Details of Eric's childhood and youth are sketchy, although a few facts are emerging, but to put his life into context one needs to go back to his grandfather Zachariah Charles Pearson, a former sailing-ship master, ship-owner, chief magistrate and mayor of Hull.

 

I do not propose to go into the minutiae of Z.C.Pearson's life, fascinating though it is, because such is the volume of material (much of it recently uncovered by my sister Marian's research) that it could tend to overwhelm this website. Briefly, he was born in 1821, the son of a merchant, and his whole life revolved around ships and shipping. He ran away to sea when he was 12 but was discovered and returned, only to go back to sea formally as an apprentice when he was 16. At age 21 he got his first command and by the time he was 25 he was master (captain) of his very own ship. Quite how he achieved this meteoric rise is not clear but there is no doubt he was a very energetic and ambitious man. Before his 40th birthday he was running his own shipping fleet and had been elected as Mayor of Hull.


Z.C.Pearson

 However, a series of misfortunes and risky ventures brought about his downfall - in 1862 Hull was hurting badly with the loss of the cotton trade due to the blockade of southern ports by the Federal navy during the American Civil War. Sulcoates cotton mill had closed and many were out of work and destitute. Z.C.Pearson, somewhat overextended at the time, attempted to relieve the situation by running ships through the blockade to deliver arms and supplies, and to return with cotton. Whether this was primarily altruistic or for his own profit motives remains a contentious point, but there is no doubt that if he had succeeded he would most certainly have been hailed as a hero. However, he lost ship after ship captured or sunk by the Federal navy and, compounding his woes, one of his steamers being refitted in London caught fire. She was a total loss and the insurers failed to pay.

 

Despite desperate sales of personal assets and assurances of honouring his debts he was unable to fend off a bankruptcy action. He resigned his second term as Mayor in 1862 and was finally declared bankrupt in 1864, living the rest of his life in a modest house on the fringe of Pearson Park, a "people's park" he had purchased the land for and given to the city in 1860, and which survives to this day. There is some evidence that he continued in trade with his son Charles however, and certainly his daughter Emma Jane in later life told of being presented at the court of the Tsar of Russia, which would be concomitant with the Baltic trade in which Zachariah had also been prominent. He died in 1891. Much more detail of Z.C.Pearson's life and times can be found here in the Zachariah Charles Pearson fact file, compiled and kindly supplied by my sister Marian Shaw, and I have also reproduced most of a contemporary obituary.


But back to Eric (nearly!). In 1882, some 20 years after Zachariah's fall from grace, Zachariah's second daughter Emma Jane, then 25, married Bruno von Hohnfeldt, son of Adolph von Hohnfeldt, a German army officer. Zachariah apparently dissapproved of the union, with either good reason or sound judgement as it transpires. They had three sons, Bruno Adlolph Eric von H ("Eric", born 1883), Arnold Pearson von H, and Otto Ferdinand von H. It seems that Bruno and his mother Ottilie had emigrated to England from Prussia (possibly as Jewish refugees) and Bruno is recorded in various censuses as being a teacher and, later, a journalist, but the veracity of the latter is somewhat in question. All three sons were born in England, in Stratford-Upon-Avon, Hull, and London respectively. There have always been dark whisperings and rumours within the family of womanising and cruelty on Bruno's part, and startling new evidence recently unearthed by Paul Woodhead in the National Archive now puts this beyond doubt.

When pieced together the story of their marriage is a grim one. By 1886 when Arnold was barely a year old and Otto as yet unborn, Bruno was treating Emma with "great unkindness and cruelty", sometimes being drunk and threatening and hitting her. In February that year he pulled her out of her bed, lifted her up in his arms and held her over the banisters and threatened to drop her. He also, on different occasions, locked her in the bathroom and the kitchen, and once "left her for three days without providing food and returned home drunk without his overcoat, umbrella and eyeglasses."! After enduring this kind of thing for another three years or so Emma had had enough, and in November 1888 she finally left him "for fear of her life or some serious bodily injury." This must have been a profoundly disturbing period of childhood for the three boys, particularly Eric, the eldest, who was 5 when the split occurred.

She was apparently personally opposed to divorce on principal, but she changed the family name back to Pearson and, at some stage, anglicised the boys forenames (Otto was known as "Pom", and Eric's first two names seemingly dropped). Given the social mores and stigmas of the times this suggests Emma Jane to have been a very determined and confident woman and her move may well have changed the course of this family's whole history - apart from anything else, if not for her, this website, were it to exist at all, would be called "The von Hohnfeldt Family"!

In February 1905, after living seperately from Bruno for more than 16 years, Emma Jane finally petitioned for divorce and a decree nisi was issued on 3rd May that year. Bruno meanwhile had apparently plunged into a life of crime - rather unsuccessfully it seems! In 1892 he was sent down for 12 months for burglary and by 1907 he had been convicted of criminal offences a further six times and served another two terms of imprisonment. In February 1908 a series of court reports in The Times record a sorry tale of him obtaining money by deception, apparently conning people into sending money they believed was going to former friends or colleagues in reduced circumstances. He received a three year custodial sentence. Bruno died in 1912 of "sarcoma of the left kidney and exhaustion". He was 57.


 

 Thoughout the report in The Times Bruno is referred to as "Baron Bruno von Hohnfeldt" and indeed Emma Jane in later life was apparently sometimes referred to in the family as "the Baroness". If this was a genuine title and one follows the normal rules of hereditary titles passing down to firstborn sons, then this would mean that cousin John Pearson is the current Baron von Hohnfeldt! 



We don't know where Emma Jane settled with her sons, but the logical place would have been Hull where she still had a lot of family and she may well have returned to her parents - certainly she is recorded as being present at her father's house with her sons in the census of 1891, the year Zachariah died. Eric would have been 8 that year. We also don't know to what extent Eric was influenced by Zachariah, or stories of Zachariah, in his decision to go to sea (hell - I don't even know how much it influenced my decision to go to sea!) but the next thing we know of him was when he acquired his Extra Master's Certificate in 1908 and bought "Forget-Me-Not" with his brothers Arnold and Otto and their friend John Crompton. The rest of this story continues with Eric and Louie.
 
Just a footnote about Emma Jane: there is no doubt she was a woman, apparently of slight build, with great character and presence. It is said that when she arrived in Cape Town soon after Eric and Louie's marriage in 1913 she caused quite a stir on the quayside, dressed as she was in the height of London fashion, complete with bustle - a sight rarely seen in the colonies! Harry Dent remembers her very affectionately as a strong natured person filled with great good humour in the 1930's when, in her old age, she presided over her ever-growing family in Broadstairs.

 

 

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