Part 6: Ellen Shelley conclusion

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General Lying In Hospital, York Road: nurse sitting with baby in incubator, 1908. Courtesy the Wellcome Library.

For the final instalment of this genealogical case study of a somewhat randomly chosen woman named Ellen Shelley, I must sheepishly reveal that I broke down and ordered her daughter’s birth certificate from the General Register Office. Within four days, I had received a pdf, and while it did confirm the girl’s name and birth date, the box for father’s name was unfortunately empty, with nothing but a line drawn through.

Disappointing, but not surprising. And when I look back to the first post, I realize I’ve found a fair bit of interesting information. In this last post in the series, I’d like to share a bit more detail about the resources used. They are just a sampling of what’s available out there, and all of them offer enormous possibilities for keen researchers, whether you are writing non-fiction, historical fiction, or doing genealogical work.

Those who have been following along from parts one through five in this case study will remember that I selected Ellen’s name from a page from a ledger for the General Lying-In Hospital in Lambeth, where our great-great aunt, Jennie Vanson, gave birth to her daughter Ada in 1906. At the beginning of this venture, all we knew was Ellen’s name and address, and the fact that she was single.

Birth, death, marriage, census, and WW1 records from Ancestry helped us fill in her family information. On the Midwives Roll, also at Ancestry, we found Margaret Ann Le Mercier, who was likely the midwife listed on the hospital’s ledger when Ellen’s baby was born.

Digitized maps and notebooks from Charles Booth’s London helped us learn more about the area where she spent her life.

Maud Pember Reeves’ wonderful study, Round About a Pound a Week, gave us perspective on poverty and family life in Lambeth. The finished book appears on the Internet Archive and on Project Gutenberg, both excellent places to view old treasures.

The London School of Economics Digital Library showed us the Fabian Tract, Family Life on a Pound a Week. The Library is also home to Charles Booth’s London, the Women’s Suffrage Collection, and the 1870s book Street Life in London, which explores the lives of flower-sellers, chimney-sweeps, shoe-blacks, chair-caners, musicians, and more, through photographs and articles.

Lost Hospitals of London gave us a bit of background about the General Lying-In Hospital in Lambeth, and the Wellcome Collection “for the incurably curious” offered some wonderful photographs from a doctor who was on staff there, as well as a clinical report of the hospital from 1912.

A London Metropolitan Archives catalogue search told us more about the records held regarding the Lying-In Hospital, and the British Newspaper Archive gave us clues about the hospital’s need for funds. We also found articles about undertakers (like Ellen’s father and brothers) and unwed mothers.

The National Archives, the Imperial War Museum, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission gave us more information about Ellen’s family in the war years, and about the air raids over London in both the First and Second World Wars.

bethlem iwm
Exterior view of the Imperial War Museum in its new quarters at Lambeth Road, London, 1937. © IWM (Q 61181). The site was very near several of Ellen Shelley’s addresses, and originally home to Bethlem Royal Hospital.

And just to take Ellen Shelley’s story through to its natural conclusion: I can’t be certain when her husband George died, but the records for Ellen and Priscilla are clear, since they include their birth dates, which match the birth dates given on the 1939 census. Ellen lived to be 89 years old, and died in Lambeth in 1972. Priscilla never married. She also died in Lambeth, age 81, not far from where she was born at the Lying-In Hospital, where our investigation began.

 

Book Review: The Cowkeeper’s Wish

Princes, Paupers, Pilgrims & Pioneers

What would you give up and how far would you go to make a better life for yourself? Would you pack up what little you had and leave your loved ones and your rural homeland to seek your fortune in the big city? Would you walk 250 miles over mountains and moors while driving a herd of cattle to forge a new destiny? Just what would you do?

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Part 5: Ellen Shelley, George Smith and the Great War

This is the fifth instalment in a series of posts about looking beyond the obvious records in order to bring a genealogical story to life. Part 1 of the search to find out more about the randomly chosen Ellen Shelley revealed basic facts through birth, marriage, and census; Part 2 delved into the world of undertakers, since Ellen’s father and her brothers held this job; Part 3 explored the General Lying-In Hospital in Lambeth, where Ellen gave birth in 1906 as a single mother; and Part 4 explored the lives of women in the early 1900s.

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This modern map shows the area where Ellen Shelley and her husband George Smith lived. It would take about an hour to wander past most of the addresses I’ve encountered while researching the families’ whereabouts from the 1870s to the 1930s.
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Charles Booth’s poverty map, showing approximately the same area. For a detailed view, visit LSE’s Charles Booth’s London.

Ten years after she gave birth at the Lying-In Hospital, Ellen married a man named George Henry Smith. I’m curious about the connection between the Smith and Shelley families, since Ellen’s four-year-old daughter, Priscilla, was listed as a visitor with the Smiths when the 1911 census was taken. I would like to find out more about George as a way of finding out more about Ellen.

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This 1860s photograph of Lambeth Palace Yard shows St Mary at Lambeth church in the background. (William Strudwick, courtesy V&A Museum.) Now home to the Garden Museum, the church where Ellen and George were married has a long history in Lambeth. According to the museum’s timeline, bombing during WW2 damaged the church, and broke up the altar donated by Sir Henry Doulton, of nearby Doulton’s pottery, where our own relative, Fred Roff, was employed.

They married at St Mary at Lambeth parish church on Christmas Eve, 1916, when the Great War was more than two years old. It was one of five weddings that took place there that day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day being popular choices among the working classes. George, 30, was an electrician whose deceased father had been a stoker, and Ellen, 34, was a cook whose deceased father had been an undertaker. Two of Ellen’s brothers, both undertaker’s assistants, served as witnesses. There is no sign that George the husband had enlisted in the army at this point — often marriage records note rank and regiment, and this one does not. It does give us enough clues, though, to trace George from birth on, and to see that he lived his life in the same small impoverished area that Ellen did.

He was born in Lambeth in 1887, and baptized in the same church where he and Ellen would be married. By 1891 he and his parents and a younger brother named Ernest appear on Walnut Tree Walk, an address that comes up in a particularly dramatic aspect of our own family research around the same time — our great great aunt Ellen Roff lived here with her husband Fred, a potter at nearby Doulton’s, and their children, contemporaries of George Smith and Ellen Shelley, attended Walnut Tree Walk board school. Fred and Ellen Roff had serious domestic troubles and moved frequently, but for the most part stayed in the same general area as the Shelley and Smith families. I can’t help wondering if they knew each other.

By 1901, the Smiths have moved further south to Goding Street, near the Albert Embankment. In walking the streets of the city to investigate poverty levels, Charles Booth’s man George Duckworth described Goding this way:

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From George Duckworth’s notebook, 1899, BOOTH/B/365. Courtesy Charles Booth’s London.

