This photograph of my great grandmother Elizabeth Butler has hung on a wall in my grandparents’ house probably since their house was built in 1936. Her theatrical costume and her beautiful figure are familiar to us all. So familiar, in fact, that it was years before I ever wondered what else there was to be known about her.
Then I discovered that her paper trail was very hard to locate. After ten years of searching, this blog covers just about everything I have found.
Elizabeth’s father was Laurence (or Lawrence) Cecil Butler . He was born around 1840 in Ireland – possibly Dublin – and came from a very good family who had fallen on hard times. This is almost my entire knowledge of Lawrence’s early life and came through oral history within the family. It’s very hard to verify a story like this, but I faithfully include it in the family story, pending confirmation.
Laurence worked on ships and in later verifiable records he was a seaman of different roles. Unfortunately there are several men named ‘Laurence Butler’ who worked in shipping. They may have all been related, but picking our Laurence in early years is hard.
The first definite record of Laurence is his marriage to Mary Jones in Ruabon, Denbighshire, Wales in October 1867.
At this time he was a single father with a toddler son named James. The child was born around 1864 in Ireland according to a later census. I have not discovered the mother of that child, but there are a few female Butler deaths in Ruabon which might be a mother and newborn daughter in 1866.
Laurence’s presumably second wife – Mary Jones of Wrexham, Denbighshire – remains a shadowy figure. Her name is no help whatsoever.
Laurence and Mary settled near Wrexham and a year later their daughter Harriet was born.
After the birth of Harriet the small family moved to Lancashire, England and settled in Liverpool. Laurence can be found here in various shipping records, receiving five pounds a week in wages as a regular employee on the ‘City of Richmond’. He worked on this ship for several years.
The ‘City of Richmond’ traveled regularly between Liverpool and New York. It was a round trip of about eighteen days, so Laurence was probably home for a few days every three weeks or so.
A son Richard was born in 1870. Sarah Ann followed in early 1873, baptised in Ruabon, then finally came our Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Butler was born on 12th July 1874 in Liverpool. Her baptism was 16 days later (28th July) at Our Lady of Reconciliation de La Salette in Liverpool. Her godfather was John Price and there is no godmother in the record.
At least one more child was born to Laurence and Mary – Thomas in about 1877. Then in 1878, young Richard died and was buried in Liverpool. The family at this time lived in Tatlock Street in Merseyside. They were still living in Tatlock St for the 1881 census.
Lawrence Butler 35 Head general labourer born Ireland married
Mary Butler 37 wife born Wales married
James Butler 17 son dockyard labourer born Ireland single
Harriet Butler 13 daughter scholar born Wales single
Sarah Butler 8 daughter scholar born Wales single
Elizabeth Butler 6 daughter scholar born Wales single (actually born in Liverpool)
Thomas Butler 4 son born Liverpool single
What was life like for Elizabeth growing up in an urban place like Merseyside? Her father’s wage never changed. He earned five pounds a week for most of his working life. Money probably became tight for the family.
At some point they moved to Everton. The 1891 census shows them living at Sampson St, Everton. Note that Elizabeth is recorded as ‘Lizzie’.
Lawrence Butler 48 Head Seaman born Ireland married
Mary Butler 46 wife born Wales married
Harriet Butler 22 daughter Confectioner sweets born Wales single
Sarah Ann Butler 18 daughter Confectioner sweets born Wales single
Lizzie Butler 16 daughter Confectioner sweets born Liverpool single
Thomas Butler 14 son scholar born Liverpool single
The family was not wealthy, but in 1892 Laurence at last secured a better job at a higher pay rate. He became a steward on board a brand new freight vessel, the ‘Naronic’.
At the end of January 1893 the Naronic landed in Liverpool delivering 700 head of cattle and an assortment of containers. By 2nd February it was loading for the trip out. By the 3rd February it had sailed with Laurence on board. On 4th of February it passed the Old Head of Kinsale near Cork.
She was never seen again.
The papers scarcely mention the ship through the month of February. For the first fortnight it would just have been an absence of sightings or telegraph – a cause for concern, but not necessarily alarm. Business would be severely affected if word got out that a ship was missing, so it seems the Captains of that company’s ships were asked to keep a close lookout but no one else was informed.
The first official word seems to have been around 3rd March when the Naronic was a month overdue.
No news has yet been received at the White Star office in Liverpool of the overdue steamer Naronic, and although the officials of the company have no doubt as to her safety, they do not conceal their anxiety for some information. The vessel is now eleven days overdue. It is believed that one of the screws of the Naronic has become disabled and she is drifting. She carries about fifty hands and a general cargo.
