Wednesday, 23 April 2014

An Ordinary, Extraordinary Life

Portrait of Kick Murphy (Ref U DILR/4)
One of the things that I enjoy most about working in an archive is coming across collections of documents that give a really personal view of the past – they create a tangible link with a person or event that resonates through the years and makes the past feel alive. Someone lived there – someone experienced this. The past is no longer dead and dusty, but real and emotive. The letters of Michael ‘Kick’ Murphy are one such collection.

Kick was born at 50 Blackfriargate on 23rd August 1876. Living in Hull’s old town in the Victorian period was a very crowded affair, with families living in often poor and cramped conditions, and the Murphys appear to have been no exception to this. However, Kick was a clever lad who attended Hull’s Trinity House Navigation School, finishing his studies and being recommended for service at sea in June 1891. He joined his first ship, the Thistlebank, in July 1892.

The collection, which was kindly donated to the History Centre by Kick’s great-niece Mrs Linda Randerson in December 2010, consists mainly of a series of over 70 letters written by Kick to friends and family throughout his time at sea. I think that the quote below gives a taste of not only what life was like for a young seaman at that time, but also of Kick himself – a lively, well-liked lad, with a lot of familiar teenage concerns – food apparently being fairly high on his agenda!
‘When we are at sea we get coffee every other morning, breakfast biscuits butter and salt beef and pork potatoes, soup and biscuits and tea we get biscuits tea butter and all the meat that is left from dinner is chopped small with potatoes and fried in fat. We get caravanca beans and rice and marmalade on Sunday we get fresh tinned mutton, soup, potatoes, barley and a loaf of soft bread. I only miss the puddings but I make them myself now we are in port.’
Unfortunately Kick’s story does not have a happy ending. In 1895 he was transferred from the Thistlebank to the Castlebank and the last letter his family received from him was while he was on board that ship, dated September 19th 1896. Shortly afterwards, the Castlebank left on its fateful voyage to Peru – never to be seen again. What happened to the ship is a mystery as the weather in the Pacific was apparently fine at the time the ship disappeared. Kick was only 20 years old.

I believe that stories like these are all the more poignant because they relate to ordinary lives, forgotten by history, but no less important and meaningful than the stories and lives of the famous names of the day. These letters were obviously treasured and preserved by Kick’s family – and are now the only memorial to an extraordinary life. Kick’s story still speaks to us today, almost literally through BBC Radio Humberside’s recent programme dedicated to these letters – it is the story of an ordinary boy, born in a different time and place, but still so recognisably normal that we relate to him even in today’s radically different world. An ordinary life, made extraordinary by the passage of time.  

Transcripts of the letters are available, but if you wish to view the original letters at the History Centre, the reference for the collection is C DILR and the descriptions are available to view on our online catalogue.


Katharine Newman 
Reader Assistant

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