Growing up, actor Sue Johnston was “inordinately fond” of her train driver grandfather, Alfred Cowan. Yet, she says at the start of her episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, he could be “distant” and, more than 30 years after his death, she thinks of him as a “mass of contradictions”. Adding another layer of mystery, the family speaks of Alfred being educated by a governess, which hardly suggests a typical working class upbringing. So who was the real Alfred Cowan?
Sue starts her research at the National Railway Museum in York. It’s here the Flying Scotsman now resides and Sue thinks Alfred may have driven the famous engine, which could travel at 110mph. Disappointingly, this proves to be a family myth, but the truth is just as fascinating in its own way.
According to union records, Alfred joined the railways at the comparatively late age of 21. It was an era when engine drivers were considered working class aristocracy, a position that had to be earned. Alfred began as a cleaner, stripping the soot and dirt from engines, before becoming a fireman, a backbreaking job that involved shoveling tons of coal each trip. Only then could he be promoted to driver.
But what did Alfred do before he joined the railways? The 1901 census records provide some clues. Alfred previously worked as a shipbroker’s clerk. Suddenly, tales of a family feud start to make sense to Sue. When he came of age, Alfred turned his back on a white-collar job with good prospects. This chimes strongly with Sue’s own experiences because, also aged 21, she quit the safety of the civil service for drama school, falling out with her parents in the process.
Alfred compounded matters by marrying working class Margaret Lacey. Rather pointedly, Sue’s great grandfather James is described as a “gentleman” on his son’s 1909 marriage record. By now, Sue doesn’t think too kindly of her great grandfather, who’s beginning to emerge as something of a snob.
However, as Sue continues her research, this assessment softens. According to one of Sue’s cousins, James was the stationmaster at Carlisle, a grand image. In fact, James never got the top job, but began work at the station as a porter in 1856 before rising to become second assistant platform superintendent in 1861.
James, who was born in Scotland in 1825, endured tough times along the way. With his first wife, Jane Harrison, he lived in The Lanes, a notorious slum area of Carlisle. Aged just 35, Jane died of tuberculosis and her husband witnessed her passing. He also lost three of his four children from his first marriage at young ages. James was present at each of their deaths.
But things did get better. The 1871 census shows James living in a rented townhouse and employing a domestic servant. He had re-married, to Sue’s great grandmother Elizabeth Atkinson, in 1866 and the couple had six children together. James had become a comparatively well-to-do gentleman.
Perhaps realising he’d never get the top job at Carlisle Citadel station, James quit after 25 years for the hotel industry. He first becomes an hotelier at the Station Hotel in Workington, then a boomtown because of the railways. He went on to manage the bigger and grander Globe Hotel.
Sue now thinks she understands why her grandfather and great grandfather fell out. James worked hard to climb the social ladder and to escape the Dickensian poverty of The Lanes. His youngest son’s decision to work on the railways must have seemed like a slap in the face. While she once thought of James as “ambitious” and “pompous”, Sue now says, “Because he’s had such tragedy in his life, I can almost forgive him anything.”