Christmas weddings in Victorian England

V&A Christmas birds
A Victorian Christmas card, circa 1860-1880, courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum

 

It was a coster wedding, at which, by lucky chance, I once happened to be present. … It was difficult at first to distinguish which were the bride and bridegroom-elect; but there was one lad, the splendour of whose tie and the redundance of whose buttons proclaimed him to be the happy man; and on his arm there leaned a maid whose face shone with soap and happiness, and the feathers of whose hat stood out several inches further over its brim than those on the headgear of her companions, and therefore marked her as the bride.

“A Costermonger’s Wedding,” Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia, 1912

During the years of researching our family’s path through Victorian England, we came upon a number of marriages that took place on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Working class people typically worked six days a week in those times, and these were two days that they and their relatives could probably count on having to themselves. On top of that, churches often offered their services free or at reduced rates on Christmas, and a flip through marriage registers shows a definite spike in the number of ceremonies performed.

lady chapel st saviour's
The Lady Chapel in St. Saviour’s Church, where Jennie Evans and Richard Vanson were married. From The History of the Collegiate Church of St. Saviour, 1894.

Our great grandmother’s sister, Jennie Evans, married her shoemaker love Richard Vanson on December 25, 1890, at St. Saviour’s Church in Southwark. Nowadays St. Saviour’s is the beautiful Southwark Cathedral, but at the time of Jennie’s wedding, it was in the midst of a long overdue renovation that would transform it from “as vile a preaching-place as ever disgraced the 19th century” into a glorious place of worship.

The ongoing work made the normally large church tiny, and the only place in use at the time of Jennie and Richard’s wedding was the ancient and intimate Lady Chapel, a portion of St. Saviour’s that had not been spoiled in earlier renovations. Jennie’s sister (our great grandmother) and her brother-in-law signed as witnesses to their union.

The minister was busier than usual that day. The register shows 13 couples were joined in holy matrimony on the 25th, more than double the amount that took place in all of December. The grooms list jobs like lighterman, brush maker, and varnish maker, and hail from addresses close to Jennie and Richard’s on Red Cross Street, so they were no doubt poor, and happy to reap the benefits of marrying on Christmas Day.

The tradition had begun years earlier, and continued for decades, though it’s a challenge to find out what such weddings were really like, since the people who wrote about the working class — however fine their intentions — were often not of that class themselves, but rather outsiders looking in. In 1866 the writer and social explorer James Greenwood described “penny wedders” arriving at a London church, and wrote of a guest: “[his] attire was not at all of a bridal character, and consisted of greasy fustian, and a dirty cotton neckerchief wisped about the collar of his blue-checked shirt. His face was dirty, too, as were his hands — a fault he seemingly was not unconscious of, as from time to time he gave them a sly rub on his coat-tail.”

As more couples poured in to the church to be married, writes Greenwood, “sight-seers flocked in to see the fun. The candidates for matrimony were nearly all of the very lowest order, and the marrying couples were, as a rule, very young. There were exceptions however. In one case an old man, at least sixty, had brought to the altar an old woman as old as himself, and who wore on her marriage finger as many plain rings as should and doubtless would have been a caution to the old gentleman had they each represented a previous espousal; but they did not. A fancy for wearing plain rings prevails amongst many barrow-women, and they prefer them to stone rings. There was another instance of middle-aged folks coming together, and one that was rendered remarkable from the fact of the parents bringing with them a troop of illegitimate children—the eldest a lanky boy of fifteen—to see them ‘made honest.’ I gathered this fact from the buzzing and whispering about me, and it was curious to note the variety of opinion that prevailed on the subject. Some said it was a good thing, and ‘better late than never.’ Others, that it was a bad thing, and a pity that some people must make ‘poppy shows of theirselves.'”

Christmas weddings certainly happened because people were poor and had little time away from their jobs. An 1865 article notes that a Lambeth clergyman had to commence his marriage ceremonies at 8 a.m. that Christmas in order to get through them all. And in 1899 in the East End, some 84 ceremonies were performed at one church. “They were mostly the costermonger class,” the article notes. “They were accompanied by large numbers of their friends, and crowds of people assembled outside the building and saluted each departing couple with showers of rice and confetti. The proceedings were enlivened with selections from mouth-organs.” There are stories of couples being married five at a time, and even a dozen at a time, “and it is satisfactory to know that the various husbands and wives paired off happily, without any ill results of this great ‘mix.'”

Sadly, there are few proper wedding portraits in our family archive from this period, and an online search for Victorian weddings more commonly turns up images of privileged people. At one extreme end of the spectrum, Prince George and Mary of Teck married just a few years after Jennie and Richard, and the opulent setting is depicted in this Laurits Tuxen painting, where light streams through the chapel windows at St. James Palace, and the jewels and taffeta shine.

prince george and mary of teck laurits tuxen
The Marriage of George, Duke of York, with Princess Mary of Teck, 6 July 1893. Courtesy Royal Collection Trust.

Bargain Christmas weddings continued well into the 20th century, and really only began to die out as working conditions improved. The practice was still in place during WW1, when our ancestor Clara Donnelly married a munitions worker named Bert Morel. Listed alongside them in the register that day and the next are other munitions workers and soldiers marrying their brides, and perhaps adding “Happy Christmas” after the “I do.”

1916, wedding party Clara and Bert
Munitions worker Charles Bertram Morel and Clara Donnelly married in Lambeth on Christmas Eve in 1916

Sources

“84 Couples Married at One Church.” Coventry Evening Telegraph, 26 December, 1899.

“Christmas Marriage in Birmingham.” Leicester Chronicle, 3 January, 1891.

“Christmas Marriages at St. Mary’s.” South London Press, 30 December, 1865.

“At a Penny Wedding.” Shields Daily News, 25 September, 1866.

The History of the Collegiate Church of St. Saviour. Rev. W. Thompson, 1894.

The Marriage of George, Duke of York, with Princess Mary of Teck, July 1893. By Laurits Regner Tuxen, Royal Collection Trust.

A Costermonger’s Wedding.” Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia, 1912.

