Often when we visit with writers’ and researchers’ groups, we talk about the importance of layering your resources when you build a big multi-generational story like The Cowkeeper’s Wish. If you want to tell a social history as well as a family saga, as we were keen to do, you need to dig for details in all kinds of different places — in the census, birth and death records, of course, but also in the newspaper archive and in war diaries and philanthropist’s notebooks and so on and so forth. When we first began this project, we never imagined how many resources we’d use to search for clues to our family’s past. It is a thrilling experience, I can happily report. You start to feel a little like a detective when you do this kind of work, and the more practiced you become, of course, the better you are at sleuthing. I’m working on a new book now — not family-based this time, but also non-fiction, and set at the end of WW1, so I am using many of the same resources and approaches we used for The Cowkeeper’s Wish, and also realizing that I am hooked on telling true stories pulled piece by piece from the past. There’s no better job for someone who loves crumbly rippled ledgers and curled photographs and maps with streetnames that no longer exist.
Tracy has this same pull to the past, and so we were both delighted to see the cover design for The Cowkeeper’s Wish, which is in its own way a layering of resources. The images were cleverly put together by Anna Comfort O’Keeffe at Douglas & McIntyre, and each one she selected has a meaningful connection to the story.
The frilled gold on the outer edge of the cover image, as you can see here, comes from our grandmother’s baptismal certificate. You can see it is signed by E. C. Carter — that’s the Reverend Ernest Courtenay Carter, who died just two years later on the Titanic. The family story goes that he and his wife Lilian (who my grandmother was named for) were dear friends of the family — though that’s probably not really true, since they came from very different backgrounds at a time when background really mattered. More likely, they were enormously admired by our family members, who must have been devastated when they died. The connection gave us a fresh new way to weave the story of the Titanic into our own tale.
This next layer in from the outer edge is a letter written by our great uncle, Joe Deverill, in 1923, saying goodbye to his younger siblings as they leave England for Canada. He offers brotherly advice — “mind who you mix with on the boat” — and urges them to remember that “although the (Old Home) has broken up we are still Sisters and Brothers and I would like you to write and let me know how you get on.”
Next in from Joe’s letter is a portion of Charles Booth’s poverty maps, made as part of his Inquiry into Life and Labour in London. Social investigators colour-coded the city as to level of poverty: black streets were vicious and criminal, dark blue were very poor with chronic want, on up to light blue, purple, pink, red and finally yellow, reserved for the wealthy upper classes. Booth’s maps, and the notebooks his investigators used to record their findings as they prowled the city, were an excellent way for us to “see” the neighbourhoods we were writing about.
The cover also features an image of the Metagama, the ship our grandmother came to Canada on, in the care of a family friend. It was 1919, and the ship had only recently been used as a troop carrier.
Below the Metagama is a photograph of our grandmother as a girl (with bathing cap), playing at the beach with her new Canadian friend. Beside them floats the lucky penny our great uncle Joe had kept in his pocket the day the Mary Rose sank. This mix of personal and historical imagery is an excellent fit with the book itself, which is both an intimate family story and a social history.
After years of research, seeing all these pieces of the puzzle worked into the cover image for our book was a lovely surprise, and still serves as a reminder of the many places that hold clues to the past for those who love to go searching.
We’ve written about thieves aplenty in our book and on this blog too, even delving into stories about child thieves — but here’s a new twist: thieves who stole from children.
In searching out events that occurred on Red Cross Street, Southwark, where our family lived for generations, I came upon a newspaper article dated May 1893; it told of a 19-year-old woman named Mary Ann Blacklock, who’d pleaded guilty to several indictments for stealing the boots and clothing of nine-year-old Alice Fentum, the daughter of a labourer who lived in Red Cross Street.
On Good Friday, Alice was sent out on an errand, and soon encountered Mary Ann, who encouraged the girl to walk with her. They ambled for close to two hours, and ended up in a neighbourhood far from Alice’s home. They spent the night in a wash house, and in the morning, Mary Ann crept away with Alice’s boots under her arm. When Alice woke, she wandered out into the street and found a police constable, who returned her to her parents. Mary Ann was known to the police; it was said that she regularly “waylaid little children coming home from school, took them away to some secluded place, and stole their clothing.” She’d been convicted of similar offences several times before, and this time was sentenced to seven months hard labour.
