My great, great, great, great grandfather, James Thomas Shipley was born on the island of St Marys in the Isles of Scilly in 1805. Like his father John Shipley, James worked as a gig pilot, a perilous job which involved rowing out to sea to meet incoming ships, climbing aboard – often using nothing more substantial than a rope – and navigating through hidden, underwater obstacles to steer the ship to the safety of the harbour where it could be unloaded. As a young adult James left his home and travelled north to Liverpool where he used his navigation skills on the River Mersey. To anyone who is familiar with the beautiful Cornish islands he left behind this might seem like a strange move. However, in the times James lived it would have been an eminently sensible one.
The Isles of Scilly lie in the Atlantic ocean about 28 miles off the south-west coast of Cornwall and consist of five inhabited islands: St Marys, St Agnes, St Martins, Bryher and Tresco, along with numerous, smaller uninhabited islands. They were named by the Romans who called them Sully, meaning The Sun Islands. It is easy to see why. They are blessed with a moderate climate – at least in the spring and summer months – so much so, that in the 19th century the flower growing industry emerged, and thousands of blooms were exported to the mainland every year. In the 1841 and 1851 censuses James’ mother, Elizabeth, gives her occupation as ‘farmer’. It is likely that even if flowers were not her main crop, they were an important one. This industry has taken second place to tourism in recent decades, but is still significant. Although people commonly refer to the islands as the Scillys, the correct terms are either the Isles of Scilly, or just Scilly. Local people are known as Scillonians.
The islands may have been named by the Romans, but they have been inhabited since the Stone Age, and the remains of Stone and Bronze Age houses and burial mounds can still be seen. Those Stone Age people lived by farming, fishing and kelp harvesting, and this way of life continued for many, many centuries. It must have been hard, especially during the winter months when the islands would be lashed by violent Atlantic storms. Bearing that in mind, it isn’t really surprising that many people took advantage of the opportunity to smuggle as a way to supplement a rather basic existence and possibly buy a few luxuries. Their location so far out in the ocean meant that the islands were the first port of call (literally) for many cargo ships, and the illicit trade became a hugely important part of the economy of the islands. One can see how important when one considers that a successful attempt to stamp it out in the early 19th century brought the islanders to the brink of starvation and measures were put in place to provide financial support to the fishing industry as a means of bolstering the economy.
In 1834, life on the islands changed dramatically, and not necessarily for the better. Scilly came under the control of Augustus Smith, self-styled Lord Proprietor. Smith made numerous changes to the islands. Some were for the good, for example; he built new schools (and attendance was compulsory), and a new harbour at St Marys. Other measures were less popular, particularly the eviction of residents to make way for a deer park.
It was around this time that James made the move to Liverpool. Of course, I can not know why he chose to do so, leaving behind his family and the place his ancestors had called home for so many centuries. Maybe, he saw his father risking his life to battle against the Atlantic on a daily basis, and opted for the steady ebb and flow of the Mersey. Maybe, he found life in Scilly too slow, too predictable, and wished to experience the bustle of a busy, prosperous city. Maybe, he saw no place for him in the new Scilly. However, I suspect that James – like so many young people from rural areas today, – realised his future lay elsewhere. The determination and ingenuity that had helped his forefathers (and mothers) survive such a rigorous lifestyle gave him the courage to sail away and travel to a strange (and relatively exotic) city hundreds of miles to the north to seek a more stable and financially secure future. And I’m glad he did, because it was in Liverpool that he met his wife, a young Welsh lass called Margaret Evans, and if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this today.
Photographs courtesy of Wikipedia
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