Filson Young

Filson Young: The first media man (1876-1938), by Silvester Mazzarella

Table of contents

3. How It All Started

Sometime in the late eighteenth century, when Great Britain was anxious to keep a firm grip on Ireland in the wake of the French Revolution, a young man called David Young from Leith, near Edinburgh, enlisted as a trooper, and was posted to Armagh in Ireland. There he married a local girl from Elmpark called Ann Jane Moffat. They settled in Londonderry, where David, building on the skill in working with leather that been an essential part of his life as a mounted soldier, set up as a saddler and prospered sufficiently to be able to send his son Thomas a prestigious local school called  Foyle College. Thomas continued to be associated with the school throughout his life; he married Mary Ann Moffat, one of the five daughters of his mother’s first cousin William, a farmer near Tynan, Armagh. In Londonderry, Thomas, further developing the family expertise with leather, set up as a coachbuilder.(27) Thomas and Mary Ann produced ten children, and were eventually succeeded in the family business by their third(?) son, who moved to Bromley in Kent where he founded the firm of James Young which would survive the transition from horse power to combustion engine and prosper as a manufacturer of luxury coachwork until the early 1970s. Three other brothers moved to Britain. The eldest (?), William, born in 1840, studied Classics in Belfast and Theology in Edinburgh, was ordained into the Presbyterian Church of Ireland and in 1866 became Presbyterian Minister in the village of Ballyeaston, near Ballyclare in Co. Antrim. Meanwhile, successive generations of other Ulster protestant families of Scottish extraction were intermarrying on the Ards peninsula in Co. Down: among them the Filsons of Kircubbin, farming folk, the more prosperous Bells of nearby Greyabbey (eighteenth-century Ulster distillers, of whom a branch were to set up as wine-merchants in London, where they stored their stock in the crypt of the church of St Bartholomew, Smithfield) and the Dalzells of Thomastown who seem to have preferred to pronounce their name Dal-zell, rather than Di-yell in the Scottish manner. In the troubles of 1798 two Dalzell brothers took opposite sides, Robert being a ‘volunteer’ and John an ‘insurgent’ at a time when the community didn’t necessarily divide on sectarian lines. A first cousin of Filson Young’s remembered the story years later when, as a young woman, she was threatened by a mob of young men in the slums of Ancoats, Manchester:

As it was I walked on peacefully thinking of a great-great-uncle who had been in one of the Irish troubles, and who marched straight through a crowd who had gathered and filled the streets between his house in Portaferry and Strangford Lough, where a boat was waiting for him. And nobody dared touch him – so the story said. He reached the shore unmolested and sailed off. … and as I am here today you know that I reached the station safely just as my great-great-uncle reached the boat on Strangford Lough. (28)

Alexander Bell Filson, born in 1797, set up as an apothecary in Portaferry, a small town at the southern end of the Ards peninsula, and in ?1828 married Jane Dalzell, daughter of the ‘volunteer’ Robert; they had three sons and five daughters. Mr Filson was, in effect, worked not only as a pharmacist but as a doctor, and followed this double profession successfully for a quarter of  a century before taking his MD in 1852 [was this unusual?]. He and his energetic wife became highly-respected members of the local community, fearless in the face of such crises as outbreaks of cholera brought by visiting sailors; nineteenth-century Portaferry though small was a port with far-flung connections, even Canada [import or export, etc??]. Alexander and Jane’s youngest daughter Sarah (born in 1841 and known in the family because of her relatively dark complexion as ‘Nig’ or ‘Snig’) married, on 2 June 1869, Rev William Young, 28-year-old minister of the First Presbyterian church at Ballyeaston, Co. Antrim, where during the next seven years four children were born in the manse: Jean Marian (Janie), Sara Isabel (Ben), Thomas Moffatt (Tom), and finally, on 5 June 1876, Alexander Bell Filson, always known simply as Filson.

