Jake breathed in deeply, but ended up in a paroxysm of coughing. There was plenty of fresh air, rather too much at times, but there was also the occasional gust of smut laden fumes that refused to lift in the damp atmosphere. Jacob was learning to hold his breath as the stream of smoke from the locomotive's tall stack swept across the open carriage, but at times it wasn't easy, the smoke catching out the unwary traveller.
But the excitement and the exhilaration were almost too much. The speed, and the smooth ride of the carriage! Jake had been told that other railways had their rails placed closer together so that the carriages oscillated, bumped and swayed, and produced an altogether inferior ride to that of the Bristol and Exeter Railway with its rails set fully seven feet and one quarter of an inch apart. Mr Brunel the engineer, thought Jake, must be a giant of a man!
It had been in the pre-dawn light that a friend had rowed him out from his home in Exmouth to one of the fishing smacks waiting to run up the river to Exeter on the tide with its cargo of fresh fish. His mother had bid him a tearful farewell. Take care Jacob, she told him, like all mothers using his full given name, and write to me when you can. The skipper of the smack knew Jake from the help he had given his friend, whose father was a longshoreman, and was happy to give him a lift. With the tide in full flood Jake had enjoyed watching the crew manage the boat with just her topsail set to catch the wind up the river and give her steerage way over the tide. Once tied up at the fish dock Jake stepped onto the quay, avoiding the wicker baskets of fish, the men who were carrying them and the cat calls of the women suggesting what they might do for the 'young sir'. Jake was as susceptible to a pretty face as any lad his age, and the almost constant tightness in his trousers could be an embarrassment, but there was nothing here to interest him, and he set out for St David's Station to catch the train for Bristol. Once he had paid for his ticket and found himself a meat pie for breakfast he waited until the hissing, fire breathing engine arrived with its train of carriages. There were closed ones for the first class passengers and open ones with plain wooden seats for the third class, where Jake would travel.
There were few other passengers in the open carriage and Jake sat in one corner, facing forward. Several obviously working men occupied the other two compartments and just before the train was about to leave a woman with two children came along, and having surveyed the accommodations and their occupants, smiled at Jake and pushed the children towards his compartment. Jake blushed at the attention, but reached forward to help the little ones up. The woman held out her hand to be assisted too, and smiled again as he helped her. She sat opposite him, and he was unable to stop himself gazing at the cleavage exposed by her low cut dress as she fussed with the children, ensuring that they were well wrapped up, something that they were none to keen on. She glanced up at Jake and he realised he had been caught staring, and he blushed as he averted his gaze, feeling his trousers tighten. She glanced down, smiled again, but more to herself as she made sure that her shawl was tightly wrapped around her, and her hat was secure with a long scarf tied under her chin ready for the rigours of the journey. Eventually there was a loud whistle, the guard waved a green flag, and the train started with a jerk, then another, and then steady acceleration to the quickening beat of the exhaust which gradually steadied as the train reached its full speed.
He had no idea how fast the train was going, but it must be much faster than a galloping horse. He wrapped his coat around him, aware that the year before a passenger on the Great Western Railway had died of exposure in one of these open carriages, his father had remarked upon the coroner's report in the newspaper. He knew that the mail coach, from London to Exeter, now no longer run in favour of the train, had taken eighteen hours, but the train could do it in half that time! And via Bristol too, and that included plenty of time for refreshment. A stop for the mail coach had been less than the minute that it took the ostlers to change the horses. If you could grab a drink and some food from the innkeeper, and throw him a few pennies for his trouble you were lucky, although to be fair there was a half hour allowed at Salisbury for breakfast, and one at Dorchester for dinner, but if there were delays on the road then the coach wouldn't stop that long. Jake's father had done the journey often in the course of his work, and had delighted his son with descriptions of the ride and the people who travelled on the potholed roads, the long drawn out wail of the horn across the downs to alert the next inn to have the team ready, the rattle and jingle of harness, the thump of the horses hooves and the scrunch of the iron tyres on the hard road.
Sadly, Jake recalled his father's recent death, the cause of his present situation, and his pleasure at the memories and the exhilaration at the train ride disappeared in a moment of contemplation. He knew that his journey would end at Temple Meads Station in Bristol, his ticket said that, but where would his adventure end? He had a new life ahead of him, full of unknowns, but at the moment he had to admit that the hard wooden seat was making his backside sore. On the wide curves across the Somerset levels he could see the engine ahead, the engineer dressed in long coat and stove pipe hat, and fireman in baggy trousers and waistcoat, flat cap and a scarlet kerchief tied round his neck. He could see the great driving wheels, an immense nine feet in diameter, the spokes invisible as they span, and he could hear the steady beat of the engine's exhaust carrying steam and smoke up the stack. And then he was enveloped in the noisome fumes again.
Puxton, Yatton, Nailsea, Flax Bourton, the name boards proclaimed each station in turn, the hissing and the roar as the steam exhausted from the cylinders, the whistle blowing mournfully as they neared their destination. Two hours five minutes and fifty seconds the timetable had said; it was almost unthinkable compared with the time it would have taken only a year or two previously.