But she wasn’t the only such thief. A quick search in the British Newspaper Archive, using terms like “robbing a child” and “stealing from children,” turns up plenty of examples. (Have a look at the headings in the list of articles below.)
In March of 1865, a woman named Ann Kernow stole a shawl from a five-year-old girl, and cried on being apprehended; and in July of 1873, Isabella Miller stole a little girl’s worsted stockings and hid them away in the passage of the dwelling where she was living. In January of 1890, Jane Burnside was charged with stealing (and of course pawning!) a pair of boots that belonged to her four-year-old niece. “PC Marshall said that when he took Burnside into custody she replied that it was all right. This was her 19th appearance.” Jemima Bennett, charged in 1899, had a similar “bad record,” and was sent to the Sessions for stealing from a five-year-old: she “took her shawl from her and made off.”
It’s hard to imagine sinking to such a low, no matter how desperate life becomes, but the whole story can never be told in a tiny newspaper mention, or even in court records. Ancestry holds an absolutely engrossing stash of records for females convicted for stealing skirts and boots and umbrellas and even bacon; sometimes the documents include startling biographical information — “husband and child in the same gaol” — and sorry looking mugshots reminiscent of the asylum photos that included our Ellen Evans. An initial search through the criminal database has not turned up any of the thieves-of-children mentioned here, though some may be lurking under different names.
Just the same, there are clues in the newspaper accounts that add detail to their stories. In April of 1892, Emily Blaber, “a servant out of situation,” was remanded for stealing a pair of boots from a five-year-old girl. And on Christmas Eve in 1897, Elizabeth Cook was charged with stealing a child’s jacket.
“The child was looking in the window of a sweetstuff shop at York-road, Battersea, when the prisoner went up to him and said, ‘Ain’t the sweets nice?’ She gave the child a halfpenny, telling him that she would take care of his coat while he entered the shop for some sweets. As soon as he entered the shop the woman made off with the coat. A working man named Winkworth Harbourne, of Belfern-street, Battersea, who had been watching the prisoner’s movements, went after her and gave her into custody. It was mentioned that the prisoner had been previously convicted for a similar offence. The magistrate said there was no more detestable creature than the thief who preys on the innocence of young children.”
Even if the jacket — or the money she’d get for it — was intended as a present for Elizabeth’s own child, the crime is despicable. But what drove these women to such measures in the first place? In both the newspaper accounts and the criminal register, many were repeat offenders. Throughout September of 1898, under the heading Apprehensions Sought, the Police Gazette ran three subsequent notices about Mary Ann Blacklock, the woman who had led little Alice Fentum out of Red Cross Street five years earlier:
“For stealing parcels of clothing from child outside pawnshop — MARY ANN BLACKLOCK, alias MARIAN BLACKLOCK, DAVIS, BLACKLAND, POLLY OTT, &c., age 24, height 5 ft. 2 in., complexion fresh, hair dark brown, eyes hazel, thick lips, pock marked … wearing dark clothing and shawl. A flower seller. May be found in the hop district. Information to be forwarded to the Metropolitan Police Office, New Scotland Yard, S.W.”
“Stealing from a Child.” Northampton Mercury, 11 March, 1865.
Valentine’s Day was a big deal in Victorian London, so much so that newspapers often reported on how many tens of thousands of cards were sent out on the backs of busy postmen. Leading up to the day, there were notices urging people to send their missives early, so that the system would not be overloaded. Perfumer Eugene Rimmel made smart use of the occasion, expanding his business to include the manufacture of Valentine’s cards that were scented with his perfume. Here’s a little find from an 1870 issue of Penny Illustrated.
One of the sights of London on St. Valentine’s Eve is the exterior of any of M. Rimmel’s establishments. The valentines of this famous perfumer growing in popularity every year, the middle of February attracts more and more disciples of the lovers’ saint to 96, Strand. Every variety of swain and sweetheart hie thither, and form a study as interesting as the beauteous and delicate works of art which they gaze at, as if perplexed as to which to choose. M. Rimmel’s valentines are this year even more charming than ever. He has been fortunate enough to hit upon an artist who paints a fair face with a magic touch, and is alike happy in delineating blonde and brunette. As graceful in design as the valentines in which these irresistible beauties appear are some choice specimens adorned by real birds, rich in plumage, and stuffed with such skill that they would make handsome ornaments for any mantelpiece. The floral lovemissives, scented sachets, and girl-of-the-period valentines also merit a word of praise. They are worthy of that arch match-maker M. Rimmel, whose name will be in good odour, we trust, with many happy couples this season.
