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Uncovering the life of Tom Pender

During his 86 years Kirkdale-born Tom Pender survived a German WW1 u-boat attack on the merchant ship he was working as a fireman stoker, the retaliation of which caused an international outcry; gave a shift of 41 years in Liverpool’s steamship heyday as the tough job of a trimmer and fireman feeding and managing the vast boilers with coal, as so many Liverpool Irish catholics did in the north docklands of Vauxhall, Kirkdale and Bootle; and fathered my gran on my dad’s side out of wedlock, reuniting and eventually marrying the bargee mother when both she and my gran had emerged as inmates from the workhouse and pauper school

Tom was remembered and adored by my Dad Wally as a tough but kind and funny sailor who would enter bareknuckle prize fights on shore, have exotic tales and presents and could recite poetry especially when a bit of drink had passed his lips!

Born in 1875 in Aspinall Street, now a grass area alongside Lambeth Road covered by the Billy Collins playing fields, three of his siblings, Margaret, Thomas and Mary had already died as youngsters living in the courthouse conditions where small houses built off dark, narrow courtyards provided cheap housing for the huge numbers of people moving to the city at this time. Fatal diseases were rife in damp, airless cold environments where one toilet and a water pump was shared between many families. A reconstruction of a Scotland Road district courthouse exists in the Museum of Liverpool.

Tom’s parents had come over from rural County Wexford, his father himself called Thomas Pender hailed from Newbawn and mother Johanna Leary from Ballycullane, and they married in 1865 in Our Lady of Reconciliation which still exists in Eldon Street off Vauxhall Road. The 1871 census shows the family living in a courthouse in Bond Street which ran parallel to Eldon Street, with father Thomas working as a docker.

Patrick the eldest entered the merchant navy as a fireman first, however he contracted scarlet fever while on board and died aged 21 in the North Liverpool Hospital. Tom was 12 at the time and then became the eldest, followed by John, Mary, Robert and Joseph.  All the brothers became fireman on the merchant steamships, but Robert Pender died in an industrial accident in 1919 on board the Otaki which is recorded as bringing meat from New Zealand. As if there’s not enough tragedy, in 1921 John Pender died on the ship ‘Maryland’ docked in Philadelphia due to ‘cyanide gas poisoning during fumigation’. Joseph later became a docker and married Mary Catherine McGrath and they had seven children, four girls and three boys, who mostly stayed in the area.

He was regularly working the furnaces to power vessels to Canada, the USA, South America, The Med and even Australia.

Tom’s sister Mary married into the Murphy’s who had come over from Mullaghbawn in County Armagh and settled in the Scotland Road district and so did brother Robert also marry into that family (the one who later died on the Otaki ship) – so that gave lots of double cousins with many subsequent surnames, especially as Mary produced nine daughters and one son. Apart from son Michael Murphy (who with wife Laura produced 15 children and appeared on the Eamonn Andrews show as a result!), other surnames with area links are the Burns, Cannons, Fogarty’s, Duffy’s, Purcell’s, McKay’s, Herlihy’s, O’Hanlon’s and Hegarty’s. Re-unions take place every three years for the many hundreds who now exist!

The parents who’d come over from Ireland, Thomas and Johanna lived to the ripe old ages of 86 and 81. They died within 7 weeks of each other in December 1926 and February ‘27, ending up in Ford Catholic Cemetery. Also in the family grave are Son Joseph and wife Mary and some of their children and relatives.   

My great grandfather Tom Pender, after a few years working in a Liverpool oil mill, was a fireman stoker from 1898 until 1939, mostly operating from Liverpool but in his last decade of work from Salford docks. He was regularly working the furnaces to power vessels to Canada, the USA, South America, The Med and even Australia. My dad has given me his seaman’s books and they were mostly stamped from the Liverpool dockside Seaman’s Home that stood off Luton Street in Burton Street near Great Howard Street/Boundary Street.

Of stand out note are his entries for working the infamous Empress of Ireland five times, the last one the year before she sank with more deaths than the Titanic.  An amazing entry is the ‘Nicosian’. On 19th August 1915 Tom Pender survived being caught up by German U Boat 27 in the Irish Sea while returning from New Orleans on merchant vessel Nicosian. The ship was transporting hundreds of mules to Europe to be used by the Allies in the trenches.

