The actor Ricky Tomlinson has one simple question as he sets out to trace his father’s family: “Who were the Tomlinsons?” It’s a question rooted in regrets over not asking his dad – Albert, who was just 55 when he died – about the family’s story.
The answer to the question involves a journey through Liverpool’s 19th-century history. Ricky’s first information arrives via a meeting with his brother, Albert, who has a copy of their grandfather’s death certificate. This reveals that Richard Tomlinson was born c1886. Armed with this clue, Ricky is able to trace his family back to his 3x great-grandfather, Richard Tomlinson.
The men of Ricky’s family worked as carters. This means they took charge of the horses and carts that were vital to transporting goods around Liverpool at a time when the city was a bustling port.
As a former plasterer and a union organiser, Ricky is delighted to be related to “grafters” instead of the great and good: “I’d rather be descended from a carter, kid, than from royalty,” he jokes.
Ricky found out what it would have been like to work as a carter in 19th-century Liverpool
What were the working conditions like for carters? An encounter with Ruby, a shire horse, brings home to Ricky just how big and powerful these animals are – and potentially dangerous.
Richard was killed after being crushed between one of his own carts and a “lorry”. Richard’s son, William, died when he was just 40, another man crushed while working. “They were just disposable, weren’t they?” says Ricky of the carters.
His outrage only grows when he learns that William was subjected to an illegal post-mortem at a time when surgeons struggled to find cadavers to help with training, and that William was buried in a pauper’s grave even as Liverpool boomed. “Land of hope and glory, my arse!” he exclaims.
Ricky learned that his great great grandmother managed to keep the family together, despite horrendous poverty
Ricky’s attention next turns to William’s wife, Mary. How did she cope after her husband’s death? A story of struggle emerges. The 1861 census shows Mary living in court housing. These were small, overcrowded dwellings separated by narrow courtyards and where tens of residents shared toilets. Ricky: “It’s a ghetto, isn’t it?”
In 1859, she lost her young son, one of seven children. Later, two of her children were sent to Kirkdale Industrial School, a workhouse.
Yet there is a happy ending of sorts here. Mary remarried, had three more children and, in 1884, when her son Richard Tomlinson married, his half-brother William was among the witnesses. This suggests the family stayed together despite suffering terrible hardships.
Towards the end of his family history journey, Ricky discovered that his grandfather would have been involved in strike action at the turn of the 20th century
So did Richard, Ricky’s great grandfather, fare any better? Researching his story, Ricky learns that, towards the end of the Victorian era, the carters began to be unionise, which would have helped them improve working conditions.
Less happily, this was a time of religious divides in Liverpool. While the carters were largely Protestant, for example, the dockers were largely Catholic, one of the divides that lay behind sectarian unrest in the city.
Looking back at what he’s discovered, Ricky is proud of his working class Scouse roots. “I love the city and I love the people,” he says, “I don’t want to live anywhere else.”