Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Old Greenock Characters

It is very likely that anyone interested in the history of the area will have come across the work of the wonderful John Donald, in particular, his two volumes of gently humourous "sketches" of the waifs, strays and ne-er-do-wells that populated the backstreets and docksides of Greenock at the turn of the 19th Century. The "Old Greenock Characters" books can be found in the Watt Library locally, and occasionally come up for sale online, you can see a video of some of the images here.

Taken alongside Williamson's "Views and Reminiscences of Old Greenock", they vividly bring to life a period in our local past, the ghosts of old characters wander down streets we now barely recognise. Donald does not seek to mock or malign the people he writes about, far from it, but reading from a modern perspective, it's hard to imagine how a book of the "characters" who have lived and died in Greenock over the last fifty years would be viewed so positively. And yet we must all have "characters" that we remember from our own period of growing up...for me, growing up in the seventies and eighties that means "Mandy" Millar, Billy the Bagman and the near mythical Catman...

We bought our copies of "Old Greenock Characters" a few years ago from a second-hand book shop down in London, and were delighted to find "bonus material" inside, a clipping from an issue of the Greenock Telegraph, containing a chapter which Donald had left out of his second collection for reasons of space. We reprinted it in a slightly different format in our book "Downriver"; enjoy the now rather curious sounding tale of "Cockin' Kirsty's Monkey" concerning the unfortunate passing of a local lady's pet monkey named (no kidding) Jacko...

Cockin' Kirsty's Monkey
“Hey, Jamie see yon. Whit’s that wife daein’ ower there?”
Jamie looked.
 “Oh crickey! That’s Cockin’ Kirsty. I think she’s diggin’ a hole; but I canna see richt for thae gracestanes.”
The boy’s, with a few companions, had been playing in the street outside o’ the Old West Kirkyard, when wee Jock, peering through the bars of the iron gate, called Jamie’s attention to the mysterious movements of the lady so rudely alluded to.

Miss Christina McKellar was the more than middle-aged daughter of a deceased shipmaster. She was financially independent and well known in the community by reason of those eccentricities of dress and demeanour which, especially the mincing gait, gave rise to her nickname of “Cockin’ Kirsty.”

The oddness of her attitude, her smirks and smiles of affected cheerfulness, the superficiality of her short primly spoken sentences, led friends and acquaintances to think that she was, as they expressed it, “happy in her own way.” Further thought of her they dismissed with a tolerant smile. No picture occupied their minds of an old maid sitting pensive in a room of her house (furnished comfortably enough) in a poor part of the town- the home of her earliest years, to which she clung for old association’s sake her thoughts drifting back to the mother of whom she could recall only as in a misty dream, to the father who had tenderly cared for and educated her and who had made provision for the material comforts of her later years. She thought of her childhood’s playmates, her schoolfellows, most of whom now enjoy the society of prosperous husbands and devoted children while she-nay, she was not unhappy, for she had her pets and she loved her pets, her canary, her  “wee broon curly dog,” and chiefest joy of all, her monkey. Life without love would rend the heart: she loved her pets and perhaps, after all, she was “happy in her own way.”

Jacko’s Death
But, as the old saying is, “There’s aye trouble rapping at somebody’s door.” Master Jacko sickened and died, to the inexpressible grief of his devoted mistress. With stony face she sat gazing at the lifeless form, never again to caper nimbly in his lady’s chamber. Sorrowfully she recalled his antics and found a sad consolation in the fact that even when he had torn to ribbons her best lace cap she had merely chided, she had not been too severe with him.

Gladly would she sacrifice a dozen laced caps could he but tear them now-now, alas! Dear Jacko’s gambols and tricks were over forever, forever: he must pass out her life, but not from her memory. Sighing heavily, she moved to a chest of drawers from which she took a small bag of nuts, and mourned over her dear one’s favourite food. Her bosom swelled as if the over-burdened feminine heart would break until tears, blessed tears, burst forth for her relief.
“Oh, Jacko, my poor Jacko,” she sobbed.

Now, less such grief should seem misplaced and extravagant, let us remember Charles Reade’s injunction and put ourselves in her place. A warm hearted elderly spinster who, having no human being as the object of her affection, had become attached to the only other occupants of her home, her pets might quite naturally have been grievously affected when death suddenly claimed her greatest favourite.

She mourned secretly. No kind of interment other than in consecrated ground could, it seemed to her confused mind, sufficiently honour the memory of her dead monkey: although she realised that the authorities would certainly forbid such a course of action, while her neighbours would deride it. She, therefore told no one of Jacko’s death, but privately prepared the little body for burial by wrapping it tenderly in a white linen cloth and laying it out in her room table.

