The fundamental theme that runs throughout Agnes Cowper’s autobiography, A Backward Glance on Merseyside, is that of family. Her mother, father and older brother Willie, moved to Toxteth Park, Liverpool in 1874 just a few months before Agnes was born. Agnes devotes a large proportion of her autobiography to discussing her family members. It seems that the events that occurred throughout her life were always linked in some way to her family.
The head of the Cowper family was Agnes’s father, Matthew Cowper. Matthew was born in 1836 and was fourteen years older than his wife, Agnes Elizabeth Cowper. The third chapter of Agnes’s autobiography is dedicated to her father and is entitled ‘Early Recollections of a Sailor Father’. Agnes writes that her father was a ‘clever seaman’ who at the age of twenty-eight was a sea master and acquired the rank of Commander in the R.N.R. Matthew was also fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, German and French. Being a seaman, Matthew spent long periods of time away from his family. Agnes wrote:
This bearded and whiskered stranger soon evolved into a jolly playmate known as ‘Papa’. To us, as children, he was an affectionate and fond father, but as we grew up he proved himself to be a strict disciplinarian demanding and obtaining from each of his seven sons implicit obedience and deep respect.
Agnes believed that her father had no understanding of children because he had little experience of home life. Matthew’s father was lost at sea and his mother died shortly after, leaving him an orphan at the age of eight. Agnes reflects that her father only raised his hand to her once for being out spoken. She explains that in Victorian homes, children should be seen but not heard.
When Matthew was home from sea, he treated his children with days out that usually took place on Saturdays. He would walk them through the City of Liverpool, visiting the Walker Art Gallery, the Museum and then to Noblett’s Toffee Shop on London Road to buy Everton Sweets and Peardrops. Before home, they would go through Lime Street and watch a performance of Punch and Judy. In 1895, Matthew Cowper was lost at sea. Agnes wrote:
My mother had lost an affectionate and faithful husband, and her children a father who although not an indulgent one, looked well after his family both morally and physically.
Agnes’s mother told her that Matthew had proposed marriage to her on Richmond Hill with a quotation from Othello. Agnes Senior was the home-maker and she raised her children whilst Matthew was away at sea. Agnes noted in her autobiography that when her father was away there was a more relaxed atmosphere in the household. Agnes Senior respected her husband as the head of the family and rarely criticised his judgement or discipline. Agnes wrote:
My mother would not think of purchasing the more ornate non-essential [furniture] without the advice and, in her opinion, the superior judgement of her husband.
Agnes had a close relationship with her mother and they lived together until Agnes Senior died in 1930. There was a strong bond between them of affection and understanding and Agnes cared for her mother throughout two years of illness prior to her death.
Agnes believed that her eldest brother Willie was the child closest to their mother’s heart, claiming that they were alike and had a strong mutual understanding. Willie also had his mother’s best interests at heart. Being the two oldest children in the family, Willie and Agnes also had a good relationship. She writes of the joy and happiness she felt on his return home from his first sea voyage. At the age of 29 William Cowper died in Cape Town, Africa after attempting to save another person from drowning. Agnes recalled that the pain and the grief was overwhelming at the loss of a brother nearest to their hearts.
In the Cowper household, Agnes was of the minority sex. When Agnes was born, her mother was disappointed that her second child was a girl. This disappointment soon vanished when she gave birth to six more boys and finally, a welcomed second daughter, Daisy. Agnes recalls a day prior to her father’s final voyage when he called each son into a room individually, to speak in private. When Agnes asked if she needed to speak to him too, he said no. She later found out that her father had made each son promise to make their mother their number one priority. Also, unlike her brothers, Agnes was not allowed to go out and work when she had completed school and instead worked in the home helping her mother raise the children.
Despite their humble background, the Cowper children went on to lead interesting lives. Willie followed in his father’s footsteps and worked at sea. John and Ernest emigrated to Canada whilst Harry (Timmy) often travelled to and from New York. Agnes’s sister Daisy became a teacher and she also wrote an autobiography. Information about Daisy’s autobiography can be found using the ‘Authors’ link at the top of the page.
Resources and Links
- Swift, Roger. Victorian Chester: Essays in Social History, 1830-1900. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1996.