The Youngs were happy at Ballyeaston but money was short. It didn’t help that, in the year of their marriage, Gladstone’s government had disestablished and disendowed the Anglican and Presbyterian Churches in Ireland, a step towards ecclesiastical Irish Home Rule which had the immediate result of cutting off subsidies from Britain, so that the Irish Protestant Churches now had to support themselves. As the Young’s family grew, industrial Britain came to look more than ever like the promised land. The expanding population of well-off Presbyterians mainly of Scottish extraction in Higher Broughton, Salford, at that time a desirable residential suburb of Manchester, had recently felt the need for a church of their own. This was quickly built, in Singleton Road, Higher Broughton, thanks to funding by a ‘warm-hearted Manchester banker’.(29) William Young managed to secure appointment as the new church’s first Minister, improving the prospect of relative prosperity for his family and a decent education for his children. When the family emigrated to Salford in 1877 Filson was only one, so Ballyeaston never meant anything to him, but summer holidays in childhood and adolescence would give him a deep love of Portaferry, the picturesque lough-side home of his mother’s family. As the years went by, William’s relations with his prosperous Salford flock became increasingly strained. He criticized them as a set of tight-fisted philistines more interested in funding foreign missions than caring for the well-being of their own minister and his family. When they retorted that he spent too much time shut up in his study writing sermons when he should have been visiting the sick, he answered that he had better things to do than paying social visits to rich old ladies with colds. All the same, he remained their Minister for 24 years during which, according to the chronicler of the Fasti (annals of the Presbyterian Church), who seems to have appreciated that he suffered provocation, ‘his methodical habits and calm deliberateness saved him from the exhaustion which a nervous or excitable nature might have brought upon him’.

The church was in Singleton Road, almost opposite the attractive tall terraced house called Sedgley Bank where the Youngs lived throughout William’s ministry. Behind the house the land drops away steeply giving a bright, airy atmosphere and a fine view from the back windows. It is easy to imagine that the Youngs loved their home.(30)  A little beyond Sedgley Bank, Singleton Road leads into Moor Lane, where the children started their education at Kersal Glen School. Behind the school was, and still is, a small fragment of moorland hemmed in on all sides by factories and industrial estates. This was Kersal Moor, much more extensive in the eighteenth century, when it was the home (?or near the home) of John Byrom, friend of Horace Walpole and Lord Chesterfield and author of the hymn ‘Christians awake’, a lifelong favourite with Filson’s brother Tom. In the early nineteenth century Kersal Moor was the scene of events connected with great political movements. In 1812, 30,000 troops were camped there against the Luddites, Lancashire textile workers hostile to new technology, and in 1838 the agitators for greater parliamentary equality known as Chartists held a massive rally there. But the moor had remained  rural enough to fascinate local botanists and inspire a lyrical outburst from the local poet Edwin Waugh: (31)

Sweet falls the blackbird’s evening song

In Kersal’s posied dell;

But the skylark’s trill makes the dewdrops thrill

In the bonny heather bell;

Wild and free,

Wild and free,

Where the moorland breezes blow.

By 1890 – the year Waugh was buried at nearby Kersal church – the moor had been absorbed into the cheerless heart of industrial Manchester, prompting a parody of Waugh by Filson’s 17-year-old brother Tom:

Out on the bleak and silent moor

When the dawn is breaking cold,

A misty veil hangs dimly o’er

The Sungod’s face of gold:

In the chilly grey

At the birth of Day

The world looks worn and old.

William and Sarah insisted that their four children and two servants attend family prayers after breakfast every day. William had a special interest in the Religious Tract Society (he became its district secretary after he retired as minister in 1901), and his children were introduced early to books with titles like Sunday Pictures for the Little Ones that contained images some of which remained imprinted on their minds for life. Like all children, they preserved special memories of certain objects that had been important to them in childhood. For Filson these included:

an imperfectly cured cowhorn which gave out, in addition to its wavering note, a most overpowering smell; a species of gaily-painted wheel mounted on a handle which I called (quite inaccurately) my ‘whirligig’; a small boat with black topsides and a salmon-coloured bottom, which sailed many voyages on the green table-cloth, now bringing up alongside Webster’s dictionary to discharge cargo, and now lying at anchor in the shelter of a promontory of Bibles; and a common iron hoop burnished by friction of its stick to the colour of silver, beside and behind which I ran, over paved footpaths dappled with sunshine filtered through the hawthorn and laburnum of suburban gardens, many a long, unweary mile.(32)

As he got older came typical schoolboy crazes for goldfish, carpentry, cycling and photography, and the beginnings of a lifelong fascination with all kinds of gadgets and accessories. Among the accessories offered by the aquarium catalogue was ‘Water-beetle, Dityscus, rows himself like a boat, 6d.’

