Two terrors of the Borough

Though our book is subtitled “a genealogical journey,” it isn’t filling in the family tree that excites me most. It’s the history — and the mystery! — that inspire me above all, and I suspect many genealogy enthusiasts are the same. Searching out the family story opens  windows into the past, through which all sorts of other stories appear. I can easily disappear down rabbit holes researching people totally unrelated to me, but using all the same tools I’d use to find my ancestors.

1900s Harry and Mary Ann sepia
Harry Deverill, with Mary Anne peering through the vine-framed window

Take, for instance, two “terrors of the Borough” I came across while hunting through the British Newspaper Archive for mentions of Red Cross Street, now Redcross Way, and the Southwark family home for decades. In 1891, our great grandmother, 18-year-old Mary Anne Evans, was living there with her aunt, since her father had died and her mother had disappeared into the local workhouse. Handsome young Harry Deverill, 21 that census year, had moved into the street, too, and was working as a grocer. Soon their romance blossomed, and they were married at St Saviour’s Church (now Southwark Cathedral) in 1895. Given the timing, and the fact that Mary Anne had grown up in the street, it seems certain that they would have known of the terrors, Annie Bennett and John “Caster” Cannon. Caster — sometimes Coster and Costy — lived in the Mowbray Buildings, rough tenement housing where Mary Anne’s troubled sister Ellen also lived after her marriage fell apart and she began her downward spiral.

Throughout the 1890s, articles about Caster Cannon pop up in the newspaper archive. He was a “sweep and pugilist” about the same age as Harry, and had a dangerous reputation in the neighbourhood, less for pummelling other boxers than for pummelling his neighbours. In 1891 he and a fellow fighter were caught up in the death of a betting agent; and in 1895, he and another man living in the Mowbray Buildings were charged with striking a man in the head with sticks. The man headed up a rival gang, and his thugs and Caster’s thugs — thieves and bullies of the Borough — were engaged in an ongoing feud. Caster was “quite at home in the dock,” the press reported, “[and] conducted his case with great ability.”

The following August, the Illustrated Police News ran a piece titled “Oh, What a Surprise!” and revealed that Caster had been charged with disorderly conduct and assaulting women. He’d appeared frequently before the court for violent assaults, the paper claimed, and was “notorious as one of the most dangerous characters in the Borough.” A crowd of locals gathered outside the courthouse, anxious to hear the outcome of the charges, but they were not allowed in.

bill sykes by fred barnard
Fred Barnard’s depiction of the vicious Bill Sikes and his dog Bull’s-eye, from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. “[Sikes] was a stoutly-built fellow of about five-and-thirty, in a black velveteen coat, very soiled drab breeches, lace-up half boots, and grey cotton stockings, which inclosed a bulky pair of legs, with large swelling calves; the kind of legs, which in such costume, always look in an unfinished and incomplete state without a set of fetters to garnish them. He had a brown hat on his head, and a dirty belcher handkerchief round his neck: with the long frayed ends of which he smeared the beer from his face as he spoke. He disclosed, when he had done so, a broad heavy countenance with a beard of three days’ growth, and two scowling eyes; one of which displayed various parti-coloured symptoms of having been recently damaged by a blow.”
It seems Caster had been causing quite a stir in the street a few nights earlier, using “the vilest language possible and abusing his neighbours.” Police were called in by nine different people, mostly women, who alleged that Caster had assaulted them. One woman said he’d threatened to kill her, and struck her with a poker; another said he’d thrown a knife at her and threatened to kill her baby; a third said he’d spat in her face and thrown a flower pot at her. But each time a constable answered the call for help, Caster dashed inside and bolted his door. Finally, when a trio of constables came for him, he was apprehended.

After hearing the constable and the women testify, Caster claimed, “It’s all a pack of lies. These women want to put me away from my wife. I can’t be such a bad man, for I’ve got five little children and another one expected. I wish your worship would hear what my wife has to say.” But when his wife Mary Ann was called in, the magistrate asked her if she had recently come to him for a warrant against her husband, and she answered “Yes, sir. A week ago.” The charge of assaulting his wife was added to the other charges, and “the prisoner, who seemed dumbfounded by this turn of affairs, was then removed.”

