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Saturday 26 February 2011


I couldn’t help but notice after my recent blogpost that not one but two of my ancestors have had their whisky premises bombed out of existence in time of war. There was the Bristol Whisky Distillery, destroyed during the blitz on that city in December 1940 (admittedly some 113 years after the death of its former owner my 3x great grandfather Thomas Castle). And in an earlier conflict, the blended whisky warehouse in Leith part-owned by my great grandfather James Piper received a direct hit during the First World War.

I wrote a while ago about the reminiscences of one sailor in port at the time; he made the most of the gallons of “stagger juice” released by this explosion, which were flowing along the gutters of Leith like rain. Last week I came across some old notes I’d made from conversations with my grandmother in the 1980s, and they include a reference to the attack from a very different perspective.

I’d quite forgotten I’d made them – they date from an earlier and false start on the trail of my family tree and ended up as things do in a box of unrelated items buried at the back of the attic. Although my wife despairs, I thank goodness sometimes that I am a keeper and hoarder of archives – you just never know when they may throw up something worth the keeping and hoarding …

James Piper was very much alive at the time of the Leith bombing. After that event he got out of whisky and into farming; but at the time, he and his family were living in Cluny Gardens, a genteel street south of Edinburgh city centre and some distance away from Edinburgh’s northeastern port of Leith. Some of the grand houses of the area had been built by a Mr Gavine, the father of James' wife, Anne, including other houses in Cluny Gardens and in nearby Midmar Avenue.

Anne Douglas Piper nee Gavine (1870-1940)

On the night of 2nd April 1916, when their youngest daughter my grandmother Jean was nearly eight years old, Anne came into Jean’s bedroom and gently roused her. “Jean, wake up! I want you to see something.” My Granny stirred sleepily. “Come over to window and look outside. Something you’ve never seen before.” Jean was wide awake now and curious. “What, mummy?” And Anne replied, “There’s a zeppelin at the window!”

Zeppelin L14, one of two which carried out the raid on Edinburgh
on the night of 2nd/3rd April 1916
(pic from Edinburgh’s War)

Well that got Granny rushing across the room and, with the lights out to preserve the blackout, opening the curtains onto the bright moonlit night. The scene is so vivid, and that must be because of the way Granny told it to me 25 years ago. Sure enough, there was a dirigible in sight over Edinburgh – an unforgettable sight, and made all the more memorable the next day when Granny’s father James came home with a piece of melted glass two inches thick from the burnt ruins of his warehouse. The bomb which fell there had caused £44,000 of damage.

The zeppelins also targeted Edinburgh Castle,
hitting Castle Rock and nearby streets
including this spot in the Grassmarket outside the White Hart Inn

Repelled from the port by naval batteries the zeppelins turned towards Edinburgh itself and dropped several more bombs including one which plunged through three storeys of a tenement building in Marchmont Terrace very near Cluny Gardens, but failed to detonate. (The Edinburgh Evenings News has an excellent article about the raid.)

I met an astronomer last night who talked of how he works back from the known to the unknown; from evidence present in the universe now he and his colleagues can find their way back by deduction to how things must have been only a few million years after the Big Bang which started it all. I feel the same way about Annie Gavine. I never met her and can never know her. But through conversations with my mother and grandmother who did, I can imagine.

Saturday 19 February 2011


I have my fair share of the alcohol trade in my family tree! I am tantalisingly close to finding a link with the Salter brewing family of Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire, although that may just be wishful thinking. And my great grandfather James Piper definitely had a whisky warehouse in Leith which was bombed during the Great War.

Although the bombing is notable, the presence of bonded warehouses in Leith is not. Leith is in Scotland, after all! However, my 3x great grandfather Thomas Castle was a whisky distiller a century earlier and in an altogether more surprising location.

Thomas Castle (1767-1827)
Bristol Distiller

Bristol is not the first place you think of when you think of a drop of Scotch. But there was a thriving spirits industry there – at least five distilleries were in business there at the start of the nineteenth century. One of the oldest was the one owned in 1821 by Thomas Castle, in the city’s Cheese Lane. I don’t know when or how he first came into possession of Cheese Lane, which was established around 1761. Thomas' father was a Presbyterian minister in rural Hatherleigh in Devon, 100 miles to the west of Bristol, where the decline of the wool industry caused many to migrate to the cities in the late 18th century.

