The Shoemaker’s Son
AUTHOR: WILLIAM ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 19 JUNE 2022
If you have been following the story of Robert Collier on the London Overlooked website, you will remember that Part One explored his difficult life as a poor boy from the slums of St Pancras, while Part Two investigated his fraught relationship with his father. You will also remember that he was encouraged to make something of himself by Martin Ware, a teacher at the Brunswick Street Ragged School, and that he had taken a first step towards controlling his own destiny by enlisting in the Royal Navy. From various sources — entries in Ware’s detailed journals, for example, and letters Robert wrote to his benefactor — we know that in January 1863 he was sent on board the training ship HMS Fisgard at Woolwich. He was about fifteen or sixteen years old.
Robert’s training on the Fisgard as a ‘Boy 2nd Class’ would have included specific skills such as furling and setting sails, rowing a longboat, heaving the log, sewing and knotwork. But the possibility of being caught up in engagements with hostile vessels was never far away, and he would also have been instructed in the use of weapons. More general accomplishments would have been acquiring agility in climbing rigging and developing the sea legs that separate the true sailor from the landlubber. Some of the training would have entailed going off in brigs on short trial voyages.
My best respects
A year later in 1864 Robert was on board HMS Prince Consort, a steam-propelled warship named — renamed, in fact, from HMS Triumph — in honour of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who had died late in 1861. Robert’s experience of life at sea cannot have been without its complications, for the Prince Consort suffered from a tendency to roll at sea, a problem that was endemic in ships of its type, namely the wooden-hulled iron-clads.
The Prince Consort was in any case described in reports as ‘a comparatively inferior performer’ and ‘slow under sail’. She had in fact almost come to grief on her first outing, which was before Robert’s time in 1862. While sailing through the Irish Sea, bound for Liverpool, she had run into a gale. Owing to the fact that she had been fitted with small scuppers, she took on more water than she could efficiently discharge and all but foundered.
From the letter he wrote to Ware in January 1865 it is evident that Robert was quickly gaining valuable experience, for in a trial voyage in the summer of 1864 the Prince Consort had sailed down to Lisbon with the Channel Squadron, the formation of warships whose primary role was to defend English waters. He noted with some pride that they had got down to Portugal in about five days, but he also raised two matters that had upset him. The first was the death of his former schoolmate Charles Clayton, who, as we saw in Part Two, had died recently in a fall from scaffolding. He was saddened by the news, which Ware must have communicated to him, and asked that his ‘best respects’ be given to Charles’s parents.
A floating prison
The other matter on Robert’s mind was the whereabouts of his brother William, who seemed to have disappeared off the scene. Ware must have detected genuine concern in Robert’s letter, for he made enquiries and learnt a certain amount from the parents of the unfortunate Charles Clayton. As we saw in Part One of the story, William had enlisted in the army but had deserted, not wanting to leave the young girl he had been living with. What Robert would have thought of this we just do not know, but he was no stranger to the demands of life in the services, and the following year he too deserted.
On finding out about Robert’s desertion, Ware made a terse entry in his journal, recording the fact without any attempt to account for it. In a third letter, written in March 1865, Robert again asked after William, and Harry too, and there can be little doubt that their absence from his life was a source of sadness. He begged Ware to ask them to get in touch: the last time he had heard from them was well over a year ago. Now that both their father and their mother were dead, they were the only family he had. Sitting below deck on the Prince Consort, trapped as it were in his floating prison, he must have felt desperately lonely, and it is tempting to believe that it was this that eventually drove him to desert.
Now the army
The fact is that Robert could have deserted for any one of several reasons. But he was not out of uniform for long and in 1867 he enlisted again, only this time he chose the army over the navy, signing up for twelve years’ service as a private in the 11th Hussars.
His enlistment papers have preserved a few physical details, enough at any rate for us to form an impression in our mind’s eye. He was five feet six inches in height and thirty-four inches round the chest. He weighed a little over ten stone and could boast good muscular development. He had a fresh complexion, brown hair and grey eyes. He had no distinguishing marks: no blemishes, or scars, or tattoos that would make him stand out from the crowd. He described himself as a shoemaker by trade.
Nothing to show
He also declared that he had been serving with the Royal Elthorne Militia, a light infantry unit based in Uxbridge, but had been given his discharge. In 1877 he re-enlisted in the Hussars with the intention of extending his initial service to the full twenty-one years. Meanwhile his association with the sea refused to go away, for he travelled with his regiment to India, and it was noted in his army records that he was in Ambala, in the Punjab, for a number of years. By the time he returned to England, which was at the beginning of 1878, he held the rank of sergeant. He was now about thirty.
In spite of his promotion there is little to suggest that Robert’s army career was in any way distinguished. He was credited in his records with ‘regular habits’ and ‘good conduct’, but so were all soldiers who had not blotted their copybook. He won neither medals nor decorations, which is hardly surprising as he did not take part in any campaigns. He had no wounds to show off, no tales to tell of gallantry on the field of battle. His education was as rudimentary when he left the army as it had been when he joined.
In uniform still
In the end he was discharged from the army on medical grounds, suffering from a fracture that had twice landed him in hospital. By this time — the year was 1884 — he was married and living in Liverpool. As for employment, he followed a route taken by many ex-servicemen by joining the Corps of Commissionaires, and we find him working in this capacity right to the end of his life.
The Corps of Commissionaires had been founded in 1879 when a Captain Sir Edward Walter recognised the need to give purposeful employment to ex-soldiers who had seen action in the Crimean War. Thereafter it afforded all veterans of the armed forces help in adjusting to civilian life, and the uniformed commissionaires became a familiar sight in hospitals, at the doors and gates of government buildings and other work premises, and among the crowds thronging the exhibitions that were a regular feature of Victorian life. Arthur Conan Doyle included a commissionaire in more than one of his Sherlock Holmes stories, and illustrations of these characters by Sidney Paget give us a fair idea of the Robert Collier who in the 1891 census was employed as a gatekeeper, now in his forties and still in uniform.
Putting down roots
In 1880, at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Aldershot, Robert had married a young woman of much the same age by the name of Emily Scott. They lived for a while in the quarters for married soldiers in Sandhurst, but before long they moved first to Leeds and then, as we have seen, to Liverpool. There Emily gave birth to the first of their children, a girl who was baptised Kathleen Frances Emily Collier.
Kathleen had two brothers, Joseph Henry Collier and William Scott Collier, who were two years and four years her junior. Both seem to have had military experience: we can be pretty certain that Joseph served in the First World War as a merchant seaman, and reasonably certain that William fought in the same conflict with the East Lancashire Regiment. Both survived.
Alas, Kathleen was not so fortunate, and in 1901, at the tragically young age of eighteen, she died of tuberculosis. Her death must have been doubly unbearable for Robert, for in 1894 Emily too had died. The cause of death was given as cirrhosis of the liver, probably but not necessarily the result of a chronic drink problem. Mother and daughter were buried in the same cemetery in Toxteth Park in Liverpool, the city that Robert Collier, once a young overlooked Londoner, had made his home.
Robert himself did not long survive the death of Kathleen and in the late summer of 1902 he died in the Royal Southern Hospital in Liverpool. He was fifty-three years old and had been vomiting blood. At his side in his final hours was his son William, who one hopes brought him comfort and maybe also the affection that was so conspicuously absent from his own relationship with his father, the shoemaker of St Pancras. William had also been at his sister’s side when she died, just as Robert had sat with their mother all those years ago as she faded and finally slipped away.
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