George’s father is employed as a stoker for a stationary printer, and George himself, just 14, is working as an office boy, perhaps at the same establishment. He has three more siblings now, in addition to Ernest, so there are three sons and two daughters that we know of thus far in the Smith family.

Living just a couple of doors away is a widow named Sarah Rachel Woodman, who works as a military tailoress and has a young son named Charles Vere Woodman. The woman’s name rang a bell as one I’d come across when researching the Shelley family, and since Ellen Shelley’s aunt Elizabeth Muckell was also a military tailoress, I dug a little further and discovered that Sarah Rachel was also a Muckell: the other sister of Ellen’s mother. So now we know that Ellen’s future husband George and Ellen’s aunt Sarah were neighbours on Goding Street.

All this time, Ellen Shelley and her family have lived to the north of the Smith family addresses, on Westminster Bridge Road. In 1911, though, Ellen’s family appears at 13 Canterbury Place, a small crescent south of the longtime address, and just above Walnut Tree Walk, where George spent some of his childhood. The Shelleys’ neighbours at Canterbury Place include the two aunts, Sarah and Elizabeth Muckell, their brother Arthur George Muckell, a music hall waiter, and Sarah’s teenage son Charles Vere Woodman. The Bethlehem Lunatic Asylum is a little to their east, and further on from there is Temple Street, the Smith family residence. George’s father has died, and this time George is listed as a stationary engineer, so perhaps he’s moved into his father’s job. He’s living with his mother and siblings, the youngest just six years old, so that’s a clue as to when the father died. Little Priscilla Shelley is a “visitor,” but we know from skipping ahead in time that this address — 20 Temple Street — later becomes Pastor Street, where George, Ellen and Priscilla can all be found together in 1939.

When I track these census records through the years, I notice several boys who will be of fighting age when war comes. Though no record has turned up for George, there is little doubt that the war effected these families deeply. And with their years of experience as military seamstresses, Ellen’s aunts were likely in high demand. So far I have found:

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A recruiting poster for the Royal Naval Division. George’s brother served with the Hood Battalion and survived the war.

Ernest Francis Smith, George’s brother, enlisted in June 1913, and on his September 1915 marriage record to a milliner named Daisy, he is a rifleman with the Queen’s Westminster Rifles. After the war was over, he complained of bronchitis, heart trouble, and defective vision. But he fared better than his brother Walter Alfred, who served with the Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division — essentially sailors who fought on land — and died in France in April 1917. If I were writing Ellen Shelley’s story, I would order Walter’s service record to see what else it might tell me, especially given the fact that Ellen and George marry just a few months before Walter’s death.

Ellen, too, lost a brother. Arthur Charles Shelley, a private in the 7th Battalion Rifle Brigade, was “killed accidentally” in July 1916, according the Army Registers of Soldiers’ Effects. The record neatly lists each of his siblings as receiving a portion of the small amount of money he left behind. So far I have not found Arthur’s service record or a newspaper article, which might tell us more about how he died, or whether there was an inquest into the accident. There might also be a clue in the battalion’s war diary.

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A 1915 British recruiting poster. Was this the sort of message that inspired Ellen’s cousin, Charles Woodman, who’d apparently been a casualty in an air raid in London before enlisting?

Ellen’s cousin, Charles Vere Woodman, son of one of her military-tailoress aunts, also served as a soldier. He survived the war, but his service record implies a horrific experience. Married, and the father of a baby boy, he was working as a hotel porter when he enlisted in June 1916, just a month before his cousin Arthur died. Early in 1917 he was sent to France, and by February of 1918, he was admitted to the 3rd Canadian Stationary Hospital in Doullens, and diagnosed with neurasthenia. His record gives some excellent detail: “On 10-2-18 there was a bombing raid … he was not physically affected by any explosion but lost control of himself and shook all over.”

Another entry states:

“On the night of the 16th-17th Feb there was an enemy air raid of some hours duration. … This man was in a very nervous condition and finally had a sort of fit & had to be held down. I understand he was a casualty in an air raid in London and was in Charing X Hospital for some time previous to joining the Labour Corps.”

From Ellen’s perspective, the story is especially interesting not just because Charles was her cousin and lived very close to her, but also because it reminds us that London suffered air raids during the war. How did Ellen and her wider family fare, and how did the raids impact her own neighbourhood? This map shows a number of bombs falling around the area where Ellen lived.

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This 1918 image by Walter Bayes shows civilians sheltering in Elephant & Castle tube station.  ©IWM (Art.IWM ART 935)

While researching The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we read that hundreds of thousands regularly sought shelter in the underground tube stations. At Liverpool Street Station, a woman was trampled to death in a stampede. Fights and arguments broke out; it was often crowded and smelly, with makeshift toilets. Anyone trying to use the trains found the platforms frequently impassable, every space having been taken up by people bedded down for the night. The Daily Mail reported on what it called “tube camps,” claiming that those who took refuge in the tunnels were “the happiest people in London.” There was some “crowding and crushing,” the writer admitted, but “the men calmed the fears of the women, and after a time stolid British silence was the prevailing note among the people.” Whole families gathered, the paper claimed, bringing rugs to sit on, and before long they were passing the time singing songs until “the stations were echoing to rollicking choruses,” oblivious to what might be going on above ground.

Elephant & Castle station, depicted above, was steps from Temple Street, where George Smith’s family lived, and where Ellen and her daughter Priscilla would eventually join George. It was also very near Brook Street, the address given on the service record for Ellen’s cousin Charles Vere Woodman. According to the Imperial War Museum, “Between May 1917 and May 1918 more than 300,000 people used the tube to shelter from German aeroplane attacks. That was double the amount of people that were regularly sheltering in the tube during the height of the London Blitz in September 1940.” A sad reminder that just a year after we find Ellen, George and Priscilla on the 1939 census, war was underway once more, and the stage of Ellen’s life story was heavily bombed.

Part 4: Ellen Shelley and the power of women

alexandra day
In 1912, the country was looking for a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Queen Alexandra’s arrival from Denmark, and launched Alexandra Rose Day, which would raise funds for her favourite charities (the Lying-In Hospital included) through the sale of artificial roses.  © IWM (Art.IWM PST 6050)

This is the fourth instalment in a series of posts about looking beyond the obvious records in order to bring a genealogical story to life. Part 1 of the search to find out more about the randomly chosen Ellen Shelley revealed basic facts through birth, marriage, and census documents; Part 2 delved more deeply into the world of undertakers, since Ellen’s father and her brothers all held this job; and Part 3 explored the General Lying-In Hospital in Lambeth, where Ellen gave birth in 1906 as a single mother.

