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.

The Power of Craft: Occupational Therapy in WW1

embroidery ww1
One of 60 squares on a sheet made at the Royal Staffordshire Infirmary in 1917. Each square is embellished slightly differently, and bears the man’s name and regiment. This one was worked by Sydney Frederick Hudson, who survived the war.

I recently watched a news piece about a quilt that had been made by wounded soldiers in 1917. The men were convalescing at the Royal Staffordshire Infirmary, and each had been given the task of embroidering his name, his regiment, and some decorative swirls on a small square of fabric. The 60 squares, all rendered in shades of pink and blue, were then stitched together into a single sheet. A picture exists of two men standing on each side of the finished piece, wearing their “hospital blues,” and looking out at the camera with war-weary expressions.

The stitching of the squares can be seen as a form of occupational therapy, which was quickly gaining recognition from the medical field because so many men had physical or mental injuries, or both. Working on some form of craft could potentially help patients in a variety of ways: it might encourage movement of specific muscles; it might distract the person from the pain he felt; it might give him a sense of purpose and accomplishment; and if done in a group, as with the embroidery sheet, it may foster a sense of community.

Chapter 9 - Joe Deverill circa 1915
Sailor Joe Deverill, early in the war

The same year the quilt was made, our great uncle, Joe Deverill, was a 19-year-old Able Seaman on board the Mary Rose, a destroyer that escorted ships from Scotland to Norway and back across the North Sea. It was routine work, and the trips were rather dull until one day in October, when the entire convoy was attacked by German light cruisers. Almost everyone on board the Mary Rose perished, as well as many from other ships traveling with her, a tragedy recounted in detail in The Cowkeeper’s Wish. Amazingly, Joe survived, despite his youth and inexperience.

Family lore says that afterwards he took up rug-hooking, and that it soothed his nerves to pull the wool strands through the heavy fabric and watch a pattern emerge. It seems likely that someone gave him this task, and showed him what to do, just as someone showed the men embroidering their squares at the Staffordshire infirmary.

That someone was likely a woman who worked as a “ward aide.” Canadian women did groundbreaking work in this field, and according to Judith Friedland, author of Restoring the Spirit: the Beginnings of Occupational Therapy in Canada, many were either artists or teachers, well suited to helping the men learn simple craftwork that would build their self esteem and keep their minds and hands busy. The tasks turned out to be a crucial part of their recovery. A 1921 New York Herald article raves about the ingenious work going on at Fox Hills Base Hospital, lead by “a competent woman instructor.” The author describes walking through the wards and coming upon “men with powerful big frames except for a missing leg or a twisted arm or a hole in the neck. Each one has his head bent over the bed picking up little beads and stringing them out endlessly into something that looks as though it was going to be a shopper’s purse.” He asked one of the men if the work was hard on the eyes, and the man answered, “It’s only hard on one of them. … The other’s glass.”

England’s Imperial War Museum holds some lovely examples of work made by soldiers as a form of therapy. There are hand-painted fretwork figures of politicians and nurses and soldiers; embroidery samplers; and decorative envelopes pieced together from newspaper. There are haunting pieces in the collection as well. The rings below were considered “trench art” and incorporate a fragment from a German aluminum nose cone and an eagle cut from a German button. They were collected by Alice Rapley Wood, who served as a nurse in France from 1914 to 1916 and later worked at Summerdown Convalescent Camp at Eastbourne, which treated occupational therapy cases. It was here that the rings were made. So far I haven’t unearthed much about Alice herself, but she seems like a woman ahead of her time. She had artistic leanings and painted miniature portraits. On the 1911 census, she is listed with her second husband (having divorced the first), who was a piano manufacturer’s manager several years her junior. She makes a point of noting her own occupation as “artist.” In the decades following WW1, she appears in the Physiotherapy and Masseuse Registers, so she definitely continued with her work long after the war was over. The war had brought an incredible amount of suffering, but also profound and wonderful changes in the lives of women like Alice.

trench art alice rapley wood
A set of four trench rings collected by nurse Alice Rapley Wood. © IWM (EPH 4364)

Among the most beautiful examples of occupational therapy in the IWM collection are the intricately beaded necklaces made by Walter John Cressey, a private with the Middlesex Regiment who convalesced at Queen Alexandra’s Military Hospital in London. Cressey was blind and had lost four fingers as the result of gassing. What painstaking work it must have been to make these necklaces, with their tiny beads strung into a long waving pattern, and how sad to never be able to see them. And yet: how brilliant to construct something as a means of healing from so much destruction — to stitch, string, mould, weave, paint, paste, and knit in order to put things together again after such a painful time in history.

walter john cressey necklace

 

Sources

Imperial War Museum: occupational therapy souvenirs and ephemera

Restoring the Spirit: The Beginnings of Occupational Therapy in Canada, 1890-1930, by Judith Fern Friedland, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011.

“Ingenious work is done by wounded veterans.” New York Herald, 25 September, 1921.

Lives of the First World War: Joe Deverill; Alice Rapley-Wood; Walter John Cressey

With thanks to Kevin Dance for sharing his photo of the Staffordshire Infirmary embroidery square.

 

The Fashionable Craze of Today: A Victorian Tattoo Artist

Courtesy The Wellcome Library

In 1903, Tatler magazine featured this spread on tattooing, “the fashionable craze of to-day.” The work was that of tattoo artist Alfred South, who claimed by that time to have inked images on no less than 15,000 people, 900 of them English women.

