Featured image – Peter Howard and Catherine Shoult (née Howard) with the family trunk while visiting EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum (2023)
This trunk has been in the Howard family since the 1930s and has been half-way around the world, and back.
It was first used by Henry and Mary Howard who lived in Cork. Henry was born in 1888 in Passage West while Mary (nee Cullen) was born in 1890 and came from Largs in Scotland. They were married in 1915 and they had six children. Henry, like Mary’s father, worked in the Cork shipyards, but when they started to close in the 1930s, the family decided to immigrate to England in 1938.
Before departing, they bought this steam trunk from a second-hand shop. The original owner’s initials (ST) can still be seen on the exterior. In it they packed all of their possessions and set sail for Liverpool along with their six children, Gertie, Mary, Sadie, Archie, Harry and George.
The family settled in Birkenhead (near Liverpool) where Henry found work in the famous Cammell Laird shipyard. The trunk was unpacked and kept in the attic of the new family home in Cedar Street just in case it might be needed again. With the Second World War looming, the shipyard was incredibly busy building ships and submarines and there was plenty of work for Henry and the many other Irishmen who also found employment there.
Birkenhead was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe in 1940 and 1941 but luckily the Howard family survived the bombings and became part of the local community, especially the local parish of St Werburgh’s. They made many friends and in 1951 Archie, then aged 27, married Eva (nee Daley) and they too would go on to have six children including their son, Peter. They continued to live near Cammell Laird’s shipyard and Peter recalls often hearing the ships’ foghorns as they sailed up and down the River Mersey.
In 1958, Henry and Mary decided to move back to Ireland, so the trunk was pulled down from the attic and once again loaded up with the family belongings. Their children Gertie, Archie and Harry were married so they decided to stay in England while Mary, Sadie and George followed them to Ireland. They moved to Dublin where they opened a guest-house in Waverley Avenue in Fairview. They stayed in Ireland until 1963 when they decided to move back to England to be nearer those still in Birkenhead. Once again, the trunk was called into action and the family sailed back across the Irish Sea.
It sat in the family attic until 1981 when Peter and his wife Jean decided to immigrate to South Africa where, like his grandfather, he hoped to find work and secure a future for his family. Peter recalls the sense of relief he experienced when the trunk finally arrived in Johannesburg with all of their worldly possessions inside. In 1985, they returned to England, trunk in tow, and settled in Warrington, where, in time, it became a toybox for their grandchildren.
In 2021, the last of Henry and Mary’s surviving children, Sadie, died, just months after celebrating her 100th birthday. Following her death, Peter and the Howard family decided to donate the trunk to the museum.
It represents the story of one emigrant Irish family’s journeys across three generations and more than eight decades and symbolises their search for a place to call home. It encapsulates their desire to build a better future for themselves while never forgetting where they originally came from, and the country that shaped them.