'A Conversation With Margaret Blackwell' by Andrew Ganley
Those interested in the celebrated British artist LS Lowry are likely to have read about his close relationship with a namesake Carol Lowry and her mother Mattie. Carol was at the time thirteen years old when she met Lowry following a letter written to him. Carol lived with her mother in Rochdale Manchester and whilst there was no blood relationship she and Lowry became lifelong companions until his death in 1976. The relationship saw the growth of Carol as an artist in her own right and must also have also given the private and reclusive Lowry a source of comfort and pleasure in his remaining nineteen years.
LS Lowry and his protege Carole
Whilst Mattie and Carol lived in Rochdale they would spend many of Carol's school summer holidays from the age of five at the small seaside resort of Knott -End On Sea. Whilst only 60 or so miles away from Rochdale the quiet coastal village of Knott End would have seemed a world away with its few shops, surrounding green fields and spectacular sea views of Morecambe Bay set against the backdrop of the West Lakeland hills.
Through the summer months of the school holidays and the northern mill town 'wakes' it was usual for the local residents of Knott End to take in 'visitors', often these were family's from Blackburn, Bolton, Bury, Wigan and Rochdale. Traditionally each mill town would hold its holiday 'wake' at different times throughout the summer, and this would ensure a steady stream of visitors to the seaside lodging houses where guests would receive full board and a comfortable stay for 10 shillings. This was well before the days when package holidays offering cheap escapes abroad changed rural English holidaying forever. The prime spot for rooms and board in Knott End would be the 'Esplanade' a road running down the sea front along which were a number of spacious three storey terrace houses that would each hold up to 20 people in the height of the summer period.
The Promenade later to become the Esplanade
You wouldn't have recognised that the homes on the Esplanade were summer guest houses as there were no sign- fronts or showy advertisement hoardings unlike its famous neighbour Blackpool. Landlady's in Knott End were more choosy and did things a little more discreetly and apart from the occasional advert in the local paper, they would pride themselves on word of mouth recommendations and happy returning customers. One such landlady was Margaret Blackwell who grew up in the lodging house which she would later run herself. Margaret remembers being 7 years old when her mother Rhoda secured an annuity to purchase one of the big three storey houses on the 'Esplanade'. This was no mean feat as Margaret's father was unable to work due to sickness, which left her mother to provide and care for nine children and bring in money for their upkeep. Moving to the 'front' meant that there would be an opportunity for Rhoda to make a better living for herself and her family. Margaret recalls the move taking them nearer to her Grandmother and Aunt who also lived on the Esplanade and Margaret describes happy childhood memories visiting her Grandmother after school for a slice of toast and a chat before going home to help out her mother with the guest meals.
The houses on the Esplanade were originally designed to be 'gentleman's houses' with rooms for servant quarters and with built in communication bells. It isn't clear whether or for how long they were actually used for this purpose but they made ideal houses for summer lodgings with numerous rooms, two or more bathrooms, high ceilings and beautiful views out to Morecambe Bay. Margaret recalls in her school lunch hour and at home-time that she would be busy either looking after guests or undertaking Winter cleaning and mending. Despite being selected for the Grammar school examination Margaret knew her job would be to continue to help her mother and on finishing school in 1945 she duly took on her role of helping run the busy house. However, Margaret's apprenticeship was cut all too short and after a year and a half of leaving school she found herself nursing her sick mother shortly before she died leaving Margaret and her father to manage the house. Margaret's brother's had since left the family home for work and to bring up their own family's and so with her poorly father, pressing bills and a big house to
run Margaret had to step into very big shoes all at the age of 16. Margaret did just that and ran a successful and highly respected boarding house through the 1950's and 1960's.
Mattie Lowry and her young daughter Carol were recommended to seek out Mrs Blackwell's hospitality and this they did and from the age of five Carol and her mother came to know Margaret well as they visited every summertime. Margaret watched Carol grow through her school years into a kind and caring young woman with a skill for drawing and sketching - she would sketch Margaret and later she sketched Margaret's own daughter Sylvia.
Mattie on the other hand was a comic and lively woman who would bring any room full of people alive with laughter she was not much over 4 feet tall and Margaret's own generosity and skilfulness as a seamstress was at times called upon to make alterations in her clothing and with an inside leg measurement of only 19" this itself was a source of gentle fun.
Margaret recounts how one summer when Mattie was convalescing in hospital and Carol was sent up to Knott End on her own to help out with the summer visitors, giving Carol a reliable place to stay, a summer holiday and to provide Margaret with some much needed help coping with another years full occupancy.
The summer holidays at Knott End continued throughout Carol's childhood and from the mid 1950's Lowry would travel by taxi from Sunderland, where he would holiday, to visit Carol and her mother Mattie in Knott End. Lowry would regularly arrive unannounced and as well as day trips travelling around the area Carol and 'Uncle Laurie' would walk down the half mile long stretch of sea front road with its view out over Morecambe Bay. They would walk to end of the road and the concrete jetty, and look over the brief stretch of water to the sandy beach at Fleetwood with the North Euston hotel and monument in easy view. Lowry and Carol would have walked alongside the river and sat on the river bank looking at the ferry on its brief trip back and forth across the mouth of the river Wyre fetching and carrying holiday makers and locals across the water. Once alighted at Knott End jetty the travellers would have walked up the jetty to the village perhaps stoping at the nearby Knott End cafe for an ice cream. It was on such visits walking down to the end of the Esplanade that Lowry sketched the local ferry boat.
A photograph of the Knott End ferry arriving at the slipway delivering passengers
The Ferry Slip remains in use today and hasn't greatly changed.