James Greenwood: The Victorianist

Germans in England in WW1

Royal-group-including-Queen-Victoria-and-Wilhelm-II-Emperor-of-Germany-and-King-of-Prussia
Taken in the 1890s, the image gives a glimpse of German-English connections in the Royal Family. Queen Victoria and her daughter Victoria, then German empress, are seated in front. Standing behind them, far right, is Queen Victoria’s son Edward, who would soon become king. Standing next to him, Empress Victoria’s son, and so Queen Victoria’s grandson, Wilhelm, Kaiser of Germany in WW1. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Since the very hefty middle part of The Cowkeeper’s Wish is set in WW1, we were especially intrigued by a branch of the family with German connections. Our grandmother’s aunt, Nellie Deverill, married a man named Percy Kraushaar in the early 1900s. Though Percy’s great-great grandparents had arrived in England from Germany a century or so earlier — long before our own Benjamin and Margaret walked from Wales to London with their cows — it seems it wasn’t until the WW1 era that some members of the Kraushaar family anglicized their name. A 1919 notice in the Gazette reported, “I, Albert Henry Crawshaw, a natural-born British subject … now serving in His Majesty’s Army, heretofore called and known by the name of Albert Augustus Henry Kraushaar, hereby give public notice … I absolutely renounced and abandoned the use of my former Christian name of Augustus and my former surname of Kraushaar, and then assumed and adopted and determined to use and subscribe the name of Albert Henry Crawshaw.”

king george punch
King George sweeps away his German titles. Punch, 1917.

There was plenty of hostility towards Germans in England in those years, and even people who had stronger ties to England than the country of their ancestry sometimes felt a need to distance themselves. The royal family’s own lineage was German through almost all of its branches, and in July 1917, King George V issued a proclamation “relinquishing the use of all German Titles and Dignities.”

Right around this time, papers reported riots in which angry groups smashed the windows of German bakers and butchers, throwing loaves of bread into the street and demolishing furniture. A shop owner with “a continental name” had his window cracked before he could convince the rioters that he was French rather than German. Another felt compelled to chalk in big block letters on the wall outside his store “WE ARE RUSSIANS,” but even when police managed to get in front of the crowds, stones were thrown over their heads and glass shattered.

Life must have been difficult for soldiers with German surnames. One man I came upon while researching Cane Hill Asylum, where our great grandmother was a patient in 1917, suffered delusions connected to his German ancestry. According to Charles Fray’s military record, “He began to imagine some months ago that people in the streets gesticulated at him and made disparaging remarks about him. Subsequently he imagined that the men at his regiment poisoned his food. Since admission he has … voices telling him that he is to be made away with because he is a spy…. The man is of German parentage, hence the nature of the delusions.”

emil heitmann
Emil Heitmann in uniform, some time during the First World War.

Recently I was intrigued to learn of Mizpah Cousins, the work of a woman who has researched her family story, rooted in both England and Germany. Margaret Lossl‘s grandfather, Emil Heitmann, had come at age 19 from Germany to London in 1908 and found work at a first-class hotel as a waiter. The job came with a posh flat, and life got even better when he fell in love with Agnes Meyer, London-born but of German extraction. Soon she was pregnant, and shortly before baby Emma was born, they married.

Margaret thinks that when her grandparents decided to marry, Emil had to acquire his birth certificate from the German embassy, and it was this that alerted the government to the fact that he had not completed his obligatory military training. He was called home late in 1911, and his little family went with him. More children were born in Germany.

Had Emil Heitmann not returned to Germany, he probably would have been sent to the internment camp at Alexandra Palace for the duration of the war. This was the fate of other members of Margaret’s family. Many lost their jobs, she says, and everyone gave up speaking German. In 1914, the palace was used as a place of refuge for Belgians who had escaped their country when Germany invaded. But soon it became a sort of prison for “enemy aliens” — Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians living in England when the war began, many married to British women. Between 1915 and 1919, the palace received about 3,000 prisoners. As one man put it, “the breaking up and ruin of mostly English-raised families” was unbearable.

Alexandra Palace
Sleeping accommodation in the Small Hall at Alexandra Palace. ©IWM (Q 64158)

Emil served with the German army, and Agnes remained with their children in Hamburg, separated from the rest of her family. It’s hard to imagine what such a situation must have been like. War was difficult for the average person on each side, but having ties to both sides must have been at times excruciating. Having inherited the postcards and letters Emil sent to Agnes over the course of the war, Margaret was able to research her grandparents’ war experience in Germany, and to weave this with the story of the relatives Agnes left behind in London’s East End. The “perilous predicaments,” as Margaret puts it, sound fascinating.

Sources and further reading

“Anti-German Riots in London.” Leeds Mercury, 9 July, 1917.

Lives of the First World War: Charles Frederick William Fray

Lives of the First World War: Soldiers with German or Austrian Parents

Mizpah Cousins: Life, love and perilous predicaments during the Great War era by Margaret Lossl

National Archives: Wettin to Windsor: Changing the Royal Name

National Archives: Daily Life at Alexandra Palace Internment Camp

 

“The stinky London of Charles Dickens”

Oliver TwistTiny glowing reviews from readers are trickling in for The Cowkeeper’s Wish in various places. I especially love one that describes the setting as “the stinky London of Charles Dickens” and calls the book “a vivid story about regular people in the real world.” That’s what Dickens wrote about too; his characters were fictional, but the world he placed them in existed in all its sooty splendour.

Our ancestors, Benjamin and Margaret Jones, arrived in Red Cross Street in Southwark in the late 1830s, around the time Oliver Twist began appearing in monthly instalments in Bentley’s Miscellany. Some say the workhouse in Oliver Twist was modeled on the Mint Street workhouse, steps away from our ancestral home, and condemned by the Lancet as “a den of horrors.” Though the esteemed medical journal called for its removal and labeled the tramp ward “an open sty,” the workhouse remained in place until the 1920s, and is a landmark in our own family history.  The Mint Street workhouse makes regular appearances in our story, and was sadly the eventual home for Benjamin and Margaret’s daughter, “Lazy Mary.” Family lore says that Mary entered the workhouse after her husband died, because she was too lazy to care for herself. There is more to the story, of course — no one enters a den of horrors out of laziness. But the fact that the story exists speaks volumes about the stigma attached to workhouse “inmates.”

