year and the hustings of the famous ’68 election. He gave details of these and other notable happenings to a “gazette” representative, who interviewed him this week on his retirement, which will take place at the end of the month.


Considering he will attain his 81st Birthday in September next, Mr. Knowsley is remarkably active, and well. “I have a few aches and pains in the morning,” he said, “but as the day goes along, I get as lively as a cricket” – and he does! He is a very familiar figure in the district in which he lives, latterly having spent the greater part of his time walking the roads and lanes and chatting with his numerous friends.

A son of the late Mr. and Mrs. Peter Knowsley, of Dickens Street, Mr. Knowsley spent the early part of his life in the Co-operative Society, and when the bakery was in Smellington Street he was foreman baker for a number of years. On the death of Mr T. Suddings he took over the grocery and provision business in Warbeck Street, which had been carried on by that gentleman, and in 1900 he was appointed the sub-post master of Little Smellington which business he has since carried on in conjunction with the sale of groceries and provisions.


Mr. Knowsley has had the assistance of his wife, who also is in excellent health and his daughter, Mrs. Suddings. Mrs. Knowsley was the daughter of the late Thomas Crumpsall, of Hare Farm, Little Smellington. On the retirement of Mr. Knowsley, they will reside at Yew Tree, which is next to the Post Office, and the business will be continued by their son-in-law and daughter, Mr and Mrs H. Suddings.

Mr. and Mrs. Knowsley have five sons and six daughters. The eldest son, Mr. Peter Knowsley, was educated at Blackside and the Boddington Grammar School and is now second master at Barnet Grammar School, near London.
























This short cutting alone doesn’t quite tell his whole story. Not only does it miss out certain details but there is also much more hidden between the lines. Take for instance the launching of the iron ship in 18— The actual newspaper cutting gets the date a bit wrong (by ten years) and James can have been no more than a child at the time, around three years old. It raises the idea that this may well have been one of his earliest memories. Perhaps his dad, Peter, took him down to see the ship, or maybe it was his mum (Hannah) or his granddad (Also James.) Seeing a massive iron ship, something which in those days would have been highly unusual, would definitely have stuck in the mind. What might have made it even more memorable is what happened to this ship afterards- It sank off the coast of Ireland just over a year after it was launched and James could have remembered it precisely for that reason. It might have been a talking point for him- Whenever it came up in conversation he might have mentioned that he saw it launched.

What is more difficult to reconcile is his recollection of the founding of the Macklesham Gazette, though this is not impossible. It could be that his actual reminiscence was not of the founding proper, not of the announcement of it or the editor waving the first edition from the steps of the newspaper office, but of Peter coming home with the first edition or his mum nosing through it to see if there was anybody she knew or recognised. It largely contained national news but did contain some local interest. That local interest involved a collision of two trains, a man who got hit by a completely different train and another man who was suing his mother for some reason. It was pretty typical of the kind of thing you still find in local newspapers today.

The cutting fails to mention that at eleven years old James was working as a fustian cutter, the same job as his mother- Fustian is a kind of heavy cotton, if you don’t know, but by this time it was used to refer to any form of woven cotton. It wasn’t cut in any kind of mill but in the attic spaces above the rows of terraces that dominated industrial towns like Macklesham- Macklesham was supposedly big on Fustian at this point in history. Primarily, in the nineteenth century, it was used for working class clothing. Only later on does he become a baker’s apprentice, rising to the position of foreman (or master) baker and eventually post-master of Little Smellington- Then some three miles outside of the town and now a minor suburb.

The amazing thing is that he was working for at least seventy years, from the age of eleven to the age of eighty. At that I think he deserved to retire and it puts all those people complaining about the constant raising of the retirement age into perspective. Baking in the nineteenth century was tough, like really tough. It was hard, physical, back breaking work. Fustian Cutting wasn’t a walk in the park either. Yes, in later years he started selling groceries and running a post office which might have been a bit easier than fustian cutting but it still required energy and effort. He must, certainly, have been an incredibly hard working man and to go at it for seventy years puts today’s disrespectful idlers with their five day weeks, paid holidays, hour long lunch and tea breaks, comfy offices and habit of driving around the suburbs at ten o’clock on a Wednesday morning immediately following a four day bank holiday to shame. Most of them won’t even come close to working for seventy years. Most of them will barely make it to fifty. The cutting does indicate he took it a bit easier in his later years but I don’t begrudge him that. He had been working a long time after all.

There’s also his wife to consider. The cutting doesn’t include that the wife mentioned, Clara, is his second wife and the mother of only three of his eleven children. His first wife, Mary Jane, died in 1900, possibly in some childbirth related incident since, in 1901, James had a one year old daughter, Elizabeth. He married his second wife in 1903 at the church directly opposite the post office where he lived and worked. She managed to outlive him by thirteen years.

Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t mention his death at the grand old age of eighty seven, at which point he was the oldest man in the Macklesham district, and it only details what became of his eldest son, Peter, who I assume was named for his grandfather, and his seventh child, Mary Jane. It fails to mention the other nine. His fourth son, Walter, went on to serve during the First World War (Peter may have done so as well) and later became a freemason for example. By the time he died James had at least five grandchildren, possibly more, and there were definitely more afterwards.

Finally there is a picture and I think he has the appearance of a headmaster from an old boarding school film. He looks austere, a little bit crotchety, but going by the newspaper article I’m willing to bet anything that he wasn’t, though he might well have given you a stern telling off if you crossed him. Overall, however, he seems like a man after my own heart, a baker and someone who liked walking. I think, maybe, we’d get along. I think eleven children might have been going a bit far though.

What all this shows is that he was just an ordinary man, albeit who led an interesting life- One whose story would have been forgotten were it not for myself and the discovery of that newspaper cutting. He was the kind of man I talked about at the start, a cog in the ormolu clock. Without him, without his ilk, society would not have functioned. No, he wasn’t involved in any scandal or dramatic event but he was still important. He deserves to be remembered for his ordinariness.



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