A week later, another Borough brawl erupted in Caster’s absence, and this time  Annie Bennett was charged with disorderly conduct and using obscene language. Annie was a 27-year-old laundress who lived in Redcross Court, one of the dank little alleys that snaked off Red Cross Street. A constable had spotted her fighting with another woman, and though he separated them, Annie “would not go away when requested, and used disgusting language.” She said she’d “have the liver out of the other woman because she had helped to get Caster Cannon two months.” She was sentenced to 14 days’ hard labour, but it was not the first or last time she’d appear before the magistrate.

Charles Mitchell
English pugilist Charles Mitchell was a contemporary of Caster Cannon. He was “a fighter in the full sense of the word … [and] had great pluck outside the ring as well as in it.” The Fighting Man by William A. Brady, 1916.
It didn’t take long for Caster to find trouble again once he’d done his time. In November, “John Cannon, who is described as a chimney sweep, but who is a well-known pugilist,” was charged with assaulting a fish curer named Ephraim Goodwin. It was another rivalry situation, and after a series of altercations between the two, Caster had appeared at Goodwin’s bedside one night, and punched him in the head as he lay sleeping. When the man woke, Caster punched him again “and then tried to ‘gnaw’ him.” Caster asked for leniency, since he had a wife and six children and was in poor health. The magistrate fined him £3, or one month’s time.

Reading on in the archive, it’s hard to muster sympathy for Caster Cannon. In early July of 1897, he approached the same magistrate, “a nervous individual seeking the protection of the court.” He claimed a gang of men had come into his lodgings in the middle of the night and threatened his life. The magistrate seemed amused by the “evident anxiety of the burly applicant,” but a week later, according to the Illustrated Police News in a piece headed “The Terror of the Borough,” Caster had indeed been beaten, and sat in court with his head “a mass of bandages.”

There were in all some six or seven charges and counter charges, to which the magistrate gave a very patient hearing, occupying nearly two hours. … Mary Shaw, wife of a costermonger, was the first complainant against Cannon. She alleged that Mike Smith, an ex-convict in her husband’s employment, refused to yield up to Cannon a shilling out of the day’s takings belonging to her husband, whereupon Cannon knocked him senseless with a blow in the stomach. The witness remonstrated, and Cannon struck her in the face, and threw a can of beer over her. Subsequently he emptied a quantity of filth over her barrow-load of strawberries. … Cannon was accustomed to demand money and beer of all comers. People in Redcross Court had put up with it, under fear of him, for years past. But when he moved to Queen’s Court, a few weeks ago, he tried the ‘same game’ with less success. She was aware that a party was made up to break into Cannon’s house, which was next door to hers, and to drag him out for punishment, but she was not the organiser of the party, nor did they rendezvous at her house. It was not true that her grievance against Cannon was that he objected to her boiling whelks in the copper, which belonged jointly to the two houses. Mike Smith corroborated Mrs. Shaw’s story, and charged Cannon with assaulting him, simply because he would not pay toll to the ‘bully of the court.’ … [He] was not one of the party who stormed Cannon’s abode at three o’clock in the morning, dragged him out of bed, and beat him black and blue, but he was glad to hear what had happened. … Passing from the dock to the witness-box Cannon gave his version of what had happened to him, and bitterly complained that a ‘mob’ of fifteen or twenty men broke down his door, smashed his furniture, beat him with sticks and pieces of iron while he was in his shirt, and would have killed him ‘like a rat’ but for the arrival of the police. … After further evidence, the magistrate said it was high time these disgraceful fights were put an end to, and sentenced Cannon and Selby, both of whom had been frequently convicted, to four months’ hard labour, and Smith to one month. On leaving the court, Selby rushed savagely at Cannon, and was narrowly prevented from again assaulting him. 