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This snippet of a late-1800s Charles Booth poverty map shows some of the Dickens sites that appear in The Cowkeeper’s Wish. Red Cross Street, runs north-south in the centre of the map, and ends at Marshalsea Road. Tucked in beside Marshalsea is St. George’s Workhouse, known as Mint Street workhouse, and almost due south of that is Lant Street. St. George the Martyr Church, where Little Dorrit was married, appears on the lower right part of the map, where Marshalsea meets Borough High Street.

Dickens had strong ties to our family’s neighbourhood. When he was just a boy, his father was sent to Marshalsea Prison under the debtors’ act. Some of Dickens’ siblings and their mother lived there too while the sentence was carried out, but Charles, just 12 at that point, lived nearby on Lant Street and worked in a blacking factory. Lant Street appears in the bottom left area of the map shown, and the letters “BD SCH” stand for “board school.” Many members of our family attended the Lant Street Board School, which opened in the late 1870s, and served the poor children of the area. In the late 1890s, the annual school report noted that “in a low locality like this,” a more distinctive school name connected to the history of the area might be a good idea. And since Dickens had already been commemorated in many placenames throughout the Borough, “Would not therefore Charles Dickens School, Lant Street, Southwark, be an appropriate name for this school?” It took years more for the change to come about, but finally, by 1912, the name was in place. Our grandmother Doris and her siblings attended, and so did many of their cousins.

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Lant Street Board School in the early 1900s.  The girl with the white bow in the second row, second from right, was our grandmother’s cousin, May, who in later years wrote wonderful letters that gave us some of the detail for our story.

Dickens placenames pop up throughout this neighbourhood: there’s Quilp Street, Copperfield Street, and Dickens Square. And tucked in behind Red Cross Street (now Redcross Way) is Little Dorrit Playground, put in place by the London County Council in 1901 to address the notion that childhood was “blighted” in this impoverished area. One writer claimed the children here were “more woe-begone, unwashed and unhealthy-looking” than any in the city. If you ask me, the girls above look ordinary and even lovely enough — but earlier pictures do show children in bare feet, with ragged clothing and an unkempt appearance.

If the playground was meant to brighten children’s lives, a social reformer wandering through shortly after it was put in place was not impressed. The space was surrounded by high walls. It had one gas lamp in the centre and a drinking fountain. “It is essentially a playground for rough children, no seats because of the encouragement to loafers, nor any caretaker. I have only been there during school hours,” he admitted, “when few children were about.”

The area has changed, of course, since those “stinky” days. While much of our years-long research was done online, we visited London to see the site of our story for ourselves. It gave us chills to walk along Redcross Way, up past Crossbones Cemetery, and over to Borough Market. We ate lunch on the grounds of Southwark Cathedral, where Benjamin and Margaret and others in our line were married, and we studied in the local history library, right next to St. George the Martyr Church, where Little Dorrit was married, and where a wall from Marshalsea Prison still stands. These are just some of the remnants that are left from the years when our family lived and loved here.

 

For some wonderful pictures and stories about Dickens’ connections to Southwark, visit the Southwark Heritage Blog.

“Sudden mental derangement” at East India House

Tracy and I would never call ourselves genealogists, and there are many extremely skilled people out there who know research tricks we’ve never even thought of. We’re just a couple of curious and tenacious writers who love history and putting our family story in context. When we came upon the anecdote of our ancestors, Benjamin Jones and Margaret Davies, walking from Wales to London with their cows in search of a better life, it seemed the natural start for our story. And we were a bit relieved not to have to peer yet further into these distant branches of the Welsh part of our tree, where suddenly everyone was named Jones and Davies and Evans. There was even a John Jones and a David Davies and an Evan Evans! Instead, we went forward, following the path of our family over the next hundred years or so, where luckily they mixed with others who had more easily searchable names. For all we’ve discovered, I’m still intrigued by what came before, and a little in awe of people who’ve traced their families back much further than we have. Sisters Alison Botterill and Fiona Duxbury, whose grandmother we wrote about a while back in An Unknown Soldier and an Unconventional Woman, have done extensive research on many different branches of their family, and find themselves most curious about a line that was wealthy in the 18th and 19th centuries, but whose station declined over time. Much as we did in preparation for The Cowkeeper’s Wish, the sisters have written short pieces about members of their family in order to put the bigger story in perspective, and have generously agreed to share one here.

East India House, Leadenhall
East India House, Leadenhall Street, shortly after its reconstruction in the late 1790s. Courtesy the British Library.

A Sad Tale

A very melancholy circumstance happened yesterday forenoon. Mr John Burford, Clerk to the Committee of East India Directors for Buying threw himself out of a one-pair-of-stairs window, under the new portico of the India House, Leadenhall Street. His head was broken to atoms and he only survived a few minutes. He was taken into the House where his body will lie till the Coroner’s Jury give their verdict this day. The cause of this fatal accident can only be attributed to sudden mental derangement as Mr Burford had regularly transacted his business in the office, tho’ he had for some time appeared rather dejected. He had been only two minutes in the room, where there were other Clerks, when he opened the window, and suddenly sprang out of it, in the sight of a number of people.

8 May, 1800, The Times

India_House wiki
This image shows the portico, the site of John’s suicide, more clearly. The “one-pair-of-stairs window” simply means the upper floor. A search through the British Newspaper Archive reveals all sorts of people throwing themselves from one, two, and three pair-of-stairs windows. See also the poem, “From a Fourth-Pair Window.”

John was born in 1748, one of three sons of Richard Burford, a distiller of Wapping, whose family had been in that business for at least four generations. His elder brother Richard was a Blackwell Hall factor and the largest supplier of broadcloth to the East India Company, and his younger brother, Jonathan Sommers Burford, worked in the Pay Office at that company.

John married Lucy Elsden of Kings Lynn in 1786 and they had 8 children, at least two of them dying in childhood. Lucy’s mother was Elizabeth Rolfe, of that Norfolk family made famous by an ancestor, John Rolfe, who married Pocahontas in the early 17th century in America (and not John Smith as per the Disney film, although he was the man she saved from death). Her father, Edmund Elsden, was a very wealthy Norfolk merchant who left a fortune at his death in 1793. At the time of Lucy and John’s marriage it must be assumed John was on a sound financial footing – her sisters also made very good marriages to rich men – as it is unlikely her father would have otherwise allowed the marriage.

