John Brook 1821-1899
Geneology is a funny old thing. You never know where a nugget of information is going to appear, that little extra something that brings your ancestor to life, as it were, suddenly giving you a much clearer picture of how life was for them.
And so it was with John Brook, who was the husband of my fifth great aunt Ann Swift. He and his family lived in Mirfield (as so many of that branch of the family did!), and he, his father Joseph and his brother Thomas all worked as watermen.
This intrigued me - I wanted to know what exactly they did. After various fruitless searches on Google, I hit the jackpot - a mention not just of what water-based jobs there were in Mirfield at the time, but a small piece actually featuring John Brook!
Taken from Pobjoy's History of Mirfield (now out of print, but available for download), it reads: “John Brooke was a barge man who usually plied between Brighouse and Goole, with flour on the outward journey, and grain on the return. This meant Mr and Mrs Brooke living on board sometimes for weeks on end, their children at their Low Littlemoor house being looked after by their elder daughter Ada.
"Later John became a ferryman at Battyeford, before the Ha-penny Bridge was erected there, plying across the river in a small boat holding from four to six. Motive power? An endless rope worked by hand on pulleys. On the completion of the bridge John became the keeper of Battye Lock, sleeping in a little brick cabin, at home only at week-ends."
The piece, and various websites which quote it, also include this photo. Sadly it is not captioned, but it seems likely that the ferryman pictured is John Brook.
I am so pleased to have found this. It tells me so much more about my fifth great aunt and her family. I can imagine her and her husband travelling up and down the canals. No doubt it was hard work - I have heard stories of bargemen's wives pulling the boat along in some place, harnessed up like a horse. It would certainly have often been cold, wet and miserable too. But I like to think there were also days like today, where the sun was shining and they got the opportunity to admire the scenery and the wildflowers blossoming along the canal banks.
I'm not sure how Ada could have looked after the children as she was, according to the censuses of the time, the youngest but one. However this reminiscence came from her brother George, so maybe despite her young years she still took on the role of mother when her parents were away.
And I think that being keeper of the lock must have been quite a nice job to do in your later years. Still hard work, but perhaps John Brook had the chance to sit outside his little brick cabin, pipe in hand, reflecting on his life on the water. Yes, a bit of shameless romanticism, but nice to indulge in inbetween the tragic stories that we so often come across.
Anyone else interested in Mirfield's history can view and download A History of Mirfield by H N Pobjoy here: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B9sDypJpJzRCZUlHbE05enQzdFE/edit. There are also several websites, and a Facebook page, devoted to the town's past.