Alexander Howison (b. 1795): An Introduction – Writing Lives

Alexander Howison (b. 1795): An Introduction

Alexander Howison was born in Shieldhill, Falkirk in Scotland in 1795. At the time of his birth Falkirk was at the forefront of expansion and modernisation in the way of Canal construction, with the ‘Forth and Clyde’ bridge opening in 1790, just 5 years before his birth. The sight of seagoing vessels along the canal more than likely gave rise to his ambition of a life at sea.

Falkirk: The newly build Forth and Clyde bridge
Falkirk: The newly build Forth and Clyde bridge

I chose Howison’s memoir as a fantastic example of a working-class boy destined to dream big and adventure far and wide across the globe, carving a rich and exciting life for himself away from the hum drum of early 19th century Scotland. He becomes a sailor in the merchant navy, and explores the world aboard man-o-war vessels. I was initially drawn to him because of similar ideas of life such as adventure and self-discovery coupled with an interest in military and maritime life.

He writes in a slightly unusual fashion for a memoir, beginning in the 3rd person. He appears to have written the memoir for his children. By way of contextualising his memoir he says ‘I propose giving you a short narrative of your father’s life, as I think this will be the only portion your father will be enabled to give you’. (p1)  This seems a strangely detached way of speaking, but when he progresses to recollect his life he changes into the 1st person.

The 15,000 word long memoir is one of the earliest to be listed in the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. It is has been typed, with very few and far between handwritten embellishments, together with a handwritten note on the first page stating ‘Original collected by Mrs R. Ross / December 1982’. Thus far I have been unable to trace who this lady might be.

Being born to a twice married father, Alexander tells of a large family, comprising two sons and one daughter from the first of these marriage and three sons and three daughters from the second marriage. However after this initial outline he refers mainly to his full brother William who later joins him on the ships and occasionally to another brother Peter. The rest of his siblings are omitted from his memoir.

After receiving ‘- more schooling than [he] wished for’, (which in relation to later anecdotes makes him around 7 years old when he left school), he got his first job herding cows and sheep for a ‘person’ nearby. He lasted merely till the ‘second Sunday’ when his brother William came to visit and he decided to go home with him. (p3) This disregard for contractual work continues through his adolescent life for, as he gets bored or a better opportunity arises, he takes them up upon a whim, something a lot of working class people would have loved to be able to do but circumstances were just not extended to them in the way they were for Alexander.

His language can be rather droll as he explains circumstances and he can be blasé about situations of great magnitude. As he reminisces being 9-10 years old he comments ‘As the French intended to pay us a visit across the channel, volunteering was all the vogue.’ (p4) Here he was referring to the War of the Third Coalition where the British Royal Navy were endeavouring to fortify the South East coastal areas of England. However he gives no further indication of how living in this state of looming invasion may have affected his life. He carries this trait throughout the memoir not giving very much away of the wider world unless it directly concerns him or for uses of dating his adventures. Perhaps this is a mark of his address to his children as prostitution, war and naval discipline, (by way of the cat-o-nine tails) are included with a dousing of the brutality and more reading between the lines is necessary to realise the story.

Flogging upon a naval ship
Flogging upon a naval ship
Original Cat O' Nine Tails
Original Cat O’ Nine Tails

Alexander is a fluent author that guides you through his story without fuss or dramatic interpretation, the only thing he asks of the reader is to disregard certain ‘incident[s]’ and to just let them ‘be considered [as] an error in youth or the easy careless life of a sailor’. Alexander explains his life course as ‘rugged, uneven and crooked’ (p2). This explains the whole memoir beautifully, a carefree life a young boy who becomes a man by way of exploring the world and himself.


Bibliography: Howison. Alexander. (n.d) Autobiography of Alexander Howison ‘Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library. 1:354

Picture A taken from: A picture of the Forth and Clyde Bridge in the 1800s
Picture B taken from:
Picture C taken from: The ‘Cat’ used for Naval and Prison punishments,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *