The boot repairer and the beatster

I’m making good progress with my latest Thomas Radwinter adventure, possible called ‘Saltpans’; there is an story-line which involves a zeppelin raid on the East Anglian coast in 1915 – which actually happened, it’s not imagined by me! Two airships, the L3 and the L4 bombed various places along the coast which resulted in the first deaths ever caused by an air-raid. Two people died in Great Yarmouth, Samuel Alfred Smith a fifty-three year old deaf boot repairer and seventy-two year old Martha Taylor who was a net repairer.

As usual when I saw their names I immediately began to wonder about who they were – Samuel never married but he has an elderly niece who was present when a blue plaque went up to commemorate the event and the deaths of Samuel and Martha. I found details of Samuel in the 1911 census for Yarmouth; he was described as a boot repairer, working with leather something soles – I can’t make out the ‘something’ on the original record, and it isn’t transcribed. Samuel – I wonder if he was called ‘Sam’ by friends and family – was living with his parents, Esther Harriet and William Pye Smith and his two nieces Elise Ade and Hilda Agnes. His father was a beach man – not sure exactly what that was, but Yarmouth was a fishing and shipping town and no doubt there were lots of smaller craft along the beach… but I’m not sure!

Here is what a beachman actually was:

Going back to the previous census, Sam is noted as being deaf, so maybe that came on when he was in his forties. In this census he is a shoe repairer – different from a boot repairer? Probably not. Now his father’s occupation becomes clearer, beach boatman it says. The information is the same for the previous census too – and again no mention of Samuel being deaf. The 1871 census shows us that he had some siblings, Agnes and William but no other details. William Pye Smith married Esther Agnes George in 1858; I can’t find an exact date of birth for him, it may have been about 1840, and he may have died in 1921, aged eighty-one… I can’t be sure!

Martha Taylor who also died in the air raid was a net mender; in the census of 1901 she appears a s a ‘beatster’… a what? Does it mean ‘beater’? But of what? Written faintly beside the entry it says ‘canvas’ – was she something to do with making canvas? A beater in a the cloth making industry was someone who trampled it in water as part of the fulling process… a tough and unpleasant job, is this what Martha did? No, no she didn’t, with a little more research it becomes clear that a beatster is to do with the net-making industry – which is what poor old Martha was still doing when she was killed by the bomb from the zeppelin.

Read up about beatsters:

In 1881, there was Martha, living with her sister Jane who was also a beatster, and brother James who was a shipwright, and their niece and nephew, William and Alice Humphrey. In 1871, Martha was living at home with her parents, John and Elizabeth, her baby niece and nephew, and three brothers and sisters – it gives no occupations for any of them.  ten years previous to that, Martha – noted as Mary Martha – was living at home with her parents and brothers and sisters; one brother is a blacksmith, her father and another brother were ship’s carpenters. In the first census, that of 1841, the Taylors have seven children living at home, including little Martha – here named Matilda. her father was a shipwright, two bothers were blacksmiths, another was a caulker.

Both Samuel Alfred and Martha Mary who died in the zeppelin raid were ordinary, hard-working people, from ordinary hard-working families – like so many of their friends and neighbours. They only found fame and are remembered today because they were the first victims ever of an air-raid.

Some of the information I have found here might make it into ‘Saltpans‘ in the meantime, if you haven’t read my Thomas Radwinter novels, here is a link:

The first in the series, Radwinter’, is available in paperback:


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