Some of the ancestors we wrote about in The Cowkeeper’s Wishspent time in the workhouse, and if they had children when they entered, they were sent to pauper schools, as was the case with the Vanson branch of our story. Richard Vanson, born in the 1860s, grew up to marry our great grandmother’s sister Jennie, but long before that, he was the child of parents mired in poverty, who frequently moved from place to place. His father had done time for burglary before Richard was born, and was listed as a hawker on the 1861 and 1871 census. In 1872, he died of tuberculosis, at just 42 years old, leaving Richard’s mother to care for Richard and his six siblings. By 1875, she too fell ill, with the same “lingering malady,” and died in Newington Workhouse. Richard was nine then, and sent to the Central London District School at Hanwell, nicknamed Cuckoo Schools since it was built on Cuckoo Hill, on farmland outside the city. For several decades, the school housed the parish’s orphans and so-called destitute children. Charlie Chaplin and his brother attended when their mother Hannah entered the workhouse. Despite the beautiful country setting — a breath of fresh air for “pauper” children from London — Chaplin later wrote that his time there was “a forlorn existence” and that “Sadness was in the air.”
Richard Vanson’s three younger siblings — a brother and two sisters — went with him to Hanwell, and the three older ones fended for themselves; from that point on, the siblings never lived as a family again. While conducting our research of the place, trying to find out what it must have been like for children living out their childhoods there, as the Vansons did, we scoured the newspaper archive for mentions of Hanwell, and among our finds were notices placed in a “Long Lost Relatives” column in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper.
From 1886: “Alice Hutchinson has not been heard of by her brother since she left him at Hanwell school about 15 years ago.”
From 1889: “James Boneer, who 22 years ago left St Pancras workhouse for Hanwell school, wishes to hear of his relatives.”
From 1893: “Vincent (Frederick) left Hanwell Schools, Middlesex, in July 1879; when last heard of was AB on HMS Victory at Portsmouth. Sister Kate inquires.”
From 1895: “George William Rapley would like to trace his parents, whom he has never seen or heard of. He was put in a school at Hanwell called the Cuckoo School.”
Curious about the history of the column itself, I did a bit more digging, and found that sometimes there were so many entries of people searching for loved ones that they were divided by category: Parents and Children, Brothers Seeking Sisters, Sisters Seeking Sisters, and so on. The columns make for heart-breaking reading, but often contain good news too, such as at Christmas in 1886, when a reader wrote to say “I beg to tender my heartfelt thanks for helping me, through your valuable paper, to find the whereabouts of my mother, whom for about 11 years I had heard nothing whatever of, but from whom I received a letter by last mail.”
By the time the Long Lost Relatives column had a regular place in Lloyd’s Weekly in the mid-1880s, the paper had been around for more than 40 years. It had been founded by Edward Lloyd, who declared from the outset, “We have no private interest to serve; no party to land. We enter the political ocean a free trader. Our flag is independence, and we will nail it to the mast.” Lloyd was one of the fathers of the “penny bloods,” dramatic, serialized stories that were hugely popular with the working class. With Lloyd’s Weekly, he became a sort of “pioneer of the cheap press,” bringing the masses a newspaper they could afford. One writer claimed that, prior to Lloyd’s, “If a person of humble means wanted to know what was going on in the world, he would have to go to a public house and borrow the Morning Advertiser.”
The paper’s content was often unexpected, and included material not typically found in other publications. Inspiration for the lost relatives column apparently grew out of an 1877 letter submitted to the newspaper, for which Lloyd’s ran the following notice:
F. W. Wheeler, photographer, of Richford, Vermont, USA, sends us an account of an unknown Englishman drowned in America. The accident occurred in the Missisquoi River at Richford, Vermont, on June 28, 1874. The deceased, a young man, was supposed to be Henry Preston, of Holborn, London. In his pockets were found a letter from his mother, and two worn photographs, probably of his mother and little sister. Our correspondent encloses copies of the photographs, also a copy of the letter.