The Burial

Mrs Waugh was a respectable widow woman who lived at the foot of Nicolson Street, opposite the gate of the Old West Kirkyard, of which she kept the key, visitors to the Kirk ground were apprised of that fact by a small wooden notice board at her close mouth; and as their gratuities eked out her scanty means the decent woman was very pleased to see them. She opened the door to Kirsty with a smiling face.
“It’s a fine day, Mrs Waugh.”
“Aye, it’s a’ that. Oh, its yersel’, Miss McKellar; ye’re keeping weel, I hope ma’am?”
“Quite well, thank you, Mrs Waugh; and I trust you enjoy good health?”
“I’m won’erfu’, thenk ye, ma’am. The rheumatiz brothers me whiles, but it micht be waur, an’ I hae muckle to be thankfu’ for. But will ye no’ come in ower the door-?”
“Thank you Mrs Waugh,” Kirsty interrupted, “but I called merely to borrow the key of the kirkyard.”
“Shairly, shairly, Miss McKellar; an’ gin you wait a meenit. I’ll gang doon an’ open it for ye.”
This was alarming, for Kirsty McKellar had left the dead monkey and a small spade in an obscure corner at the foot of the stair.
“No, no” she said, hurriedly, “I couldn’t think of troubling you to come down- not at all necessary, I assure you. I can open the gate quite well myself, and I may wish to spend some time in the ground.”
“Weel, well,” returned Mrs Waugh, seeing that Kirsty preferred to be unaccompanied, “here’s the key; an’ ye needna hurry, for it’s no’ likely to be wanted sune.”
Kirsty lost no time in getting down the stair and allowing the remains and spade to lie where she had placed them, crossed the street and soon had the gate open, There was no one about. She quickly went back, returned with the carefully covered body and the spade, locked the gate again, and made her way to the spot she had selected as the most fitting resting place for the remains of her pet.

Sorrowfully, yet with grim, tearless face, she applied the spade. The earth proved to be soft and yielding, she was both surprised and gratified to find that in much less time than she had anticipated a hole of the sufficient proportions for her purpose gaped before her. Kirsty then took the shrouded from and, having reverently placed it in the shallow grave, hastily filled in the earth and hurried from the kirkyard.

The Exhumation

Poor Jacko was not to remain long undisturbed. No sooner had Kirsty disappeared than the boys clambered over the gate (which she had locked after her) and sped to the scene of the recent operations. There was no mistaking the spot and the earth was speedily removed.
“Hallo! What’s this?” cried Jamie as he pulled up the shroud. “Oh crickey! (his favourite expletive). “It’s a monkey: here’s a lark.”
“Wheech?” from wee Jock, who was a bit of a wag. “A beast or a bird?”
“Shut up,” was in only reply Jamie vouchsafed as he caught the monkey by the tail and pulled it out of the hole.
“Come on, boys, we’ll hae some fun wi’ this,” and he darted off with his gruesome plaything to the gate, followed by the other boys, all shouting delightedly as they ran.
And now Jacko performed unconsciously his last acrobatic feat when, to the eager cries of “Ower wi’ him,” his body described a curve in the air and landed on the pavement outside. The boys surmounted the gate and headed by Jamie dragging the dead monkey behind him, started on a madcap run through the streets, their numbers increasing as they ran. Up Nicolson, along West Blackhall and down Westburn Square capered the merry crew. At this point the much begrimed corpse became the central figure of a series of high jinks which were interrupted by the alarm,
“Here’s the skufter cumin’” when “Skeleton” the policeman was descried at a distance.

Off they went again, past Mr Currie’s tripeshop at the corner of Sugarhouse Lane, which gave Jamie a great idea. Off along Crawford Street, down past the sugar stores in Charles Street, always dragging the now nondescript carcass over the cobbles and through the viscous deposits of that thoroughfare, to the corner of Dalrymple Street, they stopped opposite Mirren Paul’s eating-house. It had been Jamie’s original intention to carry on down the West Quay to the riverside, where a final glorious splash might worthily terminate their escapade; but the sight of Mrs Currie’s shop suggested another plan. The buxom figure of that lady in the doorway, however, was a bar to its accomplishment, so he ran on to Mirren Paul’s, where he and his followers paused.

Let us pause, too, for a moment to reflect that in her home, only a few yards away, sat Cockin’ Kirsty, satisfied that she had the day performed a meritorious act in consigning to hallowed earth the mortal remains of her cherished puggy. There, she thought, will Jacko lie in peace, at rest. With what horror would she have regarded the disorderly proceedings of that afternoon had she but known of them! She was mercifully spared the knowledge-and so we leave her, dejected yet complacent.

Mirren Paul had thriving business, and this was one of her busy days- known as “The Clerks’ Pay Day”-when many quill-drivers repaired to Mirren’s to regale themselves a bowl of tripe. In order to adequate supply their wants, the goodwife’s large cauldron was always “on the boil,” as she frequently declared.
Now Jamie and his keelie gang had been waiting and watching for an opportunity, and when Mirren’s back was turned, Jamie darted into the shop, dropped the dead monkey into the seething boiler and darted out again, without being observed.

Mirren came out of the back shop a few minutes later and, peeping into the boiler, was astonished to see a dark coloured amorphous mass slowly revolving among the bubbles of ebullient soup; yet her business instinct enabled her to stifle the scream which would have attracted attention to her mischance. Suspecting the cause, she hurried to the door and looked about her, but nothing unusual was to be seen. The young scamps, probably realising the wickedness of their conduct and dreading the consequences thereof, had all disappeared.

For the rest of the day, in Mirren Paul’s shop, tripe was “off.”

Author’s Note – The main facts of this story were told to me by an aged Greenockian with an excellent memory who died recently.
Certain details are, of course imaginary.    JD                                                      

We'll be looking at the Old Greenock Characters and John Donald again later in the year, in particular, digging out the legend of "Scutcher Dan's Band".

A number of the Old Greenock Characters feature on a graphic by Andy Lee, recently installed at The Dutch Gable House; it shows a few of them congregating on William Street alongside the enigmatic Sir Glen Douglas Rhodes...

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