One of the readers of this blog wrote in to say that her mother was born at the hospital in 1918, ten years after Ellen Shelley gave birth there. In this case, the pregnant woman was in her early 30s. She had met a man six years her junior, and they “had to get married.”

“It was a wartime encounter. My grandfather was from the East End of London & was from a large working class family, with no money of his own. She married ‘beneath her’!! as they said in those days, so I imagine the Lying In Hospital was the only option, other than a home birth which would have been impossible under the circumstances!”

Still another reader of this blog — a dear friend who is a midwife here in Canada — suggested that those who registered with the hospital would have been those of greatest need, who were living in cramped or dire housing situations. “Home was still the standard for birth so it would have been exceptional to plan something else.”

Most of the people registered with the hospital actually did have home births. When Maud Pember Reeves began her investigation of poverty and its effect on family life in 1908, she selected her participants from the hospital’s ledger. In the finished work, Round About A Pound A Week, she writes:

Access was obtained to the list of out-patients of a well-known lying-in hospital; names and addresses of expectant mothers were taken from the list, and a couple of visitors were instructed to undertake the weekly task of seeing each woman in her own home, supplying the nourishment, and noting the effects. From as long as three months before birth, if possible, till the child was a year old, the visits were to continue.  … A doctor interviewed each woman before the visits began, in order to ascertain if her health and her family history were such that a normal baby might be expected. It was at first proposed to rule out disease, but pulmonary and respiratory disease were found to be so common that to rule them out would be to refuse about half the cases. It was therefore decided to regard such a condition of health as normal.

Among a relatively poor population, the committee chose people from the middle ground, since families who had the best wages were likely to already have sufficient nourishment, while families with the most meagre earnings were likely to be living in such poverty that they’d be too tempted to share the mother’s and baby’s extra nourishment among the rest.

The women selected were from the area where Ellen Shelley had lived since birth, in streets branching off Kennington Lane, Vauxhall Walk, and Lambeth Road. Their husbands had jobs like potters’ labourer, fish-fryer, and tailor’s presser. Many of them were illiterate, so the task of meticulously recording all of their expenses for the purpose of the study was daunting, and they had their husbands or children help them. Others muddled through on their own and “Great care had to be taken not to hurt their feelings as they sat anxiously watching the visitor wrestling with the ungainly collection of words and figures. … Seeing the visitor hesitate over the item ‘yearn 1d,’ the offended mother wrote next week ‘yearn is for mending sokes.'”

Most of the women were good at arithmetic, though, and could calculate in their heads, because managing money was such an important part of their everyday lives. Those who had worked before they were married — one, like Ellen, had been a tea-shop waitress — often became “interested and competent accountants” as the project went on.

A pamphlet based on the study can be read here, and a bit of background on the book appears here.

The book is wonderfully informative, and written in a surprisingly non-judgmental fashion, given the era. It goes into great detail about the difficulties these women had making ends meet when a paltry income had to cover rent, burial insurance, coal and light, cleaning materials, clothing and food.

Though the women are often lovingly described (Mrs. K. was happy-go-lucky, but her skirts had been chewed by rats; Mrs. P. was pretty and practical and bought cracked eggs because you could smell them when they’d gone off), Reeves believed most of them “seemed to have lost any spark of humour or desire for different surroundings. The same surroundings with a little more money, a little more security, and a little less to do, was about the best their imaginations could grasp.”

The descriptions bring us just a little closer to Ellen Shelley, who lived among these women and came from a similar background. They had husbands, however, and Ellen Shelley did not; they gave birth at home, while Ellen gave birth at the hospital. Did she enter the hospital just because she was unmarried? Or because the place she was living was unsuitable for giving birth? In 1901, when the family resided at 62 Westminster Bridge Road, there were 11 people in the house: Ellen, her father, her siblings, and some of her mother’s family. Was it still this crowded in 1906, when Ellen’s baby was due? The 1911 census shows her living with her father at Canterbury Place, so the pregnancy does not seem to have caused a rift within the family, or at least not one that lasted. But why does the hospital ledger show the first address — Westminster Bridge Road — stroked through, and the second written beneath it? Did the move happen right around this time, and did it have anything to do with Ellen’s pregnancy? Remember also that Ellen’s mother had died in the late 1890s, and that she was the eldest of the girls in her family — so as a woman she may have felt rather alone at this profound time in her life.

For women in general, big changes were brewing. In February 1906, the Women’s Social and Political Union held its first march in London to demand voting rights for women. According to suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, they marched to the House of Commons in the pouring rain. “I think there were three or four hundred women in that procession, poor working-women from the East End, for the most part, leading the way in which numberless women of every rank were afterward to follow. … They were awake at last. … Our militant movement was established.”

Emmeline-Pankhurst-addressing-a-crowd-in-Trafalgar-Square
Emmeline Pankhurst addresses the crowd in Trafalgar Square. Central Press, October 1908, NPG x131784. © National Portrait Gallery, London

If I were writing Ellen’s story, I would order three records at this point: the mother’s death certificate (1899), the father’s death certificate (1912), and the child’s birth certificate to see if any of them held more clues. Death certificates will state the cause and place of death, and also the name of a person present at the death. If no one was present, there was usually a coroner’s inquest, the results of which might appear in newspapers.

As for the birth record, the father’s name may well be recorded. In our own family research, we came across the very interesting story of a married woman who’d had several children with her husband, but left him, and had a child with a new man. The birth certificate revealed that she’d first registered the child with her husband’s surname, but the box for father’s name remained empty, with a line stroked through it. A baptism record and subsequent census records showed the child with her birth father’s surname.

So far no baptism record for Priscilla Shelley has turned up in my searches. I also checked for the name Priscilla Smith, since Ellen marries George Henry Smith in 1916, and little Priscilla is a visitor in George’s household in 1911. But that search also yielded no further clues.

What was it like to have a child out of wedlock in 1906? The obvious concerns were shame and money, and searches through the British Newspaper Archive for the terms “illegitimate child” and “paternity case” turn up plenty of mentions of women looking for support from the men they claimed had fathered their babies. In most of the articles I read, the men were made to pay. Nevertheless, it must have been a daunting process for a woman to go through, for in some cases, explicit personal details were made public, whether true or not, and printed in the papers for all to read.

A woman from Portsea claimed a soldier was the father of her child. The baby had been born in the workhouse, which suggests the woman was in dire financial straits. A man appeared in defence of the accused and stated that he’d seen the woman on several occasions with other soldiers, so the case was dismissed.

Another woman — a cats’ meat dealer’s daughter — claimed to have been seduced by the coach builder next door. The coach builder promised to pay for the child’s support, but then rescinded, because “it was alleged that men were constantly in the habit of going to the cats’ meat shop, and … through a small hole which was drilled by an auger in the wooden partition dividing the two shops, the girl was seen more than once in a compromising position with men.” Since the judge didn’t know who to believe, the case was dismissed.

