A sailor’s life – 3. Cotton, Palmer & Sivell, Ryde 1910
Cotton, Palmer & Sivell’s old forge was still there when I stumbled on it down an alleyway off the High Street in Ryde five years ago. The iron tyring platform, where the great wooden wheels were once rolled out to be shod, is still there in the yard between the smithy and the carriage shed. It is an antiques shop now, selling wardrobes and wooden chests and fancy flat irons, but the former carriage workshop can still be glimpsed between the copper pans dangling among the collectible clutter in the window. It has been converted to a house, a pretty period piece with trailing wisteria and tall windows – light and spacious, and a world away from the narrower, humbler Georgian dwellings along Albert Place that once faced the tall gates of Cotton, Palmer & Sivell’s yard. They are gone now, demolished for a supermarket, and busy shoppers bustle down what is now little more than a shortcut to the High Street, giving the old gates barely a second glance.
Thomas Sivell, son and grandson of George Sivells and father of Bert, was a plain man who lived his life within half a mile of the house where he was born, on a tiny island off the south coast of England, twenty-four miles across. He was a master craftsman, proud of the glossy black broughams and the gigs and the gay little governess carts he built to trot smartly in and out of Ryde, bearing ladies in ankle-length dresses around a world of hats and gloves and parasols.
His own father had followed his father into tin smithing, and then grown as Ryde grew, through bell hanging and gas fitting to his own ironmongery business. George Sivell bought into the houses springing up around him, and by 1910 was a comfy widower with an income supplemented by his rents, and a lodger – a wine merchant’s clerk. The old rogue attended church, as was proper, and even left an illustrated copy of Pilgrim’s Progress to his favourite granddaughter when he died in 1913, but he liked a drink and as a boy Bertie remembered him complaining when his sticks “wouldn’t stand up straight”.
Thomas, his only son, preferred wood to tin and married a “foreigner” – that is, a girl not from the Isle of Wight. (When my father later did the same, my own grandmother – herself a Wight girl – rather tactlessly remarked: “Oh, dear, do you have to?”) Louisa was the daughter of a gentleman’s coachman from Oxfordshire, who had arrived on the Isle of Wight as Cook in the household of an Irish earl and countess. Socially she was a cut above her mother-in-law, who was the daughter of a washerwoman, so although the young couple settled down in a house 300 yards from where Tom Sivell had grown up, in no time at all he had signed the pledge, joined the East Wight masons and become a junior partner in Cotton & Palmer’s coachworks. Bertie, their only child, was born most respectably nine months to the day after the wedding.
But time was against coach builders: by the time Bert was 13, the first of Henry Ford’s Model T “motor cars for the multitude” were rolling off the production lines in Detroit. By 1910, the Isle of Wight County Press was reporting that the General Omnibus company in London was auctioning off its horses to greengrocers, farmers and coal merchants at £10 a head. “About 5,000 horses will be left in the company’s omnibus service, compared with 14,000 employed before motor competition began,” wrote our correspondent that January, and by May the island branch of the Motor Union had 40 members, including Princess Henry of Battenberg, the king’s sister, who made the news pages for pranging a hedge while dodging a chicken on the way to church one Sunday (Princess Henry, not the chicken).
The modern world advanced across the pages of the Isle of Wight Country Press in a trail of motor traffic accidents and speeding fines, but Thomas clung to what Bertie would later call his “wretched Ryde notions”.
Many coachbuilders became garages, turning their skills to the bodywork of the new Tin Lizzies; but not Thomas. He was not interested in engines, and the island was a slow sort of place that only got its first traffic light in 1924. A little red cloth-bound Sunday school prize came to light in Thomas’ house when my grandmother’s effects were cleared three generations later. The book was about the first steam engine, Rocket, and it had been awarded to Thomas when he himself was a boy in 1875, but the story had never been read. Its pages were uncut.