He was ten when, in the autumn of 1886, the four children devised and kept going for more than three months a complicated game called The Post which involved writing each other letters, stamping and sorting them, delivering them on Saturday mornings, and holding formal meetings properly minuted by the secretary (Tom). Each child had a special name and motto for this game; Filson was Puck and his motto was, ‘Puck to the Rescue’. As the youngest Puck had to be content with the humblest job, setting forth from his bedroom before breakfast every Saturday morning with the postbag, and blowing his imperfectly-cured cowhorn as he delivered letters to the trays or baskets the others left outside their bedroom doors. When the older children began to tire of the game and the meetings became increasingly quarrelsome, Puck thought it his duty to intervene with helpful suggestions, but the only effect this had was to make the others unite against him while Tom entered in the minutes: ‘Puck’s conduct during the meeting being very unruly, he was excluded from the next’. An early lesson in the unfairness of life.(33)

Sunday was not likely to be the favourite day of the week with the child of a Presbyterian minister in the 1880s. Everyone had to attend two services – morning and evening, amounting to four hours in all – in the church across the road. This reduced the lively Filson to a ‘habitual vacancy of mind’. The only activity left to him was staring. He would count everything in sight hundreds of times: the tiles on the floor, the mouldings on the cornices, the panes of glass in the leaded windows, the organ pipes, and perform imaginary acrobatic feats, climbing in imagination about the roof and jumping from moulding to moulding until he made himself dizzy. The different walks of the members of his father’s congregation as they proceeded up the aisle were imprinted on his mind for life.

It was the era of bustles, and one watched the people coming down the aisle of the church, each woman carrying on her back a draped protuberance, by the extent, adornment, or “set” of which, among other things, the extent of her adherence to the fashion might be judged. One by one the bustles came in, glided down the aisle, and disappeared into pews. Whether they were sat upon or merely leaned against I had not then, and have not to this day, ascertained; but I have seen them put on, and, in that careless intimacy with which a very small child is made free of the most sacred scenes of feminine toilet, observed a beautiful woman, half clothed, tying by means of a tape a kind of pack or hump stuffed with horsehair upon her back. I remember even at the time thinking it a singularly brutal and undignified scene, like the harnessing of a carthorse; and the memory and impression remained with me, and often, when almost intoxicated by the dignity with which some bustle or other went rocking down the aisle, I have remembered and visualized the sordid foundation on which it rested, and my joy in it has departed, like the joy of one who sees through to the mean motives that lie behind magnificent actions.(34)

Whether or not the contents of his father’s sermons sank in, their style for better or for worse unquestionably did. When in his late teens the opportunity came to him to write for publication, he was equal to the challenge, his style already formed. And years later the influence of those sermons of long ago came through strongly in the didactic manner and Biblical rhythms of the secular sermons he came to preached once a week to the readers in the Saturday Review and, later, the Radio Times.

Sundays weren’t much fun even when you weren’t in church. There were few things you were allowed to do. Even reading was censored, because you could only look at improving books. One such book Filson would be given when very small to keep him out of mischief between breakfast and morning service was called Line by Line. He developed a special secret ritual with this. The book contained a picture of Elijah being fed by ravens with what looked like slices of bread cut from a loaf with pieces of sirloin on them. He would gaze at this until he grew hungry despite the fact he’d just had breakfast. The next step in the ritual was to go to the larder where he knew the special food prepared in advance for Sundays was kept, and take out a slice of buttered currant-bread, carefully arranging the other slices so that no one would see that it had gone. The larder always contained many things he liked better than currant-bread, but the mystery was that currant-bread was the only thing Elijah and the ravens could ever give him an appetite for. (35)

When July brought a sense of exhaustion and emptiness to the city, the Youngs saw themselves in Biblical terms as about to leave the place of bondage and return to their native land and their own people. Though Filson had been only one year old when they first came to Salford, he felt this very strongly, and many years later described the children’s excitement at this annual migration to Ireland in a characteristic essay.(36)  At Portaferry the Filson tribe would gather round Sarah’s mother, an old lady of great dignity of whom someone once said, ‘a glance shows you that she’s a king’s daughter’. Known to her descendants as Grandmama Filson, she had been born Jane Dalzell in the village of Thomastown near Portaferry in 1801, the second of nine children.