John had been appointed to the role of Assistant Clerk to the Committee of Buying in 1772 and ten years later was promoted to the position of Clerk.   At the time of his marriage he was living in Lothbury, in the City of London, with his brother Richard, but then moved with his new wife to a house at no. 2 Artillery Place, just off Finsbury Square where Richard had relocated to. Jonathan Sommers Burford and his family were living in Great  James Street, Bedford Row, its smart Georgian terraces still surviving.

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An excerpt from the Old Bailey trial two years before John’s death. The full account can be seen at the wonderful Old Bailey site, including the fate of those convicted of the crime.

In December 1798 John and Lucy were burgled at home of a large number of items, mainly clothes, and both of them appeared as witnesses at the Old Bailey. Of the four accused, two were found guilty and sentenced to death.

A few months after John’s death, Richard was issued with a notice for bankruptcy and he was summoned to appear before the bankruptcy court in September 1800. Having looked at various registers at the East India Library, it is apparent just how fortunes were made and lost, given that in the later part of the 18th century Richard was turning over around £90,000 each year.

John wrote his will in 1796 naming his wife and brother Richard as executors. Curiously, he requested that he be buried in the vault with his “dear sister-in-law,” Mrs Richard Burford, in Finchley.  The burial records for St Mary’s, Finchley, show that this is indeed what happened despite his death being by his own hand. His brother Jonathan Sommers Burford appeared as witness to the will on John’s death.

To date I have found no reference to John’s suicide in the East India Company records held at the British Library. Perhaps he had secretly been giving his brother Richard preference over other suppliers to the company and this had been discovered? Perhaps the burglary had affected him badly? Perhaps, given his father-in-law’s successful business ventures and those of his sister-in-laws’ husbands, he felt a great deal of shame about Richard’s  impending bankruptcy? (Later his other brother, Jonathan Sommers Burford, would face financial difficulties too.) Perhaps he felt the loss of his baby son Edward in the February of 1800, aged only 2 months, very deeply? (Lucy was to lose their eldest son John the following year, aged only 8). Or perhaps the request in his will to be buried with Richard’s wife hints at some darker family scandal? Sadly, we will probably never discover the reasons why he should have felt the need to end it all.

© Alison Botterill & Fiona Duxbury

Our grandmother’s scrapbook

Doris passport, 1918
Doris Deverill’s passport photo, 1919

Tracy and I are heading off to London, Ontario, this weekend to talk about The Cowkeeper’s Wish, so we are naturally thinking about our grandmother, Doris Deverill, whose story first inspired us to write the book. We used a wealth of resources to piece together the century-long tale, but the most treasured ones came from our own family archive.

The following article tells a little about that collection, and some of our mishaps along the way. The story first appeared earlier this year in the Alberta Genealogical Society’s journal, Relatively Speaking.

Several years ago my sister and I set out to tell the story of the British side of our family, from our Welsh 3xgreat grandfather, who walked to London, England, with his wife and his cows in the 1840s, right on down to our grandmother’s marriage nearly a century later in London, Ontario. We aren’t professional genealogists by any stretch, but rather writers who share a passion for family history and great stories. Armed with an abundance of curiosity, we scrutinized all the essential documents: census, birth, marriage and death records, and also workhouse and asylum ledgers, old newspapers, passenger lists and immigration papers. We looked everywhere for our people, and got chills whenever we found them. Some of the loveliest material had been passed down from the very people we were writing about: letters and postcards with strings of x’s, embossed funeral cards, a lucky penny that went through the war with a sailor-great-uncle, and an array of photographs. Treasured possessions, all, and a gold mine for researchers who like to read between the layers of everything they encounter.

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Doris with Martha Bedford, whom she called Bebbie, in London, Ontario in the 1920s

Our grandmother, Doris Deverill, was born in Whitechapel in 1910, and emigrated to Canada in 1919. Her childhood had been infused by war, and both her parents were dead. She was now under the care of a family friend named Martha, a woman she loved dearly, but it must have been devastating to leave her siblings, her friends, and everything she’d known to cross the ocean and start somewhere new. Maybe it was this monumental loss that caused her to paste the postcards she received, for years afterwards, into a scrapbook. Or maybe it was just a young girl’s admiration for pretty pictures. The cards featured sweet little girls holding kittens or puppies, the images often tinted to give them an even more tender look than they’d have in sepia. And the text usually matched the pictures’ sentimental themes:

Chapter 15 - Post card from Ethel, circa 1920.jpg

But when I say the postcards were pasted into the scrapbook, they really were pasted. It’s impossible to know, now, what she used to adhere them to the pages; though many of the cards date from the 1910s and 20s, she may have re-glued them later, or even started the project later in her life, gathering the loose pieces she’d collected over the years. Regardless, it was obviously the cards themselves our grandmother had been preserving rather than the messages on the backs. She would never have imagined that, long after her death, anyone would want to know what the postcards said or who they were from.

We, of course, were itching to know. As we flipped carefully through the book, turning the thick pages, we pried at the corners of the cards just gently to test how easily they might be released, curious to know what secrets would spill forth once we saw them. For though so much can be gleaned from historical records, these personal artefacts had been held by the very people we were searching for. A postcard had been chosen just for Doris in some little English shop by an auntie, a sister, a cousin; had been written on and stamped and mailed, had traveled all that distance by ship, just like Doris herself, and then been brought to the door by the postman, and she had happily received it and devoured the message with her fingers carefully placed at the card’s edges, no doubt, so as not to muss the pretty picture.

Over the years of our research, we often longed for more of these kinds of resources to help us unravel the family story. We’d sometimes joke with each other by email as we slogged through the many dry spells of our research periods: “You’ll never guess! I found the cowkeeper’s wife’s diary from 1842! She recounts their travels from Wales; how long it took them and all the strange things they encountered, and their first impressions of London when they landed there, the cows weak and weary and their own feet blistered and sore! There are delicate pressed wildflowers inside, and little drawings in the margins!”

