Vol 2 – No. 14 – April 1888 – Peggy Potts

MARGARET POTTS, better known as “Peggy Potts,” who, for many years, was one of the principal public characters of the town of Sunderland, died on Sunday, the 10th October, 1875, in a house in Aikenhead Square, on the Low Quay, aged eighty-six. So at least says her obituary in the local paper ; but it is commonly believed that she died in the workhouse. Peggy was a true “daughter of the soil,” for she had lived in the town all her life. Her maiden name was Havelock, and she was second cousin to the celebrated General Havelock, the hero of Lucknow, her father — a sailor, and afterwards a fisherman having been full cousin to the general’s father. Peggy’s husband, who predeceased her by several years, was likewise a fisherman, and latterly a pilot, and he had the reputation of being a somewhat lazy fellow, who was glad to supplement his gains by those of his more energetic wife. However this may have been, Peggy managed to make a “good fend” for herself.  That she was eccentric goes without saying, as the phrase is; but her eccentricity took a practical turn, which not only furthered her own ends in making a livelihood, but made her a universal favourite wherever she went. She was wonderfully ready-witted; and her command of the Sunderland vernacular, which she never dreamt of spoiling by any sort of refinement, was so perfect as to give a zest to every word she uttered.

Those who knew Peggy in her youth testified that she was a very handsome, well-favoured, buxom lass; and she retained to the last the traces of having been so. She was of middle stature, and rather stout. Her dress latterly, when attending to her usual vocation, was a blue bedgown, a flannel petticoat of the same colour, an old fashioned black silk bonnet that set off her comely face to advantage, a silk handkerchief round her neck, and a snow white apron. She was always remarkably clean — “as clean as a pin.”

For many years she made a living by selling fish and other things, and for some time she had a small shop in the Market, where, on Saturdays, she sold cheese. Her custom was to go to the wholesale establishment of Messrs. Joshua Wilson and Brothers, and there buy a quantity of stale cheese, which they let her have at a very cheap rate, as they could not sell it to their regular customers, though it was often of the finest and richest quality. This cheese she would sell at 4d. per pound when it was selling at l0d. in the shops, and good “peg” cheese she would let her friends have for 2d. per pound. One day a friend of the writers went to her stall, when she addressed him thus:— “Noo, then, hoo are ye the morin!” The reply being, “I am very bad i’ my stomach,” she instantly rejoined, “Eat a bit rotten cheese, hunny. Aa had a bit mesel this morin’, an’ aa’m nicely noo. Thor’s nowt like a bit o’ rotten cheese for mendin’ the stomach.”

In the old palmy days of contraband trade, Peggy is said to have turned over hundreds of pounds in the smuggling line. She had her regular customers whom she supplied with goods that had never paid toll to the Imperial Revenue; and no one could more deftly than Peggy outwit the custom-house officers, however keen on the scent. Also, when contraband stuff was not forthcoming, Peggy would go to old Solomon Chapman’s and get a temporary supply (of course along with a permit), and go round and dispose of it as smuggled.

Once upon a time, when she was tramping into the country with a small keg of whisky to serve a friend, she was met by an officer, who guessing what it was she carried, made her turn back, meaning to take her before his superiors. She went along quietly for a good way, when she begged the officer to walk forward a bit. He did so. No sooner was his back turned than she emptied the keg, re-filled it with water, and walked on quickly with it after the officer, on reaching whom she transferred it to his custody, telling him she was tired of carrying it. On arriving at the custom-house, the keg was found to contain nothing but the pure element. The laugh was turned against the officer, and Peggy came off chuckling.

Another time, when there was an uncommon scarcity of fish, owing to a continuance of rough weather preventing the fishermen from getting to sea, Peggy was passing along the sands in company with a friend, when they found a dead codling which had been washed off the rocks. She eagerly seized on it as a prize, and said she would make a good penny out of it. “Why, it’s not fresh,” said her friend. “That’s nowt,” replied Peggy; “aa’ll tyek it up to General Beckwith’s, an’ the hoosekeeper ‘ll jump at it. The cyuk can syeun makk’t aall reet. ” So saying, she lost no time in walking up to Silksworth, only calling at a butcher’s shop by the way, and daubing over the gills with blood, so as to give it a fresh look. The bait took, and Peggy pocketed a good price.

