‘Too Big for his Boots!’ Ulla Corkill

by John Slater

Ulla Corkill, a devotee of Hall Caine, gave us a fascinating talk on this great, Manx, Victorian writer. We were met, at the front of the Centenary Centre theatre by a representative selection of books, rare photographs and documents, including a birth certificate.

Ulla had met a Manxman in her native Sweden and they were married. She had heard of the Isle of Man but that was all. In 1962, she made her first visit to the Island and was given a tour – Douglas to Peel with Greeba Castle being pointed out as the home of the world-famous Hall Caine – a man “Too big for his boots,” hence the title of her talk! Ulla was interested to learn more about Hall Caine, especially as her vicar in Sweden, ‘A erudite man’, had also spoken to her about Hall Caine and had used this phrase to describe him.

The Caines were known as the Caines of the Curraghs, from Ballaugh. We learned something about their family history with the aid of extracts from wills. The family suffered as many farmers do – land rich and cash poor. This became particularly marked in 1845 when the Irish potato famine had an effect on the Island. There was a downsizing and changes in work. John Caine and his brother moved to Liverpool after the family farm was sold.

John, a highly skilled blacksmith, found work in the shipyards as a shipsmith. Meeting a girl called Sarah, he fell in love and they were married. Hall Caine was actually born on a barge that his father used for commuting to his work between Liverpool and Runcorn. The baby was christened Thomas Henry Hall.

Tom Caine, as he was then known, went to school until the age of 14 when he was articled to Murray, an architect. He set about his studies and seems to have been a good pupil.

Tom spent his holidays on the Island with his uncle Billy. Later, he spent time with his uncle, James Teare the schoolmaster.  Tom’s grandparents lived in Ballaugh. They were committed to folklore, leaving food outside overnight for the ‘Little People’. He learned a great deal about Manx folklore.

Tom helped out the local schoolmaster, who was unwell and when he died, took over the school. This included writing letters and documents for local people who were, for the most part, illiterate. He also made use of his architectural skills, engraving tombstones and designed and built a cottage for his widowed aunt.

Hall Caine was already in print with articles in wide circulation magazines and had a book published. He had written a letter of support to Rossetti and they gradually became friends. Tommy had taken a much younger girl as his ‘wife’ and she gave birth to their first son. Fortunately, a Manx based book, ‘The Deemster’, in 1887 was a huge success.

Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, was Henry Irving’s theatre manager and he and Henry were lifelong friends of Hall Caine. Both Henry Irving and Wilson Barrett were interested in buying the stage rights of ‘The Deemster’, but Henry Irving was touring in the States so Wilson Barrett was the successful bidder.

A whole succession of books followed with plays and films. We showed Hitchcock’s last silent movie, ‘The Manxman’, not long ago.

Such was Hall Caine’s influence that he is credited with bringing in the U.S.A. into the final stages of WW1. He was knighted, adopting the title of Sir Hall Caine. He was a world figure with his books translated into all the major languages. This brief outline fails to do justice to this remarkable man. Too big for his boots? Hardly!