An emigrant to England, South was born Alfred Charles George Schmidt in Karlsbad, Bohemia, and seems to have begun using the name South some time in the 1890s, when his tattooing career began. His big break came in May of 1898, at the Royal Aquarium, an amusement palace of sorts, with tightrope walkers, high divers, human cannonballs, and hypnotists. That spring, fellow tattooist Tom Riley had to step away from his busy booth there in order to deal with what the London Evening Standard termed “trouble with his wife, who wanted to poison herself.” (Flo Riley was frequently dubbed Tom’s “Tattooed Marvel” and was “covered with many beautiful designs in seven colours.”) South stepped in and must have quickly made his mark on the tattooing scene, for according to the Standard, Riley, upon his return, was so incensed at the thought of upstart South stealing his clients that soon he began to publicly harass South in the halls of the Royal Aquarium. South pressed charges, and Riley (whose wife survived her ordeal) was ordered to keep the peace. From then on, regular newspaper ads appear for South’s services, promising “any design, all colours” — and how it must have rankled Riley that sometimes South’s ads showed alongside his own.

german tattooed lady
This image comes from “Pictures on the Skin,” a lengthy article about South’s rival, Tom Riley.  It appeared in The English Illustrated Magazine in 1903, the same year Tatler published photographs of South’s designs.

By 1899, though, South’s livelihood was threatened when 21-year-old Louis Montgomery Forbes died of blood poisoning shortly after South had tattooed him. Papers carried headlines about the “peculiar circumstances” around Forbes’ death, and the dangers of tattooing, and South was called to testify at a coroner’s inquest.

Forbes had come to South for tattoos on several occasions; this time he requested a lion on his chest, a procedure that took 10 hours, according to South’s testimony. Every couple of hours, South asked Forbes if he’d like a break, but Forbes always declined. While South worked with his needles, Forbes drank 14 whiskies to dull the pain, and afterwards the two went out together for a bowl of soup and then to a public house to show off the lion to a friend. They parted ways, and that was the last South saw of him.

Forbes returned to his cousin’s house, and the next day felt unwell. Fourteen whiskies might do that to a person, so perhaps he was not at first alarmed. He told his cousin about receiving the tattoo — that it had taken a long time and been quite painful, but that he didn’t attribute his illness to the procedure. A doctor was called, but he continued to grow worse. Most likely he felt dizzy and disoriented; his heart raced; his skin turned clammy and pale, and he drifted into unconsciousness. Three days after receiving the tattoo, he died. Other doctors were called in to give their opinions of the cause of his death, and while all agreed it must have been blood poisoning, none could say it had anything to do with South’s tattooing.

For his part, South claimed that by this time he’d tattooed more than 5,000 people and never had a problem. He used a fresh set of needles for each customer, and during procedures he placed them in carbolic oil. He used only the best quality Chinese ink, which he produced as part of his testimony, and offered to eat it to prove his claim, but the coroner didn’t think that necessary. “The jury reached a verdict in accordance with the medical evidence, but attached no blame to the tattooist.”

South went on with his work. As he told one reporter, “You’d be surprised to know the number of people who come to me to be tattooed. And from all classes. I’ve tattooed lords and ladies of high degree, doctors, barristers, actors and actresses, men and women of all professions, just as I have tattooed soldiers and sailors and working men. What is it that makes them want to be tattooed? Well, I suppose it’s just a fad — that’s my only explanation of it.”

In 1906, South made the news again, telling of his recent exploits in Vienna, where he’d tattooed the arm of a tiger tamer. “His conditions were that I should go inside the cage and take my design from an unfettered animal. … I had nicely arranged all my apparatus on a table inside, and was just about to begin the sitting, when, without any warning, the brute leapt at me. I stood aside, only to see my table crushed under the heavy weight of the animal. Without waiting, I rushed outside the iron door, but after a while one of the attendants told me that everything was all right again. Well, I thought that one can die only once, and re-entered the cage, and after one-and-a-half hour’s sitting I had accomplished my task.”

Over the years what seems to have changed most was the kind of tattoo people desired. By January 1914, South was offering “your favourite horse, dog or cat tattooed upon your arm, neck, shoulder or ankle.” The Daily Mirror carried an image of him at work on a client. South sits in his lab coat, a dowdy, balding, somewhat round man who resembles Alfred Hitchcock. He holds his needle against a woman’s arm; she’s watching him work, and smiling a little tentatively, but South’s eyes study the dog she holds — a fluffy white lap dog — who in turns stares out at the camera with a seemingly baffled expression.

When war erupted later that year, two of South’s sons enlisted, surely thankful their father had long ago stopped using Schmidt as a surname. The younger son’s involvement was brief — just 18 and a Boy 1st Class on board the ship Edward VII, he was blown overboard in a gale and lost to the sea. His record shows his initials, LS, were tattooed on his upper left arm; the work of his father, perhaps — but simple and understated compared to Louis Forbes and the Tattooed Marvel.

Tattoos had long been popular among soldiers and sailors. In the box for “Wounds, Scars, Marks &c.,” service records note a plethora of horseshoes, crosses, women’s names, clusters of forget-me-nots, anchors, snakes, birds, and shamrocks. By 1915, women and girls — “who in ordinary times would not dream of being tattooed” — were coming to South wanting tattoos to remind them of a man who had gone off fighting. “The usual request is for a regimental badge to be etched on their arms, sometimes with the words ‘I love’ or ‘Yours forever.'”