Filson’s elder sister Janie later described her grandmother in an unpublished memoir.(37)  She reported that Jane had been well educated according to the standards of her time in local schools, and that in old age she could still recite quantities of poetry by poets fashionable in her youth like Cowper and Southey. As children, it had been the custom for Jane Dalzell and her brothers and sisters to sit working round a table lit by the light of a single candle, and when her eldest brother left home to go to sea she made him six shirts in a week. She would often play chess alone on the hearthrug by the light of the fire, and would lie in bed working out chess problems in her head, though she eventually gave this up as too absorbing. It was in 1827 that (perhaps already pregnant) she married Alexander Bell Filson, one of the Portaferry district’s two medical officers; he had trained as a pharmacist in Belfast but, as we have seen, did the work of a G.P. for 25 years before completing his M.D. at the age of 55. Her granddaughter wrote that Jane spent her married life almost entirely in her home, which she ran with the help of two maids. Besides producing eight children she took entire charge of garden, dairy, bees and poultry and helped her husband in his ‘surgery’ or (more accurately) dispensary. There was a family legend that a dentist once worked upstairs in the same house so that the doctor’s children became familar with the sound of the dentist’s patients drumming their heels in agony on the floor above. Though she seldom left her home Jane was a sociable woman who liked to entertain, giving parties at which guests danced to the piano on the drawing-room carpet and chatted over custards, cakes and sherry. She encouraged her children to read the classics of English literature, and gave each grandchild a silver crown once a year. Filson’s sister Ben (Isabel) never spent the last crown her grandmother gave her before her death and kept it in  little envelope marked with the year she gave it – 1887. The crown itself was a worn specimen of George III, dated 1819.(38)

By the 1870s and 1880s this impressive old woman was a widow living with her two remaining unmarried daughters (the eldest, Isabella and Mary) in a house overlooking the Lough on The Strand, Portaferry, and here each summer she would gather round her as many as possible of her children and their husbands and wives and children. Two of her sons had emigrated, to America and Australia. Most of her other children had not needed to go far to find husbands or wives, but in three of these families one parent died early. Filson’s childhood thus differed from that of most of his cousins in that both his parents were still alive.

The children’s chief delight during these summer days was the Lough itself, sheltered if difficult to navigate with its swift currents, and full of small islands where they could explore and picnic. They learned to sail in the family’s 22-foot yacht Ariel, in which their late Uncle Sandy had once won races at local regattas. Sandy had succeeded to his father’s practice as a G.P. but died of cancer before his fortieth birthday. He had been his parents’ youngest son and the only boy to stay at home.

Even at Portaferry the children were plagued by Sunday restrictions, when going out in boats was forbidden. No matter what storms might rage on other days, the weather on Sundays always seemed to be absurdly fine. Filson would come out of church to find the tide at its highest, the sea (strictly speaking, the Lough was an inlet of the sea) as smooth as glass and the boats dreaming uselessly at their moorings. It was strange to tread the shifting pebbles of the beach in patent-leather Sunday shoes and to have to avoid soiling your Sunday clothes on a wet rope, and to have to turn

away from the sea to admire flowers in walled gardens and go for walks over rolling turf and through groves of trees through which you couldn’t even catch a glimpse of the sea. On Sunday mornings before church Grandmama Filson would go into her garden to pick nosegays of lily of the valley, sweet pea, jasmine or whatever flowers the girls chose, so that they could have something pretty to look at during the two-hour service. This was no comfort to Filson. But on the other six days of the week he and the other children could run about and sail the Lough to their hearts’ content,

refreshing themselves with gulps of aromatic and astringent buttermilk cooled in a thick porous crock kept in the stone outworks of an ancient outhouse dimly lit by a doorway veiled with jasmine.(39) Filson’s childhood ended with the death of Grandmama Filson at an advanced age in 1888. By this time the family yacht Ariel had been sold and in August 1889 was mysteriously lost with all hands off the coast of Strangford Lough between Kircubbin and Portaferry.