Of course, there was no such diary; and on actual records, the cowkeeper’s wife had signed her name with an x, so likely she could not have written one anyway, even if she’d cared to. But we did have Doris’s scrapbook – and with a variety of approaches we had some success in releasing the postcards from an almost century-old grip. Some were sawed free with dental floss; some were steamed or blow dried; some soaked in tiny baths. It was a bit like taking the scrapbook to the spa, and pampering it to give over its secrets. And it was beyond exciting, even though, to be honest, most of the postcards had fairly mundane messages, such as:

Chapter 15 - Reverse of post card from Ethel

Ernest Biss postcardAnother featured a hand-drawn rose on its front, meticulously painted, and signed Ernest Biss. We didn’t want to soak this one for fear that the rose would disappear, so we carefully steamed it loose and watched it curl at the edges. The rose suffered a little from our efforts, and we lost some of the message on the back – but once again, it seemed disappointingly spare anyway. But we had a name, at least, and with a bit of sleuthing we discovered that Ernest was about 19 the year Doris left for Canada; he was her neighbour in College Buildings in Whitechapel, and his father was the verger at nearby St. Jude’s church, where she was baptized. Their families would have shared the same dismay when the Titanic went down, taking with it the church’s beloved minister Ernest Courtenay Carter and his wife Lilian. Doris was given the middle name Lilian for Lilian Carter; was Ernest likewise named for Ernest?

What became of Ernest Biss and his drawing abilities? We can follow him in various documents through the years, but his link with Doris remains a mystery. Did they correspond after Doris and Martha left for Canada? If so, there is no trace of an exchange, and only the rose remains.

The wordiest postcard in Doris’s scrapbook depicted the ship Metagama, which brought Doris to Canada. Metagama was a passenger ship launched in spring 1914, but soon pressed into service as a troop carrier during WW1. In 1919, when Doris was on board, there were still plenty of soldier-passengers making their way home. Doris and Martha were just two of 1,300 souls on board, arriving in Montreal after a nine-day journey. From there, before boarding a train to London, Martha sent the card to Doris’s brother Joe. Doris wouldn’t see Joe again for about 40 years, which means he either sent the postcard back to her as a keepsake, or held onto it all that time and offered it in person, when she returned to her birthplace as middle-aged woman.

We tried all the methods to free the postcard from the album, but when it came loose the writing was still covered by a fuzzed layer of the album’s paper. So we kept steaming, peeling, stopping, discussing. Then we’d peel, stop, discuss some more. The postcard was like a scab that shouldn’t be picked – but imagine what it might tell us, having been written on the very journey that opened the door for our own existence. Surely it was a little diary of sorts, but real this time, and in our possession!

In the end, we got the layer of album paper off of the post card, but most of the words came away with it. We held the bits of paper up to the light, and we peered at all the remnants with a magnifying glass, but much of the message had been lost to us. We were left with:

Arrived quite safe this morning at 6 o’clock. We had a very … Write you later on.

Had a very what? Difficult journey? Wonderful journey? Big breakfast? Bad fight? Tearful goodbye with fellow passengers? Though the family correspondence had never been terribly revelatory, the loss still felt awful, since first-person accounts in the histories of ordinary people are rare wonders, no matter how mundane. And yet, our story got told anyway; built bit by bit like an intricate collage. When I think back to our wrong turns, and to the brick walls we encountered while searching for clues, I realize that it isn’t important for me to have all the answers, and that part of the beauty of this kind of research is in the very mysteries that can never be solved. For after all, each time a new person is added to a tree, more blank spaces inevitably open. Every “answer” prompts new questions, and keeps the journey, rather than the destination, in focus.

rms metagama

War, PTSD, and “the Golden Rule Exchange”

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Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-28-927

I was in London, Ontario, recently, giving a workshop about the many wonderful resources we used to research The Cowkeeper’s Wish, and afterwards I was approached by Gord Wainman, one of the participants, who told me a bit about his father, “a very troubled soul” who’d served in the First World War.

I was moved by the story and asked Gord to share it here, and am posting it the day after Remembrance Day to underscore the idea that war wounds, both mental and physical, continue long after war has ended. Here, in Gord’s words, is the story of Stanley Holmes Wainman and his family.

A year before he died, my father made a final request. He wanted to be buried in a simple pine coffin with his body wrapped in an old wool army blanket. He made me promise I would respect this wish. His reason for this spartan request — to honour the many friends and comrades who had died on the World War 1 battlefield.

He fought at Vimy Ridge and was part of the final advance to Passchendaele only to become a casualty two weeks before the war ended. He was a bombardier, overseeing the firing of artillery and accompanying the horses and Limber wagons into battle. At least twice, he was sent to “gas” school where soldiers were trained on how to respond to mustard gas attacks. Not the best military “occupation” for such a gentle man who worked as an accountant before joining the army.

SHWainman
Stanley Holmes Wainman appears far right

My father was 21 when he joined the 40th Battery, CFA in Hamilton on Sept. 17, 1915. Six months later he was in England but was hospitalized shortly after he arrived because he had German measles. He landed in France on July 14, 1916, and except for an 18-day leave and a brief hospital stay for impetigo, he was in the field for over two years.

He never spoke of his war experiences. Until I found his records, I did not know he was a bombardier. I did not know about the “gas” schools. I did not know that his right foot was partially crushed by a Limber wagon near Valenciennes 20 days before the war ended. He was evacuated but his return to Canada was delayed by several months until he could walk again.

If the luggage he brought home was sparse, his emotional baggage was huge and its weight affected us all – my mother, my brother and myself. We lived with his depression. We all bore his pain.

Several family friends described my father as someone who always seemed to have a “permanent cloud” over his head. In the 32 years I knew him, I never remember hearing him laugh. Even his smiles were forced.

After the war, he spent most of his life devising a financial solution to the world’s ills which he believed would end all wars. He wrote a book, convinced it would change the world.  He expected my brother and I to continue his mission.

While he never talked about his war experiences, he did say that he and his fallen friends had been “duped”. A genius with figures and a self-taught thinker, he was going to correct that. He was obsessed, spending little time with wife or sons.

He and my mother were what I’d call “progressives” today, meeting during the founding convention of the United Church of Canada. He was a Methodist, my mother an Anglican. They paid a price as they were initially shunned by both families.

In 1929, ten years after he returned to Canada, my father lost his job when the Depression hit. He rode the rails to harvest in the West and tried to make money painting barns in Northern Ontario. My mom and brother suffered. Several years ago, I read a heartbreaking letter my father wrote to my mother while he was up north begging her to help their son David understand why they lived in such desperate conditions, above a store on St. Clair West in Toronto.