Curiously, the desire for these “indelible mementoes” was something that seems to have puzzled him over the years. He regularly fulfilled requests for sweethearts who wanted each other’s portrait tattooed. But he mused, “it’s a bit awkward if they both should happen to change.” One can imagine him shrugging and simply carrying on. By the time of the First World War, South had been tattooing for some 20 years, and must have marveled that “the fashionable craze of to-day” was also the craze of tomorrow, of the next day, and the day after that.

Sources

  • “The Gentle Art of Tattooing.” Tatler, November 1903 (Wellcome Library).
  • Naturalisation Certificate: Alfred Charles George Schmidt. 28 February, 1905. National Archives.
  • “Police Intelligence — Westminster.” London Evening Standard, 16 July, 1898.
  • “Pictures on the Skin: The Experiences of a Society Tattoo Artist” by Pat Brooklyn. English Illustrated Magazine, 1903.
  • “Wanted … Flo Riley.” The Era, 11 March, 1899.
  • “The Showman.” Music Hall and Theatre Review, 5 December, 1902.
  • “Singular Death of a Young Man at Cookham.” Reading Mercury, 8 April, 1899.
  • “Died After Being Tattooed — A Mysterious Death.” Eastern Evening News, 6 April, 1899.
  • “Tattooing Among the Aristocracy.” Nottingham Journal, 7 April, 1899.
  • “Tatooist’s Exciting Adventure.” Belfast News-Letter, 17 April, 1906.
  • “Dogs’ Portraits Tattooed on the Arm.” Daily Mirror, 17 January, 1914.
  • “Tattooed Women.” Daily Mirror, 14 October, 1915.
  • Lives of the First World War: Leslie South formerly Schmidt

 

A Victorian mourning card

Chapter 7 - Memorial card for Martha Bedford;s mother, 1877

Among the most treasured research tools we employed to write The Cowkeeper’s Wish are the photographs, letters, postcards and documents passed down through the generations. Holding something so old in your hands, you inch just a bit closer to the history you’re seeking, even if the object doesn’t tell you much more than you already knew. Likely, though, it does offer more than you first think.

The 1877 card above, for instance, comes from an offshoot in our family tree, and is typical of mourning cards of this period: three by four-and-a-half inches, made of thick paper with a striking black-and-white design, embossed with symbolic, funereal images. For something made of paper, it feels heavy in the hand, and looks elegant and important. In Victorian times, mourning cards were just one small part of the strict rituals around death, put in place by the upper crust but closely observed by the poor as well. They were sent out after the funeral had happened, and meant to be kept as a memento of the person who’d died.

prince albert memorial copy
Memorial card for Prince Albert, by J. T. Wood, 1861.  Courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum

This card for Queen Victoria’s beloved husband Albert was made in 1861, and unlike our family example, was created for the wider public as a way for them to participate in mourning the prince. According to the Victoria & Albert Museum, “Death was highly visible in Victorian culture. It was a time for communal feeling, studied response and ritual. People were encouraged to give public expression to their grief, and an industry of mourning dress and mementoes provided visible reminders of the dead. The death of Prince Albert in 1861 contributed to the cult of mourning that lasted for much of the 19th century. Part of the ritual was to send out beautifully embossed mourning cards in memory of the deceased. This card for Prince Albert … was mounted in a cheap frame for display in a modest room.”

Though the images are similar, the woman remembered in our family example — Mary Ann Bedford nee Bright — was of much humbler means. Married to a shoemaker, she worked at different times as a boot binder and a seamstress, and had 10 children. She lived with her family in Mile End, London, where her husband engaged the services of a local undertaker when she died. The name on the mourning card, Moses John Hickman, first appears in newspapers in 1845, under the heading “Apology.”

I, the undersigned, having exhibited several libellous Placards concerning Mr. Moses John Hickman, … Undertaker, respecting a disputed account between us, and which reflected on his character and credit as a tradesman, and he having commenced an action for libel against me, has consented to withdraw it upon my making this public apology, and paying his law costs. Geo. Henry Kelly, Printer, 1, New Road, St. George’s, East.

The notice doesn’t reveal what the dispute was about, but Hickman seems to have been conscious of maintaining a solid reputation thereafter, for the many advertisements that appear over the next decades promise “economy and respectability in funerals,” with “good black horses and proper fittings always used.” Just days after Mary Ann Bedford’s death, in January 1878, Hickman took out a longer ad, guaranteeing that “obsequies [would be] performed with respectability and decorum.”

CAUTION. — I beg to inform the Public that some Undertakers and others have issued a facsimile of my Prospectus, thereby deceiving them, by relying on Extras to make up their bills, instead of keeping to the sum specified in their advertisements. I have no connexion with any other establishment, and am only surprised that, in the present enlightenment—although a sense of duty might not restrain—Education does not make men abashed at the thought of being guilty of so mean an action as to rely on the merits of my productions to gain public favour.

Following the caution, he laid out the specific costs he charged for different types of funerals. A “walking funeral” for a grown person was £1/10; a carriage funeral, “with coffin and all requirements,” was £2; if you wanted to add a separate hearse and mourning coach, the cost went up to £3; add pairs of horses and the charge was £4; and up it went until you got to £17 for a more lavish display with “leaden coffin, stout elm shell and case covered with fine cloth, hearse, … two mourning coaches (pairs), ostrich plumes and velvets, lid of feathers, mutes, pages, &c.” These seem like tiny amounts to us now, but they were large sums for the working class at the time.