The next Sunday, under the heading “A Message from the Grave,” Lloyd’s told its readers that “Monday morning brought the sorrowing mother of the deceased to our office.” She had the same photographs with her, and said that the last letter she’d had from her son had been dated just days before the accident. Since then, she’d known nothing of his whereabouts.
More such inquiries followed over the years — parents anxious to hear from sons and daughters “scattered abroad”; siblings separated by misfortune; wives hunting out “husbands who appear to have purposely disappeared.” (These last the paper claimed were impossible cases, and didn’t take them on.) Eventually the queries became so frequent that the paper decided to run a regular column, and in May 1886 headed the piece with the notice:
Letters continue to pour in upon us from correspondents asking the aid of Lloyd’s to discover relatives of whom all trace has been lost for many years. We shall deal with these mainly in the order they are received, giving, however, the preference to mothers seeking their children, and printing as many as circumstances will permit each week.
The paper’s popularity grew, and the column ran until at least 1900, as far as I can tell. People wrote in from all over the world, and also from the humblest spots in London, where they’d lost track of each other. Lloyd’s published shortened versions of the letters and kept the longer on file, hoping for responses, and including these in the column when they came. A quick glimpse shows the multitude of ways families had been fragmented, and the pain it caused years afterwards. But sometimes people were reunited, even decades later, simply by way of a small notice in the newspaper, printed free of charge. Others, of course, never found each other. It’s astonishing to read these desperate notices now, what with social media, and the ease of spreading information not just far and wide but instantly.
Richard Vanson left Hanwell at 15, to be apprenticed as a bootmaker. He eventually settled back in his childhood neighbourhood, where he met and married Jennie and made his way into our family tree. Many of his siblings pop up at nearby addresses, so they seem to have made an attempt to return “home” and be close to each other, despite the system that separated them at such a young age. But their trials were far from over. Richard died young, just as his parents had, and of the same illness. And when his brother entered the workhouse as a grown man, likely down on his luck, his children were sent on to Hanwell, just as he and his siblings had been.
As difficult as it was to select the few threads that would become the focus of The Cowkeeper’s Wish, in the interest of brevity we cut our great grandfather’s twice married but never divorced sister Kate, and the brother-in-law who claimed to be the son of an Indian Commissioner and knight, but who worked as a porter. To ensure the book did not end up as a massive tome we erased a several times great uncle – a publican whose son threatened to burn down his hotel — and we did not share the tangent we traveled to learn about George Duckworth, the aristocrat who worked unpaid for a decade to help Charles Booth with his extensive study of London’s poor. Duckworth’s detailed notes were invaluable to us in recreating the streets and places in The Cowkeeper’s Wish, but, horribly, he was accused of molesting his half-sisters, writer Virginia Woolf and painter Vanessa Bell.
Brow-raisers aplenty we’ve stumbled across while writing and researching, and it seems there’s no single branch of our gnarled tree that does not contain a knot or two. Even the family ensconced in what Duckworth called “happy Plumstead,” with its grassy heaths and heady woodlands and the scent of flowers in the air, had its surprises.
Let me begin with Edwin Curtis, our great grandmother Emily’s forebear, and a cowkeeper like the Benjamin Jones in our book title, although in rather different circumstances. Edwin came to the dairy trade in a roundabout way. The second son of a butcher and grocer, he’d grown up in Salperton, Gloucestershire, in the heart of southwest England’s Cotswold Hills. He spent his unmarried years working as an agriculture labourer, but by the time he wed his wife Elizabeth Bryant in 1859, he and his father had swapped occupations – Edwin was the butcher and his father a farmer. But like Benjamin Jones and so many others before him, Edwin saw his future elsewhere. Instead of choosing the life of a city dweller for himself and his cows as Benjamin had done, Edwin’s path took him to High Grove Farm in Plumstead, where his cattle, eating sweet grass and drinking clean water, presumably enjoyed an existence more pleasant than Benjamin’s cows, housed in the muck and foul air of the Borough. Though just twelve miles from London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, George Duckworth noted, here “nightingales still sing, pheasants are still preserved, and bluebells carpet the woods.”
