William Capps Cooper was born on December 28th in the Beach Village, Lowestoft. He was the third child of William Cooper and Elizabeth Capps. He was to be their last child because his father William was drowned in Lowestoft Docks the following year.

From The Ipswich Journal August 28th 1846


On Friday the 20th inst, one of the workmen whilst helping to fix a pile at the north pier, fell into the 14 feet water, and before either life-line or boat could be brought to his assistance, he sunk to rise no more. The body was picked up the same afternoon. A widow and three children are left to mourn his loss.

Elizabeth and her young family went to live with her parents, Isaac and Mary. Isaac is described, variously, as a seaman, mariner and fisherman. He also owned his own home, although the land it was on was copyhold to the Manor of Lowestoft. The name Capps in Lowestoft is synonymous with seafaring.

Generations had earned their living from the sea as mariners, fishermen or salvagers, so it came as no surprise to discover that William was at sea for the 1861 census. He was ‘ship’s boy’ on board the fishing boat ‘Race Horse’.

Nearly all fishermen in Lowestoft had nicknames and William’s was ‘Toot’, I presume that he was thus named for the size of his nose. My father loved his grandfather Toot and he seems to have been a real character, full of fishermen’s tales and mischief.  He told my dad that his nose was so big because he fell over drunk one night and got it stuck in the tramlines and his mates had to push him to the terminus before it could be extracted.

Toot married Eliza Ann Howard in 1868 and they had eleven children, although only eight survived to adulthood. The ‘Cooper girls’ were thought to be beauties and certainly dressed expensively, if family photos are any indication. Dad remembers basking in the adoration of his many aunts when he was a child.

By 1871 Toot was a ship’s master, having got his seaman’s certificate (2978A in the register of seamen at the National Archives) or master’s ticket, as it was more commonly known. In the 1871 census he is master aboard the ‘Ocean Pride’, a long shore fishing boat owned by the Young Beach Company. Crew members of Beach Company boats were often members of the company and entitled to a full share of the value of the catch. Masters were entitled to 2 shares and ship’s cooks to half a share.

Beachmen, historically, were also salvagers and went on to serve as lifeboatmen when the RNLI was founded. Toot served on the Lowestoft lifeboat and his involvement in the rescue of ‘The Queen of the Tyne’ in 1869 is mentioned in the letter he had notifying him that he was to receive a long service medal from the RNLI.

In 1881 he is again ship’s master on the fishing vessel ‘John’, but he is nowhere to be found in the 1891 census. Family lore possibly fills in the gap. My father can remember Toot telling him that he did two trips on cable-laying ships because the money was good and he’d had a couple of bad seasons fishing. I have been unable to find him on the crew of any cable-laying ships, but currently, you need to know the name of the ship and the year of the voyage to stand any chance of finding out. Maybe someone will index all the crews one day.

My grandmother had a few souvenirs of Toot’s trips, one of which was a silk handkerchief showing the States of America which she kept in a frame.

In 1901, Toot is between voyages and at home with his wife and family, and described as a fisherman, aged 54. Dad was born in 1910, but can remember that his grandfather was still going to sea when he was a young lad, because he used to go down to the docks to meet him (and get some fish to bring home).

Dad spent a lot of time with Toot as he was growing up and loved listening to his tales of fishing under sail, and of the regattas when the Beach Companies would race their yawls against each other and also against their bitter rivals from Yarmouth.

Toot’s wife, Eliza, died in 1926, but Toot carried on living in their cottage, looked after and spoiled by his many daughters and granddaughters.

Eliza’s epitaph 

In loving Memory of my dear wife Eliza Ann Capps Cooper died January 27th 1926 aged 77 years.
It’s hard to part with one so dear
We have to meet when Christ is near.

Toot lived an active life into his 90s, enjoying his grandchildren and great grandchildren, and regaling them with tales of his youth. He died in 1940 at the age of 94. While she was going through his papers, my aunt found a poem which he said he wanted used at his epitaph.

Rocks and stones have steered clear
Now with an anchor I’ve landed here,
Here I lie till judgement day
Till the Lord see fit
To call me away


© Guinevere 2008