By the mid 1930s, my father ended up in Windsor, Ontario, where he stayed. That’s when his obsession about ending war and human misery became all-consuming. He developed a financial system he called “The Golden Rule Exchange.”

Living with constant supper-time lectures on the evils of greed and the golden rule solution, my brother Dave fled home at the age of 17. I was two and idolized my big brother.

A few years before Dave died in 1997 at age 69, he told my wife, in tears, that he was racked with guilt for leaving “that poor little fucker” — me — to fend for myself in that toxic environment. “There was no laughter or joy in that house”, he said.

Considering all the conversations involving PTSD, we now know that’s what my father suffered from. Back then, if there were physical signs, it was called “shell shock”. But he showed no outward signs.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America outlines seven symptoms. If a person has two or more, they likely suffer PTSD. My father scored on six of the seven: exaggerated expectations of self, other or the world; persistent anger; diminished interest in participation; detachment from others; inability to experience positive emotions; nightmares.

When I was eight or so, Canada entered the Korean War. To make his point about the horrors of war, my father took me to see the silent 1930 movie All Quiet on the Western Front, based on a book by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of World War I. Looking back, I know my father wanted the movie to speak for him.

The impact on me has been periods of depression. My wife sometimes says… “It’s time to leave now Stanley”, not out of disrespect for my father, but to shake me out of my mood.

Stanley Holmes Wainman died in 1974 in the old “Parkwood” military wing of Victoria Hospital in London, Ontario. My brother and I knew it was the end of a long painful life. My mother Leota May died 14 years earlier when I was 17. I was a late comer. My father was nearly 50 when I was born in 1942. I was named after Major Gordon H. Southam, a unit commander with the 40th who was killed in action in 1916.

Laid to rest in a pine coffin and wrapped in the wool army blanket he requested, Stanley Holmes Wainman was buried beside his wife Leota May. A small family group attended, my brother Dave and his family and me with my wife and daughter.

Before he died, I told my father I found a blanket and that seemed to comfort him. Then he said something that stunned me considering he lived his life convinced he could solve the world’s problems.

“I always thought I knew the answers, but now I’m not so sure.”

I didn’t cry at his funeral. Four years later, out of the blue, I began to sob uncontrollably, with no idea what triggered it.

Despite our bad times, he was always there for me when I got in trouble. Despite it all, I still miss him.

Gord Wainman

lone man passchendaele
A lone Canadian soldier navigates the mud-soaked battlefield at Passchendaele, Belgium, in November 1917. William Rider-Rider / Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-002165

 

 

An eccentric old woman and her ferocious black cat

various docsI’m looking forward to giving a workshop in London, Ontario, later this week called Digging Up Stories, and it’s got me thinking over the wide variety of resources we used during our research for The Cowkeeper’s Wish. One of the most illuminating was the British Newspaper Archive, which contains digitized papers from the British Library collection dating back to the 1700s. We found our cowkeeper lurking in those pages, dangerously diluting his milk, and we found his daughter Lazy Mary too, “seized with giddiness” just before she died at the workhouse infirmary. Family detail is gold when writing this sort of story — but newspapers of the day offer plenty of insight even when family names don’t appear.

As I’ve written before, much of our story takes place in Red Cross Street, now Redcross Way, in Southwark in the mid to late 1800s. When we snooped through the newspaper archive for details of what was happening in the street at a certain time in our story, we were never disappointed. The articles helped us peer into the world in which we were writing about, and learn more about neighbours and local shops and industries; in reading about the crimes and scandals and celebrations that went on, we could better imagine what it might have been like to live in that place at that time.

st-saviour-southwark-crop-depicted-in-charles-booth-poverty-map-sheet-9-public-domaine
Charles Booth’s map, colour-coded to show poverty levels. Red Cross Street runs diagonally through the centre, with 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.

Poverty, of course, was a constant theme. One longtime neighbour was a woman named Rosetta Hogg, who lived a few doors away from our cowkeeper and his wife, Benjamin and Margaret Jones. I have no idea if Benjamin and Margaret knew Rosetta — but I’m pretty sure they’d have known of her. By 1881, she had lived in the same room within 59 Red Cross Street for about 20 years, and in the neighbourhood for much longer. The census says that she was 72 years old, worked as a charwoman, and had been born in Southwark. It also says she lived alone in the room, but that wasn’t quite true, according to neighbours who lived in other rooms in the building; I pity the poor census taker who knocked on her door that April day to inquire about her particulars. She had “a ferocious black cat … which she threatened to set at anyone who dared to enter, and which kept the people in the house in a state of fear.”

calvert's
An ad for Calvert’s Carbolic Fluid, Powder & Soaps, showing various uses for carbolic acid. Courtesy the Wellcome Library.

The cat seemed to be the woman’s only companion. She had never married, and was apparently “so eccentric in her habits that for upwards of 10 years no one had been allowed to enter her room.” She was frightfully thin, and also old and alone. One day in December a neighbour brought her some sago pudding, which Rosetta accepted; but when the neighbour didn’t see or hear from Rosetta the next day, she became concerned, and called the police. Rosetta was found dead, huddled near the fireplace. Her body was emaciated, and her room was so filthy that carbolic acid was sprinkled around to disinfect the place before anything was touched. The windows were broken and stuffed with rags; the walls and floor were stained with grime; there was no furniture other than a “greasy mattress.” The cat sat quietly close by, not so ferocious after all.

At the coroner’s inquest it was revealed that for some time Rosetta Hogg had depended on outdoor relief from the parish, which meant that officials would have come round on a regular basis to check on her home situation. The coroner wanted to know “what the sanitary authorities had been about to allow a woman to live in this dirty state.” But the relieving officer testified that when he visited, she refused to let him enter, and that because of this he told her she was no longer eligible for assistance. She could enter the workhouse instead, he said, but she refused to go.

I wonder if it was the cat who kept her at home — where would it go if she left?

