Volunteer Blog – Victorian & Edwardian Receipts

Volunteer Blog – Victorian & Edwardian Receipts

By: Caroline O’Shea & Helen Threlfall, Volunteers at The Atkinson

What do a collection of Victorian and Edwardian household receipts from Southport, one of Britain’s first fire sprinkler systems, a tragic love story and a trip to Bombay have in common? Read on…

April 2016 found us in the Museum stores of The Atkinson, surrounded by receipts, but they weren’t the boring tiny bits of machine generated paper we see today. These were Victorian and Edwardian household receipts, many from shops on Lord Street, some were elaborately decorated, with black and white drawings of imposing shop facades and all had been written in ink, in “copper plate” handwriting.

Ralph Dowson

Ralph Dowson

The receipts belonged to Mrs Ellen Dowson of Trafalgar Road, Southport, who between 1890 and 1904, meticulously kept a record of her purchases in the town. On reading through them, we discovered that not only did they give a wonderful history of Southport and its shops in the Victorian era, particularly of Lord Street, but also that they “opened the door” into a Victorian home.  We would like to introduce you to Mrs Dowson and her family, her husband Ralph Dowson and their three children Gertrude, Winifred and Edgar.

Mrs Ellen Dowson the avid shopper

The receipts are many and varied, from the turkey and potted shrimp bought on Chapel Street on 24th December 1894, to a license for a four wheel horse drawn carriage in 1901. There was the purchase of a Shanks piano in 1890 and receipts for an evening cape and bodice from “Mrs Nelson Costumier” on 297 Lord street, even some furs from the Canadian Fur Store at number 339 Lord Street!

Although not all of the receipts were glamorous, (J.N. Hughes, Coal Merchant, Southport Ice and Cold Storage Company, Virginia Street and a gas bill, which was payable to “Southport Corporation” at the Town Hall) the receipts provide a detailed insight into the everyday running of the household at Trafalgar Road during the Victorian and Edwardian Era.

Even more revealing of the family’s daily lives were the pews paid for in St James Church, Birkdale, July 1904, school fees at “Wintersdorf” School, Trafalgar Road (Easter Term 1897), membership of Formby Ladies Golf Club, 1902 and the sum of Ten Pounds and six shillings paid to Birkdale Lawn Tennis Club, September 1898. There are Dental receipts for “examining mouth” and “gold stoppings” 1900 -1902 and finally there is a receipted donation to “The Liverpool Home for Destitute Boys and Girls” April 1901.

We took a trip to Crosby Library Archives to try and see if we could find any photographs and adverts for the shops mentioned on the receipts. Using early tourist guides for Southport such as that published by Southport Council in 1913, we found some of the photographs and adverts below.

These photographs are of stores from Victorian Lord Street, together with receipts from Mrs Dowson’s collection. Can you recognise where these buildings are on Lord Street? Answers at the end…

The Mystery

Reading through the many receipts there appeared to be little or no mention of Ralph Dowson, Ellen’s husband, there was one receipt for a haircut and later for a suit purchased in Manchester, however after 1896 his name stops appearing on receipts completely! We decided to try looking at Census records to help us find out more. The 1901 Census, listed Ellen Dowson as widowed and Head of household at the house in Trafalgar Road. Searching further we also found Ralph Dowson’s date of birth. In the Civil Registration Birth Index of 1837-1915 we found a record of his marriage to Ellen. We also discovered that Ralph had previously been widowed and at the time of his marriage to Ellen, he had three children. These children were therefore Ellen’s stepchildren.

The Fire Sprinkler System

Judging by the life style of the Dowson family, we see that they were quite wealthy. That’s when we decided to try and find out what Ralph Dowson’s work was. This is when we had a lucky break, typing his name into a search engine, we discovered the following…

Ralph Dowson was the Dowson of Dowson, Taylor & Co. A gifted Engineer, he was the partner of John Taylor and was the pioneering promoter of their business. The business was to become, when it later merged with Mather & Platt, one of the most innovative and successful companies providing firefighting and protection equipment across the world!

The Tragic Love Story and a Trip to Bombay

In 1896, having married Ellen a few months before, Ralph set out on a trip to India to promote and represent his firm. Ellen went with him. The trip was to last 5 months, just before his return Ralph was taken ill at Ahmedabad but managed to carry on to Bombay, it was there, following a few weeks of illness, that Ralph died. It was the morning of Good Friday, 3 April 1896. Ellen Dowson was now a widow at the age of 35 years old and she had been married for just 18 months. Ellen returned home to Southport, where she continued to live in Trafalgar Road, bringing up Ralph’s three children, until her death in Southport in November 1931.

Of Ralph Dowson, his long term business partner, John Taylor wrote:- “One of the finest businessmen I have ever met: a man of wonderful vision, a typical English gentleman and a man whom it was a delight to work”.


Posted on 20 February 2017 under Museum

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