Peggy’s ready wit was unfailing. It was truly redolent of the place. Once in a rencontre with the late Mr. David Johnasson, when he treated her rather gruffly, she told him very sententiously that “London was ruled by Jarmins, and Sunderland by Jews, but still they were not te forget that they wor foreigners!”

A story is current that she once got into trouble through imputing incontinency to a woman of quality for which she was served with a citation from the Consistory Court of the Bishop of Durham, which she not only treated with contempt, but actually burnt. These ecclesiastical courts, however, were not to be defied with impunity, and Peggy, so it is said, was forthwith delivered over to the secular arm, lying for eighteen weeks in Durham Gaol, until released by the interposition of the good Rector Grey, whose memory is still green in Sunderland for his many acts of charity and mercy.

On the Saturday after the death of Henry Esmond, a well-known street preacher, who was a hunchbacked little man, with legs seemingly too long for his body, Peggy, meeting with an acquaintance, a member of the Methodist body, broke out characteristically with — ” Thoo’ll hev hard o’ powr Henry Esmond’s deeth, hunny. Aye, hunny, there’ll be a cruickt angel i’ hiven te-day.” Her belief in the immediate transmission of idiosyncrasies, both of body and mind, to the regions, whether of bliss or woe, beyond the grave, was as full and implicit as in the existence of the sun and moon.

Peggy had a characteristic way of expressing her dislikes. “Aa’ve hed a dream,” said she once, “a fearfu’ dream. Aa thowt aa wes in hell, an’ saw Boney there; an’ aa wasn’t surprised at that. An’ aa saw a lot o’ mair folks besides him, that aa knaa’d or disna knaa — aall bad rascals; an’ aa wasna surprised at that. But aa was surprised when aa saw Mr. Peters there!” Mr. Peters was Rector of Sunderland.

On the morning when the news arrived of the death of the Duke of Wellington, Peggy entered the shop of Mr. John Hills, grocer, High Street, when, finding that gentleman absent, she entered into a jocular conversation with the shop assistants. “Aa’ve some bonny dowters,” said she. “Aa wish some o’ ye wad come doon an’ look at them. Aa’m sure they’ll myek good wives, if they only get canny, decent men.” While thus speaking, in came Mr. Hills, who was a very sedate, solemn, and strictly religious man. Instantly Peggy changed her tune. “Aa wus just sayin’ te yor lads,” she observed, “that Satan ‘ll hev a bonny job in hand te-day. The Dyeuk o’ Wellin’ton’s deed, an’ ne doot gyen doon belaw; an’ whatll be the upshot when he meets wi’ Boney? Aa doot the Aad Yen ‘ll ha’ to get iron cyages myed for them, te shut them up in, an’ keep them from teerin’ each other’s thrapples oot.”

Peggy was an early riser, and never was off her feet from sunrise to sunset. Here is the way in which she used to arouse laggards in cases when, as after a storm on the coast, valuable things were to be had for the picking up — first come first served (the reference is to a man named Billy Peacock, a fishmonger of her acquaintance) :— “Billy, get up, ye greet lyeazy beast! What are ye lyin’ snoozin’ an’ snorin’ there for? There’s coals i’ the Bight as big as byesins ! Get up, an’ take yor share o’ them.”

She was frequently before the magistrates, but in most cases rather in the character of an informant or witness than as a misdemeanant. Many were the scenes enacted in the police court which derived their chief attraction from her unrestrained self-confidence and mother wit “What’s your husband ?” asked Mr. Joseph Simpson (vulgarly called Joe) one day, when she appeared before him. “A pilot,” was the answer. “How long has he been a pilot?” ” Ever since he was as big as a lobster,” shouted Peggy. When a new magistrate came to sit on the bench, Peggy would say, “Aye, Mr.________ , hunny, aa knaa’d yor father, an’ he was a daycent man; the best wish aa can wish ye is that ye may come up te him.”

Her name was once taken in vain by the editor of a local paper, who, on the occasion of two solicitors’ wives having a quarrel and a match at fisticuffs and eye scratching, took the liberty to say the melee was “worthy of Peggy Potts.” On hearing this, the irate fish woman hastened to the newspaper office, and demanded to see the editor. “Bring him oot te me,” said she, “an aa’ll suen give him a settlin’. The impident rascal, te compare me tiv onny o’ yer Brumagum ladies. Aall let him knaa whose nyem he’s been tyekin liberties wi’. Bring him oot, therecklies.” “But he’s engaged, Peggy,” said the man in the office, “and you cannot see him just now.” “Aa must see him, though,” replied the virago, “an’ see him aa will” “If you mean to prosecute us for a libel,” said the cleric, “you should send your attorney.” “Them’s my ‘tornies, sor,” shouted Peggy, brandishing her ten fingers, armed with good long nails. But after some further parley, she was sent away pacified, only declaring that she reckoned it a perfect disgrace to be likened to two such upsetting trash as the belligerent solicitors’ wives.