A third woman — just 16 — was assaulted by a family friend, but by the time she worked up the courage to tell her parents who the father of her child was, “the period for taking proceedings against defendant … had elapsed.”

Then as now, one can see why women were reluctant to tell their stories in a court of law. Ellen, at least, seems to have remained close with her family, but there are too many gaps in her story to really be certain:

  • Priscilla was born in 1906, but there is no baptism record so far, and no school record, which might also include a father’s name or an address
  • Priscilla is a “visitor” with George’s family in 1911, and Ellen is living with her father and siblings
  • Ellen and George marry in 1916
  • Ellen, George and Priscilla are living together in 1939

So the question is, what was the link between Ellen and George’s families? Why — if George was not her father — was little Priscilla with him in 1911, and not with her mother? “Visitor” suggests she just happened to be at George’s home when the census was taken, so did she actually live with her mother? Why — if George was her father — didn’t George and Ellen marry earlier, with Priscilla taking her father’s name? To explore these questions, I’ll dip into George’s family history in the next post.

 

Part 3: Ellen Shelley and the Lying-In Hospital

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Midwives weigh and measure a newborn at the General Lying-In Hospital, Lambeth, in 1908. Courtesy Wellcome Collection.

This is the third instalment in a series of posts that examine how to look beyond the obvious records to really breathe life into one’s characters. Part 1 of the search to find out more about our somewhat randomly chosen subject, Ellen Shelley, revealed the basic facts through birth, marriage, census documents, and so on; and Part 2 delved more deeply into the world of undertakers, since Ellen’s father and her brothers all held this job.

This time I’ll look more closely at the General Lying-In Hospital, in whose ledger Ellen is listed in 1906. I mentioned in my first post that we learned about the Lying-In Hospital while researching our great grandmother’s sister, Jennie Vanson, who gave birth to her last child there, and who — like all the others listed on the page except Ellen — was a married woman.

Established in the 1760s and situated near the Thames just off of Westminster Bridge Road, the General Lying-In Hospital was one of the first maternity hospitals in Britain. In the mid-1890s, it was described this way in Low’s Handbook to the Charities of London:

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Years ago, when we first started working on The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we ordered birth and death certificates for a number of the people we were researching. This was how we discovered that Jennie’s daughter Ada was born at the Lying-In Hospital. We were intrigued by the name, and when we visited England to do more in-depth snooping about many of our characters, we found the hospital’s ledger at the London Metropolitan Archives and photographed the two pages where Jennie was mentioned. That’s all I have to go on now, when hunting for Ellen Shelley clues, since sadly I can’t hop back to the archive whenever I would like (though if I lived in London, I would be visiting obsessively!).

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A happy midwife and a not so happy baby at the General Lying-In Hospital, Lambeth, in 1908. Courtesy Wellcome Collection.

It’s interesting to note that single women “of previous good character” had to present “satisfactory testimonials” to a committee in order to receive care by the hospital. I wonder now if the archive’s holdings included such testimony, and who Ellen asked to recommend her? Being an undertaker, her father might have known people associated with the hospital: doctors, midwives, or the local coroner. A quick search of the LMA catalogue shows me that the records do indeed include “registers of recommendatory letters, 1892 – 1939,” as well as the casebooks of doctors and midwives, so there is possibly more that could be gleaned about Ellen’s particular story if a visit in person were feasible. Sometimes the actual record can be disappointing when you finally lay your hands on it — it might just be a list that says who the letters came from and when; but then again, it might include the letters as they were written, and offer more about Ellen’s character, who the father of her baby was, and why she hadn’t married him. If I were actually writing Ellen’s story, I would want to know all of this and more, and if I couldn’t visit in person, I would find someone who could. For The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we did our own legwork during that flurried research trip I mentioned, but we also hired someone with smarts and tenacity to go back for more once we’d returned home to Canada.

Notice in the hospital description above that single women like Ellen could be patients of the hospital “for first confinement only” — I guess they were no longer “of good character” if they’d entered a second or third confinement and still hadn’t married! The ledger shows that Ellen Shelley was admitted “by order of the board,” whereas our Jennie Vanson and the other married women were vouched for by individuals: someone named Mrs Carthew, in Jennie’s case, but a “Lady,” a reverend, and a vicar are also on the list. This same page also lists the date each baby was born, and a surname in the final column. For Jennie, the name is “Montgomeri,” and for Ellen, the name is “Le Mercier.” My guess is that these are the midwives who delivered the babies.

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The novelist in me has decided that Nurse Woodyer is in love with the photographer, Dr. Basil Hood, both of the Lying-In Hospital. But the researcher in me knows this cannot be proven by the look on her face. Courtesy Wellcome Collection.

To check, I returned to Ancestry and entered the surname “Le Mercier” in a variety of ways, since a name like this is often misspelled or incorrectly transcribed. In the UK Midwives Roll 1904-1959, the name Margaret Ann Le Mercier shows up several times beginning in the early 1900s, usually associated with a Lambeth address. Cross-referencing with census records, I’d guess that this is the same woman, born in London in 1870, and living in St. Pancras in 1911, where she is listed as “nurse matron” and the employer of a number of other nurses at the same address. More snooping would be necessary to confirm this, but it seems an excellent fit.

When I am researching a topic that has anything to do with healthcare in this time and place, I always search the wonderful Wellcome Collection, which bills itself as “the free museum and library for the incurably curious,” and which is where I found the photographs placed throughout this post. They come from the album of one Dr. Basil Hood, and were taken at the General Lying-In Hospital around the time of Ellen Shelley’s stay. Some are straight-ahead portraits of the staff, but others are more candid, and even joyful. It surprised me to see these images, because I had imagined, after all I’ve read of this period, that the hospital would be an unpleasant place, if not quite as depressing as a workhouse, simply because it catered to poor women. These photographs make me all the more curious about the hospital and its staff. Perhaps one of the women shown below is Margaret Ann Le Mercier? And is Miss Woodyer, shown alone above, the same woman who appears below, smiling, third from left in the middle row? No, on closer inspection, I’m sure she’s standing to the left of the man, who I know is Dr. Basil Hood, since he is identified in other photos in the album. A little clip can be watched here that recounts his experiences during the WW1 flu epidemic.

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Nurses of the Lying-In Hospital with Dr. Basil Hood, 1908. Notice the slight difference in some of the uniforms. This probably means something to do with their positions at the hospital. Perhaps some are nurses, some are midwives, or some are still in training? Notice, too, the person peering in at far right. Late for the party? Or announcing that a woman has gone into labour! Courtesy Wellcome Collection.

