Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Benjamin and Susan Rowe of Newlyn: from fishing to baking

Benjamin ‘Ben’ Jaco Rowe, my great-great-grandfather, was a Cornishman who was born, lived and died in Street-An-Nowan area of Newlyn, Cornwall, England.  However as a fisherman he roamed much further afield.

Born in 1860, Ben was still a scholar in 1871, but by 1881, aged 21, was working as a fisherman.  In July 1884 he married 19-year-old domestic servant called Martha Jane Laity Quick from neighbouring Mousehole in 1884, up on the hill above Newlyn at the parish church at Paul. 

Newlyn Harbour, by Tim Green, Flickr
On 29 June 1885 he would have been involved in the huge celebrations for the ceremony of the layout of the foundation stone of the new Newlyn south pier (shown here on the right with the light-house).  The story reporting the celebration is the longest I have come across in the Cornishman and details the many decorations along the way of the procession which walked for a mile from Penzance. The stone itself was laid by Charles Campbell Ross, the Conservative MP for St Ives and several-time Mayor of Penzance, was invited to lay this stone. The north pier is the one on the left in the photo and was built in 1888.

Mr Ross’ home has now become the Morrab Library and Morrab Gardens.  The Morrab Library is an independent library, and satisfyingly is home to a large genealogy and history archive which I had already planned to visit later this summer when I should be down in Newlyn & Penzance.

Ben’s young wife Martha died three years after their marriage in summer 1887 aged only 22; I can’t be sure without the actual certificates but I believe they had a daughter, named Martha for her mother, who was born and died in late 1886.

Ben was alone until 1891, when he married his second wife, Susan ‘Susie’ Sullivan of Newlyn, just before Christmas 1891.  Her father Henry, variously described as a fisherman and a shoemaker – possibly both depending on opportunity - had died before she was five years old.  Her mother, also called Susan, had been a teacher when Susie was young; Susie had worked as a domestic but later worked with her mother and two sisters hawking fish.

Susie, my great-great-grandmother, was a few years older than Ben, being 36 to his 31 when they married.  Perhaps she had thought she may have, well, missed the fishing boat when it came to marriage and family, but their oldest daughter was born in late spring 1893. The baby was named Susan for her mother and grandmother and also became known as Susie.

12 November 1894 saw huge flooding in Newlyn. The flood waters washed away a bridge, and people were being rescued from their upstairs windows into boats.

In May 1896 there was rioting in Newlyn, as fishermen took action after ‘Yorkies’ (Lowestoft men) tried to unload in Newlyn on the Sabbath. As there was such a strong Methodist & non-conformist community local men did not fish on Sundays but the men from the east [of England] were getting better rates for their Sunday catches than the local men during the week. Penzance men supported the Lowestoft fisherman, and there were 3 days of rioting which was suppressed with solders and a naval boat entering the harbour and threatening to destroy Newlyn men’s boats. The riots stopped but a civil campaign was put in place and the situation was eventually resolved with a solution that neither side liked but both worked with. Further info on the Newlyn Riots.

That same summer, three years after baby Susie was born, her younger sister Catherine, my great-grandmother, arrived into the world on 10 July 1896.

Newlyn Harbour present day, Tim Green, Flickr
On 2 September the following year the Cornishman newspaper reports good line fishing from Newlyn pier and also good catches of mackerel.  Immediately underneath that report is a story about Prince Bendon cycling up the very steep hill in Newlyn.  Prince who!?  Turns out Prince Bendon, real name William John Bendon, was a Devon-born ventriloquist who went on to make a career in the Scottish cinema industry, one aspect of which saw him establishing the first film rental company there. If Ben wasn’t at sea perhaps he, Susie and the girls was in the crowd as:

“the hill was alive with people, who so crowded the rider that his task was rendered more difficult than it would otherwise have been.  The feat was a remarkable one and satisfied the spectators.  Twice the rider had to dismount on account of his chain slipping, but he made the ascent dexterously and descended without a mechanical break.  He used his foot as a break in his descent.” [The Cornishman]

Although for a long time Bendon had been based in Glasgow, it looks like that was the year that he travelled to London to look at including films in his act so this sounds like a great publicity stunt; maybe he was touring around and happened to be in the Newlyn area.

Wolf Rock Lighthouse, Paul Gillard, Flickr
On 30 April 1898, with Catherine under two years old and young Susie only five, Ben was out fishing in his boat, the Eleanor.  As ‘the mackerel do not approach the Cornish shore... the boats go long distances in search of big shoals of fine fish’ [Royal Cornwall Gazette]. The Eleanor was one of several boats caught by a bad storm in the west near the Wolf Rock with its lighthouse, 8 nautical miles off Lands End. While others made it to safety in the Isles of Scilly or headed back to Mounts Bay, the Eleanor went missing overnight with ‘five married men and a boy on board’ as reported as far away as Aberdeen [Aberdeen's People Journal].

One can only imagine the strength and determination of both Ben and the crew, as they fought the wrath of the storm out near the Wolf Lighthouse, and of Susie as she waited for news of her husband, with her daughters by her side, sick to her stomach.  What relief when the news came in on the 1st May that the Eleanor and her crew had survived. Her own childhood without her fisherman father must have been very much on her mind.

Benjamin was still working on the Eleanor in 1905, but following the death of his father that year either his heart wasn't in it, or things weren't working out financially, and by 1911 he was working as a baker in Newlyn.

Family tradition goes that he saved the life of an Italian man who gave him a recipe for ice-cream, and he sold it in his shop in small quantities in addition to bakers’ wares.  Although Susie was very soft hearted and would give away sweeties to children, they made a good living.

In 1819 they became grandparents when Catherine’s oldest child, Mary, was born.  However, tragedy struck the family in 1920 when their older daughter Susie died, aged only 27.

Ben and Susie lived on together until November 1938, when Ben died suddenly at home and was described in the intimation as ‘one of the best’.  The service took place at Trinity Methodist Church and he was buried in a plain oak coffin in a wall grave at Paul cemetery.  Susie died the following year after an illness and was also buried in Paul with Catherine’s tribute reading ‘to the dearest and best of mothers’. They had lived to see a four grand-children and a great-grandson.

Ancestry, FindMyPast, British Newspaper Archive, family information.

Text by Lynne Black, first published 21 April 2015 on Worldwide Genealogy blog
Images from Flickr under creative commons licence, Tim Green and Paul Gillard as indicated.


  1. Now that is a story! You took me back there and helped me see their time. Loved every minute of my reading time. :-)

    1. Thanks very much Fran! It was great to get so much background info from the papers.


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