I’ve come across the same story three times now.
The most recent encounter came because we have just caught up with the new phenomenon of live streaming opera into local cinema. We watched Don Giovanni from the Royal Opera House at the John Whitgift Film Theatre in this parish last week and then Peter Grimes from the English National Opera at the Parkway Cinema in Cleethorpes at the weekend.
The music and plot of Don Giovanni I knew well, but that of Peter Grimes I was only vaguely aware. I discover that Britten was inspired by a poem by Crabbe (who turns out to have been born in Aldeburgh), which I now find includes lines like these
Peter had heard there were in London then –
Still have their being! – workhouse-clearing men,
Who, undisturbed by feelings just or kind,
Would parish boys to needy tradesmen bind;
They in their want a trifling sum would take,
And toiling slaves of piteous orphans make.
Such Peter sought, and when a lad was found,
The sum was dealt with, and the slave was bound.
In the poem, three of Grimes' apprentices then die in quick succession from a variety of maltreatment and neglect. The opera turns on just such a progress.
Reading the poem for the first time this week took me back to my first encounter with the story in Distant Water, CPO Media’s 2011 account of Grimsby’s fishing fleet, which includes this (referring to a period fifty years or so after Crabbe’s poem):
Smack owners began to take advantage of a plentiful source of labour, apprenticing young, poor and underprivileged boys from workhouses, reformatories and charitable institutions across the country, focusing particularly on poverty stricken urban areas... By the 1860s the system begun to attract criticism. Complaints of malnouishment and physical abuse or young fisher-lads was becoming widespread. In 1865... the skipper and first mate of... a Hull fishing smack were prosecuted for the mainslaughter of their 13 year-old apprentice... One of the most controversial aspects of the apprentice system was the number of young boys imprisoned... for refusing to go to sea.
Between first reading Distant Water and reading Crabbe’s poem, I came across one specific example of what appears to be the same story when I was putting together material about those commemorated on our First World War memorials.
The James Rowley of a Reserve Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment buried in St Michael’s churchyard in 1918 was drowned in a bathing accident off Chapel St Leonards, but his father, also called James Rowley, also caught my attention. He appears to have come to Grimsby in just such an apprentice scheme, and then to have worked on the edge of this parish where the things Grimsby wanted to marginalise were situated: Fever Hospital, Night Soil Ground, Pyewipe Chemical Works (sewage) and Oil and Manure works (fish products).
We could track him at ten year intervals in the census returns. In 1871 he is a 7 year old in the Biggleswade Workhouse with his unmarried mother and two younger brothers. In 1881 he is a 17 year old fisherman (aboard the Emma on census day). In 1891 he is 27 and living a short distance from the docks with a young family including four month old son James. In 1901 he is 37 and ‘a general labourer at manure works’. In 1911 he is 47 and had moved a short distance into the terraced housing developing for the first time in Little Coates parish; father and son were both listed as ‘labourer at chemical manufacturer’.