John Howson a Penrith coach builder

John Howson began his career as a Penrith coach builder with a hiccup, and ended it in misfortune. Here is his story.

Who was John Howson?

Perhaps it’s not surprising, when researching the Victorian past of a town the size of Penrith, that ‘the same names’ crop up quite a lot. 

For I’d ‘seen’ John Howson twice before this post.

In 1871, John, aged 14, was a groom. He was living in Little Dockray, with his father William Howson the bellman. mother Elizabeth, sister Eliza, and brother Pearson Howson.

There was also an adult boarder, and Frederick Hodgson, aged one, ‘boarder’ – likely the child of a widow or unmarried mother, paying Mrs Howson to look after him. Sadly, Frederick died the following year, so it would mean paying for his birth certificate to find out more.


John Howson’s apprenticeship

John’s brother Pearson Howson was a saddler. Maybe Pearson was working for Robert Graham Pears, who had a saddlery and a coach building business. Maybe it just looked a good opportunity on the family’s doorstep. But at some point between 1871 and 1874, John Howson signed an apprenticeship agreement with Robert Graham Pears, and a new career was born.

One that nearly derailed!

Master and apprentice, and vice versa

A newspaper article of May 26, 1874 tells us:

‘John Howson was charged with leaving the service of his master, Mr. R. G. Pears, coachbuilder, to whom he was apprenticed, without just cause.’

Meanwhile, John Howson had a counter-claim: that his employer’s second son, Robert junior, had assaulted him.

The facts, as detailed by the several witnesses, were that on the above morning the younger Pears went to the work-room for the purpose of taking the men’s time, when an altercation took place between him and Howson

‘It was alleged on the part of Pears that in consequence of the insolent language of Howson, young Pears. hit the boy over the head with a memorandum book.

‘Howson’s case was that young Pears struck at the lad over the head with his hand, and used such violence as justified him in leaving.’

Both cases were dismissed, and the Bench ordered Howson to return to his employment. John would have been 17, ‘young Robert’ 20, which may account for the former’s lack of respect. John Howson may have found it hard to go back, but it spared his family the expense of a breach of his contract. And it ensured his future.

Starting out for himself

In 1881, John was still living at 12 Little Dockray, with his now widowed mother, a married sister Mary Ann Jackson, her daughter Elizabeth Jackson, and another (to John) niece, Amy Bell, aged just nine months. A year later, he married Mary Hullock. And, his apprenticeship complete, he took the brave step of starting out in business – in partnership with a man called William Robinson.

Victoria Coach Works

Sept 1882.  Victoria Coach Works. TRANSFER OF BUSINESS. ROBINSON AND HOWSON (From the firms of Sisson and Pears) beg to announce that they have taken the above works, lately carried on by Benjamin Sisson, and hope by strict personal attention to all orders entrusted to them to merit a continuance and extension of that patronage bestowed upon their predecessor. Repairs neatly and promptly executed. 4, VICTORIA PLACE, CARLISLE, 

By 1883, Messrs Robinson and Howson were exhibiting dogcarts, whitechapels etc at Penrith Agricultural Show. The various census returns show William Robinson was born about 1861 (at Unthank) and described himself mostly as a coach painter.

1887 April. 26. ROBINSON AND HOWSON, COACHBUILDERS, VICTORIA COACH WORKS, VICTORIA ROAD, PENRITH, In thanking their Customers for past favours during the five years they have been in business, take this opportunity of informing them that owing to increase of business they have been compelled to build a spacious SHOW ROOM, where they intend keeping a STOCK OF CARRIAGES, itc., with the latest improvement& SPECIAL DESIGNS MADE TO ORDER.

The Victoria Road works had been a coachworks for several decades: first occupied by a Thomas Bland, till his death in 1853; then for a few years by Robert Graham Pears, until he moved to the town centre.

All was going well…

In October 1897, John Howson’s (four-bedroom, rented) house in Victoria Road was advertised for sale by auction, 

‘along with the extensive business premises adjoining, now in the occupation of Messrs ; Robinson and Howson. Coachbuilders, comprising yard. with a carriage Loft over, Blacksmith’s Shop, with Storage Loft, Show Room and Office and 2 W.Cs.’

Whoever bought the premises, R&H stayed on: they were reported in February 1898 for causing obstructions of the roadway and pathway, leaving traps there while being repaired or waiting to be repaired. John Howson refused to move them, telling the council surveyor they had permission for them to be there. 

…Or not

In March 1899, the partnership between William Robinson and John Howson came to an end, after 27 years. It was dissolved by mutual consent, with John Howson informing the public he would carry on the business ‘without interruption’.

That didn’t work out entirely smoothly from the start. In November that year, John Howson went to court to claim money from a long-standing customer. The judge ‘could not make head nor tail’ of the accounts and despaired over how to arrive at the correct figure for the judgement. The accounts books, according to John Howson, had been kept by William Robinson.

In March 1903, John Howson was nominated as a candidate for Penrith Urban Council. A month later, he was in trouble for late payment of his rates!

The end of the business

A year later, he was advertising a list of carts for sale… a month before:

Coachbuilder’s business for sale, for the purpose of winding up an estate

The business was to be sold as a going concern – but a few weeks later, another advertisement said the conveyances and stock-in-trade were to be sold, ‘under deed of assignment’. 

And in July 1904, it all became sadly clear: 

In bankruptcy no 11 of 1904, John Howson of Victoria Road, Penrith, receiving order made July 6.

It seems those messy account books hid the fact the business was already in trouble, before John Howson paid William Robinson £100 for his share of the partnership. By the time of the bankruptcy, he owed five years’ rent on the premises. And ‘there was no trade from November 1903 to March 1904.’

In hindsight, he thought he’d have been better to call it quits in 1899, as the business was probably then already insolvent.

John Howson looks to have died towards the end of 1908. For sure, he had died by 1911: his wife and children William, George, Jane and Helena are living at 25 Great Dockray. Mary is a seamstress, and has lost two of seven children. 

As for former partner William Robinson… the 1901 and 1911 censuses show him back to painting coaches as a worker, rather than employer.