Tom Pender Maggie with her three sons

It’s sobering to think my family’s Tom surviving being cast adrift on a lifeboat while torpedo and artillery shells slammed all around and the Germans were wiped out by a disguised Royal Navy ship in an incident that caused an international diplomatic spat. ‘The Baralong Incident’ has been described in a couple of books by Alan Coles and Tony Bridgland as a war crime unparalleled in the history of the Royal Navy. But let’s not forget the context of it being just a few months after the Lusitania had been sunk with many hundreds of women and children killed, and many male crew from Liverpool.

In our family history, we knew Tom was involved in a horrific incident at sea during WW1, but speaking recently to my Father Wally and Auntie Sue they say that he never wanted to talk about it because he was ‘sworn to secrecy’. He wasn’t lying there! The merchant vessel Nicosian was re-named by the Government and the crew were meant to hand in their discharge record books. Tom didn’t, and it’s thanks to this maverick lack of action that I could trace the war ordeal he didn’t wish to speak about. My gran Maggie Ashcroft (nee Pender) tried a number of times to get to the bottom of the story choosing moments when much drink had passed Tom’s lips, but no matter how intoxicated, he always used the same deflection technique, quoting word perfectly every verse of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem ‘The Raven’.

In our family history it had been assumed that Tom had an affair that led to my gran Maggie being born. However, I’ve since found out by trawling through census, workhouse Asylum Hospital and pauper school records, that Tom was seeing a barge woman, Esther Pedder, while her husband, from another barge family, was in Rainhill Asylum Annexe, Eccleston, Whiston as a ‘lunatic’ inmate having been placed there in 1903 after doing yet another stint in Walton Prison. My gran’s stepfather never got out of Rainhill, apart from a one-time escape bid for a couple of hours when he reached Prescot, and he died there in 1915. My gran was born Margaret Pender in 1907 in 55 Athol Street between the docks and the top of Scottie Road. Sadly, at the formative age of 2 and a half, she was taken from a nearby Titchfield Street address and accompanied her mum to the dreaded Brownlow Hill Workhouse which stood on the site now occupied by the Catholic Cathedral.

They were separated six months later and Maggie was sent with her two half-brothers and half-sister to be an ‘inmate’ at Olive Mount’s Garden Cottage school for pauper children, while her mother continued in the workhouse. Luckily Olive Mount was a progressive school and she looked fondly back at it. 

Tom Pender with W11 Medal

Esther was pregnant when admitted to the Brownlow Hill and she gave birth to baby Winifred at Highfield Hospital, Knotty Ash before both returning to the workhouse. On the birth certificate she falsified the father as her husband (who was in Rainhill at the time) but put the occupation as Tom’s! Baby Winifred died in the workhouse in 1914 at age 3.

My gran, her half-siblings and mother came out of the institutions in 1915 and moved to St Helens where Tom had been living for several years in the Boundary Road area with its streets of miners and glassworkers around the corner from the town’s Irish Greenbank district of industrial workers too. Tom fathered a Richard Pender in 1916 and a year later actually married Esther, but I think it was a ‘maverick sailors’ type of arrangement because he was always going missing or staying at other peoples places, including bedding down in my father’s bed on occasion who also had to share it with my Uncle Doug!

Tom eventually separated from Esther and moved to a sailor’s institute and lodgings in Salford and in the last ten years of his working life in the 30s he was a fireman on the ships that used the Manchester Ship Canal to Mersey route. He died in 1961 and when I found his grave in Salford’s Catholic Cemetery he was buried in a paupers plot together with 30 others – however only his record number was on the gravestone but no other details so we had his name and dates rightfully engraved.

Tom’s daughter, my Gran, married Ernest Ashcroft, from a mining family living in Devon Street in 1930 because she fell pregnant after a ‘consensual’ incident in a back entry. Maggie claimed she didn’t know what was happening, but has laughingly told her daughter (my Auntie Sue) how she fell in love with his eyes but was shocked when he pulled his trousers down and he had black legs! Because Ernie worked down the pit, and they hadn’t then become nationalised with mod con showers, he’d only bothered to scrub the coal dust from his face and hands!

Maggie and my Auntie Sue used to travel from St Helens every weekend to visit Paddy’s and the Cazneau Street market, a fascinating place now trashed by the Kingsway Tunnel, but although I found it characterful, I was less happy about the clothes bought from there that me and my brother were made to wear – we mostly ended up looking like a cross between the Rhinestone Cowboy and Liberace!

Tom Pender's sailors home on Luton Street