None of this, of course, tells us much about Mary Ann Bedford herself — or even about Moses Hickman. Maybe he did engage in shoddy business practices, despite his indignant statements. Or maybe was as upright as he sounds; after all, his career endured for decades. But the little clues uncovered here support the notion that funerals were big business, and that people were taken advantage of in their time of grief, not only due to the rigid customs of the times, but due to dishonesty and greed. Was Mary Ann Bedford’s family swindled? Or were they happy with the services performed to say goodbye to this 47-year-old wife and mother? These peripheral clues give some context as to the environment she lived and died in, and the concerns her family might have had regarding her funeral and burial.

1922 Bebbie and Doris
Doris Deverill and Martha “Bebbie” Bedford, around 1922.

Another clue lies in the very existence of the card, so many years after the death. Mary Ann Bedford’s daughter, Martha, was about 12 years old when her mother died. She never married or had children of her own, but when a dear friend (also Mary Ann!) died in 1917 when she was in her mid-forties, Martha took in the woman’s 10-year-old daughter and raised her as her own.

That girl, Doris Deverill, was our grandmother — an orphan like Martha — and it was she who kept the mourning card after Martha died, so that it continued to pass down through our own family, though we have no blood link to the Bedford line. That Martha Bedford and Doris Deverill both lost their mothers at a similar age was likely part of the special bond between them.

“Apology.” Morning Advertiser, 3 November, 1845.

“Respectable Funerals.” East London Observer, 5 January, 1878.

Memorial Card for Albert, Victoria & Albert Museum, 1861.

The Crinoline Fires

 

crinoline fire - wellcome library
Courtesy the Wellcome Library, 1860

Browsing through the 1869 Cassell’s Household Guide to Every Department of Practical Life, I came upon an intriguing recipe “To Render Ladies’ Dresses Incombustible.” If you mixed your whitening with starch, you could make “lace, net, muslin, gauze, or any other light stuff, perfectly inflammable. As white dresses are much worn at evening parties, where fires are often kept in the grates, and numerous ladies have been burnt to death by means of their dresses catching light whilst dancing, it is hoped this useful receipt will not be forgotten by any lady in the habit of attending balls and parties.”

Voluminous dresses were fashionable through the 1850s and 1860s, and a search through newspapers of that period turns up a shocking number of deaths from the garments catching fire. It’s thought that something like 3,000 women perished this way in England alone. Both Cassell’s advice and the lithograph above — labeled “the horrors of crinoline & the destruction of human life” — make us think of well-to-do ladies twirling in beautiful ballrooms before tragedy strikes; but all classes were caught up in the fashion craze Punch called “crinolinemania,” and the sparks of flame didn’t care if you were a colonel’s wife, like Anna Maria Grant, or a servant girl, like Mary Anne Winterbotham.

Anna Maria Grant was sitting in a London drawing room on Christmas Day in 1862. It was 11 o’clock in the morning, and a fire kept the winter chill away as she celebrated the holiday with friends. There was a bird loose in the room, and as she turned to follow its flap and flutter, the edge of her dress caught fire. At first she tried to tear off the clothes, but the flames spread quickly, and she was unable to escape them. Within two or three minutes, her clothing had entirely burned away, with the exception of her stays, and she had suffered “fearful injuries.” Two doctors were called in, and tended to her until 7 that evening, when she finally died from her wounds. The coroner lamented that crinolines had become a constant theme at inquests.

Maid_in_crinoline._Punch_Almanack_for_1862
Punch, 1862. “Bother Missus! She wears it herself, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t.”

In November 1861, 22-year-old Mary Anne Winterbotham was a domestic servant working in a doctor’s home in London’s West End. She was cooking dinner when her dress caught fire and she ran out into the street, all alight and screaming for help. A crowd quickly gathered, and tried to tear at her fiery dress, and smother the flames with coats and rugs. Eventually the fire was put out, but Mary Anne, like Anna Maria, had suffered horrific injuries that her body could not withstand. At the coroner’s inquest, the jury found she had died from accidental burns, and added they could not part without expressing their “horror and disgust” at persons who wore crinolines when their duties required them to work with fire.

One wonders — was it easier to express “horror and disgust” for Mary Anne than for Anna Maria, whose ladylike duties required her to sit by a fire on Christmas morning?

read's crinoline sketches
Lady — Oh my! How shall I get past?    Gentleman — Halloa there, my good fellow! Open the turnpike gate!

Crinolines were constantly in the press in these years. Their wearers were teased and ridiculed for the indecent way such dresses exposed them when they bent forward; they were cautioned about the dangers of moving around in such cumbersome clothing. Just a couple of weeks before Mary Anne Winterbotham’s death, Florence Nightingale wrote that she found it “alarmingly peculiar” that at a time when “female ink-bottles” were so regularly espousing women’s overall usefulness to the world, women were dressing themselves in a way that rendered them useless for any duties at all. She called the crinoline “an absurd and hideous costume,” and wished the registrar-general would state the number of fatalities it had caused.

But still, the trend persisted. In 1869, a piece titled “Who Killed Crinoline?” said good riddance to the fad, and marvelled that it had lasted so long. “Some say crinoline was swept away by a grand tidal wave of common-sense. If so, the wave took about ten years to gather its volume; and we should be glad to know what arguments or recommendations common-sense possessed in the tenth year which it had not in the first.”