Peggy’s favourite seat on a fine summer’s night was the steps of the Rendezvous, next door to where she lived. Here she knitted stockings and gossiped with her neighbours. This Rendezvous was formerly the quarters of the Press Gang, and the captives used to be conveyed secretly away through passages and stairs in the rear up to the High Street.

She was naturally very proud of her relationship to General Havelock. Speaking of him she would say: — “Ye knaa he’s yen of wor family.” When introducing herself to strangers, it was her habit to say she was “Margaret Havelock, cuzzin te the greet general.” She was fond of airing her grievances in not having been rightly treated in respect to pecuniary matters by her blood relations; and she often interviewed the officers at the Barracks for the purpose of detailing, in her characteristic way, the peculiar claims which she thought she had on the consideration of the higher powers. In her old age, she still retained the lines and traces of the beauty of her younger days, and that not without a certain air of determination in her countenance, accompanied, as some one has said, “with a promptness, decision, and energy in her actions which might serve to help those who saw the Havelock in a bed-gown and blue skirt to form some idea of the Havelock in tartan trews.”

The Sunderland lads used to annoy the old lady in her latter years by shouting after her —

“Peggy Potts sent to jail,

Selling fish without a tail”

Holding up a large gully to her tormentors, Peggy would exclaim— “If aa ony could catch ye, aa wad cut yer throat frae ear te ear, ye scoundrels.”

Peggy was a great favourite with the distinguished strangers who visited Sunderland from time to time, as well as with the most respectable of the town’s folks, who were uniformly courteous and kind to her, and most of whom could enter heartily into the humour of the genial old woman. George Hudson, the Railway King, might be seen walking arm-in-arm with her at election times; and she was always one of the foremost women in Sunderland to take off the men’s shoes on Easter Monday. The following paragraph, cut from an old Sunderland Times, will illustrate this curious custom: — “The fisherwomen of Sunderland, having ascertained that Mr. Hudson would arrive at Sunderland on Easter Monday, determined that the hon. member should ‘ pay for his shoes’; and accordingly a party of them proceeded to Brockley Whins, where, on the hon. gentleman changing carriages, he was at once pounced upon, and told that he could not enter the railway carriage until he had complied with the ancient custom. Having done so with his accustomed munificence (50s.), he was allowed to proceed. On his arrival at Monkwearmounth, another batch, headed by the redoubtable Peggy Potts, not aware that they had been outwitted, were found in waiting; and, much disappointed, gave vent to loud denunciations at being so cleverly ‘done’ by the nine adroit members of the sisterhood of fisherwomen who had proceeded to Brockley Whins, and who, we must not omit to mention, rode home in first-class carriages, highly elated with their success.”

A few years before her death, Peggy was removed to the workhouse. She was very indignant that the Queen should let the cousin of Greneral Havelock go to such a place. The matron of the workhouse, in assigning her a dormitory, had to place her in the bed next the door, the room being full; and Peggy complained bitterly next day of the draught she felt, and demanded to have her bed changed. But when the matron pointed out the state of the case, and asked her, “Whose bed must I take to put you in ?” the poor woman saw the force of the appeal, and resigned herself to her fate.

One day, a well-known doctor in the town met Peggy when she had got leave to be out, and she began to entertain him with heavy complaints as to the hardships of workhouse life. And on his manifesting some impatience to get away, she said: “Oh, doctor, hunny, could thoo give us thrippence to get a little bit o’ tea; for tea, thoo knaas, is the staff o’ life to a poor aad body like me.” The money was, of course, freely disbursed, and the doctor proceeded to make his calls. But, on his return, he saw Peggy coming out of a public-house. “Ah, Peggy, “said he, “I thought you told me that tea was the staff of life.” “Wey, se it is, hunny,” answered Peggy “but thoo knaas whisky’s life itsel”

A clever young Sunderland artist — Mr. J. Gillis Brown, jun.— has contributed the sketches which accompany this article.

William Brookie

Peggy Potts

Peggy Potts House

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