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Robert Louis Stevenson visits Cockermouth

TRACING her ancestors' links to Cockermouth Mrs Margaret Mitchell uncovered an interesting connection with one of the old industries in the town. That was hat making, the process of shaping the material for hats involved the use of the toxic mercury. It was the use of mercury and its effects on the brain that led to the expression "as mad as a hatter."
Mrs Mitchell writes: "I have been seeking information on my G G G grandfather William Smethurst who was a hat maker in Cockermouth in the 1860's and/or earlier. I did however find some information written about him in Robert Louis Stevenson's - Essay's of Travel.
"I was delighted to visit Cockermouth last year and I was so impressed by the beauty of the town and the most helpful of staff in the local antique shops and library. My Great Grandfather was the bandmaster at the Industrial School and his wife, my Great Grandmother was the infant mistress at Hensingham School, their address was Station Road Cockermouth."
We tracked down the tale told by the famous Scottish author of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson. He wrote of Cockermouth:
"I was lighting my pipe as I stepped out of the inn at Cockermouth and did not raise my head until I was fairly in the street. When I did so, it flashed upon me that I was in England; the evening sunlight lit up English houses, English faces, an English conformity of street, as it were, an English atmosphere blew against my face. There is nothing perhaps more puzzling (if one thing in sociology can be ever really be more unaccountable than another) than the great gulf that is set between England and Scotland-a gulf so easy in appearance, in reality so difficult to traverse. Here are two people almost identical in blood; pent up together on one small island, so that their intercourse (one would have thought) must be as close as that of prisoners who shared one cell at the Bastille; the same language and religion; and yet a few years of quarrelsome isolation- a mere forenoon's tiff, as one may call it, in comparison with the great historical cycles- have so separated their thoughts and ways that not unions, not mutual dangers, nor steamers, nor railways, nor all the King's horses and all the King's men, seem able to obliterate the broad distinction. In the Trituration of another century or so the corners may disappear, but in the meantime, in this year of grace 1871, I was as much in a new country as if I had been walking out of a hotel in Antwerp.
"I felt a chill of pleasure at my heart as I realised the change, and strolled away up the street with my hands behind my back, noting in a dull, sensual way how foreign, and yet how friendly were the clopes of the gables and the colours of the tiles, and even the demeanor and voices of the gossips round about me.
"Wandering in this aimless humour, I turned up a lane and found myself following the course of a bright river. I passed first one and then another, and then a third, several couples out love making in the spring evening; and a consequent feeling of loneliness was beginning to grow on me, when I came to dam across the river, and a mill- a great gaunt promontory of a building, half on dry land and half arched over the stream. The road here drew in its shoulders and crept through between the landward extremity of the mill and a little garden enclosure with a small house and a large signboard within its privet hedge. I was pleased to fancy this an inn, and drew little etchings in fancy of a sanded parlour, and three cornered spittoons, and a society of parochial gossips seated within over their churchwardens; but as I drew near, the board displayed its superscription and designation of 'Canadian Felt Hat Manufacturers.' There was no more hope of evening fellowship and I could only stroll on by the riverside, under the trees. The water was dappled with slanting sunshine, and dusted all over with a little mist of flying insects. There were some amorous ducks, also, who lovemaking reminded me of what I had seen further down. But the road grew sad, and I grew weary; and as I was perpetually haunted by the terror of a return of the tie that had been playing such ruin in my head a week ago I turned and went to the inn, and supper and my bed.
"The next morning at breakfast, I communicated to the smart waitress my intention of continuing down the coast through Whitehaven to Furness, and, as I might have expected, I was instantly confronted by that last and most worrying form of interference, that chooses to introduce tradition and authority into the choice of a man's own pleasure. I can excuse a persons combating my religious or philosophical heresies, because them I have deliberately accepted, and am ready to justify by present argument. But I do not seek to justify my pleasures. ""Everyone who came to Cockermouth for pleasure, it appears, went on to Keswick.It was in vain that I made a plea for the liberty of the subject; it was in vain that I said I should prefer to go to Whitehaven.I was told there was 'nothing to see there', the same old hackneyed falsehood. But as the handmaided looked concerned I reluctantly agreed to take the train to Keswick that evening."