It’s unfortunate that most of Bristol’s wealth was built on what is known euphemistically as the Triangular Trade. Brandy and other goods from Britain went to Africa to pay for slaves, who were taken to the West Indies in exchange for sugar and rum, which went to Britain, which sent brandy and other goods to Africa …

Georgian Bristol Blue Glass decanters
for rum, brandy and Hollands (gin - originally Dutch)

Bristol was a centre of apple brandy production for a while, particularly during times of war with France when French brandy was not available. After the British victory over the French at Waterloo (1813), and with the slave trade in terminal decline, the fortunes of British brandies also suffered. The Bristol Whisky Distillery, as the Cheese Lane manufactory was known, went from strength to strength however. Barley fields next to the distillery in the St Phillips area of Bristol supplied its pot stills, and the results were shipped to London and beyond.

Thomas Castle would have been unable to capitalise on the invention of the patent still in 1826, just a year before his death. But such stills were eventually installed and contributed to the survival of the factory, allowing for more efficient mass production of grain spirit. After Thomas’ death in 1827 it passed out of the family. But it continued under various ownerships until 6th December 1940, when the blitz which destroyed so many of Bristol’s old streets and buildings also called “Last Orders” on the Cheese Lane Distillery. The flames of the burning spirits must have reached high into the night sky, and the bombs that landed in Cheese Lane that night also took the lives of a fireman, two members of the Home Guard and a civilian.

A raid two weeks before the Cheese Lane bombing
had already reduced much of the centre of Bristol to rubble

 Bristol historian Paul Townsend's website, The Changing Face of Bristol, is a rich source of stories and images of Bristol, including the above photograph of Wine Street on the morning of 25th November 1940.

Saturday 12 February 2011


Captain Austin Cooper, whose maritime career I described in an earlier post, retired (I believe) from the sea in 1878. It must have been a wrench, after a life of routine and duty aboard ship which must have lasted twenty or thirty years. But unexpectedly, at the age of 43, duty of a different sort called.

Austin’s eldest brother Samuel died in 1877, only 47 years old and unmarried. Austin had to come back to dry land to take over the running of the family estate and the family home which he had inherited – Killenure Castle near the village of Dundrum in Co Tipperary.

Killenure Castle in 1793

Killenure Castle was, reputedly, the stronghold of the O’Dwyer clan, who built it in the late 16th century. It may already have been ruinous by 1640 but it fell, so the story goes, to Oliver Cromwell’s troops as they ruthlessly suppressed Catholicism in Ireland between 1649 and 1653. When I visited it in 2004, I was told that you could still hear the ghostly screams of the O’Dwyers, whom the English soldiers burnt alive within its walls.

Unlike many English families arriving in Ireland in the wake of Cromwell’s visit, who acquired huge tracts of land at the expense of the old Irish Catholic nobility, the Coopers did not benefit from such atrocities. In fact they came to Ireland rather reluctantly after the restoration of the monarchy (see my earlier post about Austin the first Cooper settler). The burnt-out castle changed hands a few times after the O’Dwyers forfeited it, before my 5x great grandfather William Cooper bought both the ruin and a modest single-storey thatched house beside it in 1746. Much extended since then the house became and remained the Cooper family home for the next 217 years. (One of seafaring Captain Cooper’s first acts on returning to Killenure in 1878 was to get married, obviously feeling that a family home should have a mother as well as a father figure!)

Killenure Castle in 1850

Living in a castle, or at least in a Georgian mansion beside one, isn’t always as glamorous or romantic as it sounds. Doreen Cooper, Austin Samuel’s granddaughter recollected: “At Killenure, we had no electricity, no water … [and] no telephone - no refrigerator, but we had five indoor servants, a groom, a chauffeur and a gardener. We also had no central heating and the limestone walls used to run with water on damp days.”