The “Applications for Relief” ledgers from this period make for sad reading. There’s nothing, unfortunately, for the year pertaining to Rosetta Hogg’s story, but an 1888 book from Southwark notes applicants’ particulars, including name, address, and occupation; forms of relief received elsewhere; what was given, its value, and how long it would be offered for; plus relatives’ details, since relatives were “liable by law to relieve the applicant” if capable of doing so. One woman, applying for assistance for herself and her six children, explained that “husband in prison” for assaulting her. But mostly this column was left blank, as if there wasn’t much point in asking the question. Some 28 columns run across each page, including one headed “Date of Last Visit at Residence of the Pauper.” It was no doubt a humiliating experience obtaining “relief” — but a step up, still, from entering the workhouse.

Testimony at the inquest showed Rosetta had promised to go to the workhouse later in the week, but died before she made it there. It’s hard to imagine that the workhouse would have been worse than her bleak, dirty room, for at least she would have been fed and had a less “greasy” mattress to sleep on. But at home she had independence and solitude, and the cat to care for — no small thing, the importance of caring for another living creature when you yourself are alone and struggling. Having a pet can make you feel useful and loved.

It’s impossible to know if this is how Rosetta Hogg felt, or what happened to the cat after she died. In our own family archive, only two pictures exist of her neighbours, Benjamin and Margaret Jones, and in one of them, through the creases and the washed out tones, you can just make out a cat on Benjamin’s lap. It isn’t Rosetta’s black cat — tabby stripes are apparent on the tail — but I like the link anyway, and the tiny bit of detail it gives us about who these people were. Benjamin looks at Margaret, and she and the cat both look out at the camera and whoever holds it. The photo was probably taken in the 1880s, in their tiny garden on Red Cross Street. Margaret died a few years after Rosetta, and Benjamin a few years after her, taking their stories with them.

benjamin and margaret jones maybe ♦

Sources:

  • “Death of an Eccentric Character.” South London Press, 17 December, 1881.
  • “Miserable Death of an Old Woman.” Gloucester Citizen, 12 December, 1881.
  • “Shocking Discovery.” Dublin Evening Telegraph, 19 December, 1881.
  • 1881 census, Red Cross Street, Southwark. Ancestry.ca.
  • 1888 Application and Report Book, Settlement Papers, Southwark. London England Poor Law and Board of Guardian Records, Ancestry.ca.

 

Loss of the Mary Rose and Strongbow

Chapter 12 - Some of the crew members of HMS Mary Rose, circa 1916
Some of the crew of the Mary Rose, 1916. Joe is here too, in the lower right portion of the photo, behind the man with the cigarette in his mouth.

One hundred and one years ago today, Joe Deverill’s ship went down in the North Sea. He was on board HMS Mary Rose, with 100 or so other men, when they were attacked by two German light cruisers in the early hours of the morning. Mary Rose and her sister ship Strongbow were destroyers charged with accompanying a convoy of merchant ships back and forth between Scotland and Norway — the job was usually boring, according to one of the sailors who survived, and who called the trips “mail runs.” But October 17, 1917, was the opposite of boring. The convoy was sunk, and some 250 men lost their lives.

Chapter 9 - Joe Deverill circa 1915
Joe Deverill, early in WW1

Joe’s story was only a tiny footnote in our larger story when my sister Tracy and I began the research for The Cowkeeper’s Wish. Little did we know that we would end up in the National Archives in London, meeting with other descendants of Mary Rose men, and scouring court documents, reading the actual testimony of the men who survived this terrifying ordeal. On the Mary Rose, those men were few in number. Only 10 made it safely to Norway, having witnessed the horrible deaths of their shipmates.

It was fascinating work finding out about these men — those who perished and those who survived — and gathering them into a “community” on the Imperial War Museum’s wonderful site, Lives of the First World War. That’s where our research began, and it grew massively from there. Service records, newspaper accounts, family lore, photographs, letters, and testimonies from the survivors all combined to give us stunning details, some tiny, some rich, that helped us revive the men’s stories: one sailor had a “True Love for Maggie” tattoo, and another had webbed toes; a survivor confessed in a letter to another man’s widow that he would “go sick” if he were sent to sea again after “that horrible massacre”; another widow had a baby not long after her husband was killed, and named the child Mary Rose; a 17-year-old midshipman had only just been temporarily transferred to the Mary Rose, and was meant to go back to his own ship in a week’s time; yet another man — a survivor whose identity we haven’t uncovered — brought a piece of Mary Rose wreckage to a deceased man’s family when he came to offer his condolences and tell them what had happened. How difficult and necessary such visits must have been, not just after this event, but after so many of the tragedies of war.

It could have been Joe who made the offering, for a family story exists that he did visit a friend’s mother to offer what news he could about her dead son. He himself had survived — but the joy of being alive was surely muted by loss. Just 19 when the attack occurred, Joe was carrying a lucky penny that exists to this day, and features on the cover of The Cowkeeper’s Wish.

 

One hundred and one years later, we can’t know all that happened that day, and what it did to the men and their loved ones. But the book contains as full an account as we could manage of this small episode of WW1. Here is the opening of the chapter “Down-Hearted and Shivery,” which recounts the attack and its aftermath:

As the news of Mary Anne’s death travelled toward him that October in 1917, Joe unwittingly moved farther away from it. On the morning of the 15th, Mary Rose and her sister destroyer Strongbow left Lerwick, accompanying a convoy of merchant ships to Norway with the help of two British fishing trawlers fitted out for escort purposes. The trips were sometimes boring, as Joe’s crewmate John Bailey had noted, but also potentially dangerous. The convoy system hadn’t been perfected yet, and many of the merchant ships, or “packets” as they were known, had little experience travelling in such a regimented way. Sometimes the fast ships pushed too far ahead, and the slower ships lagged behind, making the destroyers’ job to guard the whole group not just challenging but maddening because of all that could go wrong while the gaps in the convoy widened. Sometimes, too, the destroyers were purposely sent in different directions. By the morning of the 16th, after an uneventful sail, Mary Rose and Strongbow were approaching Norway with their group. As per their instructions on leaving Scotland the day before, they parted ways when they encountered a second westbound convoy. Mary Rose took up this new convoy of twelve ships, and with the trawler P. Fannon started back toward Lerwick. Strongbow, with the trawler Elise, carried on with her original charges. Once she’d seen them to shore at Bergen, Norway, she would turn back and rejoin the westbound group.

