by Francis Boyce
Some years before his death my Uncle Harry who died at the age of 93, gave precise instructions to his family about the disposal of his remains after his demise.
A conventional church burial and internment were strictly forbidden. Harry insisted that his body was to be cremated. However, this did not mean that the family could scatter his ashes around the Leed’s equivalent of the ‘Whispering Happy Glades Memorial Gardens’. He decreed that his final resting place must be the River Mersey, with his ashes sprinkled on its waters from the deck of a Mersey Ferry, preferably
‘The Royal Daffodil’, somewhere between the Landing Stage and New Brighton.
Harry’s request caused a few murmers of discontent in the family. Although born in Liverpool, he’d spent his working life in Leeds where he’d married and raised his children. ‘Why take his ashes to Liverpool?’ one asked. ‘It’s seventy miles away! Would the ferry people agree to such aan eccentric request?’ But, as in life so in death, Harry had his way, and on a cloudless but icy Sunday morning in January, a group of family and friends boarded the ‘Royal Daffodil’ at the Pier Head to commit Harry’s ashes to the welcoming waters of the River Mersey.
I write ‘welcoming waters’ because in spite of his long estrangement from the city, Harry never lost his love for Liverpool. The Mersey was HIS river. In his childhood imagination the ferries were his Cunard Liners that took him on Sunday afternoons away from the congested streets of the docklands where he lived, ‘over the water’ to New Brighton, to enjoy its wonders and delights: its outdoor fair, its Victorian Tower, its outdoor swimming pool and the sandy shore that stretched from Seacombe to Fort Perch Rock and its lighthouse.
During his ‘teen years he walked the two mile promenade that led from Seacombe to New Brighton, marvelling at the shipping that packed the river: cargo boats belching smoke, tall ships waiting for the tide to turn, and Atlantic liners, their decks crammed with wealthy passengers bound for New York. Before him lay the wondrous buildings that lined the Pier Head: the docks, the warehouses and beyond as far as the heights of Everton.
I began to learn of Harry’s love affair with the Mersey and the port during his later years. After a long silence between us he phoned one evening to ask, ‘Are the Philistines destroying more of the city’s buildings and the docks?’
This led to my wife and I making frequent visits to him, and during several pub lunches and pints of Guinness, we listened to his boyhood memories of living in Liverpool. He spoke as if he was still a fifteen year old discovering the river and the city for the first time. ‘I heard the sounds from the river long before I saw it’, he told us with mounting enthusiasm. ‘There was the haunting sounds of fog-horns and ships’ sirens as the river pilots manoeuvred their vessels between the river and the docks.’ If he stood tip- toe to look through his bedroom window he could see ships’ masts and smoking funnels passing on their way to the Princes Dock.
Harry and his parents lived in Nightingale Square, a property condemned as unfit for human occupation long before he’d been born. But, as he pointed out to us, ‘Part of Liverpool’s commercial history and success in the nineteenth century were rooted in that area’. Giant warehouses and stables darkened the narrow cobbled streets of his neighbourhood. There was a web of factories emitting their sickening pollution into the air. There was the early morning ebb and flow of men and women hurrying to and from work at the sugar refinery, the tobacco factory, and the docks, not to mention carters yards and small businesses all contributing to the infrastructure of the
port, then acclaimed as ‘Gateway of the Empire’
Over the years he’d lived in Leeds, Harry had kept his memories alive by drawing sketches of key places from his neighbourhood and by collecting books and photographs. He had framed pictures of Scotland Road and ‘Paddy’s Market’ and of the Canal where he’d swam naked with his school mates. There was his sketch of the Pier Head buildings with passengers queuing for the ferries to Dublin and Belfast. He had a copy of Melville’s novel’ Redburn’ ‘The best read ever about Liverpool’ he claimed.
Through the intercom the Captain explained that a short ceremony was about to take place. As the Royal Daffodil approached Seacombe he sounded the ship’s siren, and the ferry heaved-to. There was a minute’s silence. Then we sprinkled Harry’s ashes from the ship’s bow and watched them float on the unusually calm waters of the Mersey.
For what seemed like an age, We continued to watch as they floated downstream towards the sandy beaches of Harry’s beloved New Brighton.