My Grandfather, Thomas Burton

My maternal grandfather was a bit of a mystery. He was brought up as an Anglican because he was a Blue Coat boy, living and learning in the building that now houses the Bluecoat arts centre. However, nobody in the family seemed to know, or be interested in, where he had started life. All I was ever told was that his surname was Burton, and the Church of England Blue Coat charity, which was established in 1708 and financed by profits from the slave trade, had rescued him from a life of poverty.

To be a Blue Coat boy when my grandparents were children meant you were either an orphan or came from a family who were so poor they really could not cope. To be poor enough to become a Blue Coat boy in nineteenth-century Liverpool was to be very poor indeed. Disease and malnutrition were rife in the city then and child mortality was high. 

In the chasm at the back of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, called St James’s cemetery, there is a memorial to Blue Coat boys who died around the time my maternal grandfather was a child. The sight of that memorial brings tears to my eyes. They were all too young to die. Given the lack of medical knowledge and widespread poverty at the time, many probably died in great pain and after much suffering. 

For the poor Liverpool children who, like my maternal grandfather, survived childhood, it was a blessing to have been brought up as a Blue Coat boy. Thanks to his Blue Coat education my grandfather made good, becoming a bonded warehouseman on the Dock Road. I still have his corkscrew. To save him from injury when not in use, the corkscrew is shaped like a smooth, shiny bullet and has to be unscrewed and assembled before a bottle can be opened. Sadly, however, all I can recall of my maternal grandfather is his tall form standing in the shadow of a doorway in Townsend Avenue while I sat outside the gate in my pram.

Liverpool’s cultural life is just as exciting as it was when I was growing up and later when my father, Sir Stanley Holmes was involved with encouraging the Everyman Theatre and the Bluecoat Society of Arts.

Ann Carlton, from Penny Lane and all that – Memories of Liverpool, published by Y Lolfa, 2017