Maid_and_mistress_in_crinoline._Punch_Almanack_for_1862-2

We confess to regarding crinoline as at once ugliness and a nuisance; but that the ladies will regard as only the general opinion of us “male creatures,” and they have proved that they do not care about that. The attachment to crinoline must be very strong, for it has stood what it most difficult to withstand—ridicule. Good things are often put down by sarcasm; but here is an ugly thing—a monstrosity—a something which makes the lower half of a lady’s figure look like a damaged diving bell; and the only effect ridicule had upon it, is to cause it to expand to larger and larger proportions, till it threatens to sweep the lords of creation off the pathways, to block them out of church, to hustle them out of places of amusement, and scarcely to leave room for them at home. We should not care so much if a sumptuary law could be passed, prohibiting any but ladies, who are ladies enough not to have anything to do, from wearing crinoline; but everybody takes to the nuisance. Folly is generally spoken of as “light,” but we are inclined to think it must be heavy, for it descends from the highest to the lowest grade of society. This folly commenced with a French Empress, and the other day a beggar woman in crinoline asked alms of us. The vortex a servant maid in the small room of a modest house creates with her wide mailed petticoat is perfectly bewildering, and half alarming. A servant maid has not time to move with the quiet, balloon-like glide, which a lady has leisure for. She must be sharp and quick in her movements; and she drags the chairs, and jostles the table, and puts the dishes in danger, and flounces papers away, as though she was a whirlwind; and when she puts coals on the fire, occasionally carries away the tongs as an appendage to her skirt, the fender only escaping reason of its weight. It says a great deal for the cautiousness of servant girls, that more of them have not fallen victims to crinoline fires. The sufferers in that way have been generally ladies. In factories, the factory lasses, though barefooted, are becrinolined, better fenced than the machinery they work among; and it is a wonder there is not more peril in their skirts than there appears to be. But putting aside ugliness and danger, we have now to contemplate crinolines as plunder baskets. … many crinolines are simply depots for stolen goods. It does not, of course, follow that all people who wear crinolines use them for that purpose; but gives those of predatory dispositions an opportunity of concealing their booty. Lumps of plunder, which would deform the symmetry of the uncrinolined female figure, are carried off without suspicion by the crinolined, pots of jelly and marmalade, pounds of apples and sugar, papers of “sweeties,” are “conveyed” into the capacious receptacle; and we are told that silk, and the finer sorts of yarns, find their way surreptitiously to the same place. Jute, we suppose, has too little value to be in danger. We propose, then, to call crinolines Plunder Baskets. If everybody would do that, we wonder if the ladies would continue to wear them under that name?

“Plunder Baskets.” Dundee Courier, 24 Sept., 1862.

Sources

Cassell’s Household Guide to Every Department of Practical LifeLondon: Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1869.

Fire: The horrors of crinoline & the destruction of human life.” Wellcome Library, 1860.

Deadly Victorian Fashions.” Anne Kingston, Maclean’s, 9 June, 2014.

“The Abuse of Crinoline.” Reynolds’s Newspaper, 4 Jan., 1863.

“Death of a Domestic Servant Through Crinoline.” Dundee Courier, 25 Nov., 1861.

“Florence Nightingale on Crinoline.” Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 29 Oct., 1861.

“Girls’ Schools.” Bucks Advertiser & Aylesbury News, 22 Dec., 1860.

Corsets and Crinolines in Victorian Fashion.” Victoria and Albert Museum.

“Plunder Baskets.” Dundee Courier, 24 Sept., 1862.

Who Killed Crinoline?” Once A Week, May 1869.

Lost and found: a WW1 nurse

LMA Stone Case Book Our Ellen 2
The elusive Ellen Evans, otherwise Roff, otherwise Humphries, discovered in the Stone Asylum casebook at the London Metropolitan Archives (City of London). Ellen’s sad and tangled story is recounted in The Cowkeeper’s Wish. (This image appears with permission, ©LMA.)

I’ve mentioned in earlier posts how challenging it can be to find women in a family tree, because they tend to disappear behind their men. During out research for The Cowkeeper’s Wish, one of the biggest brick walls was finding Ellen, our great grandmother’s sister, who left her husband in the 1890s and eventually turned up living with someone else and using his surname, though they had not married. Sometimes women disappear even more completely behind their partner’s name and become “Mrs John Humphries,” erasing every letter of their own identity.

I recently found an example of an elusive woman while engaged in some volunteer work I do for the Imperial War Museum’s excellent Lives of the First World War website. I’ve taken a special interest in the women’s records there, and I was searching specifically for women who’d worked at the Australian Voluntary Hospital in Wimereux, France. I was surprised to come upon a page for Staff Nurse Robert Hannah nee Walter E. C., and wasn’t quite sure where to begin to untangle such a jumble of surnames that could also be first names. I double-checked the original source Lives had used — the women’s service roll at the National Archives — and the name appeared the same way there.

Since it’s highly unlikely that a nurse in 1915 was named Robert, I thought the names were simply transposed, and should read Hannah Robert nee Walter. I searched for a marriage record during the war that would confirm that suspicion, but nothing fit. And then I remembered the “E. C.” that I’d ignored on the entry the first time around. I checked the National Archives record again, this time viewing the digitized version, and saw a tiny crucial “Mrs” beside the name, and left out of the transcription. Mrs. Robert Hannah? That made more sense. I popped in a new search, still within the Lives database, and found that Ella C. Walter had married Robert C. Hannah in Kensington, London, in 1917.

That the marriage took place in London was another bonus, since Ancestry holds those digitized entries of Church of England Marriages and Banns. Here I was able to find yet a little more about the woman so recently known as Robert.