It was a note by my great grandmother on the back of a faded photograph of Killenure – her mother’s “old home,” she wrote (see my earlier post) – that got me started on research into my whole family tree. And Violet Cooper, widow of the late Austin Francis Cooper of Killenure (who most reluctantly sold it to the Irish Land Commission in 1963), recalled the happy centuries passed there when she wrote: “Our beautiful old home, Killenure Castle”; “all the ancestors hanging in their huge frames on the dining room walls”; “all the glorious treasures, the silver and antiques.”

Killenure Castle in 1960

If my seafaring Austin Samuel Cooper felt a wrench when leaving the sea after 30 years, imagine how it must have felt for Austin Francis Cooper to give up Killenure after more than two centuries? The treasures and pictures are all dispersed now; but the warmth and affection for the place in the hearts of any Cooper you speak to, those remain. 

Killenure Castle in 2010

Saturday 5 February 2011


Another Austin Cooper from my collection! This one’s grandfather was my 3x great grandfather, so we’re cousins of a kind. Austin Samuel Cooper was one of three seafaring brothers from a family with a tradition of army rather than marine service. His brother Commander Astley Cooper RN died at home aged 29 of typhoid which presumably he contracted overseas; Edward Cooper was a Captain in the Mercantile Marine who drowned at sea. Austin survived.

Captain Austin Samuel Cooper (1835-1897)

Austin signed on with the Merchant Navy as a midshipman with the Green Blackwall Shipping Line. A book by Basil Lubbock, “The Blackwall Frigates,” charts the line’s history. In the preface he writes:

“They were first class ships – well-run, happy ships, and the sailor who started his sea life as a midshipman aboard a Blackwaller looked back ever afterwards to his cadet days as the happiest period of his career. … The training was superb, as witness the number of Blackwall midshipmen who reached the head of their profession and distinguished themselves later in other walks of life.”

Green Line’s SS Carlisle Castle
(by Thomas Goldsworth Dutton, c1868)

Lubbock might have had Austin in mind when he wrote this! Austin advanced through the ranks during his time at Green’s and in 1868 was appointed Commander of the newly launched sailing ship the Carlisle Castle. She had been built specially for the company’s London to Australia run, and Austin remained at her helm for nine years.

The Carlisle Castle was only the second of the company’s ships to be built of iron. Dicky Green, the son of the founder, who had died in 1863, was very much against them; and the introduction of iron ships is considered to have spelt the beginning of the end of the Green Line’s heyday. Her heavy rigging slowed her down considerably when wet, but she was nevertheless a solid, reliable workhorse on the run between London and Melbourne.

Her best times for the run – 80 days going out and 87 coming back – were achieved on what was probably Austin’s last trip as Captain. The return leg, against the prevailing Westerlies, was achieved in race conditions against three fast ships of the wool fleet who were also on their way home. Austin will have been disappointed that his best day on that journey only made 270 nautical miles, because he had on earlier trips occasionally broken the 300 barrier. But he came in second of the four ships, an honourable end to a successful career.

Green Line’s SS Seringapatam
(by Thomas Goldsworth Dutton, after 1843)
on which the SS Agincourt was modelled
He earlier served as Second Officer on another Green Liner, the Agincourt, which made the same Melbourne run. It was while in Port Philip Bay at Melbourne, on the 26th March 1860, that Second Officer Cooper saved a man’s life. I don’t know the exact details of the situation, but I have elsewhere read the sad story of a Midshipman Reynolds. Reynolds first fell into the sea from the high rigging of the Agincourt in high winds two years after Cooper's heroic act. He survived that fall, but not another one six months later from another ship, the Alfred, when Reynolds was attacked and killed in the water by sea birds before the lifeboats could get to him. Perhaps the former Midshipman Cooper acted in similar circumstances to save a life at sea.

Cooper’s more successful rescue won him the Silver Medal of the Royal Humane Society. (The Society, originally called The Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned, was formed in 1774 by two doctors keen to promote the new medical technique of resuscitation, following a series of unfortunate burials of victims who were not in fact quite dead. The Society still exists today.)

The flag of the Green Blackwall Line

More on Austin Cooper’s life after maritime service in my next blog.

In addition to Basil Lubbock's book Blackwall Frigates, some information in this article comes from the Royal Humane Society's website, some from the National Maritime Musuem's splendid Blackwall Green webpages, and some from Richard Austin-Cooper's Butterhill and Beyond.
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