Evening had come by the time Strongbow and Elise drew close to the others again. Several times through the night, Strongbow’s Lieutenant-Commander Edward Brooke attempted to reach Charles Fox on Mary Rose but was unable to make contact. Fox, for his part, did not know that Strongbow had returned, but he zigzagged ahead anyway, staying close to a couple of the faster ships in the convoy and drawing farther away from the bulk of the packets lagging behind. With Lerwick in reach, the convoy grew uneven. By dawn the two destroyers were close to ten miles apart with most of the merchant ships between them. The sky was lightening but cloudy, and the sea was rough. Just before six, Strongbow’s officer of the watch sighted two ships coming closer. He assumed, from their dark grey colour, that they were British light cruisers. But when Strongbow flashed its recognition signals, the ships answered by opening fire.

 

With thanks to Sue Church for her diligence and enthusiasm researching the Mary Rose, and for bringing so many of the crew’s descendants together.

An unknown soldier and an unconventional woman

Mary Jamieson Front & back (1)The woman in this lovely portrait, Mary Jamieson, came to my attention when I corresponded with her granddaughter Alison following my earlier post about finding women hidden behind their husband’s names. Just like Tracy and me, Alison Botterill and her sister Fiona Duxbury have been on a lengthy quest to solve some mysteries in their family’s past. Alison told me the following story:

During the First World War, Mary Jamieson was a young Scottish woman living far from family in London. She was involved in the suffragette cause, and family lore says she spoke at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, a popular place for speeches and demonstrations. She didn’t believe in marriage, unusually enough, and had a son out of wedlock in January 1916. Then in 1917, she was among the first to join the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, attached to the 2nd Artists Rifles, and a photo of her exists with some of her co-workers, taken outside Hare Hall in Romford. Though her record doesn’t survive, Alison and Fiona were told by family that she held the rank of forewoman and spent some time  in France, near Lille. They think she may have worked as a cook. The photograph is one of a series taken in the same place, and experts have suggested that the number in the lower right-hand corner dates it to approximately October 1918.

Alison's grandmother
Mary Jamieson sits second from left in the front row.
John Jamieson
John Jamieson, Mary’s son, was given to friends to raise

War work at this point in Mary’s life would have been a challenge, given the fact she was on her own with a little boy, John, and then a daughter, Mary Joan, born in June 1918. Both children were born in London workhouse hospitals, near to where Mary was living and working at the time, and are listed in the ledgers with their mother, bearing the surname Jamieson. In Joan’s case, the specification “Illegt” is scribbled in as well. A fragment of a story has been passed down that she was named for a “Lady Joan someone” — maybe a connection of Mary’s from the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.

Whether the children shared the same father or not is uncertain, but they didn’t spend long living as siblings. At some point John was given to friends to raise — perhaps soon after Joan was born, for Mary’s workhouse record gives no clues as to his whereabouts at this time. It must have been painful to give up the joy of seeing her little boy grow up, although there appears to have been some contact between mother and son during his early years. Joan stayed with Mary, and became part of her mother’s second family when Mary met her husband-to-be a couple of years later. Mary Jamieson and George Couper Reid had several children together, but they didn’t wed until 1948, shortly before Mary died.

(Mary) Joan Jamieson
Mary’s daughter, Joan Jamieson

With this second family, more clues emerge. Mary and George had a son in 1920, and though they weren’t married, Mary’s name on the birth record appears as Reid formerly Cameron nee Jamieson. So was Cameron the name of the other babies’ father?

Alison and Fiona hung on to that clue when Joan died, and a photograph of a handsome young soldier surfaced among her possessions. The writing on the back gave no name, but stated, in Joan’s hand, “This is my father who died of WW1 wounds in 1918. He was the eldest son of one of England’s old Catholic families.”

So it seems that Joan’s father died the year she was born — which might explain why Mary felt she couldn’t manage alone with both children. When looking at an enhanced version of the soldier’s portrait, military experts have suggested he belonged to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, and pointed out that he’s wearing a Military Medal ribbon. Putting all these pieces together, the sisters settled on a soldier named Archibald Borland Cameron as a good possibility for Mary’s man. He served with the KOSB (and later with the Border Regiment); he was awarded the Military Medal for heroic action in 1916; and he died in April 1918, just a couple of months before Joan was born. Other parts of his story don’t fit, however: Archie, as he was known, was Scottish, not English; and he was the youngest son, not the oldest. But his service record does offer a tempting detail: in January 1916, the very month John was born, Archie Cameron “illegally absented himself without leave.” Is this just a coincidence, or was it the case of a young father anxious to meet his baby son?

Untitled 3.tif

Does some distant relative of Archie’s have a photograph that matches the picture above, of Joan’s father?  It’s hard to imagine what evidence might surface now, after a century has passed, to clear up the mystery of Mary Jamieson and her children. But I can relate to Alison and Fiona’s determination to find the answers. And to the fact that, even when you don’t find answers, the search is fascinating.

Lives of the First World War: Mary Jamieson

Lives of the First World War: Archibald Borland Cameron

Woman in White

A young signalman on the Southern Railway, at Cane Hill Box, Coulsdon, had the fright of his life yesterday at daybreak. Looking out of one of the windows of his cabin, Ernest Fills saw a ghostly apparition approaching, says the London “Daily Chronicle” correspondent. It proved to be an old lady in her night attire, with her hair in disarray all over her face. There was a fixed stare in her eyes; she was clasping her hands over her breast and screaming. Evidently she had been attracted to the signal-box by the light. Fills opened the door and asked her in, but she did not answer. He touched her on the shoulder, and she turned round and cried, “Don’t touch me! Don’t send me back; don’t send me back! I want to find my children.” The signalman was alarmed, for the woman was shivering violently, but he persuaded the wanderer to enter the signal-box, and went to fetch an asylum attendant who lived near. When he returned the woman had gone. A quarter of an hour later she was found on the side of the railway, at Ashdown Park Hotel, still shrieking, “Don’t send back; don’t send me back.” It was found that the woman was a dangerous mental patient, who had escaped from Cane Hill Asylum. She was returned there.

Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, Thursday, 26 April 1923.

Chapter 3 - Mary Anne Evans, circa 1893, around the time of her engagement to Harry Deverill
Our great grandmother, Mary Anne Deverill, was a patient at Cane Hill Asylum not long before this article was written. This photograph shows her in happier times, in the 1890s, about to be married.