When they married on January 6, 1917, at St. Phillip’s Church, Ella Clarice Walter was a 39-year-old spinster, living at 4 Richmond Mansions, Earl’s Court. Her father’s name was John Charles Walter, and though he was now deceased, he’d been “civil servant, Melbourne,” according to the certificate — another Australian connection for the woman who’d worked at the Australian Voluntary Hospital. Her new husband was considerably older than she was; a widower named Robert Campbell Hannah, he gave his occupation as “gentleman,” and he resided at the Thackeray Hotel in Great Russell Street.

Searching backwards now, I found Ella living on her own in London in 1911, a single 30-year-old woman of private means, born in Melbourne, Australia, a British subject by parentage. What brought her to London I don’t know — but being unmarried, Australian, and keen to assist with the war effort, she was an early recruit for the hospital founded by Lady Rachel Dudley, wife of the Australian governor-general, first located at St. Nazaire, France, and soon moved to an old hotel in Wimereux. The medal roll shows that Ella joined the hospital staff late in August 1914, with the war not even a month old.

avh, wimereux

In a 1915 piece about “the good work [the AVH] is doing at the front,” writer Katharine Susannah Prichard describes the setting, and brings the photo above to life:

The Winter quarters of the Australian voluntary hospital are in a great, rambling, muddily-white French hotel. When first you see it, you want to draw it as it stands against the sea, under a clear, shining sky. You feel you want to use a rough chalk for its vermilion roof, and for its shutters and doors that are vivid, apple-green. Beyond it stretch the dunes, vague and formless, with their coarse, wind-threshed, bleached grasses, and behind it spreads a scattered toadstool growth of white-walled, red-roofed cottages. Gris Nez forms a rampart on the north, and there is a deserted, red-roofed village along the coast. The Picardy landscape the hospital stands in is so tranquil in a peaceful, pastoral way, that it is almost impossible to believe, that only a few miles away all the damnable business of war is going on.

Ella Walter and colleagues in Wimereux
Clockwise from top: Elizabeth Mundell, Patience Outram Anderson, Ella Clarice Walter, and Mary Rawson.

When the staff first moved into the hotel, they’d barely had time to settle when word came that a convoy of wounded was on its way. Ambulances began arriving even before the beds had been made to receive the wounded. “They kept on arriving,” writes Prichard, “a continuous, slow stream of khaki-covered cars, with a red cross blazed across them. They came over the brow of the hill, and filed past the hospital from 10 in the morning until after four in the afternoon.” Soon stretchers lined the corridors, and 145 men required the staff’s careful attention.

Knowing Ella’s name wasn’t Robert helped me to find this lovely picture of her and some of her colleagues, posing in uniform. She and the other women depicted are each mentioned, albeit briefly, in the unit’s 1915 war diary. In May, the diary tells us, Ella contracted the measles (as did Patience), and in August, she had a brief stay at a rest home in Hardelot. The diary mentions many of the women resting there, and the Australian War Memorial holds a picture that suggests they were happy to go. I don’t see Ella in the Hardelot photograph, and I lose track of her now until her 1917 marriage to Robert Hannah. What sent her back to London, and was she nursing there as well until she married? These answers might surface if I keep searching. But it feels satisfying to have made even some small discoveries about this stranger, to sort the name and put a face to it, and to reunite a nurse with some of her colleagues from a century ago.

hardelot
WIMEREUX, FRANCE, 1915. “SICK NURSES OFF TO REST HOME AT HARDELOT” WAITING IN A MOTOR CAR OUTSIDE THE AUSTRALIAN VOLUNTARY HOSPITAL, FORMERLY THE GOLF HOTEL. (DONOR D. MASSY). AWM, P01064.027

Sources

Australian War Memorial: AVH in Wimereux, France

Discovering Anzacs: Australian Voluntary Hospital

“Handle with Care: Nurses Make Own Sacrifices Overseas.” Louise Almeida, Herald Sun, 23 April, 2014.

Lives of the First World War: Ella Clarice Walter later Hannah

Lives of the First World War: Australian Voluntary Hospital

National Archives: Australian Voluntary Hospital war diary, WO 95/4106/2

With thanks to Kathryn Shapland, Recollections of War, Albany, Australia, and Christine Bramble, Great War Nurses from the Hunter.

 

 

The Canary Girls of WW1

cardboard ww1
A cardboard collecting box used by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Imperial War Museum. © IWM (EPH 4196)

Despite the years of research that went into creating The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we still have many unanswered questions. The brick walls rise up especially around women’s stories, for women all too often disappear behind their men. This seems particularly true of the working class. In our family, in London, England, many of the women were factory workers or cleaners or laundresses; or they did piece work like book folding or sewing at home, where they could earn a living and look after little ones at the same time. It struck us that during WW1, these were the types of women who contributed anonymously to the war effort, with little remaining now to show the part they played.

Chapter 11 - Ethel Deverill circa 1920
Ethel Deverill worked at a cardboard box factory during the war. What were the boxes used for?

If they’d sewn clothes before the war, perhaps now they sewed any of the many parts that made up uniforms. If they’d made boots, perhaps now they made army boots. If they’d worked at a box factory, as did our grandmother’s sister, Ethel, perhaps now the boxes they made would hold ammunition, or gifts for men at the frontlines, or medical supplies. Other jobs opened up for women too — women became postal workers and bus drivers and farmers; they assisted the police and wore uniforms and blew whistles; they tended the wounded as doctors, nurses, and VADs; and they stepped up in droves to work in munitions factories.