If I were writing Ellen Shelley’s story, I would also search the Wellcome Collection’s Medical Officer of Health reports for mentions of the hospital in this time, and then do the same at the Internet Archive, which I see has a 1912 Clinical Report of the General Lying-In Hospital. Often you can turn up interesting details and statistics through such sources, even if they don’t mention your research subject by name. (And sometimes they do!) The same goes for the British Newspaper Archive. I found many mentions of the hospital over the years, and several articles to do with the hospital needing more funding. One from the Morning Post, dated two days before Ellen’s baby was born, referred to “an urgent appeal for funds” to help pay for an addition that gave the hospital 12 new beds and improved accommodation for nurses and servants. Perhaps the new beds were what enabled Ellen’s stay. The article goes on to say:

“It was felt that if the work of the hospital were more widely known and its present need brought home to a larger circle money must come in; so the matron, Miss B. F. Hancock, yesterday gave an At Home at the hospital, and during the afternoon Lady Victoria Lambton distributed prizes in the form of infants’ garments to patients of the hospital during the past six months whose infants were adjudged to have been best kept during that period. About 170 mothers with their babies were present, and many other visitors were shown over the new storey, and expressed their keen interest in the work done by the hospital.”

That paragraph alone offers a few leads that could be followed up. Who were Lady Lambton and B. F. Hancock, for instance? And what is meant by infants being “best kept”? Did the hospital do home visits to ensure the women were caring for their babies properly? What did the mothers make of such visits? Our Jennie Vanson had had five children before she entered the Lying-In Hospital to have her last baby, Ada. Did she welcome advice, by this time, or would she have found it insulting?

And that brings me to another rather basic question that I realized I’ve overlooked. Why did these women register with the hospital in the first place? Was there something particular about their situations that meant they needed extra care?

Again I turned to the British Newspaper Archive and found a 1902 article in the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette:

Queen Alexandra has taken a kindly interest in, and shown practical sympathy with, the family of ex-Trooper Benge, 2nd Life Guards, who met with an accident while in South Africa which affected his brain. The consequent lunacy, it is feared, may prove permanent. On June 26th he presented himself at Buckingham Palace and behaved in such a manner that he was placed under control, and admitted to the Hanwell Asylum, where he is now an inmate. He had a wife and two children, whose case was specially sad, in view of the fact that the mother was in delicate health, and the worry of her husband’s condition was more acutely felt in consequence. This was known to the Queen, who promptly gave Mrs. Benge a nomination for the Lying-in Hospital, Lambeth, and her child is now a month old. …

I do wonder if the LMA records for the Lying-In Hospital show the queen’s name among the recommenders! And I am fiercely resisting the urge to look into the Benge family, since there is still more about Ellen Shelley to be discovered.

In my next post, I’ll start with Maud Pember Reeves’ book, Round About a Pound a Week, which grew out of a study she conducted involving Lambeth mothers registered as out-patients with the Lying-In Hospital. And if all of this seems tangential, I’ll address that too a little later on!

 

Part 2: Ellen Shelley, the undertaker’s daughter

This is the second instalment in a series of posts that will examine how to look beyond birth, marriage, death and census records to really breathe life into one’s characters. Part 1 of the search to find out more about our somewhat randomly chosen subject, Ellen Shelley, revealed the following:

  • she was an undertaker’s daughter, born in Lambeth in 1882
  • she had at least 7 siblings, and her mother died when she was 17
  • she had a child out of wedlock at the General Lying-In Hospital in Lambeth in 1906, when she was in her early twenties
  • she was working as a waitress in a coffee shop when the 1911 census was taken
  • she was still living with her father and four of her siblings at this time, but the record offers no detail about her child

The next record that turns up for Ellen Shelley confirms her Christmas Eve marriage in 1916 to a man named George Henry Smith, an electrician. Digitized records for London Church of England unions often give extra clues, and here we can see that 34-year-old Ellen, a “spinster” with middle names Priscilla Sarah, was working as a cook; that her father, by now, was deceased, and that she was living at 141 Lambeth Road at the time of her wedding. Her brothers, William Bird Shelley and Ernest Shelley, signed as witnesses, and the ceremony took place in St Mary’s parish church, Lambeth. Curiously, her 30-year-old groom was living at 13 Canterbury Place, the same address recorded as Ellen’s in the Lying-In ledger in 1906, and the address she lived at in 1911 with her father and siblings. So why, in 1916, is Ellen no longer there, and her groom George is?

Next I looked for George on the 1911 census, and despite the surname “Smith,” he was fairly easy to find, since the marriage record had given me his age, his occupation, and his father’s name. Cross-referencing a few different bits of information, I found him living at 20 Temple Street with his mother, four siblings, and a four-year-old girl named Priscilla Shelley, listed not as a member of the household, but as a “visitor.” Was this Ellen’s mystery child? And was she George’s daughter too? If so, why did they wait until 1916 — ten years after the baby’s birth — to marry?

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Charles Booth’s poverty map shows Canterbury Place at the far left, under the St Mary Lambeth text, and Temple Street at the far right of the map, running north-south in the bottom corner. Bethlehem Lunatic Asylum is in between. Visit Charles Booth’s London for a larger view.

I leaped ahead, then, to the 1939 census, and found George and Ellen, nearing 60 now, living with George’s mother Jane, and also Priscilla Shelley, an assistant in a glass and china shop. Their address is 20 Pastor Street, Southwark, and the overlay of Booth’s map shows me that this is the same location as 20 Temple Street, though the name has changed. (The names Pastor and Temple must come from the street’s proximity to the Metropolitan Tabernacle, but that’s a rabbit hole for another day.)

This particular census doesn’t state people’s relationships to the head of the household, so it still doesn’t tell us whose child Priscilla was. And it’s interesting that she goes by the name of Shelley. If George was her father, wouldn’t she have carried his name after her parents married? The census does tell us she was born on July 15, 1906, a date that matches the entry in the Lying-In ledger.

So with all this added up, we can be fairly certain that, in 1906, Ellen was an unwed mother who gave birth to a baby she named Priscilla, a name that turns up often in Ellen’s ancestry. It was Ellen’s middle name, but it was also her great grandmother’s name, her grandmother’s name, and her aunt’s.

Now that we have some of the facts in place regarding Ellen Shelley, I’ll go back to her early years to try to fill things in a bit, and see if we can get a better picture of who she was.

In 1891, she is living at 62 Westminster Bridge Road with her family. The Muckells — her maternal grandmother and some of her mother’s siblings — are here with them. Next door is an actress, and a few doors down are a couple of “theatre property makers,” so perhaps there is some connection with the nearby Surrey Theatre, which put on melodramas and pantomimes during this period. Ellen’s father John, the undertaker’s assistant, probably works nearby as well, assisting in coffin-making, or taking bodies to cemeteries, or to mortuaries for coroner’s inquests.

Undertakers had a bad name in Victorian times. In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the undertaker’s assistant is an unsavoury creature who snatches some of Scrooge’s belongings after his death — “a seal or two, a pencil-case, a pair of sleeve-buttons, and a brooch of no great value” — and sells them to old Joe, who runs a scavenger shop in a London slum, where:

The ways were foul and narrow; the shops and houses wretched; the people half-naked, drunken, slipshod, ugly. Alleys and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offences of smell, and dirt, and life, upon the straggling streets; and the whole quarter reeked with crime, with filth, and misery.

A Christmas Carol illustrated by Arthur Rackham
A 1915 edition of A Christmas Carol shows the pawning of Scrooge’s bed curtains. The undertaker’s man  stands “in faded black” at the back of the group, looking greedily on.

No employer is mentioned in the documents I’ve found for Ellen’s father John, but he may have worked for the parish undertaker, who would have handled so-called “pauper funerals,” the most basic variety for the poorest of the poor, and the kind everyone strove to avoid.

At great expense, people bought burial insurance to avoid the indignity of a pauper funeral paid for by the parish; many contributed weekly to “funeral clubs” in order to save enough for decent trappings: black garments for the family, the use of a hearse and coachman, and the coffin itself – black for an adult, white for a child. Displays in undertakers’ windows advertised myriad choices available to the bereaved: elaborate funeral cards to announce deaths, plumes of black ostrich feathers for the horses pulling the hearse, stone markers carved with doves or broken lilies.

In her 1913 work Round About a Pound a Week, Maud Pember Reeves wrote that paying burial insurance was a “calamitous blunder” on the part of poor families, but understood, too, that the alternative was to settle for a pauper’s funeral paid for by poor law funds. The women Reeves interviewed as part of her indepth poverty study were from the vicinity where the Shelleys lived, and they were adamant that “the pauper funeral carries with it the pauperization of the father of the child – a humiliation which adds disgrace to the natural grief of the parents.” One woman even said she’d prefer to have the dustcart call to collect her child’s body.

A search through the British Newspaper Archive for parish undertakers turns up several pathetic stories, including mention of an ongoing problem with cheap coffins that fell apart as they were being taken to the grave. There are also stories of undertakers fined for stuffing more than one body into a coffin, or charged with not burying the bodies at all, and pocketing the fees. In my very first post on this blog, I wrote about an undertaker who claimed to have been cheated by a deceased woman’s family: he’d picked up their dead mother from the workhouse, as requested, and had intended to take her to the cemetery for burial, but the family didn’t pay him, and he claimed he couldn’t afford to pay the cemetery’s fee himself. The body was discovered on his premises when neighbours complained of an “intolerable effluvium.”

No such gruesome stories have turned up about John Shelley, but we do know that he was an undertaker in a very poor part of London, and that he would have regularly encountered grief compounded by poverty. He started working in the industry some time between 1871, when he was a boy at home with his parents, and 1878, when his occupation is listed on his marriage record. He was still working as an undertaker in 1911, a year before his death, and two of Ellen’s brothers, William Bird Shelley and Ernest Shelley (the same ones who witnessed her marriage to George Smith) were also undertaker’s assistants in 1911. So death, so to speak, was very much a part of Ellen Shelley’s life.

Next up, I’ll move ahead to Ellen’s time at the Lying-In Hospital, and the birth of Priscilla.

 

Part 1: Ellen Shelley, a genealogical case study

Chapter 4 - Mary Anne Evans Deverill seated, with Jennie Evans Vanson
Jennie Evans Vanson, standing, with her sister Mary Anne Evans Deverill, probably taken in the early 1900s.

I had a great time visiting with the Toronto branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society earlier this week. I spoke about the various resources Tracy and I used to build up our story, and how it’s essential to look beyond the obvious birth, marriage, death and census records to really breathe life into one’s characters. It occurred to me afterwards that it might be fun to do a series of posts showing this method in action, by choosing a person my co-author and I have never researched, but who has a tangential connection to our story, and just seeing what can be found. So I had a hunt through some of our old research notes, and came upon a photo of a page from a ledger for the General Lying-In Hospital in Lambeth, where our great-great aunt, Jennie Vanson, gave birth to her daughter Ada in 1906. She was the first in our family, that we know of, to give birth in a hospital.

Obtained from the London Metropolitan Archives on our England research trip many years ago now, the page lists 22 married women and just one single one — Ellen Shelley — so she  stood out as the right person to choose for what will hopefully be an illuminating genealogical journey. Today I will focus mostly on gathering facts through the more obvious sources, and in subsequent posts I’ll build on these, snooping in other places, to add colour and richness to her story. I’d be happy to hear questions and suggestions as I go, so please feel free to comment.

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The Lying-In Hospital shows up on Charles Booth’s poverty map, a little below the green marker. To see the map in greater detail, visit Charles Booth’s London. Courtesy London School of Economics & Political Science.
general lying-in nurses, wellcome 1908
Nurses weigh a newborn at the General Lying-In Hospital in Lambeth, 1908. Courtesy Wellcome Collection. Later I’ll explore the history of the hospital to put Ellen Shelley’s story in context.

Ellen’s hospital record is dated June 6, 1906, and her address is recorded as 13 Canterbury Place, Lambeth; another beneath that is stroked out, and reads 62 Westminster Bridge Road, which, turning to Ancestry, is where I find her with her family on the 1891 census.

This census record is a great starting point for finding out who Ellen Shelley was: it lists her as Ellen P., an eight-year-old Lambeth-born scholar, living in three rooms with her parents, John E. and Ellen J., and five siblings (John W., William B., Ernest, Sarah and Elizabeth). Her father John, 34, is an undertaker’s assistant. So far I don’t see a baptism record for Ellen, though there is one for her older brother, so it’s possible her name has been mistranscribed and she will turn up on further hunting. Baptism records are nice to see because they often offer the father’s occupation and also the family’s address. Sometimes they also show the birth date, and other siblings who were baptized at the same time. Though it hasn’t appeared, I did find a Lambeth birth record that shows an Ellen Priscilla S. Shelley was born in the fourth quarter of 1882.

In 1901, the census lists Ellen’s father as a widower, with two more children (Florence L. and Arthur C.) born to the family in the intervening years. They are still living at 62 Westminster Bridge Road, and John is still an undertaker. Though the word “assistant” doesn’t appear this time, he is listed as “worker” rather than “employer” or “own account.” So this suggests he works for someone else. Two of the older boys are undertakers too, and another is a hair dresser. Eighteen-year-old Ellen and her 13-year-old sister Sarah M. are simply workers “at home.” Last listed are tailoress Elizabeth Muckel and postman Arthur G. Muckel, sister- and brother-in-law to the head of the family, John.