The train rattled across the points, the carriages shunting together as the train slowed, and as it entered the station Jacob looked across to see the London train about to leave, at its head a Great Western engine with its varnished wooden boiler lagging, shining green and red paint, and gleaming brasswork, the name 'Iron Duke' on a cast and polished brass plate attached the frame. Then there was the final squeal of brakes and hiss of steam from the engine, and the train stopped. Jake opened the door and turned to assist the woman by first taking the children and standing them on the platform, and then assisting their mother, who by this time had loosened her shawl in the comparative warmth of the station. Jake once again found his gaze drawn to her décolletage, and he jerk his head up to see the woman's broad smile. She thanked him and left.
Jake looked up at the station clock. Eleven forty seven, just one minute late. The date was the seventeenth day of June eighteen fifty four, and, standing on the platform of Temple Meads Station, aged sixteen and two months, Jacob White was ready to take on the world.
His problem, as he would discover in the coming months, was that the world was not entirely convinced that it should take on Jacob White.
That, in particular applied to his uncle James Underwood. On his father's death Jake's mother was left in somewhat straightened circumstances, whilst she had a small house, and sufficient money to support them, she was unable to provide for her son's further education, and he would therefore have to obtain employment. Unfortunately, she could not afford to pay for an apprenticeship, and so she wrote to her brother James to ask that he take him on and teach him the trade of a grocery and provision merchant. James ran a large chandlery in the port of Bristol, which had originally been inherited from their father and so James felt obliged to help his sister in this respect, despite the fact that he had not liked Jake's father, and had a couple of likely lads working for him already. He also had two daughters whom he hoped to marry off advantageously. So an additional relative was not particularly welcome. The ladies of the household were, however, rather more interested.
Jake handed his ticket to the ticket collector and stepped out through the gate into the throng of people and vehicles in the street outside. There were people of every class, gentlemen in the fashionable stove pipe hats and tail coats with ladies in dresses with voluminous skirts on their arms, men in ragged trousers and shirts labouring under heavy loads, plenty of urchins running about and a few women helping to carry bags and packages for passengers, and one or two women plying a different trade. A couple of coaches which had dropped passengers for the London train were weaving their way through the throng, and there was a procession of heavy carts moving slowly up from the docks. He gave one backward glance at the castle like façade of the station and then, with his bag over his shoulder and stepping carefully to avoid that worst of the horse droppings in the street, he made his way down towards the centre of Bristol and the floating harbour where his uncle's business was situated. There were innumerable public houses along his route and outside one he saw a couple of soldiers in white pants and scarlet tunics with black facings and gold braid, lounging on a bench with tankards in their hands, their black shakos on the bench alongside them.
"Hey, you're a fine young man," boomed the bewiskered sergeant, "stop and have a mug of ale with us."
"And find the Queen's shilling at the bottom of the mug," laughed Jake. "No thankyou, I'll buy my own."
"Good luck to you, then," said the other, "but remember there's always a place for a young feller in the army, and no questions asked."
Jake laughed and strode on. He turned to walk along the dockside. Everywhere there were ships, large ones from all over the world, and smaller ones bringing in cargoes from around the Bristol channel, and waiting to be loaded with goods to be distributed along the coasts of Somerset and Devon. There were Severn trows doing much the same job, but reaching far inland up the river Severn, some as far as Shrewsbury and beyond. Ships lying idle and newly arrived ships drying their sails, ships ready for sea, heavily laden, some too heavily for it would be nearly twenty years before Mr Plimsoll's mark would prevent this. There were the new steam tugs, paddle wheels thrashing, ready to take the ships through the lock and down the river Avon on the tide, where they would leave them to make their way to any port where their owners could expect a profit to be made. Jake made his way past stacks of merchandise of every sort, loaded carts, the horses straining as they pulled the load across the cobbles, and carts ready to load, drivers sitting idly; cursing stevedores and sweating dockers. Everywhere the bustle of commerce to be expected of a great commercial centre.
A few minutes later he was standing outside his uncle's chandlery. It was, he could see, a substantial business, a large, deep building, of four storeys with a yard at the rear for loading carts. The shop windows either side of the entrance in their dark green frames displayed a selection of the merchandise that could be purchased within, and the name, 'J. Underwood - Ships' Chandlers and General Merchants' was emblazoned in gold leaf on the black fascia over them.
Jake pushed through the central door to find a long polished mahogany counter down either side of the shop. Behind the counters was a space for an assistant and behind that the walls were lined with large drawers to the height of the counter, and the walls above, were lined with shelves and cubby holes. There was every imaginable type of merchandise arranged on the shelves, boxes, bottles and jars of every colour, and many other things, and Jake was sure that the drawers were full of exciting things too. There was a young man behind one of the counters who greeted him and asked how he might be of service.
"I've come to see my Uncle, Mr John Underwood," he told him.
The other surveyed him with little enthusiasm. "You'll be the nephew then," he stated.
