Following me Father’s footsteps, I’m following me dear old Dad…
Of the nine children born to Edward and Mary Dyer over twenty years between 1812 and 1832 only two were boys, both called Edward, and only Edward William, the second boy survived childhood. Edward William (Danny Dyers’s Great Great Great Grandfather) was born in 1823, when old London Bridge was still standing, and a Waterman could still make a decent living ferry people through the tidal race of its narrow arches. Unsurprisingly, to paraphrase the song by the cross dressing Victorian music hall songstress Vesta Tilley, “…he was following in his Father’s foot steps, he followed his dear old Dad”, and indeed he did, he was apprenticed as a Waterman to his Father as a boy, but by early adulthood Edward William had realised that the pickings from this trade would be slim, London Bridge was now easily passable for the smaller steam boats coming up the Thames, and quays were being built out into the stream to allow people to be easily put ashore without the need for Watermen to get them there.
So Edward William decided that if you can’t beat ’em, you have to join ’em, and moved into an up and coming industry in the ship yards of Poplar as a Boiler Maker. Boiler making was basic riveting and metal bashing to make the boilers that powered every steam ship on the river, and that carried Great Britain’s trade across the world. The work was in high demand and ranged from unskilled metal bashing, to semi-skilled riveting. No strangers to muscular work, Watermen with broad backs and strong arms, and contacts in the Docks found it easy to move from their whereas to take up the hammers in the ship yards to turn metal into works of steam combustion, and the wages were steady, men knew what they would take home, when they would clock on and when they would clock off, they had turned from self employed water taxis to wage earning, industrial artisans. Boilermakers were skilled, and compared to many of the trades in the Docks, could be creative, and offered an element of autonomy in their work outside of simple muscle power. The other interesting point is that Edward William moved into this trade immediately after the aptly named, Commercial, or London and Blackwell Railway, was built linking Blackwell and Limehouse to Fenchurch St station. As we shall see, this pattern of docks and new railways would be a pattern of employment criteria for Edward William for many years.
London was booming, there was work for any able bodied man or woman, or child, who wanted it, provided they would work for fairly low wages. To this magnet for the poorly off flocked labourers and servants from all over the country, and in the late 1840s whilst labouring in the Docks Edward William met Jane Maria Sparks, a Labourer’s daughter from Cosham near Portsmouth. Jane Maria had left home to find work in London, and had instead found Edward William, strong, self assured and muscular, a man who’s family had lived in Poplar for more than a hundred years, well known in the area, he was not getting any younger at twenty seven, and liked the look of the fresh faced country girl, of seventeen, so much so that by 1850 she was pregnant, with his first son Edward Thomas James Dyer, but the Boiler maker did the right thing, and married Jane Maria at Christ Church on a sunny day 30th June 1850.
Life was hard in the Docks, but skilled men could still make a good living if they were prepared to travel to the bigger opportunities taking their in demand skills with them, and Edward William with his small family of Jane Maria and their son Edward Thomas James in tow would do just that. Opportunity first called in Folkestone Kent in the early 1850s, which had
grown on the back of railways and cross channel travel in steamships, followed by Portsea in 1852 at the burgeoning
Royal Dockyards of Portsmouth, where Jane Maria’s Father worked, and here the couple would have their second son Alfred William.
After Portsea, the Family travelled to Lowestoft in Suffolk in the mid-1850s (pictured below), where ship building and engineering works were booming, once again due to the coming of the railways which had boosted fishing and steamship shipbuilding, very similar to the activity at Folkestone, and given that the railways at both Folkestone and Lowestoft were developed by Sir Samuel Morton Peto, it could be that Edward William was contracted to one of Sir Samuel’s companies, travelling to where need was greatest for boilermakers to work on steam trains and steam ships.
The Family’s stay in Lowestoft was mixed, work was good, and Edward William was in a good place career wise, but in 1856 and 1858 they would lose two of their children; Esther Maria, who was less than a year old, and Alfred William at six years old. After the deaths of the children, the Dyers were no doubt happy to put Lowestoft behind them, but reluctant to have to leave their two children in the graveyard at Mutford, but life must go on, and they were back in Poplar in 1859, but within a year, Edward William takes the family to Minster next to Sheerness, a Royal Naval Dockyard on the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames Estuary. This was the same year that the Railway arrived in Sheppey, so Edward William was once again specialising in working at ports that were being connected to the Railway System. Leaving Lowestoft obviously helped the family, as from then on no more children died in childhood.
By 1864 Edward William has moved the family back to London, to Limehouse, where he was working in the docks as plater and Iron Worker building iron Ships. This was a step down in status from a boiler maker, and more likely related to riveting on large ship builds, rather than the more skilled work he had done previously. But the family thrived, they would have another seven children in Poplar in the 1860s and 1870s. Edward William at 48 and his eldest son Edward Thomas became unemployed Iron Shipbuilders in 1871, and would need to work through hard times outside of the family’s control, The world economy started to go into a long depression caused by speculation in Germany and Austria on the back of massive over ambitious speculation sparked by Germany’s convincing win over France in the Franco-Prussian War, investment poured in and was lost through over-ambition, greed, and fraud, having a knock on effect to economies across the world. At the same time that this was happening shipbuilding had started to move from Iron to Steel ships, making it harder for skilled muscle power to compete with machine tools, and there had also been a swing in the concentration of shipbuilding from the Thames to Scotland and the North East of England, where there was easier access to coal fields and iron mines to produce steel nearer to shipyards.
But life is strange, and when Edward William does find work again it is back in his old skilled trade as a boiler maker, and for the next twenty years Edward William would variously work as a boiler maker, a plater, labourer, and iron ship builder, always in the Docks of Poplar, and turning his hand to whatever paid for the burgeoning family. edward would continue working in the Docks well into his 60s, and would die in 1896 at the age of 73, his wife Jane Maria would outlive him by 9 years, also dining at 73 years of age in 1905. Both died in Poplar, surrounded by their extended family.
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