Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
John Wells is a man who enjoys the calm of the evening as the sun sets beyond Maryport harbour “while memories of days gone by return to mind once more”.
Maryport is “the town that refused to die”. As he sees it, “This small but pretty coastal town went into a deep decline, but faith and hope kept it afloat”.
That story is seen in every facet of Maryport’s history. A photograph from 1961 shows the old Ritson shipyard, derelict, desolate, hulks cast up on the mud of the River Ellen alongside decaying sheds where ships where once built.
In contrast, a similar view taken four years ago, shows the wide expanse of the newly-opened Wave Centre and the neat houses in the re-developed harbour area.
Woods Shipyard was the first in Maryport. William Wood launched his first ship, the 106 ton “Brig Sally” on January 19th, 1765. Over a period of ninety seven years, this small family firm built and launched 126 vessels. These vessels, with names like Fortitude, Economy, Delight and Unerigg, plied the coastal trade about the Irish Sea or sailed across the North Atlantic to carry timber from Newfoundland. There were other builders, too. Peats and Isaac Middleton, John Ritson and William Walker. Today, a horse grazes on the bank where the broadside launches took place at high tide.
One Maryport mariner was Captain Robert W. Walker. He was appointed “an advisor on ships, shipping and ship building” to the Mitsubishi Company in Japan and “for ten years taught them the mysteries of navigation and ship handling” and he “stood in to oversee the construction of his first command under the Japanese Rising Sun Flag” in 1878.
The greatest Maryport man with the sea in his veins was Thomas Henry Ismay. He was born in a small terraced cottage in Whillan’s yard off Wood Street. When he died 52 years later, he owned The White Star Line, one of the world’s greatest shipping companies. He never forgot Maryport and set up a fund to distribute coal, blankets and groceries to the old people of his home town at Christmas.
Not all Maryport men were so fortunate. In 1870, the Humberstone, Maryport built, with a Maryport man as her captain, and Maryport men as her crew, went down in the seas off Formosa with the loss of six hands.
In this hold-all of a book, John Wells proudly salvages much of Maryport’s rich heritage. He recalls the twenty-five years that John and Shirley Fisher ran the Navy Club and the time when the people of Maryport took the dolphin, Marra, to their hearts.
Some of Maryport’s characters are remembered. James ‘Jimmy’ Johnson was a great friend who died last year. For him, cycling was his “steak and chips”. Sydney Brand was a war-time poet. Mayport’s sculptor, Colin Telfer , has downed tools because of failing eyesight. Kathleen Wallace, who died at the age of 88 in 2009, was “a woman who championed Maryport”. “From the mid 1940s into the early 1970s English’s café prospered, with Kathleen doing most of the baking and the cooking.” Her life was “devoted to campaigning for what the area deserved”.
Anyone with an affection for Maryport will find this book full of treasures. The wealth of a town is to be found in the quality of its people, and John Wells has a deep appreciation of the people of Maryport, past and present.