Jake had to wrestle with his tongue to stop himself making a tart rejoinder, and asked where his uncle might be found.
Following the instructions he was rather grudgingly given, Jake negotiated a wide and surprisingly shallow staircase to the first floor. The landing was surrounded by wooden panelled partitioning, glazed above the level of the dado, and he could see that there were several clerks in one office, with their heads down and their quills scratching, as they wrote or calculated. Jake turned to the other office and a door marked 'J. Underwood, Proprietor'. Inside he could see a man and a woman.
He knocked, and the man shouted a gruff 'come in'. Jake entered.
He entered a room that seemed to consist almost entirely of books. Of course he had seen rooms full of books before, but these were immense ledgers, and books of reference, catalogues and the like. The man was sitting behind a large desk with one of the large ledgers open in front of him. He was dressed in a dark red tail coat over an embroidered waistcoat and a white shirt and cravat, he sported sideburns of such generosity, that they more than made up for the lack of hair on his head. He was, Jake reckoned, about forty years of age, and clearly the uncle he had never previously met. The woman, no, thought Jake, the lady, was standing in front of the desk, and he thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. His mother he thought was attractive, but no match for this. Tall and upright, full bosomed and slim waisted, with red hair drawn to either side of her head bunched in ringlets in the latest style, she had large blue eyes over high cheek bones, a slightly turned up nose and full red lips. Jake was entranced. Her green silk dress, the height of fashion, had a wide off the shoulder neckline, displaying her full bosom to great effect, the dress fitted to her waist and then flared into a full skirt ruched in several layers, and the ensemble was finished with a wide brimmed straw hat. Jake felt his trousers tighten once again.
There was a definite pause as Jake walked in and he had the impression that he had interrupted a conversation that might have been somewhat heated.
"Yes," said the man gruffly and none too friendly.
"I'm Jacob White, sir," he stated. "And you must be my Uncle John."
"And I am your Aunt Lydia," said the lady, with a radiant smile. She held out her hand to Jake, who, on impulse, bent forward, took it in his hand and placed a kiss on the back.
"Oh! How gallant, quite the gentleman!" she exclaimed. "Isn't he my dear?"
His uncle hurrmphed.
"We were just discussing where we are going to put you, my dear," she went on. "We have just been discussing your future, and where you should stay. Your uncle felt that you should sleep here up in the attic with Cedric and Reginald, the assistants, but since you are family I have decided that you will be lodged at home with us."
His uncle hurrmphed again, and it was apparent to Jake that the discussions had been 'meaningful'.
"So," Aunt Lydia continued, "come along, I'll take you home and get you settled, and then you can start work tomorrow."
"I really don't want to be any trouble," said Jake.
"Nonsense," said his aunt, pick up her cape from a chair and sweeping past him out of the door. "There will be no trouble. Come along."
Jake glanced at his uncle in time to see him glance heavenwards and then down at the ledger in front of him.
Aunt Lydia had a carriage waiting with driver and footman, and they were soon away from the centre taking the road to Clifton. Up Whiteladies Road to Blackboy's Hill, and finally out onto the downs where the wealthy merchants of Bristol had their homes. The carriage turned into a side road and then into a gravelled driveway, stopping at the front of a large house. Jake leapt out and handed his aunt down onto the drive.
"Thankyou," she said, "but remember in future, that is the footman's job."
She stepped up onto the tiled step and under the wide canopy over the front entrance with Jake following. As they did so the front door was opened by a pretty maid, who held the door open and curtseyed as they entered, and then closed the door. Aunt Lydia took off the cape she had donned before leaving her husband's office and handed it and her hat to the maid.
"Thankyou, Millie," she said, and went on. "This is Mr Jacob White, he will be staying with us. Will you send Evie to me please."
"Yes, Mum," replied the maid, and left with a swirl of black skirt and white apron.
She led Jake into a spacious parlour, sat down and indicated to Jake that he should do so too. On the journey from the docks Aunt Lydia had pointed out to Jake the sights to be seen and had spoken largely of inconsequentialities, but now she plied him with questions about his mother and how she was coping with her widowhood.
"And will she remarry do you think? She's of no great age, and an attractive woman as I recall."
"I, I, really don't know," stuttered Jake. "I've given it no thought at all. And she has said nothing to me."
"Ah well, we shall see ... now Evie," she continued as a pleasantly plump and, Jake thought, very attractive maid of about his own age knocked and came into the room. "This is Mr Jacob White, your master's nephew who is going to be staying with us. I've decided that we'll have to put him in one of the larger second floor rooms, the one next to yours I'm afraid," she turned to Jake. "What with the girls needing a room each and having to keep a couple of rooms free for visitors, we are rather short of room. But I'm sure you'll manage." She finished.
"I'm sure that it will be just fine," said Jake. "I really am most grateful."
"Would you get the room ready then, please Evie. And take Mr Jacob's bag too. You can come and show him to his room when you are ready."
The maid left, giving Jake a big grin and a wink that his aunt couldn't see.