One of our relatives married a male munitions worker in 1916. Her own occupation is not listed on the certificate, but as the 23-year-old daughter of a widowed cleaner, it’s likely she had to contribute to the household income. Did she work at the same factory as her beau? Is that how they met? No one can say now. Often the female munitions workers known about are the ones who died tragically, in an explosion or of TNT poisoning — the ones who survived are lost to history.

1916, wedding party Clara and Bert
The December 1916 wedding of munitions worker Bert Morel and Clara Donnelly. Clara’s cousin, our grandmother Doris, is seated far left. Just a few weeks after the wedding, the Silvertown Explosion took place at a TNT factory in east London. With 73 deaths and more than 400 injuries, the event must have been especially frightening for those connected to such a dangerous industry.
Margaret Silcock
From the Women’s War Work portrait collection at the Imperial War Museum, WWC M5

Even during the war, there was an attempt to recognize women’s contributions. Beginning in 1917, a group of women working for what would become the Imperial War Museum began gathering documentation — photographs, ephemera, written accounts — that showed the varied roles women were playing in the war. In preparation for a women’s work exhibit at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in October 1918, they wrote to the families of women who had died in service, and asked for photographs of them so that the exhibit could honour both the living and the dead. These wonderful photos remain in the IWM collection to this day, and some of the letters still exist too, and hint at the massive loss people suffered on a personal level. When 22-year-old Margaret Silcock died of trinitrotoluene (TNT) poisoning from her work at a munitions factory, her mother willingly sent a photograph, apologizing for its smallness. “It is the only one I have,” she explained, “and I can’t afford to get a bigger one as I only get 7/6 a week.”

alice post
Alice’s mother sent this photograph in response to a request from the Women’s Work committee. Her letter reads: “I should be pleased to hear further if there is anything more I can do, also will you kindly let me know if the museum is open to the public as either my daughter or myself should like to come….” IWM, WWC M11

Women like Margaret were known as Canary Girls because the explosive chemical they worked with often turned their skin yellow. Usually the effects wore off, but many died from exposure to TNT, which could cause anaemia and toxic jaundice. One of the early casualties was a young woman named Alice Post, who died in January of 1916. A newspaper reporting on the inquest into her death stated that she had begun working at a factory about five weeks before Christmas 1915, and walked a distance of 10 miles each day to get to the works and then home again. She ate well at first, but soon lost her appetite, and often complained of headaches and tiredness. The skin on her hands and forearms turned blotchy. She saw the factory’s doctor, but when she failed to get better, she was reluctant to seek medical help again — and by the time she did, it was too late. The post-mortem confirmed Alice had died from TNT poisoning, but the doctors interviewed also felt “the state of absolute tiredness” was a contributing factor, since she had such a long walk to and from work, and very little nourishment to energize her. “People in such a condition, below par, would absorb the poison very readily. The jury returned a verdict that death was due to poisoning by TNT, and added a rider that attention should be given to the washing of the overalls, and that sugar and milk should be provided with the cocoa given to the girls on their arrival at the works in the morning.”

gladys pritchard
IWM, WWC M27

As the war went on, safety regulations increased; but there were still fatalities, and the losses were often not the first a family had suffered. When a Welsh munitions worker named Gladys Irene Pritchard died in November 1916, the letter from the IWM’s women’s work committee must have been addressed to “Miss Pritchard,” for the response from Gladys’s sister reads:

“Please excuse me writing to say it is Mrs Pritchard and she was a widow before she died, her husband being killed on the 10th July 1916 leaving two children.”

A bit more searching reveals that Gladys Pritchard’s husband David, a private with the Welsh Regiment, was killed in action during the early days of the Battle of the Somme, and that the children, Joseph Henry and Victoria Lillian, were just five and two years old when their mother and father became two of the war’s mounting casualties.

lottie meade
Lottie’s husband wrote “Please return her photos has I have not got anymore … thanking you very much for what you are doing.” IWM, WWC M15

Likewise munitions worker Lottie Meade was the mother of three young ones when she died of TNT poisoning in Kensington Infirmary in October 1916. Her husband wrote to the women’s work committee that the death occurred “whilst myself was serving in France and [I] got home to late to see her alive.” The photograph he sent along for the Whitechapel exhibit shows Lottie posing proudly in her munitions coveralls; one can imagine it was a photo taken for him, and sent to the frontlines, and then brought home again, memento of a wife no longer alive. Did it surprise him to see her turned out this way, in pants and cap, making the ammunition that fed the weapons he used? How would the war have changed her future had Lottie Meade survived the poisoning? What was it like to live through a time that produced so much tragedy but also so many profound changes in women’s lives?

Lottie Meade’s death certificate lists the cause of death as: “coma due to disease of the liver, heart and kidneys consequent upon poisoning by tri nitro toluene,” and the verdict at the inquest was “death by misadventure.” An awful waste. But the picture suggests there was adventure in Lottie’s life too. The hand on the hip, the raised chin, the subtle yet confident smile — the stance of a woman making her own way in the world.

The women’s work exhibit at the Whitechapel Art Gallery opened on October 7, 1918, and by the time it ended six weeks later, 82,000 people has passed through. The most popular part of the show was the “war shrine,” dedicated to the memory of more than 500 women who’d died in some form of service.

Sources:

Charlotte Meade, Lives of the First World War

Alice Post, Lives of the First World War

Gladys Irene Pritchard, Lives of the First World War

Margaret Silcock, Lives of First World War

The Silvertown Explosion, Lives of the First World War

A Closer Look at the Women’s Work Collection, Imperial War Museum

Lives of the First World War also contains 23 alphabetized “Wives and Daughters” communities as an attempt to document female deaths related to WW1.

