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Hawthorne in Bebington (and Prioleau in Liverpool)

January 9, 2016

My wife and I recently moved to Bebington. It’s a wonderfully peaceful area and, as a bookworm, I enjoyed making this discovery while walking past the nearby Mayer Hall.

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This commemorative plaque describes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s visit to Bebington while serving as US Consul in Liverpool, when the city was vital to trading routes throughout the British Empire (apologies for the obstructive pole, there is building work currently going on at Mayer Hall).

Here’s the full text of Hawthorne’s journal entry ‘A Walk to Bebbington’, reproduced on the plaque:

Rock Ferry, August 29th.–Yesterday we all took a walk into the country. It was a fine afternoon, with clouds, of course, in different parts of the sky, but a clear atmosphere, bright sunshine, and altogether a Septembrish feeling. The ramble was very pleasant, along the hedge-lined roads in which there were flowers blooming, and the varnished holly, certainly one of the most beautiful shrubs in the world, so far as foliage goes. We saw one cottage which I suppose was several hundred years old. It was of stone, filled into a wooden frame, the black-oak of which was visible like an external skeleton; it had a thatched roof, and was whitewashed. We passed through a village,–higher Bebbington, I believe,–with narrow streets and mean houses all of brick or stone, and not standing wide apart from each other as in American country villages, but conjoined. There was an immense almshouse in the midst; at least, I took it to be so. In the centre of the village, too, we saw a moderate-sized brick house, built in imitation of a castle with a tower and turret, in which an upper and an under row of small cannon were mounted,–now green with moss. There were also battlements along the roof of the house, which looked as if it might have been built eighty or a hundred years ago. In the centre of it there was the dial of a clock, but the inner machinery had been removed, and the hands, hanging listlessly, moved to and fro in the wind. It was quite a novel symbol of decay and neglect. On the wall, close to the street, there were certain eccentric inscriptions cut into slabs of stone, but I could make no sense of them. At the end of the house opposite the turret, we peeped through the bars of an iron gate and beheld a little paved court-yard, and at the farther side of it a small piazza, beneath which seemed to stand the figure of a man. He appeared well advanced in years, and was dressed in a blue coat and buff breeches, with a white or straw hat on his head. Behold, too, in a kennel beside the porch, a large dog sitting on his hind legs, chained! Also, close beside the gateway, another man, seated in a kind of arbor! All these were wooden images; and the whole castellated, small, village-dwelling, with the inscriptions and the queer statuary, was probably the whim of some half-crazy person, who has now, no doubt, been long asleep in Bebbington churchyard.

The bell of the old church was ringing as we went along, and many respectable-looking people and cleanly dressed children were moving towards the sound. Soon we reached the church, and I have seen nothing yet in England that so completely answered my idea of what such a thing was, as this old village church of Bebbington.

The cottage Hawthorne refers to is Willow Cottage, and it is still every bit as beautiful and unique today as it was in Hawthorne’s time:


Oddly enough, this is not the first time I have accidentally stumbled across America’s ties to Liverpool and the surrounding area dating back to the Victorian era. In July of last year we held the ‘James Ellroy: Visions of Noir’ conference at the magnificent School of the Arts library at 19 Abercromby Square. It is now home to the University of Liverpool’s Department of English, but I didn’t realise until after the conference that in the nineteenth century it was the home of the Confederate financier Charles Kuhn Prioleau.

Hawthorne and Prioleau were on ideologically opposing sides of the American Civil War and, in many ways, the conflict would prove the undoing of both of them. Hawthorne had been recalled to the US before the outbreak of hostilities. He was ostracised in his native Massachusetts after writing the satirical piece ‘Chiefly About War Matters’ which was critical of the Union. Prioleau was one of the biggest Confederate supporters in Britain; his ‘contribution to the Confederate cause grew to sending supplies, weapons, and ammunition to those states, and finally to buying, equipping and crewing warships.’ Some of his actions at least had a humanitarian basis, as a recent article on the US Life and Limb exhibition stated Prioleau arranged ‘a five day grand bazaar at St George’s Hall to raise funds for the relief of wounded and imprisoned Confederate soldiers.’ However, Prioleau’s unflinching dedication to the Confederate cause eventually led to his bankruptcy, and some sources state he simply disappeared after the war, although this appears to be a simplification. His grave was discovered at Kensall Green Cemetary, London in the mid-1980s.

During the Ellroy conference, I was struck by how the beautiful Georgian architecture of 19 Abercromby Square reminded me of my visit to the James Ellroy archive at University of South Carolina. The USC campus in Columbia displays many architectural styles from building to building and is Heaven for anyone with even a passing interest in architecture. The connection it seems is not a coincidence. Prioleau had incorporated many architectural features into his Liverpool home that were common in his native South Carolina.

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