Dundee Courier 03 March 1893 page 3 ‘The Overdue Naronic’
While ships did become disabled, get blown miles off their course by cyclones or have fires that required docking at minor ports for long periods of time, this was more common for older ships than new ones. The Naronic was just a year old, equipped with telegraph and all mod cons. The Butler family must have hoped for the best but feared the worst.
Reports began to trickle in from arriving ships … no sighting anywhere. A lifeboat found. Debris found. No, the lifeboat wasn’t from the Naronic after all. The debris wasn’t from the Naronic either. A rumour that all crew had been picked up by a Norwegian vessel. What Norwegian vessel? No, it was a German ship. Extensive resources uncovered the ship and they had picked up from a different ship altogether. Still no word on the Naronic.
At a new rumour of rescued crew, the Yorkshire Evening Post concluded on 20th March:
Much excitement exists among the relatives of the crew, many of whom belonged to Liverpool, and news is awaited with painful anxiety.
What could it have been like for 19 year old Lizzie Butler? Did she continue in her tedious employment, wrapping boiled sweets individually into cellophane paper? A job like that allows too much time to think. Perhaps the girls were excused work to wait with their mother, but the ugly matter of finances would have been a terrible stress. Without Laurence’s five pounds a week – plus the extra from his new job – how were they surviving?
Stories grew wilder and wilder. A dynamite plot where explosives had been smuggled on board. A hijack. A message in a bottle signed by one John Olsen was apparently discovered a long way away stating that the ship had been struck by an iceberg and was sinking. However, there was nobody by that name on board so the letter was believed fake.
Finally on 20th March came the inevitable conclusion:
Vessels arriving at British and American ports having seen nothing of the missing steamer Naronic, and the vessel being now long past due, all hope of her safety has been abandoned. Considering the great traffic on the Atlantic, and the capacity of modern ships to and float for a time at least after receiving even somewhat serious damage by collision, it is surprising that the Naronic should have disappeared without any definite trace being left as to her fate. The chances are, however, that her loss has been due not to any instability or inherent defect of the vessel, but to an explosion among the cargo.
York Herald 29 March 1893 page 4
Life changed now for the family. They were not alone – in fact, it seems that they found themselves strongly supported by their maritime companions in Merseyside, as happens in all seafarer communities. One of their supports was young Robert Heron, a mariner who was perhaps already very close to the family.
On 17th June 1894 Harriet Butler, eldest daughter of Laurence and Mary, married Robert Heron in Liverpool. Robert’s occupation was given as mariner. Elizabeth Butler – still known as Lizzie – was one of the witnesses.
The Butler family remained close despite Harriet’s marriage. Two children were born to Robert and Harriet – Marion in 1895 and Robert junior in 1898.
It was at about this time that the above photograph of Elizabeth was taken. Elizabeth had a great love of theatre and theatrical productions. She was also an accomplished dressmaker, though she is never recorded as one. She made the dress that she is wearing in that photograph. The family also has many photographs of costumes that she made in later years. She was also an excellent dancer and very light on her feet.
There can’t have been any money in dressmaking, since she is always recorded as a confectioner’s assistant.
The 1901 census shows a whole new family structure for my Elizabeth.
Robert Heron 31 Head Telegraph Wire Mender born Liverpool married
Harriet Heron 31 Wife born N. Wales, Ruabon married
Marion Heron 6 daughter born Liverpool single
Robert E Heron 3 son born Liverpool single
Elizabeth Butler 26 sister in law Confectionery worker born Liverpool single
Sarah Butler 28 sister in law Confecionery worker born N. Wales, Ruabon single
I’m not sure what happened to Mary. She may have died. She may have been living with Thomas who I also haven’t located.
With the benefit of family stories and a knowledge of Elizabeth’s movements in later years, I have been able to track her in each census. But as the others drop away from her immediate vicinity I lose sight of them. I have no idea where James or Thomas are in 1901, and this is the last record I have of Harriet or Sarah.
To conclude this post, on 17 Jun 1905 at the church of St Chrysostom, Lancashire, England, Elizabeth Butler was married to a police officer named Thomas Maitland. Elizabeth was a confectioner’s assistant. It is on Elizabeth’s marriage certificate that we find her father’s full name – Lawrence Cecil Butler, ship’s steward. I think she may have built up his status a little. When the Naronic went down he was employed as a greaser.
Thomas Maitland in 1905 was a stable, responsible man who looked very professional in his policeman’s uniform. We know from later years that he was hugely supportive of Elizabeth’s dressmaking and her involvement with society theatre.
The couple emigrated to Australia and lived for many years.