Lowry would have likely sketched such a scene on a scrap of paper which would later become the subject of his painting 'Jetty at Knott End' (1957).
Despite intermittent threats of closure over more recent years the Knott End ferry
continues to sail the brief journey across the mouth of the River Wyre.
From the vantage point of the slipway itself Lowry sketched the arrival of the ferry, which was to become 'The Lunevale" (1954)
The same scene today with the addition of railings a new ferry boat but
considerably fewer visitors.
Margaret recounts Lowry's tall stooping figure and pale face as not unlike the characters in his paintings, as he became a regular summertime visitor to her home to spend time with Carol and Mattie she remembers him being a quiet but pleasant man with a particular fondness for her cream teas, which either Mattie or Margaret would prepare. There was no evidence of any 'tools of the trade' however and he never set up easel in the village or sea front but she did recount he would scribble pencil sketches on bits of paper from his pocket whilst out with Carol. Lowry would love the views but he would also have an eye out for 'oddities' as he walked with Carol, these were unusual looking people who Lowry might sketch from memory and then perhaps transpose into his paintings. Clearly Lowry had an acute artists eye for the unusual and perhaps he also had an affinity for characters who would seem on the periphery of life which perhaps mirrored his own sense of being an outsider.
As well as spending time in the village Lowry, Carol and Mattie would spent days travelling around the local area. Lowry already had knowledge of the North West as he had visited Lytham St Annes and other local towns with his parents as a child. It is said he had a particular fondness for the Fylde landscape and prior to his visits to Knott End to see Carol he had already sketched views of St Annes and Hardhorn near Blackpool (see paintings of Fylde Landscape 1918, Lytham Lancashire 1918, Regent Street Lytham 1922 and Fylde Farm 1943, Pier at lytham 1960, Yachts at Lytham1963)
Lowry's visits to see Carol during her Knott End holidays continued through the 1950's and whilst his recognition and respect as a painter continued to grow the routine of his visits didn't change although Margaret was sure to give them their own day room and privacy following their day out. This must have been hard enough with a busy house full of hungry visitors but Margaret prided herself on providing all her guests with discretion and privacy not least Carol and Mattie who by then she had come to know as well as her own family.
There was little interference to Lowry and Carol but Margaret recounts a time driving out of the village to nearby Glasdon Dock with Carol and Mattie when they realised they were being followed by press reporters. Margaret asked for the car to be stopped and went over to the 'paparazzi' of the day and politely but firmly told them to leave them alone to which they turned tail and never bothered them again. Clearly there was no need for 'super injunctions' and 'gagging orders' when you have a Knott End Landlady of the calibre of Margaret Blackwell.
The Knott End summer holiday visits ended once Carol had left school and became a trainee teacher on the Isle of Man but the friendship between her and Lowry didn't wane and on his death he left much of his estate to Carol. The ending of the summer holiday visits however were not the last that Margaret saw of Carol and Mattie and in 1978 Mattie herself moved to Knott End to live in a bungalow near the village shops. From this time Mattie was a regular visitor and friend of Margaret and would keep Margaret informed about her daughter Carol' s career and news. Carol herself continued to visit Mattie from the Isle of Man and while this was less frequent she would still find time to visit Margaret also. Margaret was probably the last landlady on the Esplanade to give up letting rooms which she did in 1970 and started work at Windsor Woolies in Garstang. The holiday trade to Knott End by this time had greatly diminished with the rise in private transport, foreign holidays and at least locally the growth of nearby caravan parks meant that there was little call for holiday rooms.
Mattie continued to be something of a character in Knott End village and even today a number of the locals are still able to recollect her diminutive size but larger than life humour and quick wit. Mattie passed away in the early 1980's and Margaret recalls that Mattie's funeral was the last time she met with Carol when they we're able to fondly share the memories of Mattie and their summer holidays at Knott End.
Despite the association of Knott End On Sea with Lowry and Carole, his clear fondness of
the village and his paintings and sketches of the area there was no public
recognition of this in the village itself. A campaign started in 2010 run by Tony Heyes
(http://sonicpathfinder.org), Gordon Heald and myself in order to petition the local
council, the Lowry Estate and the owners of his Knott End paintings to allow us to
commemorate the painters links with the village and the surrounding area.
In winter 2014 I was contacted by the local council with news that both Wyre and Preesall Town Council were planning to fund and build a statue to commemorate Lowry's links with the village. Work began on the statue in July 2015 and the official unveiling ceremony was on 11th September 2015 ( http://youtu.be/tmVqXecik3k.)
The statue is a stainless steel 'matchstick man' and his dog taken from the Knott End Jetty painting, information about the making of the statue is to be found at (http://www.wec-group.com/news/lowry-tribute-sculpture.html). The statue is sited near to the place where Lowry may well have made brief pencil sketches as he and Carol enjoyed ice cream from the nearby Knott End Cafe.
At the request of the council I submitted a passage of text to be used for the commemorative plaque alongside the statue unfortunately only a brief section was actually used. However the full passage is :
This is where the celebrated northern painter LS Lowry (1887- 1976) would have stood to make brief pencil sketches of the ferry and its occupants travelling to and from Fleetwood during his summer visits through the 1950's and early 1960's. Whilst Lowry is renowned for his industrial paintings of 'matchstick' men and women his paintings around this time start to include many rural and coastal scenes and and we like to think that his visits to the village of Knott End and the beautiful coastline of the North West inspired some of this work. Lowry's sketches of the ferry drawn at this spot later became the the basis of his paintings 'Jetty at Knott End' (1957) and 'The Ferry Slip at Knott End' (1954).