From then on, mentions of Caster as “the terror of the borough” begin to dwindle. But his defender, the laundress Annie Bennett, earned the same nickname for her ongoing wild behaviour. She was a small woman with sharp features and a quick tongue, her arms “freely tattooed” with the names of various lovers — a jealous woman once tried to scrape off one of those names with broken glass, but Annie fought back with fervour. In 1899, when she was charged with being drunk and disorderly, she was sentenced to a year in an inebriates’ home in Bristol. She called the constables liars who wouldn’t let anyone off, and let loose a stream of “violent language” as she was taken from court. One article said she was a habitual drunkard who had had many similar convictions, and had “frequently distinguished herself in the many skirmishes and battles with which the history of Redcross Court is studded.”

But I always wonder about the stories behind these stories, and the clues that suggest different tellings, different views of these old slums of Victorian London and the people who lived there. It was home to them, after all, and the people who often wrote about the slums were outsiders, with an outsider’s vantage point (just like me, now). Redcross Court, where Annie Bennett lived, “possessed the most undesirable reputation as any slum in London,” but after eight months of her sentence, Annie escaped the inebriates’ home and made her way straight back there. She was caught, and sentenced to three months in prison, and when that was over, she returned to the Borough immediately, only to be caught up in a brawl that landed her in front of the magistrate. He asked her why she’d escaped in the first place, only to cause herself more trouble, and she answered that she’d heard Redcross Court — dilapidated and overcrowded — was going to be torn down by London County Council, and she thought she would like to see it again before it was no more. The article mocks “the sentimental side” of “the lady in question,” and her wish to see “the last of her much-beloved slum.” But at the same time, her wish rings true, and makes me all the more curious about who she really was, and what her neighbourhood was like from an insider’s perspective.

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The Illustrated Police News was one of England’s early tabloids, and liked to focus on sensational stories. This was the front page of the issue that contained the piece about the “terror of the Borough” with his head swathed in bandages.

Sources

“Borough Roughs.” South London Chronicle, 10 August, 1895

“Caster Cannon Again.” South London Chronicle, 5 October, 1895

“Oh, What a Surprise!” Illustrated Police News, 22 August, 1896

“Life in the Borough.” South London Chronicle, 29 August, 1896

“The Rival Champions.” Daily Telegraph & Courier (London), 4 November, 1896

“‘Caster’ Cannon Again.” South London Chronicle, 3 July, 1897

“The Terror of the Borough.” Illustrated Police News, 17 July, 1897

“‘Terror’ Goes to Bath.” South London Press, 3 June, 1899

Page 5. South London Chronicle, 14 July, 1900.

“Habitual Drunkard’s Escape.” South London Press, 17 January, 1903

 

 

“The Degenerate Cockney”


ernie deverill (2)
Ernie Deverill, May 1923, newly arrived in Canada.

Our great aunt and uncle, Ethel and Ernie Deverill, came to London, Ontario, from London, England, in the 1920s, two young single people with relatives on either side of the ocean, none of whom could have afforded to help pay their way. Domestics and farm labourers were in demand in Canada at the time, and a variety of emigration schemes existed to match people to available jobs. Though it has never been determined with certainty that Ethel and Ernie came here under one of those programs, it’s likely, since Ethel’s entry documents claimed she would be working as a domestic with a job awaiting her, and Ernie’s showed that he had already been hired as a farm labourer, despite having little or no experience. Essentially, they came with scant possessions, and enthusiasm for a new start. Almost twenty years earlier, the fact they were from one of the have-not boroughs of London would have singled them out as undesirables, two among thousands of London poor broadly labeled “the degenerate ‘Cockney’.”

Ethel's Arrival document
Ethel’s 1923 “Oceans Arrival” document: Object in going to Canada? “To make my home.”

 

 

Since at least the 1860s, charitable organizations operating in London’s East End, the Borough, and other impoverished areas of the city had been sending London’s poor to Canada in large numbers. The Salvation Army, the East End Emigration Fund, the Charity Organisation Society and a handful of other philanthropic agencies developed various schemes to facilitate the transportation and resettlement of prospective emigrants. And while Canada needed and wanted the influx, many of these new arrivals were not the choice candidates sought, and were often looked on with suspicion and even hostility, an attitude indicative in part of a class prejudice that assumed these immigrants were not only lazy, weak, ill and incapable, but included an intrinsic criminal element.