Singing in the Streets of London

Chapter 5 - Harry Deverill in his bandsman uniform, with Ernie, centre, and Joe, circa 1905
Harry Deverill with sons Ernie, middle, and Joe, taken around the time Olive Christian Malvery was traveling through the streets of London in disguise.

While researching The Cowkeeper’s Wish, it struck us that many aspects of the story included some connection to music: there were the Welsh lullabies sung by the cowkeeper’s family long after they’d migrated to Red Cross Street in London; the organ that churned out a steady blare of music from a fair set up in a disused burial ground; and the euphonium practiced each night by our great grandfather, Harry Deverill, who played in a Salvation Army band. The Army’s founder, William Booth, believed that “music is to the soul what wind is to the ship, blowing her onwards in the direction in which she is steered.” It transcended class and circumstance, as the Prince of Wales noted at the 1883 opening of the Royal College of Music. “[It speaks] in different tones, perhaps, but with equal force to the cultivated and the ignorant, to the peer and the peasant.”

In the late 1890s, one of the students at the Royal College of Music was a young woman named Olive Christian Malvery, who had come to London from India, and been astounded by the level of poverty she’d seen in the streets. Eager to expose the issue, she was hired in 1904 by Pearson’s Magazine to investigate women’s work in its various forms, and over the next many months, she disguised herself as a barmaid, a factory worker, a flower seller, and so on, and wrote about what it was like to live those lives, if only briefly.  On one of her missions, she transformed into a street singer — otherwise known as a “griddler” or even a “needy griddler” — simply by approaching a woman singing in the streets of West Kensington. She claimed to be new to the game, and down on her luck, and asked if she could accompany the woman on her rounds. For several days they went about London together, offering songs for money. The woman seemed to know the best streets by instinct, but was ultimately unreliable because of her penchant for drink.

singing in the streets

There was no shortage, though, of street singers with whom Malvery could associate to learn more about the trade, and next was a woman who sang with her three children, attempting to support the family while her husband was in jail. She and her daughters lived in the basement of a dwelling that held 16 families, though originally it had been a single-family home. The mother sometimes sent the girls out to sing alone, if she was ill from drinking, and the eldest daughter sometimes kept a bit of the earnings for herself without her mother knowing. “How they loved and clung to one another,” wrote Malvery, “those forlorn atoms for whom the big world had no place!” They were clever at avoiding the school inspector — a common skill among families who relied on income from school-age children — and liked to tell Malvery stories of their eccentric neighbours: a “crippled” man who’d chased one of the daughters when she’d stolen his cane; and a blind man who “saw enough for three.” They were street musicians too — one played the whistle, and the other sang hymns.

There were others who seemed more astute at making the life work for them: one foggy night as she walked home, Malvery came upon a young woman of 20 or so, singing and playing guitar outside a public house. She called herself a “chanter” and said she had been supporting her mother and brother for four years with her earnings. She liked her life, she told Malvery, and on the whole she was well-treated by the people she encountered during her rounds. Every night, no matter the weather, she stood in front of taverns with her guitar, singing. Visiting her at home, Malvery found a tiny but clean room, with books and magazines and flowers, and the brother, pale and sickly, making a cardboard model of a church. The place had “an air of refinement” that astonished her; but as she was discovering through the work she’d taken up: “One sees things … with altogether different eyes when one lives among people as one of themselves.”

Malvery’s articles, a series she called “The Heart of Things,” were eventually collected in a book titled The Soul Market, which one reviewer deemed “more interesting than any novel, for there are life-stories on every page. … Humour and pity, tragedy and mirth, tread in each other’s steps.” The book included theatrical photos of her as a flower seller, and a server “in a cheap coffee shop,” a sweet shop, and so on. Judging from the photo below, she seems to have embraced the theatricality of her project. What would her contacts have thought if they’d discovered what she was doing? There is an air of condescension when she pities “the miserable creatures I have been traveling among,” and claims “my heart was sore with so much contact with poverty and misery.” Yet her compassion rings true. In subsequent posts we’ll look at Malvery again, as well as other wandering philanthropists who masqueraded among the poor “to touch the heart of things.” For obvious reasons, first-hand accounts of impoverished street singers, flower sellers, and costermongers are rare — but stories like Malvery’s take us just a little closer.

Miss Malvery as a Flower Girl
“It is in no wise easy to ‘slip’ into a new life. Among the ‘people,’ as we term the labouring and poor classes, an outsider is very quickly recognised. I found, however, that my foreign appearance really helped me, for as I dealt mostly with women and girls, they made their own stories about me. By maintaining a discreet silence, I managed to get through. Being small and young-looking too, helped me. I get tired very quickly and show it, and poor Mr. C. [her assistant from Pearson’s Magazine], who was nearly always with me, got the rough side of several ‘gentle’ tongues for ill-treating me. It helped me wonderfully to have a man so big and burly, and such a splendid Cockney actor, to assume command of me. Together we were able to do what one alone could never have accomplished.”

Sources

“The Royal College of Music,” Gloucester Journal, 12 May, 1883.

The Soul Market. Olive Christian Malvery, Hutchinson & Co., London, 1906.

“England’s Own Jungle,” Morning Post, 19 November, 1906.

***

For more about the life and work of Olive Christian Malvery, see this work-in-progress online biography.