Even if Portaferry was ‘the most wonderful paradise on earth’ to a city boy from England, the restless Filson always welcomed the coming of autumn and return to school and the more mundane life of Manchester. Though never well off, William and Sarah attached the greatest importance to giving their children at least a taste of the best education to be had locally. The children started their education near home at Kersal Glen School ?in nearby Moor Lane The girls went on to Manchester High School for Girls and the boys to Manchester Grammar School, even if they were all forced to leave early for economic reasons. It was important that the girls should be educated as well as the boys not only because the Youngs valued education more than social status but because the girls no less than the boys would have to earn their own living (Janie became a nurse and eventually married a doctor, and Ben a governess, later giving a home to children whose parents were for long periods abroad). So all four had at least a few years at the best local schools in the hope that this taste would encourage them to go on educating themselves and their families in years to come. Perhaps a bit of cultural snobbery was involved too. The Youngs did not want their children to grow up like those of their rich philistine neighbours. Tom reached the Classical Fifth at Manchester Grammar School before leaving at fifteen to work in the office of a hosepipe and strapping factory. Filson was less successful at school than Tom; whatever the long-term influence of his father’s sermons on his writing, he was always near the bottom of the class in ‘Divinity and English’. He too left school at fifteen, and was articled to a chartered accountant.

But William and sarah filled their home with books. Not only Theology and the Latin, and the Greek and English classics, including a complete 1869 set of Dickens (minus Edwin Drood, which hadn’t yet been written), no doubt a wedding present. R.L.Stevenson was also popular. And for her 20th birthday William Young, in some but not all ways a conventional non-conformist clergyman, gave his second daughter ‘Ben’ an inscribed copy of William Archer’s pioneering English translation of Ibsen’s play The Lady from the Sea, an almost feminist work by a famous scourge of the conventional middle-classes and hypocritical Protestant clergymen. And two slightly older cousins with artsitic and intellectual leanings, the socialist Edie Bell and Helen Chisholm (an admirer of Ibsen), introduced the Young children to such fashionable contemporary writers such as the novelist and poet George Meredith.


27. Thomas’ charred will is one of the few documents to have survived the burning of the ?Irish Record Office in Dublin during the Troubles of 1921.

28. Amy Carmichael (1867-1951), whose mother was an elder sister of Filson Young’s mother, Sarah.  The story is told in Frank Houghton’s biography Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur (1953), p.34. In fact the gentleman referred to was Amy’s great-uncle John Dalzell, an ‘insurgent’ at Portaferry, in 1798. His brother, Amy’s (and Filson’s) grandfather Robert Dalzell, was a ‘volunteer’ at the same time. A Christian missionary , Amy Carmichael for nearly half a century led the Dohnavur Fellowship, near the southern tip of India, which she founded in 1901 initially to rescue girls prostituted at Hindu temples.  Later the scope of the Fellowship widened, and in recent times it has been tolerated more readily in India than many religious missions of European origin because of its strongly ecological ideology and practice. Passionate and indomitable, Amy Carmichael wrote nearly forty books including devotional and autobiographical works and collections of hymns and other poetry. Raj, Brigand Chief (1926) tells the story of her friendship for a South Indian ‘Robin Hood’. It s very practical and down-to-earth approach to life is expressed in stylised dialogue and a curiously timeless and archaic Biblical English.

29. According to the ‘Fasti’ or annals of the Presbyterian Church in England [now where and under what name?]. The church was pulled down in the early 1970s.

30. When William and Sarah retired in 1901, they transferred the familiar name ‘Sedgley Bank’ to their new home in Bramhall, Cheshire.

31.(add a note on Edwin Waugh)

32. ‘Rosemary and Baubles, The Saturday Review, London 13 Dec 1913, reprinted in New Leaves (1915)

33. ‘A Family Affair’, Saturday Review, 30 Nov 1912

34 ‘The Fashion is Always Beautiful’, Saturday Review 6 Dec 1913, reprinted in New Leaves

35 ‘Literature and Thirst’, Saturday Review 19 Aug 1911, reprinted as ‘Thirst’ in New Leaves and in W.M. and D.B.Tanner (eds) Modern Familiar Essays (1927)

36 ‘Going Away and Arriving’, Saturday Review 24 and 31 Aug 1912, reprinted in Letters from Solitude and F.H.Pritchard (ed) Essays of Today (1924)

37 In the possession of SM

38 In 1842 she gave her 15-year-old eldest daughter Isabella a little leatherbound copy of Samuel Johnson’s novel Rasselas bought in Dublin, the tiny print hardly ideal, one would have thought, for reding by candlelight or firelight

39 ‘Sunday Afternoon’, Saturday Review 16 June 1912, reprinted in Letters from Solitude and again in New Leaves. [But where does the bit about the crock of buttermilk come from?]

Be Sociable, Share!