By Maurice Rigby
Robert Egan was born in Standish Street, Chorley, on September 20 1846, the eldest son of a builder's labourer James and Elizabeth Egan nee Snape, and was baptised at Saint Gregory's Roman Catholic Church one week later.
The public health conditions in Chorley were in a terrible state during the late 1840's and early 1850's, with the local River Chor carrying most of the sewerage. What water supplies that were around came from very old wells and springs, with the odd private water pump like the one situated in Standish Street with a charge of a 1d (one penny) a week to use it.
This photo shows Captain Semmes with two of the five boys who were on the ship. We are pretty certain that the boy on the left is Thomas Parker and we would like to think that the “grumpy” one is Robert Egan
Typhus had hit the surrounding streets of Chorley in 1847 with Standish Street taking most of the brunt of it, and by November Cholera added to the misery. The Public Health Act of 1848, and other present Laws had yet to provide proper improvement's to the town. So the ratepayers of Chorley decided to come together to set up a comprehensive Improvement Act for the town. This act that was finally passed in 1853 with the setting up of a commission consisting of local worthies from commerce and industry for the benefit and well-being of the townspeople. By the end of the 1850's new sewers and drainage systems were in place, and the town's health started to improve immensely.
Chorley's Irish community centred on Standish Street where young Robert was born, and would earn the nickname of "Little Ireland" or "Club Street". As the cotton mills went up at the latter end of the 18th and the turn of the 19th century, so did the shops, taverns and housing around it. Standish Street had two cotton mills both owned by the family name of Lightoller, and the local inn there was the Hare and Hounds, a tavern well known for its occasional drunken riots. Attitudes to the local Irish community were mixed as they were elsewhere. Riots occurred in 1850 and 1864 in Standish Street between the Irish on one side and the Orange Order on the other, with the latter assuming some sort of armed uprising from the Irish despite the lack of evidence to prove this theory. This toughened up young Egan's early life in Chorley, being educated at the local school while his mother worked in one of the cotton mills in her street. By 1861 at the age of 14 he too worked at the local mill as a cotton piecer, a risky job of leaning over the spinning machines piecing back the broken cotton threads again. Children worked long hours at the mills despite the 1840's legislation set up to prevent this, though some employers still found ways to avoid the law by making children work their lunch breaks to clean the machinery sometimes resulting in the occasional accident. The difficulty and hardships of the day weighed heavily on Egan's young shoulders as it did with most children.
During the American Civil War the Lancashire towns were badly hit by the "cotton famine", when supplies of raw cotton would start to dwindle in the mills. At the beginning of the war the Southern States had exported 1,261,400,000 pounds of raw cotton but by the end of the year this had dropped to 533,100,000 pounds, as the Northern blockade started to take effect.
Left: An 1862 newspaper Illustration showing people waiting in line for food and coal tickets at a district Provident Society office during the Cotton Famine.
This would affect the Lancashire towns and its workforce who were reliant on the mills, the majority of the
se being Irish men, women and children. By October 1861 the mills were either forced to go on short time, or even closure, with people getting laid off work and the reality of starvation and hunger staring them in the face. Chorley's poor law guardians began to see the first signs of relief for the poorest of its townspeople with January 1862 registering claims of 70% far reaching the limits for that month, and by February this had climbed even further. This hardship resulted in a collapse in trade for many cotton manufacturers, though Chorley did benefit from the cotton famine in other ways. A lot of men out of work found useful paid work by other means, as unskilled labour on projects for the public good, building new roads and planting trees. By April 1863 the Standish Street Mill opened up again putting 350 men, women, and children back into work, as an alternative supply of poor quality Indian cotton was used, though the blockade runners still managed to get some American cotton in.
Egan seeking work elsewhere journeyed to Liverpool and by August 1862 had stowed away aboard the "Bahama" moored on the River Mersey. During the voyage to the Azores he surfaced and signed the articles on board with the rate of pay of one pound a month as a "boy" seaman, payment made to his then agent Jane Miller/Millan.
At the Azores and a rendezvous with the "290", he enlisted in the Confederate Navy on board the now commissioned CSS Alabama on August 24. He was not a popular lad on board being disliked by both the officers and crew and would on occasions get into trouble during his brief career on board. It was two weeks into the cruise of the Alabama when it was noticed the ships cat had gone missing, and Egan was immediately suspected of knowing of its location. His punishment was to be spread eagled barefooted in the mizzen rigging until he would confess to the offence. According to Lieutenant Arthur Sinclair in his book "Two Years on the Alabama", he was holding out quite well denying the charge against him. That morning however, a sail was spotted on the horizon, and the officer of the deck ordered all hands to quarters giving chase in pursuit of the mystery vessel while a seaman prepared the pivot gun for action. As soon as the tampion was removed from the muzzle of the gun to his great surprise out jumped the missing cat none the worse for its brief captivity. With the evidence in front of him Egan soon confessed to the offence. His reason for his inquisitive nature was "to see what effect the firing of the gun would have had on the cat".
In April 1863 before the Alabama had left the island of Fernando De Naronha, Egan had come to the attention of the Alabama officers and crew yet again. A fight had broken out on board between Egan and another of the boys named Thomas Parker. It was a grudge that both boys had held since leaving Liverpool and which had now come to a head. It was stopped by the intervention of an officer on board, and knowing Egan to be the culprit was punished again by being spread eagled in the rigging.
When Egan deserted the Alabama at Simon's Bay, on September 21 1863 it was much to the satisfaction of all on board, who were grateful to see the back of him. Little is known of him after this date, and it’s not until 1901 when he surfaces again in a Chorley Workhouse on Eaves Lane, an institution where he remained until his death there on July 10 1907 aged 61, the cause of death given as pneumonia. He was buried in common ground at Chorley Cemetery three days later in section D grave 393 Roman Catholic division.
Paul Horsfield at Chorley Cemetery; Saint Helens Library, Victoria Square, St Helens; Arthur Sinclair's Two Years On The Alabama 1896, Gay and Bird; Norwood A Kerr archivist, Department of Alabama Archives and History, 624, Washington Avenue, Montgomery, Alabama. 36130; Sandra Culshaw supt registrar Chorley Registration office, 16 St Georges Street, Chorley, PR7 2AA; Liverpool Central Library, William Brown Street, Liverpool; Chorley Central Library Union Street, Chorley, PR7 1EB; St Gregory Weldbank, Chorley, baptism register, RC WB2 1815-50; Liverpool Mercury June 23 1864 page 7 column G; 1901 census RG13/3938 folio 125 page 7; 1861 census RG9/3120 folio 36 page 9; 1851 census HO107/2263 folio187 page 32; A History of Chorley Lancashire County Books 1994 by Jim Heyes; Next of kin; Ms Lilian Snape of Chapel Hill Road, Moreton, Wirral, who wrote to me with the knowledge that a relative of her's had served aboard the Alabama but knew no more. Her letter was donated to the Merseyside Maritime Record Office, Albert Dock, Liverpool;