Until 1906, Canada’s immigration policy had been relatively open, and British people, given the historic, matriarchal relationship between the two countries, had been preferred. Reverend James Shaver Woodsworth,

James Shaver Woodsworth 1921
James Shaver Woodsworth in 1921, social reformer and newly elected Member of Canadian Parliament. Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada C-057365

a Methodist minister and politician who would become a major influence on Canadian social policy, summed up the view of many when he wrote: “We need more of our own blood to assist us in maintaining in Canada our British traditions and mold the incoming armies of foreigners into loyal British subjects.” But assisted immigrants, Woodsworth maintained, and particularly those from London’s poorest warrens – Whitechapel, the Borough, Shoreditch and the like – were not what he had in mind. In his book Strangers Within Our Gates, or Coming Canadians, Woodsworth gave the example of a young family from Whitechapel, the husband a dyer, the wife a lace-maker. Together with their children, they arrived in Canada thanks to a charitable organization program, ostensibly to farm on the prairies, but, as Woodsworth writes, “They never got beyond Winnipeg. The man was not strong enough physically to farm, and his eyesight was defective. Before many months the wife was in the courts accusing her husband of assault. The children were sickly; after about a year it was discovered that the little boy was weak-minded. The ‘home’ was a copy of the homes in the slums of East London.”

A correspondent for the Times of London, writing in 1908 from Toronto and quoting a Canadian newspaper proprietor, agreed.

One hears the same thing everywhere – the Englishman who succeeds [in Canada] is hardly ever a Londoner; the Englishman who fails completely is almost always a Londoner. … It is these people who are the curse of the Empire, who are the cause of the “No English Need Apply” advertisements, who are doomed to fail wherever they go, who are, and must remain, helpless, shiftless wrecks. For many years the philanthropists, the clergy, the students of sociology have been declaring that “something must be done” for these poor stunted victims of generations of city life, of heedlessness and misgovernment. Recently the “something” has taken the form of assisted emigration, under the pitifully mistaken idea that clearer skies and more generous space and unvitiated air will transform a man or woman who has attained full growth from a useless to a useful member of the community. It will not do. In the second generation, perhaps, there may be a change, for, after all, there is good stock in these “submerged” millions. In the meanwhile, however, they are a burden on communities that can ill afford it, and they are becoming a source of irritation on the part of the Colonies toward the Mother Country.

This “irritation” had translated into legislation in Canada, aimed at curbing what J.S. Woodsworth called “the “dumping” of these unfortunates into Canada. In 1906, the Canadian government had tightened its immigration laws to try to encourage the arrival of persons with qualifications more suited to the country’s needs – mainly farm labour – and the emigration agencies in London made at least a perfunctory effort at complying. But the observations of the correspondent from the Times in 1907 and letters such as the one sent by the Ontario Department of Agriculture in Toronto and published in the East London Observer in 1907 complaining about a group of recent arrivals from Poplar, illustrated their meagre success.

On Sunday night there arrived here thirty-one men, bringing cards of introduction from L. Leopold [the Official Labour Representative in Europe for the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association.] I interviewed some of [the men] yesterday morning, and, picking out the one that appeared least drunk of the lot, I learned that they had been engaged on some farm colony for some three or four months. They received an express order when they landed, which they cashed in Toronto, and immediately proceeded to get drunk. At the lodging-house last night they raised such a disturbance that they had to send for the patrol wagon and send several of them to the police station. We sent a few to Harrowsmith this morning, and they will probably work in some mine; but I do not think they are at all fit men to send to farms, although they are said by Leopold to be wanting farm work. They did not want to go on farms, and I do not think they would be the kind of men whom it would be safe to send into a farm house. They are, without exception, the toughest lot that I have seen for years.

