Agnes Cowper (1874-1963): Introduction


Front cover of Agnes Cowper's Autobiography
Front cover of Agnes Cowper’s Autobiography

A Backward Glance on Merseyside is the autobiography written by Agnes Cowper when she was seventy-five years old. Agnes was born two months premature on the 23rd June, 1874 and surprised the doctor by her determination to live. Agnes grew up in the City of Liverpool and she writes about her childhood there in the 1880s as well as her family and work life.

Her autobiography begins in April 1874 with entries from her mother’s diary. Her mother records her experiences on a sea journey from New Orleans to Liverpool that was carrying cotton and was captained by Agnes’s father. Her mother was around four months pregnant with Agnes at the time and was also caring for her first son Willie. Her mother provides a clear image of the dangers involved in the work at sea, including the strains on the body and mind.

“…on the night of the 23rd it blew one of the most powerful gales imaginable…the sea ran mountains high…the wind drew an iron bolt clean out of the deck, smashed to pieces the carpenter’s bench and did several other acts of damage.”

A birds eye view of Liverpool City Centre taken from a hot air balloon in 1885
A birds eye view of Liverpool City Centre taken from a hot air balloon in 1885

Agnes was a member of a large family, which included: her father and her mother, Matthew and Agnes Cowper, her seven brothers and her only sister, Daisy. Daisy also wrote an autobiography, the details of which can be found using the ‘Authors’ tab at the top of the page.

When Agnes was born, her mother, father and brother Willie were staying in Liverpool. After her birth they decided to stay permanently and purchased a house in Toxteth Park.

Agnes revisits many memories from her childhood including her school life, the Liverpool Exhibition opened by Queen Victoria, family day trips to New Brighton and a visit to the Christmas Grotto at Lewis’s department store. Also, Agnes describes the City of Liverpool in the 1880s. There are images of the City streets lit up by family owned stores and bustling markets. Agnes paints a picture of the darker side of Liverpool too, where barefooted children were abandoned outside thriving public houses and adults would steal clothes from children.

Matthew Cowper was Agnes’s father. Being a sea captain he spent long periods of time away at sea. Upon his returns home, he would bring back gifts from the places he visited. At home Matthew enforced strict rules upon his children. When Agnes was twenty-one years old, her father was lost at sea, leaving her mother to raise her children and provide for them in the best ways that she could. Agnes explains how such losses at sea affected many of the families in her community.

Georges dock 1881

Another family member that Agnes introduces is her brother Willie, who also worked away at sea. At the age of fourteen he was anxious to finish school and become a seaman like his father. Later that year, when he was offered a place on a voyage, he agreed and left straight away, taking with him only the clothes he ‘stood up in’. On his second job at sea, Willie was blinded in one eye.

Agnes left school at the age of fourteen and helped her mother to run the house and the raise the children. In her autobiography, Agnes writes about the different jobs that she had throughout her life, her most favoured was that of the librarian for the Levers Library. There is no record of Agnes ever marrying and in her autobiography she states that she lived with her mother until her mother died in 1930. Agnes was a family orientated person and through her words there is a sense of great love and pride for her parents and siblings.

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