It’s interesting what comes together when you start weaving the facts you’ve collected. Elizabeth and Arthur, for instance, are listed as single, so may well be John’s widow’s siblings. And indeed, when I search for a John E. Shelley marrying a woman named Ellen J., I find corroboration, and more detail still: John Edward Shelley, an undertaker and bachelor residing in Waterloo Road, and the son of Charles Bird Shelley, marine store dealer, married Ellen Jane Muckell, a spinster also residing in Waterloo Road, and the daughter of William Thomas Muckell, a farmer. The date of the wedding was June 9, 1878, and it took place at St. John’s Church in Waterloo Road, witnessed by Charles Shelley and Sarah Rachel Muckell.

So now we have a leafy tree developing for our Ellen Shelley. We know that she was the daughter of an undertaker, with at least seven siblings, and that her mother died some time between 1891 and 1901. A quick search of the England & Wales death index offers an Ellen Jane Shelley, born 1857, dying in the third quarter of 1899. So Ellen lost her mother when she was about 17 years old. She would have been about 24 when she had her baby in 1906.

The 1911 census finds undertaker John and his family occupying five rooms at 13 Canterbury Place (elsewhere recorded as Little Canterbury Place), the amended address on Ellen’s Lying-In record. Ellen and her four younger siblings are there with him, ranging in age from 16 to 28. Ellen (with the middle name Priscilla, corroborating the birth record) is single, and there is no sign of the baby born in 1906. She is a waitress at a coffee shop, and two of her sisters work for a confectioner.

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Little Canterbury Place appears beneath St Mary Lambeth on the left side of the map. To the right, you can see the Bethlehem Lunatic Asylum, known as Bedlam, and now the site of the Imperial War Museum. For a larger view, visit Charles Booth’s London. Courtesy London School of Economics & Political Science.

In 1916, Ellen marries, and more pieces of the puzzle fall into place — but I’ll leave that for my next post. What I’m most curious about so far is:

  • Who was Ellen’s baby, and what happened to him/her?
  • Who was the baby’s father, and what became of him?
  • What was the General Lying-In Hospital?
  • What was it like to go there as a single pregnant woman among so many married women?
  • What was it like to be an undertaker’s daughter?
  • How did Ellen’s mother die?
  • Who did Ellen eventually marry, and did he know about the child?
  • How did the Great War play into Ellen’s story?

 

Sources

London Metropolitan Archives: General Lying-In Hospital

Ancestry: birth, death, marriage, baptism and census records

Charles Booth’s London: poverty maps

Lost Hospitals of London

 

Ontario Genealogical Society, Toronto branch

I’m happy to be visiting the Toronto branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society next week, and speaking about some of the resources we used for The Cowkeeper’s Wish. Here’s a description of the event from the group’s website. The event is free and open to the public. I hope you’ll join us!
May 27, 2019 @ 7:30 pm – 9:30 pm
Lansing United Church
Beecroft Rd & Poyntz Ave
Toronto, ON M2N 1K4
Free. Visitors welcome.
The Cowkeeper's Wish @ Lansing United Church | Toronto | Ontario | Canada

Speaker: Kristen den Hartog
Our speaker will be exploring the fascinating resources she and her sister/co-author used to create The Cowkeeper’s Wish: A Genealogical Journey. Part family memoir, part social history, the book follows the authors’ working-class family from the slums of Victorian London to 1930s Canada. Kristen will give specific examples of where they found ancestors “wandering insane,” charged with crimes, dying in workhouses and asylums, and fighting in the First World War. She’ll also discuss the family archive, and the thrill of weaving intimate family lore with the bigger events of history.

Kristen den Hartog is the author of four novels, including And Me Among Them, shortlisted for the Trillium Award, and The Perpetual Ending, shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award. She and her sister, Tracy Kasaboski, have collaborated on two family memoirs: The Occupied Garden, about their father’s family in WW2 Holland, and most recently The Cowkeeper’s Wish. They blog about eclectic offshoots from their genealogical journey at https://thecowkeeperswish.com/. Kristen lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter.

NOTEThe Toronto Branch Annual General Meeting will precede this presentation.

Out from the shadows: Alice Ayres and the Union Street Fire

Tracy and I visited Gananoque this past weekend, and participated in the 1000 Islands Writers Festival. If you ever have a chance to go to this beautiful part of Ontario, do! And even better if you can manage to make next year’s festival. The organizers go above and beyond to ensure it’s a wonderful event for readers and listeners alike, rich with music and literary delights. On Friday evening, each of the authors did a short reading. We were asked to choose passages that had to do with the festival’s theme of Life in the Shadows — focusing on the unknown, the unrecognized, the underappreciated. Since much of The Cowkeeper’s Wish is set in the slums of Victorian London, it wasn’t hard to follow the theme. I chose a passage about a woman named Alice Ayres, who stepped out of the shadows under the most tragic circumstances. Here’s an excerpt from the story:

Alice Ayres
Alice Ayres, Illustrated London News, May 1885

In 1885, one April Friday at two in the morning, a fire broke out at an oil and colourman’s shop on Union Street. Such shops specialized in mixing paints, and when the gunpowder and casks of oil kept onsite quickly ignited, the fire spread rapidly. The shopman and his family, sleeping in the rooms above, were soon woken and trapped by the flames. Neighbours gathered in the street, blankets wrapped around their nightclothes. If Mary and her daughters were there, they’d have seen the horse-drawn fire engine arrive in short order, carrying firefighters with their Spartan helmets, axes holstered at their waists. But it was already too late to lean the ladders against the bricks – flames lashed out of the windows, and heat from the burning oil emanated from the building.

When a woman appeared in a third-storey window, neighbours called to her to jump, but she disappeared from view. The smoke curled in the crisp spring air, and the crowd grew thicker, faces lighted by the glow of the fire. And then the woman reappeared. She pushed a feather mattress through the window to the ground, and the crowd called again to her to jump, but instead she lifted a small, startled girl, about five years old, up to the window ledge and dropped her to the mattress below. She slipped away and returned to the window with another girl, this one smaller than the last, crying and clinging to her, refusing to be dropped. But the woman threw the child out and someone held up their arms and caught her. Once more she returned, with the smallest girl yet, and dropped her to the mattress.

The voices in the crowd were ragged now, screaming to the woman to save herself. They could see that she was losing strength and having trouble breathing. She tried to push herself from the window, but fell from the frame, and on the way down she struck her head on the shop sign below. She landed head-down, cracking her spine, and though she was rushed to hospital and did regain consciousness, she died soon after.

