I can’t remember speaking to my grandmother, but I do remember her sitting in the corner of a large sitting room dressed in dark clothes, she seemed incomprehensively old to me, I was five, and she was around eighty years old.
I recall my sense of awkwardness and slight fear of this lady dressed in black. Visits to my grandparents on Oxford Street in Liverpool were rare, but the smell of damp, soot and homemade meals remains, along with a sense of unspoken tension between my parents.
My grandmother died in 1967, and in January 2020, I decided to paint a picture of her life.
Through stories from relatives, family tree research and the stark reality that goes with being an Irish Catholic in North Liverpool, I feel an intense affinity with Sarah M Russell, born on June 26th in 1886. And with only one actual memory, I still have a sense of her.
Between 1845 and 1852 my ancestors first arrived in England from Ireland, they made part of the 1 million people who escaped starvation by fleeing their homeland, that eventually led to a quarter of Liverpool’s population Irish born by 1851.
The new life in the windowless, disease-ridden basements of Liverpool was preferable to the barren homeland. But what comes next to the woman I passed so briefly and would coil away from the sight of her dusty, stiff, black sleeves as she reached out to me – I cannot comprehend.
I feel I must know the story of her life, and how my father came to be born, it’s hard to make sense of my heritage without understanding more about her.
My dad didn’t talk about his mum, the only thing I remember him telling me was that her family name was Russell and she had a previous family, all of whom died. No details, no names, no stories. But I have been digging.
Sarah’s parents, Thomas and Julia Russell (nee Neary) had two other children, a girl Julia and a boy Charles, and they lived at 9A Roe Street near Lime Street Station. Her father Thomas was a ‘licensed luggage porter’, I imagine him touting for business at Lime Street whenever I go there, heaving the cases of the city visitors and taking them to the nearby hotels.
Sarah’s father died in 1896 when she was 14, at the age of 16 she moved to Westmoreland Street (next to Tithebarn Street) with her mother. Her sister Julia was 12 when her father died and went to live with a friend of the family, Sarah O’Malley, as supporting a child alone was difficult enough as a widow, never mind two.
Sarah first married in July 7th 1908, aged 26 to Martin Davitt who came from 21 Adlington Street, they married at Holy Cross Church on Standish Street and lived at 111 Portland Street.
Liverpool Lime Street to the right around 1900 with St Georges Hall to the left. The North Western Hotel just into the right. Is my granddad in this image somewhere? I like to think so.
Over the following years her husband Martin and all her children died as follows:
Michael Davitts – December 17 1909 – 1909 – Died aged 18 hours
Here is his baptism record set out in Latin. Just before Christmas, a dash across the streets to the Church:
Mary Alice 1909 – 1913 – Died aged four years
Julia 1913 – 1914 – Died aged 1
Thomas July 12 1914 – 1918 (the obituary for her husband Martin, says one child and wife left behind when he died in 1917).
By 1918 Sarah was aged 33 having and already had three deceased children with her remaining 4th child passing at aged four shortly after.
My grandma worked as a washerwoman, which led to her meeting my grandad, William McNerney, as she washed the clothes for his household.
They got married March 1921 at the Church of Our Lady of Reconciliation De la Salette on Eldon Street, the same Church where her children were baptised only a few years before. My cousin told me that the priest had said to my grandfather he must marry her as she was visiting to “do the washing” rather too often.
Finally, a chance for a better life once again.
They lived at Eldon Grove, this is where my father was born (named after her father and previous son). She also had three more daughters – Agnes, Mary and Sheila.
When World War II started, I found out from the 1939 registration that they moved to Oxford Street to escape the bombing of the docks. The move served them well as the blitz ending up destroying the entirety of Adlington Street.
For eight successive nights from May 1, 1941, bombs rained down on Liverpool killing 1,746 and injuring 1,154 others. More than 90,000 homes were destroyed or damaged, and 75,000 people were left homeless.
All Sarah’s relatives from her first marriage who lived on Adlington Street sadly died during the air raids.
died 13/03/1941, aged 35.
of 9 Adlington Street. Wife of James Davitt. Died at Adlington Street Shelter.
JAMES ANTHONY DAVITT
died 13/03/1941, aged 9 Months.
of 9 Adlington Street. Son of James Davitt, and of Agnes Davitt. Died at Adlington
died 13/03/1941, aged 45.
Daughter of Thomas and Bridget Brennan, of 70 Bispham Street; wife of Anthony Davitt, of 4 Bispham Street. Died at Adlington Street.
For decades after, Sarah and her family scurried around the rat-infested streets of North Liverpool, scrubbed clothes and steps, carried bags and went to church. They worked and prayed and died.
Even in the year 2020, I noticed large areas of her neighbourhood have never recovered, after more than 75 years, the bomb sites remain, with corner pubs, churches and local landmarks signifying moments in history.
Today, little is remembered about the devasting past except for vague memories, and what’s in the history books, nothing was spoken about within my family, so I yearn to remember what I don’t know. And I think I know the reason as to why my relatives remained silent; not to speak of this barbarism and suffering meant it could stay in the past and protect me from the horror.
And here she is in the picture on the right at my mum and dad’s wedding in 1948. Already an old lady of 62 years, you can see her washerwoman hands with her left hand stiffened into a tight fist, and the wrinkled stocking and sensible shoes.
Sarah McNerney, nee Russell and briefly a Davitt. What stories she could tell me!
Our Lady of Reconciliation de la Sallette, 39 Eldon Place. 1864, Grade 2 listed. Architect E. W Pugin. Designed to seat 1,800 people. The genealogy records the information and I know that the Davitt babies were baptised here but the buildings breathe life into unknown memories. In particular, baby Michael Davitt was rushed to the church for baptism on December 17th 1909. The paperwork to heaven signed by his young father Martin Davitt and his mother not present. He was 18 hours old when his death certificate records his life was over. He was buried along with 10 others recorded on that day at the expanding Catholic Ford Cemetery. Unmarked, unremarkable, unlived.
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