Still, the agencies in London soldiered on, and reported their own statistics to demonstrate the success of their ventures. The Daily Telegraph Shilling Fund and its associated charities suggested that “a better, fitter set of emigrants had never been selected to leave our shores,” while other reports stated that a full 90 per cent of Salvation Army emigrants had found success in agricultural jobs in Canada.

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Page 2 of the pamphlet “Prosperity Follows Settlement in Any Part of Canada” 1909. Image courtesy Government of Canada collections.

The key, they believed, was in “raising the standard” of the emigrants, and providing prior training on farm colonies. But Canada saw the issue differently. Of the 6,096 emigrants sent by the East End Emigration Fund in 1906/7, almost 250 were denied entry to Canada upon arrival, and returned to England immediately. The following year, 70 per cent of all deportations from Canada were British.

The First World War put a halt to most emigration, but when the war ended there were new challenges. With so many unemployed, the British government began to take an interest in emigration, an area previously left, for the most part, to faith-based and philanthropic organizations like the Salvation Army and Girls’ Friendly Society. The government held a conference on Empire settlement, and invited Canada, Australia and New Zealand to the table, coming away with an understanding of their intersecting goals: in Britain, to facilitate the assisted emigration of their unemployed and strengthen allegiances within the Empire, and in the Dominions, to attract preferred immigrants – men with employable skills or those who would farm the land, and healthy women with domestic skills, all preferably British and white, so as not to dilute their culture.

The outcome was the Empire Settlement Act of 1922, a compromise meant to address the fact that Britain did not want to give up her skilled workers, and the Dominions did not want paupers. Training programs for farm work were set up, and although they’d existed prior to this – the Salvation Army, for example, ran Hadleigh Farm; the Waifs and Strays Society had a colony in Staffordshire – the government hadn’t contributed funding. The result was a sort of partnership between the government and the already existing agencies, and although it’s not clear if any of them facilitated Ernie and Ethel Deverill’s move to Canada a few years later, he as a farm labourer and she as a domestic, however their immigration came about, it was a different experience from that of our great grandfather, George Cartwright, who’d emigrated from London, England in 1907.

Family lore recounts George’s struggle to find employment once in Canada, recalling the window signs warning that “Englishmen Need Not Apply.” After traipsing over much of southern Ontario in his search for employment he eventually found maintenance work in London at McCormick’s Biscuit Factory, the so-called “Sunshine Palace,” with its hundreds of sparkling windows and its pristine white walls. Ernie Deverill, perched on a different limb of the family tree and arriving in Canada nearly twenty years after George, was almost certainly unsuited for the farm job he’d come to do, but he too soon found work that was a better fit, mopping and scrubbing his way from the offices and hallways of that same factory to the homes of the company’s managers.

ethel and wilfred
Ethel married her husband Wilfred just months after her arrival in Canada in 1923.

Though neither George nor Ernie were ever going to make it as farmers, and Ethel did not labour long as a paid domestic, neither were they “degenerate ‘Cockney[s]’”. George was by all accounts an honest and loyal man, and a hard worker. A photograph of him at work bears the caption “Who keeps Mc’s going? Pa!” Ethel married within months of her arrival and became a domestic of a different sort, running a household and raising a family of Canadians. Ernie, small and humble, might not have been shocked to know that the poorest Londoners hadn’t been welcome in the country he’d come to. After all, he’d grown up as one of them and had seen the ways of the drunk and the destitute. But he’d been given a chance and he’d taken it, and though he never aspired beyond his brooms and buckets, he worked at the same factory his whole adult life, a Londoner who succeeded where many had expected him to fail.

Sources

“The Out of Work Englishman in Canada – An Indictment of the Londoner.” Yorkshire Post, December 7, 1908.

“Exporting “people of British stock”: training and immigration policy in inter-war Britain.” Field, John, University of Stirling, Scotland, 2010.

Strangers Within our Gates, Woodsworth, J.S., The Missionary Society of the Methodist Church, 1909.

“Emigration.” East London Observer, June 1, 1907.

“Prosperity follows settlement in any part of Canada: Letters from satisfied settlers.” Minister of the Interior, 1909.