The woman’s name was Alice Ayres. She was sister-in-law to the oil and colourman who owned the shop, and nursemaid to the little girls she had released through the window one by one. Once the blaze was put out, the remains of Alice’s sister, the girls’ mother, were found inside, along with a son and the oil and colourman himself, holding a locked box of cash, terrified of losing everything he owned. The obvious horror of the family’s last moments affected the neighbourhood deeply, and captured the imagination of the larger population as well, fuelling a rumour that as Alice had lain in hospital, Queen Victoria had sent a lady-in-waiting to inquire about her worsening condition.

Union_Street_Fire,_1885
The 1885 Union Street Fire as depicted by Walter Crane, English Illustrated Magazine, June 1893

The event was a tragedy, but also appealed to the Victorian love of melodrama and sentiment. Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper called Alice Ayres “a humble heroine,” and asserted that “Such a woman, although only a poor domestic, deserves to be placed among the small but noble army of martyrs to duty.” Mourners flocked to the memorial service at St. Saviour’s, so many that there was not even standing room left in the church. Those in the back strained to hear the words of the minister, who preached a sermon about heroism. Nearly a thousand coins were raised, and it was said that the money would go toward a memorial window for Alice Ayres when the church was restored to its original splendour. Overnight, she had gone from anonymity to working-class heroine, and in the years to come, White Cross Street, running parallel to Red Cross Street, would be renamed Ayres in her honour. She’d undergone a near canonization, with gilded poems and stories written about her selfless duty and devotion. To the growing number of social reformers, Alice Ayres was an irresistible example of what every woman of the lower class should strive to be: hard-working, loyal and self-sacrificing.

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London’s Houses Falling Down

I first came upon John Errington, Inspector of Nuisances, while researching our cowkeeper ancestor, periodically charged with diluting milk and keeping his cows in a filthy state. It was Errington’s job to sniff out unsanitary conditions in one of the poorest parts of Victorian London, so he was a busy man. When he discovered rancid cherries and rotten mackerel being sold in the streets, he delivered the foul evidence to the Medical Officer of Health. Together these men were part of a team looking out for the community’s welfare in a time when the spread of disease wasn’t fully understood, and dirt and grime were abundant. More than once, the “intolerable effluvium” Errington investigated emanated from bodies left unburied. Poverty was frequently at the core of his work.

ewer street, gravel lane
From The Builder, 1853, showing the “dust heap” as a prominent feature in the neighbourhood.

In June 1876, he deemed a block of houses in Glasshouse Yard, Gravel Lane, unfit for human habitation. Filth alone was enough to condemn them for “danger of fever,” but they looked structurally unsafe, too, so Errington called upon surveyor Thomas Greenstreet, who likewise condemned the houses. Bits of roof had come away; shutters, flooring and banisters had been torn out for firewood. The tenants were mostly poor Irish families, and though the property owner, the South Eastern Railway Company, had evicted them, they stayed, having nowhere else to go. The company had purchased dilapidated housing in order to knock it down and expand a railway line, but not all of the property had been required, and these were the places left over, some of them missing doors and windows.

In July, one of the houses fell. Fortunately, no one was inside, but the Medical Officer of Health, Robert Bianchi, warned that the other houses were now even more precarious, and might “tumble down at any hour.” He urged “immediate ejectment of the tenants on humanitarian grounds.” Greenstreet recommended that, until the buildings were demolished, a hoarding be erected around the perimeter.

thomas greenstreet, centre
Thanks to Julia Gibson and Jacqueline Thelwell for sharing this photograph of their ancestor, the surveyor Thomas Greenstreet, who appears in the centre of the image.

By August, though, the houses remained, and with no barrier. A widow named Julia Hunter was at home in another of the illegally inhabited dwellings when she heard a huge crack and saw the walls of the house next to the fallen one give way. The walls fell outwards in pieces, and the roof crashed down. It was a startling sight, but not shocking, for Julia had expected it, and had warned her children not to play near those houses. At least, once again, no one had been inside. Or so it was thought.

Julia’s son told a friend about the house that fell down, and he came to see the destruction. He was picking through the rubble when he spotted a tiny pair of shoes sticking up, toes to the sky. The deceased was John David Evans, two-year-old son of a dairyman living nearby. The boy was taken to the infirmary, but “life had ceased to exist for several hours.” The doctor noted John’s body was covered with bruises, his jaw had been forced in, and his right eye protruded. “Death ensued from suffocation.”

One article claims that, after the tragic collapse, “a number of gentlemen interested in the case proceeded to the Glasshouse-yard … for the purpose of viewing the scene of the disaster. A number of families were found huddled together, and the scanty furniture and bedding were packed up and deposited for hasty removal in the yard.”

By the time of the inquest a week later, four more of the rickety houses had already been pulled down. But there were plenty of similar dwellings in the vicinity, so the tavern where the inquest was held was “crowded to excess … the case having created great interest in the neighbourhood.” Errington testified as to the homes’ squalor, and the danger of disease, and Greenstreet noted that “a heavy gust of wind would have blown them down.” The incredulous coroner asked Julia Hunter, “Why did you remain?” and she answered, “It was impossible for us to get any other place to dwell in. One of our neighbours, a decent woman, has been trying her hardest to get a place, but can’t do it, because the police have given us all such a bad name, because we are Irish.”

The coroner deemed the death accidental in the end, and said that even if there had been criminal negligence, no verdict of manslaughter could be made against corporate bodies like the Board of Works and the railway company. But he added a rider: “the Metropolitan Board of Works should have taken immediate steps towards securing the house that fell upon receipt of the notice … from the surveyor, Mr. Greenstreet.”

But a year later, some of the buildings remained standing, unsecured. And elsewhere in the neighbourhood, the same problems prevailed. Just a few months after John Evans’ death, the tireless Inspector Errington implored the Magistrate to remember the little boy and the tumbling houses in Glasshouse Yard: another 16, also owned by the railway, were teetering in Ewer Street, fully inhabited, emptied of woodwork, and open, in places, to the sky.

houses in ewer street, gravel lane
This image, an 1846 watercolour from the British Museum, offers a gentler picture of the houses in Ewer Street, Gravel Lane.

Sources

“Law and Police – Southwark.” South London Chronicle, 17 June, 1876.

“Items of General News.” The Western Morning News, 17 August, 1876.

“Shocking Case.” Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 24 August, 1876.

“Fatal Fall of a House.” South London Chronicle, 26 August, 1876.

“Fatal Fall of a House.” Reynolds’s Newspaper, 26 August, 1876.

“Fall of a House in Southwark.” Salisbury Times, 19 August, 1876.

“Dilapidated Houses in Ewer-street, Southwark.” South London Chronicle, 11 November, 1876.