Silas Briginshaw


Liverpool has always had colourful local characters. People like Prince Monolulu the exotic Jump Sunday tipster of Aintree, the self-styled top-hatted 'Sir' Frederick Bowman, landlady extraordinaire Ma Egerton, Lizzie Christian the flower-seller who braved wind, rain and snow, the Pier Head Escapologist chained up in his sack, and so on. Going further back in time, to the 19th century, there was an eccentric old fisherman named Silas Briginshaw who was something of a figure of a fun, back in the days when the Liverpool waterfront was a forest of rigging, masts and spars. Old Silas, with his angled-back sou'-wester hat, a fifty-year-old ankle-length waterproof coat, all-season wellingtons, and most comically of all, the tame seal Joyce, which he kept on a leash. Silas couldn't read or write, but avidly read the weather signs of the clouds religiously and was never wrong with his forecasts. After a hard day's fishing, Silas would enjoy his allowance of rum, and was often heard pleasantly playing the mystical old tune Green Grow the Rushes O on his old tin whistle, in some dark corner of a seaside tavern with Joyce at his feet sleepily flickering her eyelashes, content at her fill of mackerel. Then it was home to his sister's old rented cottage at Formby.
One grey afternoon in 1889, the routines of Silas were shattered when his sister died from consumption, and weeks later the fisherman was thrown out of the cottage by the rent collector. The landlord of the local tavern read some of the documents Silas had found among his late sister's belongings, and discovered that the fisherman had a 45-year-old nephew named Gregory, living at Coopers Row, off Paradise Street in Liverpool. Silas travelled to Gregory's little house and was welcomed with open arms, but his nephew's wife wasn't too keen on the idea of having the old fisherman (and his seal) as a lodger in their small abode. The couple's two children, 10-year-old Flissy and 12-year-old Benny, became very fond of Silas and Joyce. Their salty Great Uncle would regale them with great tales of the sea; an encounter with the Flying Dutchman in Liverpool Bay during a hurricane, Mother Redcap's ghost, the Wallasey Mermaid, and the dead pirate who swam from the Isle of Man to revenge his killers.
Silas, Joyce and the children were wandering the quaysides and docks of the bustling waterfront one snowy November afternoon, when a Vice Admiral of the Channel Fleet and two of his officers caught sight of the shabbily-dressed fisherman and his seal. The three Navy men loudly mocked his appearance, and Joyce barked at them. Flissy had to restrain the old seal with a yank of the leash. A powerful blast of wind suddenly gusted from the Mersey, blowing the top hat off the head of a well-dressed boy. The lad chased the hat to the edge of the quayside - but slipped in the snow and plunged into the icy waters. A man related to the Lord of Derby cried out in alarm and urged the Vice Admiral and his men to rescue the child, who was his only son. The men hesitated, knowing how dangerous the freezing waters were in November. The important-looking man saw that the high-ranking Navy men were too concerned about their own lives, and he cried for help.
In an instant, Silas Briginshaw released Joyce from the leash and whistled instructions to her. The seal slipped over the quayside, and swam to the boy, who was waving his arms in a dazed condition. Joyce nodded him so his head stayed above water, and the boy threw his arms around her neck. Joyce took him slowly to the stone steps, which Silas and the child's father descended. The boy was successfully rescued and taken to hospital, where he recovered from the ordeal. The Channel Fleet officers were reprimanded for their selfish behaviour, but Silas Briginshaw was paid a handsome reward, and Joyce was rewarded with all the mackerel she could eat.

© Tom Slemen 2004. First published in the Liverpool Echo, 27 November 2004.