Red Cross Neighbours

“The most undesirable reputation of any slum in London…”

Men of the Borough, Southwark, courtesy Dean Kenny

It’s been a while since I investigated the black and blue streets of Victorian Southwark, where our story is set. But I was prompted to revisit when a follower of this blog sent a photograph taken in the same neighbourhood where our cowkeeper family lived from the 1830s to the 1900s. How fun to be corresponding with someone whose ancestors were neighbours of our own, and to think that perhaps they even knew each other. When he sent me the image, Dean Kenny wrote:

Attached is the photo of what looks like the start of a “boys’ day out.” I can’t imagine what state they might have been in on their return! In the background is Red Cross Court, Southwark. My great grandfather William TOAL was born at 1 Red Cross Court in 1871. He’s in this photo, the rather large man wearing the straw boater on our right of the photo. I don’t know the year the photo was taken. 

William worked in a local stables as a labourer and the family were described as being very poor. 

Familiar territory for sure. Our own family, chronicled in The Cowkeeper’s Wish, lived on Red Cross Street, near the intersection of Red Cross Court, and just around the corner from Dean’s family’s address on that dark little alley. The whole area was known for its crime and poverty, but Red Cross Court, especially, was notorious for decades — it had “the most undesirable reputation of any slum in London,” according to the South London Chronicle, which published many articles about Annie Bennett, “Terror of the Borough,” who apparently broke out of prison to see her “beloved slum” one last time before it was torn down.

William Toal’s neighbour and our great grandmother, Mary Anne Evans, taken around the time of her marriage in 1895

Born in the early 1870s, Dean’s great grandfather William was close in age to our great grandmother, Mary Anne. They were infants one winter night when screams of “Murder” burst through the window next door to the Toals’ place. According to the Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper report on the trial that followed, a 45-year-old labourer named John Casey had come home drunk after New Year’s Eve celebrations, grabbed a razor, and attacked his wife Hannah, half asleep in their darkened bedroom. She put up her arms to protect her neck as he came at her, and her fingers and forearm were badly slashed. She jumped out of bed, rushed to the window and called out for help, and soon police arrived; John was taken into custody, and Hannah to nearby Guy’s Hospital. In the retelling at court a week later, John gave a different version: Hannah had been drunk “all the day and night, and had broken all the crockery and thrown the chairs out of the window. She attacked him as soon as he got into bed, and must have cut her arm falling against the fender.”

It’s impossible to know now whose version was true, or what crucial details were missing entirely, but what’s certain is that troubling stories of domestic violence — as well as theft, drunkenness, and general thuggery — were common in the neighbourhood, where poverty was the prevailing theme.

William Toal and our Mary Anne grew up among these dramas, and would have had an entirely different perspective than the ones largely available to us now — after all, the journalists and the anti-poverty activists of the day were all outsiders looking in on the area. Reporting on the proposed demolition of some of the Borough’s worst slum buildings in 1901, the South London Press wrote that: “There are also being demolished a number of courts which lie hidden behind Borough High-street, and which are associated with many of Dickens’s works … but, apart from fiction, one court alone, Redcross-court, once tenanted by the worst of London’s living population, was the scene during the last century of no less than 12 or 13 murders, whilst the charges of manslaughter that arose out of fights over the division of the spoil of robberies could not be counted.”

Charles Booth’s map, colour-coded to show poverty levels. Red Cross Street runs diagonally through the centre, parallel to Borough High Street, and Red Cross Court is the black and blue section left of the GH in Borough. Notice St. George the Martyr Workhouse in the lower left corner. See https://booth.lse.ac.uk/for more about the Booth’s work documenting poverty in London.

The philanthropist Charles Booth and his “social investigators” spent plenty of time in the area when they compiled their massive poverty study in the 1890s and early 1900s. A map accompanied the work, colour-coded to show poverty levels, with Black being the poorest of all. The reason you can’t quite see Red Cross Court in the Booth map below is precisely because it has been blackened to convey the deep level of poverty that existed there. Not for the first time I find myself wishing I could rub away the black to see these streets more clearly, and to know how people like William Toal and Mary Anne would have described their neighbourhood. How it might surprise them to know we are curious about them now, all these years later.

13 thoughts on “Red Cross Neighbours

  1. Marilyn Charbonneau

    Oooeee! Such an interesting thing to be corresponding to a neighbour of Mary Ann. We know how hardworking our family ancestors were and I’m sure their neighbours who were not drunkards were also trying their best to make a good life as far as they were able. I believe even the drunkards were trying their best, but with the conditions of the times for the very poor, few were able to achieve much.

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  2. I have a strong but much earlier association with the neighbouring parish of St George the Martyr through my 3 X great-grandmother Mary (1793 – 1863) . She lived there at the time of her marriage although she moved a great deal after marrying a mariner. As I have mentioned in other chats I knew nothing about this part of my family history when I would walk down Borough High Street on my way to Borough Polytechnic c 1962-1964.

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    1. Lovely to hear from you Liz. At one point our family lived in adjoining houses on Red Cross, and so had one foot in St George the Martyr parish and one in St Saviour. Such an interesting history to research….

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    2. Dawn

      Hi Liz, I wonder if you are related to my dad’s adoptive parents, my great grandparents were Tobins from St George the Martyr, haven’t done much research as yet but in 1891 they were a young married couple in Alfreston St.
      I know there were a few Tobin’s in the area.

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  3. Michelle P.

    Loved this Kristin! I too have been chasing some relatives through a different part of London, Marylebone at little later. My grandfather’s older sister, Nell worked as a cook in London at the Ravensbourne Club. Her second child, Dereter (Joan) was born in Marylebone in 1914 and Nell’s husband died suddenly at the age of 40 at the Ravensbourne Club in 1920. Of course I’m curious about where she came up with her daughter’s name, what killed her husband and where they lived at the time. So many untold stories. Thanks for bringing your family’s story to life for us!

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  4. Dawn

    I discovered your site today just as I’m about to restart researching my family. I’ve done bits and pieces in the past but not seriously. My paternal grandfather was from Galway, initial research showed his ancestors were all from that area. He moved to London and married my grandmother, she was from Southwark where we all grew up. Long story short, after my mother died in 2018 we found out my dad had been adopted. Earlier this year we received information about his birth parents. I spent a few weeks researching and have a lot of new names, places etc.
    I’ve now decided the time is right to go further.
    I’ve always been interested in personal and social history, it’s fascinating, much more so than “official” history and I’m delighted to have found you!

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    1. Hi Dawn. I’m delighted you found the site too! Since you grew up in Southwark, I hope you’ll also find the book a real treat to read. It was a wonderful experience researching the story, and if you’re interested in social history, you’re sure to go down a lot of rabbit holes, just as we did, as you work through your research. Please keep in touch and let us know what you find!

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  5. Dawn

    Thanks!
    I’ll be ordering the book this week, really looking forward to it.
    I forgot to mention how I found you – I was researching Lambeth hospital – it’s where I was born!
    And have to say I do love a rabbit hole!

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