In this seemingly idyllic setting Edwin and Elizabeth raised a family of six children. When they died within a few years of each other soon after the turn of the century, the farm was passed down to two of their sons who, at age 48 and 37, had remained unmarried. While the elder of the brothers had a job at one of the many factories that had sprung up on the flats down by the Thames, and in his off hours tended the farm’s horses, the younger worked full time on the farm, following in his father’s footsteps as a cowkeeper. But there are no tales of filthy, diluted milk here, as there was with Benjamin Jones. Instead, the surprise that surfaced in this story was the teenage niece, Bea, who lived with them, helping out as a housekeeper, although it seems more was going on than the sweeping of floors and the washing of dishes.
Can you marry your uncle? According to the Table of Kindred and Affinity found at the back of the Anglican Book of Prayer “Wherein, Whosoever are related, are forbidden in Scripture, and our laws, to Marry together,” the answer is no, and has been since at least 1560, when the table was first established.
But in “happy Plumstead,” amongst the blooms of June 1913, Bea and her uncle did just that at the Woolwich Registry Office, where a Notice of Intention to Marry would have been posted for three weeks prior to the event. Presumably no one stepped forward to object, but it’s hard not to suppose there would have been whispers behind hands, elbows nudged, and glances exchanged, for surely within that relatively small community people knew of the close relationship, and that it was illegal, and, most would judge, immoral. And yet it occurred, and the official record remains to prove it, duly signed by the registrar and the deputy superintendent who performed the ceremony. Signing as witnesses to the ceremony were the older brother of the groom (another uncle to the bride), and someone with the same last name and first initial as the bride’s mother, although almost ten years earlier that same woman had disowned another daughter, our great grandmother Emily, for reasons that can only be speculation a century and more gone. And yet what can have been Emily’s crime, if the mother approved of such a match for her sister Bea?
Family historians are innately curious, as are writers, and when a tidbit such as the estrangement of a mother and her daughter is dangled before us, how can we help but try to figure out why such a thing might have happened? In this case, the obvious reason for the parting of ways seemed to be Emily’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, established by the date of her marriage and the birth date of her first child. But if this was the reason for the mother’s harsh treatment, it was sadly hypocritical, for records show the mother herself had been a pregnant bride. Perhaps the mother had simply disliked George, her daughter’s chosen husband. But this too seemed unlikely. George was by all accounts an amiable, capable, dependable fellow who loved Emily, and had been friendly with her family for years before he and Emily married.
Some things are simply unknowable, and it appeared we would never find out what had occurred to cause the rift between mother and daughter. Then, soon after The Cowkeeper’s Wish went to print, we came across an item in The Kentish Independent newspaper, dating from 1906. “Robbing Uncle,” was the headline, and there, in black and white, was a story that had not been passed down through the generations. Our great grandmother, employed to do housework at her uncle’s dairy farm, had stolen money from him – twice – and been caught. The uncle was the same man who would later marry her sister.
The article tells us that the uncle had noticed money missing from the locked box in his bedroom, and went to the police. They set a trap for the thief, placing twenty marked sovereigns in the box, and leaving the key in its usual location, the pocket of the uncle’s coat. When several of the marked coins immediately went missing, the police arrested Emily, hauling her off a tram and bringing her back to the scene of the crime. A dramatic encounter followed, with Emily pulling the coins from her stocking and pleading for leniency.
“Please don’t prosecute me, Steve,” the newspaper quoted, “I will give [the money] back. … I have only had the two lots. I took [it] because I was going to have a little one, and had not money.”
Detective Sergeant Webber, testifying at the hearing, told the magistrate that Emily “was a perfectly respectable woman, and her husband, who was in court, was willing to repay the [money] if he was given a few days.” In the end, though, the magistrate felt it best to continue with prosecution, and sent her for trial at the South London Sessions. No record has been found to give us details of that awful experience, but the judge must have decided to be lenient, perhaps at her uncle’s request, or maybe because Emily and her husband revealed plans to emigrate to Canada, which they did the following year.
But even this sorry tale does not tell the whole story of the estrangement. If the theft was the reason for the rift, why did the mother (according to family lore) refuse to attend Emily’s wedding, which had taken place before the incident? Sadly, the dispute between them remained unresolved, and they never again spoke or even wrote to one another.
Years later, after both women had died, one of Emily’s sons visited the town she’d left all that time ago, and found not only long lost aunts, uncles and cousins, but a warm welcome besides.
“Robbing Uncle”, The Kentish Independent, August 31, 1906